Summer’s End

Happy end of the month, everyone. And sort of the end of Summer, or at least “conventional” Summer, though the calendar tells us it’s not over for another 22 days or so. In my heart, Labor Day, nah, even September 1st, is the end of Summer, for September and October (and to a lesser extent November) are a sacred time for me. And it’s interesting that my creativity is usually at its peak during this time. I’m definitely looking forward to Autumn this year, as I think it will be very productive.

First of all, thoughts and prayers to everyone in Texas. I’m not usually one for demonstrative presentations of things like this (or in general), but I’ve been watching the situation with increasing horror and am looking for the best way to help out from a distance. Definitely keeping an eye on things.

On a more personal note, the theme of the last week has been “transition”. We’re now getting settled into our permanent address in Lake St. Louis, and are about three-fourths of the way through unpacking. The move is certainly feeling interminable, but I think a good push over the three-day weekend will go a long way to getting it knocked out. We also got our new licenses and registrations, along with registering to vote (very important), so we’re now officially official. It’s been a tiring process, but the relocation has been good for my psyche, and I think for Mary’s, as well.

Big news on the writing front: I finished my self-critique for Came to Believe on the evening of the 24th and soon began writing (I hope) the final draft. How’s that for transition? I’m even happy with the rewritten intro paragraphs, which is a rarity in my writing. Always trying to nail down that beginning, that’s for sure.

I’ve learned a lot from the lengthy process of writing this novel. One of my biggest writing weaknesses is getting deep into a novel and realizing that the plot scope is not quite what I had in mind, or that another plot thread would be stronger as the central pillar. Because of this weakness, I’ve had to rewrite pretty much every one of my books mid-stream, which costs me time and sanity.

 

With this in mind, my sincere hope moving forward is that I can nail these details in plotting and then have a clean and simple drafting process. Plotting must do the heavy lifting because we’re talking about editing 20 to 25 pages versus 300 or so once I’m fully into the novel. The plan is to run through three to five drafts of the plot up front, from the rough initial draft to increasingly structured outlines that match story beats with character information and ensure that important plot points get covered.

From there I can break it down and read through it as a “critique”, incorporate those edits, rinse and repeat with the outline, to ensure I’ve hit every beat and that no subplots are superfluous. It may take a month to get through, but again a month > a year with rewrites.

I’m already into this new process with the next book, a horror story with the premise of increasing human expansion bumping into ancient evil. Sure, it’s been done, but I think I have an interesting spin on it by including modern technology in the mix. I also want to test out some of my more surreal modes of writing through the story. The goal with this one is to be super-lean, tight, and compact. Something that can be done in a hurry and doesn’t sprawl on for 100,000 words. We’ll see if I can pull it off.

Anyway, hope everyone has a great weekend, and a long one if you’re lucky enough to get Monday off. See you next week.

Don’t Call it a Comeback

Or do, if you wish. Either way, I’m happy to be back and among the productive. To tell the story of the last three years of my life would be a lesson in tedium, anxiety, and stress – the kind of caustic stuff that melts the creative impulse. I’m still not fully back on my feet, owing to a move to a new city and a new office, but almost as soon as we set foot on Missouri soil, the juices started flowing again. Memories flooded back; I remember what it felt like to create, to let my fingers dance over the keys and channel the words like some shaman. How nice it was to tap into the creative force underlying the universe, or whatever you want to call it.

In short, the last few years have sucked. We underwent what seemed to be a layoff (only to get my job back at the last moment), not one but two mergers, and an extended period of unease and uncertainty regarding relocation. Our – and I very much include my loving wife in this – lives seemed to be suspended in mid-air. At first I was able to write through this, push it aside and keep going, but as I watched friends exit at work and found myself increasingly isolated in an empty building, I had a hard time bringing my focus back to writing at the end of the day. All I wanted to do was go home and shut the world out, whether it be through reading, video games, or other pursuits.

