Mindfulness, Photography & Creativity

I’m writing this from the balcony of my hotel in Florence. The accompanying picture is my view. I just returned from the Bargello museum and its small but impressive collection of sculpture, carvings, metalwork, and frescoes. I took a few pictures and then forced myself to stop. Part of it was certainly the realization that a photo can’t possibly do justice to the real thing; but the main reason was that the process of taking pictures was separating me from the experience. It removed me from power of the artist’s creation. It removed me from the moment. I was focused on creating a memory rather than living it.

I talk a lot about mindfulness in my classes, and it’s a constant theme throughout 20/20 Mind Sight.  So I shudder to become a person who advises, “Do what I say, not what I do.” After I post this piece, I’m going to head out for lunch and leave my camera behind. Perhaps it’s my pea-size brain that’s to blame. Maybe I truly can’t do two things at once. Or maybe I’d just rather do one thing well – experience Florence, its food, sights, and people in all its glory – than compromise the moment by taking quintessential touristy pictures. Or maybe – and this is probably closer to the truth – I’ve realized that what really inspires me creatively is beauty in the flesh.

In my case picture-taking impedes the inspirational juices. Is there something in your hands or life today that impedes your inspirational juices? If so, lock it in the safe and continue your journey through life.

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Here I Go Again

My literary agent once said I was my own worst enemy – I had too many interests, wrote on too many topics and in too many genres to build a loyal readership.

It’s hard to argue with that. My first book was a young adult novel followed by three humor books. Then I wrote a marketing book and an investing book. Next up were several novels ranging from satire to chick-lit to paranormal. My newest book, co-authored with Jillian Vorce, grew out of a class I teach at BC and focuses on encouraging personal reflection and increasing self-knowledge.

So what literary path have I chosen to pursue next? Obviously something I’ve never done before: a thriller.

It’s been said that most artists – painters, musicians, sculptors, writers, actors, etc. – possess some sort of character flaw bordering on mental illness. That’s probably an overstatement (I hope) but I do believe there’s truth in the fact (not of the “alternative fact” variety) that we tend to see the world from a slightly different (askew?) perspective.

In my case, I think the “disorder” stems from the fact that I’ve never written simply to make money. I write the kind of stuff I enjoy reading. If that means I’ll never reach the stature or earnings of a John Grisham, I’m okay with it.

As I’m writing this, however, I’m reminded that I once did purposely write to make money. And I succeeded. It was back in the early 1980’s and I was spending a week on the Cape. My YA novel had been published and I was selling articles and essays to a bunch of magazines and newspapers – but not making very much money. So I sat back and asked myself a simple question: “What sells?” The answer was equally simple: “Sex!” So, within a week I had written captions for a cartoon book called How To Tell If It Was Good. The book was published by Ivory Tower Press and sold over 200,000 copies.

The moral of the story? Perhaps, unlike white mice, I don’t learn. Perhaps I can’t truly synthesize life lessons – even those that slap me upside the head. Who knows? Maybe the urge to write something strictly for money will strike again. Until then, await my foray into the thriller market – and wish me luck in battling my obvious disorder.

Writers Tend To Be Weird About Writing

black-and-white-man-person-cigarette-largeWhen I first started writing (way back before most of you were born), I worked at a manual typewriter. My fingers would tap the keys and every 10-12 words I’d slap the carriage return to slide over, advance the paper, and drop down to the next line. Mistakes required White-Out applied with a tiny brush or retyping the entire page.

When I was in my early twenties, I upgraded to a Smith-Corona electric model. At the time, it was a significant investment of money and affirmed to me that I was serious about writing. Except that I couldn’t write on it. It was a typing machine not a writing machine. There was something about the whirring of the tiny motor that sounded impatient. Like it was disappointed in me, nagging me to write faster. It was probably how a Lamborghini would feel if driven by a little old lady who never exceeded 20 MPH. The upshot was that I had to write by hand on paper and then type. It was decidedly inefficient – but it was how I wrote my first published book.

In 1982, I went to work at Wang Labs and discovered the magic of word processing. No more White-Out, no more having to retype entire manuscripts, and no more annoying whir. There was no looking back. My first computer was an all-in-one Kaypro that used the CP/M operating system, featured a 9-inch green monitor, and used 5-inch floppy disks. I used the WordStar word processing system that required embedding clumsy commands into the text for formatting – but it was a huge step forward.

After flirting with a few Windows machines, I became an Apple fan boy and would never willingly return to the Microsoft evil empire. So I now do all my writing on either my MacBook Air or iMac. My requisites are music and libations. The music varies from classic rock to the mellowness of singer-songwriters to the occasional hip-hop/rap tune. The libations begin with coffee in the morning, diet Coke and iced tea through the day, and a whiskey in the evening.

Few things in life are more satisfying to me than creating a clever/insightful/engaging turn of phrase. That probably sounds weird to some people, but I’m okay with that. I’ve longed come to accept my weirdness. Which, in itself, sounds weird.