In the end, a combination of factors brought the muse back to me. One, reading through Mark Frost’s A Secret History of Twin Peaks. It contains a lot of the conspiracy lore and mythos-building that drew me to writing my first few novels, and it reminded me of the promise of weaving my own reality within fiction. It also reminded me of the power of magick, and of seizing control of the reins of your life. It didn’t take long to start to feel the pull toward something new, a framework that helped me to put my chaotic thoughts into some semblance of order.

Then came, of course, the move. While he had relocation assistance and support, it’s hard to imagine a more “seize the day” act than packing up the car and moving across half the country to see if it will all work out.

I came to realize that I had become…well, passive is not the right word. We wanted to relocate from the moment either of the two mergers were announced. More that I had resigned myself to hunkering down and letting fate whip me where it would, so long as it ended with us out of the DC area (something that both of us very much wanted). And so I became less an author of my fate than a pawn at the hands of people with much larger agendas. At some point I lost sight of the fact that I had made this choice to wait and hand things over, and became depressed and resigned. That’s when my output dropped. I think I can pinpoint it to March or April of this year, somewhere in there, because there is a steady downward curve in my word count until July, when I barely wrote at all.

Now, though? I’m back, I think. I’m currently five pages short of finishing my “critique” of Came to Believe, at which point I’ll go back and make the suggested changes and try to hammer it out. Given the massive delays (we’re just about at year four of working on this thing and I want it out the door), I’m likely just going to self-publish it, but we’ll see how I feel when I get there. In the meantime, I’m plotting the antithesis of this story, a quick, pulpy horror novel that I think will be a blast to write.

In the meantime, I intend to check in with you guys more often. Thanks to those of you who are still with me. We’ll see where this ride goes next…

Coming Back Around

Hi there, hope everybody has had a great holiday season thus far. Apologies for not being around the last month, had oral surgery on the Third that ended up being far more debilitating than expected, and then just as I was getting wind in my sails again came down with a nasty cold that morphed into an inner ear infection. The ear infection remains, but I’m ready to pick things up again. Look for more coming out of this space soon.

Not Your Typical Update

In that there’s not going to be as much content as I had hoped. Last week it was the Thanksgiving holiday, this week I’m due for a complex oral surgery tomorrow and am swamped with getting everything taken care of at work before going on a two-day leave. I don’t imagine that I’ll get too much done over the next few days while I’m recovering, but stranger things have happened. In the meantime just wanted to let readers know that the blog is still going strong, and I have a solid half of a first draft of the next post. And it’s about a typewriter, some toys, and the holidays. We’ll see how it comes together.

In the meantime, onward to tooth destruction!

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The City Lights

Hey everybody, back from Thanksgiving break. Hope my American followers had a great holiday (and that everyone else had a great week/weekend as well). Strange times, for sure; hard to get into the spirit of things with how warm it’s felt lately, especially on Thanksgiving itself. Found myself sitting on the porch in short sleeves and not particularly chilled. Compare that with last year, when we had snow on the ground. I can’t remember it ever being this warm this late in the season. Hope it doesn’t bode ill for 2016.
 
Otherwise, had a good time visiting family and taking lots of photographs. Found some interesting postcards in Harrisonburg as well, ones that you can expect to see soon as I discuss locations in my novels. For now, here are some photos I took Thanksgiving night in Downtown Harrisonburg, to try to get a little cheer in the air. Will be out for oral surgery later this week…not sure what that means for the update schedule. In the meantime, have a great week.
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Holiday Week Kick-Off: Coffee and Wine

Happy Monday, all! Sunny day here, though the blast of cold air that greeted me this morning said that we had bypassed Fall and gone straight to Winter. Kind of a bummer, but we did at least get in a fun trip over the weekend, heading to Culpeper, VA for seafood, wine, photography, and a nice cup of coffee at The Raven’s Nest Coffee House (highly recommended). Sad to learn that the great German restaurant had closed down, but we always have a great time when we visit, and this was no exception. You could sense the holidays in the air.

Looking at a shorter-than-usual week with Thanksgiving (and a trip to see my parents) coming up, but I still plan to meet my usual goals. Just have to push a little harder. Hope everyone has a fun and safe week.

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Of KFCs, Strip Clubs, and Jeff George: The Open Road, Volume 1

It’s kind of a cliche, but when you live in a rural area, you actually do meet folks who have never left the state. It’s uncommon, to be sure, but it does happen. I won’t speculate on the reasons for this particular phenomenon, but I can say that looking at old photos of the Shenandoah Valley has granted me some understanding of just how isolated things were in the middle of the 20th Century. Not exactly shocking that the outside world seemed like such a foreign place, I suppose.

By the ’80s our schools were making an effort to take day trips to Washington DC and Baltimore to get us out of our bubbles and offer an up-close look at government in action. Even so, out-of-state family road trips seemed to be a relative scarcity, something that maybe came around once a year for the more fortunate families in the neighborhood. It wasn’t that we had no interest in travel, rather that money and opportunity prevented such treks. So it was that until the early ’90s I hadn’t exactly seen the world or much else outside of the Valley and DC.

That began to change in 1990 with chaperoned trips to Baltimore (and the Orioles) and Atlanta (and the Braves, back when they were a joke). We had a lot of fun and I got to experience some new things, don’t get me wrong, but they very much felt like kids tagging along with the adults. It’s hard to really experience the road when you’re reclining in the back of a van watching movies.

So I wouldn’t say I really “traveled” until 1993. I was a Senior in high school, 17, and working at Burger King in my off time. Being the smooth guy that I am, I had made some friends at BK; one of them, an assistant manager whose name will be withheld to protect the innocent, was a lifelong Colts fan and had never been to Indianapolis to see a game. Seeking to live the dream, he sought out three of us to hit the road and go to Indy to see the Colts (and budding star Jeff George, heh) take on the New England Patriots and their young quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

I had a passing interest in football but didn’t care much about either team, being a die-hard Redskins fan. Still, this would be my opportunity to live my own dream: an 11-hour trek across five states, a nascent version of my lifelong vision for crossing the United States in a car. You see, even as a young child I had harbored a deep fascination with travel, obsessively poring through road atlases and planning road trips, envisioning these highways in my mind. And I knew this particular route very well. Adventure? Hell yeah, I was in. The game would just be gravy.

We departed Harrisonburg on a Friday evening in late October, headed south on Interstate 81 bound for the I-64 Westbound junction. This road would take us through West Virginia and on into Kentucky. At the time I saw West Virginia as Virginia’s dysfunctional cousin and just the bit of the trip that we had to endure to get to the other side, but my view changed when I caught sight of the Charleston capital dome, bathed in light from below. The view captivated me and tugged at my heart, confirming some of what I suspected about such road trips and their transformative nature.

It came back to the idea of a secret world, of something hidden from view and yet in plain sight: the empty spot on the side of the road at 2 AM with you as the only soul around. The feeling that you might as well be the only person in the world (save for your driving partner) and of knowing something that the rest of the world does not. This wouldn’t solidify until later in the trip, but it began with that Capitol building. It’s tough to find a shot of the Capitol at night that can be used freely, but here’s a shot of the place in the day:

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So you get an idea of what it might look like at night, with that gold dome all lit up. Gorgeous, at least to my innocent eye.

From there we hit the roughest stretch of road, between that and Kentucky. I wasn’t cleared to drive the rental van due to being so young, so my job was to sit with the night driver and keep him awake and aware. It would prove to be an important – and difficult – job, as our guy for that stretch of road nodded off more than once, taking us onto the shoulder before I could shake him awake. You would think that one such incident would have shocked him awake (Lord knows it woke me up), but no. It took a few times to rattle him. Impressive, really.

At last we reached Lexington, Kentucky, and took a sharp northward turn. My mind wants to impart Lexington with more importance than it had for me at the time, but the truth is that the city would only mean something to me in 1995, a story that will wait for another time.

What did strike me, however, was Cincinnati at night, and this one particular revelation would be no joke, a shining jewel of beauty as compared to the flicker of brilliance back in Charleston.