This Is Dedicated…

Dedication - Aunt Gloria & Uncle JulieMuch the process of writing and publishing a book is intense and exhausting. But there’s one aspect that brings nothing but joy – crafting the dedication.

My first book was the young adult novel Good News/Bad News published way back in 1980. It was the realization of a lifelong dream and I dedicated it to the person I loved most in the world: Lillie, my maternal grandmother. My father had died when I was eighteen months old, and Lillie came to live with us in the Bronx. My mother was working and so I spent my days with my grandmother, running errands, watching her cook, learning numbers and letters, playing games, and talking. She was always smiling and laughing. She had a uniformly positive view of the world despite becoming a widow in her thirties and having to raise six kids on her own. Grandma Lillie was a treasure over my entire life. She was always someone I could talk to. She was surprisingly open-minded – even about my high-school-dropout girlfriend whose hair was a different color pretty much every other day or that crazy rock-and-roll music I listened to.

My grandmother was in her eighties when the book was published. She smiled and got teary-eyed when she saw the dedication, but she was clearly a little confused. She seemed to think that the dedication was only on her copy. I told her it was printed on every single copy, and that’s when I got teary-eyed. In that moment I think I was more proud about having given my grandmother joy than I was about having written a book.

The dedication to my grandmother was a public affirmation of how much she meant to me, and I am eternally grateful that I was able to share it with her before she passed away. In the books and years since, I’ve written dedications to my wife, my children, and most recently to my dear Aunt Gloria and late Uncle Julie. That’s all good news, but the bad news is I’ll never write enough books to publicly recognize and thank all the people who have impacted my life.

So here’s the plan: I’m going to strive every day to express my love and appreciation for the people in my life. And here’s the rest of the plan: I want you to join me in expressing thanks – at least once every day – to someone who has made your life better in some way. Make sure they know how much they mean to you. Odds are they will pay it forward and, over time, the world will become a better place because you took the time to say, “I love you,” “I couldn’t have done it without you,” or simply “Thanks.”

Interview with “Eccentric Bookaholic”

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 9.40.48 AMWhat first inspired you to write or who inspired you?

I can’t point to any specific event or moment in time. I’ve been an avid reader since early childhood. I remember being sick in bed with the flu when I was in grammar school. My father brought me a stack of books – mostly fiction and biographies – from the library and he couldn’t believe how fast I read them all and asked for another batch. I loved the way reading helped me escape the discomfort of being sick, and somewhere deep in my psyche the seed was probably planted that I would like to offer that same kind of respite and joy to future readers.

At what age did you know you wanted to be a writer?

For as long as I can remember. Like many kids I starting writing goofy stories for my own enjoyment and to share with friends. I sold my first article when I was 16. I’ve since sold three novels, two nonfiction books, three books of humor, and dozens of magazine articles (and self-published several other books). I’ve often said my tragic flaw is having too many interests – which is why I’ve written in such a wide variety of genres. Nonetheless, I do think it is curiosity that has driven my writing life.

Do you take notes when reading or watching a movie?

I trend to take notes everywhere. Ideas for plots, characters, and dialogue pop up while I’m showering, driving, falling asleep, walking the dogs, etc. When I’m reading or watching movies/TV, I’ll sometimes think about different ways a scene could have been handled. Depending on where I am, I often record my ideas as a voice memo on my iPhone or send myself an email reminder. Because I’m always taking notes I have way more storylines, situations, characters, and plot twists than I could ever use. I can’t point to how or why, but I do believe that inspiration derives from being open to new ideas and keeping my eyes and ears wide open.

Do you have a day job? What do you do?

I guess I’m in that stage of life called semi-retirement – meaning that I no longer have a 9-5 job. I do, however, mix and match four different jobs. Writing is certainly my focus and I write every single day. I’m also an adjunct professor at Boston College and I still do the occasional consulting project. And fourth, I’m a part-time chauffeur for a local car service company where I get to meet a wide variety of people and get inspiration for characters and storylines.

How often do you write?

I’m very disciplined about writing, so I write every single day. When I wrote Going Both Ways I had an objective of at least 500 words a day, 7 days a week. If you wait for inspiration, you’ll wait a long time.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently writing two novels. I’m finishing a black comedy about the current state of American politics. While I’m certain I could place it with a publisher, I think time is of the essence so I’m going to self-publish it around May 1. As my longer term project, I’m writing a “road-tripper” novel that explores love, loss, and the full range of interpersonal relationships.

The Benefits of Keeping Your Mouth Shut

woman gaggedOne could make a strong argument that the three scariest words to state aloud (particularly in the political realm) are these: I don’t know. That phrase is an explicit admission that we’re less than perfect. Our fear of saying I don’t know is amplified by the worries that we should know it and that everyone else knows it.