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I had never seen anything like it, not even during the trips to Baltimore or DC. Here, then, was the summation of my road dreams as a child: something truly beyond my experience. A shimmering novelty, yes, but also true knowledge of a world beyond the one I’d known. Taking in that city as we passed through it on the flyways, gazing down at a darkened Riverfront Stadium, I grasped the importance of leaving the places you know, of gaining more context (there’s that word again). It also whispered something that I would truly understand later, the suggestion of what these dark roads could mean: hidden liaisons, dark secrets. Beauty and tawdriness, all at once.

And yes, I really did feel this at the time, though I didn’t yet possess the language to express it. It came across as a bittersweet and fascinating emotion.

We arrived in Indianapolis around sunrise and again it was something I’d never seen before. I find a certain poetry to pulling into a McDonalds on a gray morning to get breakfast and finding ourselves staring across the street at a gun store, right next to a liquor store. Familiarity juxtaposed with a sense of the desolation and danger of this strange new city. A pointed reminder that we were not in Virginia anymore, or at least the Virginia that I knew and understood.

The rest of the day is a blur. I know that I slept for a bit and I seem to remember trying to arrange a meeting with a girl that I knew out there, but that may have belonged to a different trip. I do remember the guys hitting a strip club that night, but for better or worse none of them were willing to take the risk of taking my underage ass into the place, so I stayed back at the motel picking my nose and watching TV. But hey, at least I got part of the experience, as my roommate brought a stripper back to the room. Sounded like those two had a fun night. I will give them credit, though, they did try to keep it quiet.

The game almost felt like an afterthought after all that, though I did enjoy it and would become a fan of live pro football. Again, something to talk about another time. The trip home passed in a blur of KFCs, Subways, and those mini flags that football fans used to attach to their car antennas (antennae?), but that’s always the way with such trips – the way back home is the inevitable decline after the climax. Warm and happy, but lacking in that distinct brew of anticipation and excitement.

It’s funny. That trip was the prototype for many trips to come and laid the groundwork for my relationship with my wife, but I hadn’t thought about it in years. It didn’t have the sheer drama of my Illinois or Minnesota trips or the beauty of my Savannah, Boston, and South African journeys, but I might not have found the courage to take those treks without this one. It opened the door to my love of the open road and provided the first glimpses of the secret places in my soul that I would later glimpse during my time on an Illinois highway, on the back roads surrounding San Antonio, and in the parking lot of a regional airport in Waco. The path to those moments wound through time spent passing through Cincinnati and gazing upon that Capitol dome. It was all, ultimately, about a greater understanding of my place in the world and connection to everyone else and would change my life.

Monday Thoughts and Prayers

Busy weekend, and yet not too much to report…mostly focused on work for the critique group that took place yesterday (and went rather well; quite encouraged that much of the criticism fell on portions that will be excised from the final book). Currently focused on getting back on schedule with the writing and Fallout 4, which has swept into my life and consumed the remainder of my all-too-scarce free time.

I had originally planned to talk about Fallout a bit today, but the events that took place in Paris on Friday night take precedence and make everything else look puny in comparison. My thoughts are with the families and the survivors and I hope that the world can come to a collective, rational decision on how to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again.

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Status Update: Not Much to Update

Well, folks, I’ll own it: seasonal writers’ block is here. Much like Seasonal Affective Disorder, I suffer through a bit of a block around the end of October/beginning of November every year, like clockwork. In the past I relied on lots of light therapy to carry me through, but this year, for some reason, I thought I would be immune. I guess I was falling back on my output being so much higher this year?

Anyway, I was clearly wrong. I’m struggling.

Now keep in mind that my “struggling” still looks like 10,000 words a week, but I need more than that to get through Chapter 25 in anything resembling a timely fashion. I’m back on the light therapy, but I’m not sure how effective it will be over the next few days. So right now I don’t have too much to report past where I was the last time we talked about Chapter 25: working through the first draft. The good news is that it looks to be a relatively short chapter, but I don’t expect to get it finished until December. It sucks, but I’m trying to be patient with myself and not force things. We’ll see where it goes as I ramp up the light therapy. Until then…well, I’m just doing my best. See you Monday.

On Vanished Worlds and Historical Preservation

Hey regular (and new) readers, good to be back. As I said last week, had a minor health setback, but am ready to work once again. Word to the wise, though: avoid swimmers ear if at all possible. Shit is deadly serious. Now I’ve had a kidney stone so I can’t say it’s the worst pain I’ve ever encountered (although that was over in like an hour), but the words “agony”, “torment”, and “suffering” all easily float to the top of the mind.  I’m talking throbbing from neck to temple, the kind of stuff that makes you curl up in the fetal position and pray for death. Conversation was, quite simply, beyond me for a day or two. Real one-star experience, if you know what I mean. F–, would not recommend.

But hey, I’m doing much better today and can actually hear out of that ear, which was a pretty touch-and-go proposition for a few days. Now to ramp my activity back up to pre-pain days.

Anyway, moving on to this week’s (or should I say last week’s) topic, a few words on why I’m so fascinated with the past and historical preservation. One of the prevalent themes in my photography – almost a quest, if you will – is seeking out remnants of the vanished past, bits of detritus and ruins that remain from a long-gone world. This is not necessarily a matter of nostalgia, though that can provide a fun boost to such searches. It’s more about exploration and context and, consequently, what those can mean for your emotional landscape.

Take the photo below as an example. This is a shot of downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia during a holiday season in the late 50s or early 60s. This was an era where “downtown” really meant something, before malls came along and wrecked that paradigm.

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I came along too late for this era, by far; this was the world of my mother’s childhood, one that she’s described in glowing terms but which I couldn’t quite grasp until I saw this photograph. The reality pictured here haunts me as I consider what such a world looked like, felt like, smelled like. By the time I arrived on the scene the department store in the center of the frame had alreayd entered its decline phase, soon to close forever and live only in memory and photographs like this one. I never knew a world with that JOE shop, or the clothing store next to it. My memories of downtown are seedier, more ramshackle, a place that you visited only when you absolutely needed to grab one of the famous Jesses’ Hot Dogs.

Now even that world has vanished, replaced by a movement to attempt to revitalize the downtown area (but which is still falling short due to a combination of short-sightedness and the times having moved on from such mid-00s trifles). Here is a photo of the place from Christmas Day 2014. The big gray building on the right, a public school administrative building, is what remains of the department store above. I can’t say for certain whether the buildings to the left are the remains of those old stores. They don’t appear to be, but much can change in 50 years, including facades.

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This is where context is so important. The place looks sparse and utilitarian, even on Christmas Day, with little more than the modest wreaths to even indicate the season. The photo by itself might not spark much feeling if you didn’t look at that one above, didn’t know that this place once thrummed with its own vibrant sense of life. With that in mind, you can imagine those angels covering the two windows of the school building, of that display in the window above the entrance way. There’s an ache to the place, a bittersweet emotion that’s hard to define.

Historical preservation becomes near and dear to my heart where this emotion crosses with historical relevancy.  It’s about holding on to the floating ties of a vanished world, about offering context to the world around you. I’m continually shocked and amazed to discover strange realities floating just out of our mind’s eye, waiting to spring to life; the home that was once a convenience store, the general store converted to a restaurant. The lives that once intersected at that location matter, and it matters that we are aware of that convergence.

Now you certainly can’t save everything. I’m also a believer in change and progress, and sometimes it’s truly not worth the time or effort to save any hint of, say, a hot dog stand down the street. But we can save photographs from that time and us amateur archaeologists or whatever you want to call us can seek out the remains that may still stand.

This is why I photograph the places that I do. It’s why I think it’s important to photograph the detritus of places like the General Lee Motor Court, so that we can not only revisit places that we might have once known and get that hit of nostalgia, but also to contextualize our ever-evolving world. The ghosts of the past are all around us. We need to not only notice them, but reach out and grab hold of them, even if it’s simply capturing an image. Without that context, we can easily lose sight of just how our own world can vanish at any moment.

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On another note, expect a status update on my woefully-behind-schedule novel on Friday, and next week I’ll be back to talk about our upcoming trip to Culpeper, Virginia and what it means to me to be on the open road. See you again soon.