There are two alternative approaches to saying I don’t know. The first is to remain silent. You might look away and hide your head, try to change the subject, or excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or refill your coffee. The second, and far more damaging in the long run, is to act like you know. Think about times when you’re asked a question and you’re confident about the answer. Your response will be concise, definitive, and coherent. If you’re anything like the rest of us, there have probably been occasions when you haven’t known the answer to a question but felt compelled to respond nonetheless. In those situations your response was probably lengthy, convoluted, and effectively meaningless. We use far more words to cover up a lack of knowledge than when we actually know what we’re talking about. And because we have no idea what the hell we’re talking about, we’re far more likely to commit a verbal faux pas that could haunt us in the future.

The recent campaigning in the New York GOP primary provides proof positive. The majority of politicians are Christians, but man do they ever love the Jews come election season. They chow down on bagels and gefilte fish, and wax poetic about core Jewish values like education, family, and hard work. But that’s where they stop, and that’s where John Kasich flubbed it. On a Brooklyn sidewalk, Kasich decided it was time to preach to the choir. These were his words regarding Passover: “It’s a wonderful, wonderful holiday for our friends in the Jewish community.” He could have stopped there and demonstrated a modicum of knowledge re the Jewish calendar and the fact that Passover was indeed approaching. But no, he felt compelled to go further and describe “The great link between the blood that was put above the lamp posts…The blood of the lamb, because Jesus Christ is known as the lamb of God. It’s his blood.” That statement is wrong on so many levels, but the key point is that Kasich would have been far better off keeping his mouth shut rather than spouting off gibberish that wasn’t just nonsensical but was actually offensive.

While Kasich was lecturing on Judaism, Donald Trump was nearby declaring, “I love the Jews. I love’em.” Trump probably couldn’t even spell “Passover” or what it means to the Jewish people, but who cares? He loves the Jews. Notwithstanding the cloying pandering inherent in “I love the Jews,” there is nothing controversial or offensive in the statement. That’s partly why Trump wins. He says so little that it’s difficult to assess anything he truly stands for.

The moral of the story? Do not “fake it ‘til you make it.” Either shut up or admit your ignorance. Acknowledging that you are not an all-knowing automaton is a sign of self-confidence. It will demonstrate your integrity, engender respect and, most significantly, encourage others to embrace the same openness. The culture of an organization, community, or family can be positively impacted when people feel comfortable about sharing their shortcomings. Over time you’ll experience a greater sense of teamwork, increased risk-taking, and more innovative thinking when the fear of looking dumb is removed. It’s a win-win by any standard of measure.

Why My Male Characters Tend To Be Misogynist Pigs

stupid-man-punchGoing Both Ways, like my previous novel Still Counting, features a lead character who personifies every boorish male trait I want to protect my daughter from ever encountering. Patrick Morelli is a 27-year-old underachiever who still lives and acts like an adolescent frat boy. He stares at the slightest hint of cleavage and immediately undresses every woman with his eyes regardless of age, shape, race, or political affiliation. Actually none of those traits matter to him. All he’s concerned about is that she possess a complete set of female parts. You could say he’s a simple man with simple needs, but that’s letting him off far too easily. He’s never had a “girl friend” – i.e., a friend who happened to be female. His only interaction with women, other than his mother and sister, has been in their role as current or potential dating partners. As many women as he’s been with, Patrick doesn’t have a clue about what makes women tick. In fact, he’s pretty clueless about most aspects of life.

In Patrick’s defense, he does grow and mature over the course of the story. His every-other-day incarnation as a female (Trish) forces him to see the world from a decidedly different perspective. But in truth, he probably wouldn’t have fully evolved without the guidance and pointed chastisements of his sister Sarah. At the beginning of his alternating male/female embodiment, Patrick seems content to turn Trish into a similarly sex-obsessed “frat girl.” But then Trish has several encounters with Patrick-like boors and the proverbial light bulb goes off in Patrick’s head. He becomes a fully evolved male that both men and women would enjoy hanging around with.

So now, in my own defense, I am not condoning misogynist behavior. Instead I try to use it as a springboard to examine the male-female dichotomy. I use exaggerated boorishness because most of us males are not particularly good with subtlety. Male chauvinism is such a prevalent characteristic that we don’t notice or acknowledge it unless it beats us over the head with a two-by-four. It’s almost like we have to experience the Platonic ideal of misogyny to realize we want nothing to do with it.

But that’s not really the whole story. Patrick becomes a better person because of the women in his life – Trish, Sarah, and Gigi. I’m not certain that he would have matured so quickly (or at all) on his own – and that gets to the core of why my male characters tend to be sexist pigs. In my heart of hearts, I guess I believe women are superior to men in most of the ways that really matter. I see that in my wife, daughter, and nieces – and it’s my hope that more men will appreciate all the ways women make our lives and the world better.

The Scourge of GPS and Outlining Fiction

typewriter & gpsI recently had an epiphany – actually two epiphanies that complement and affirm each other. In addition to writing, teaching, and consulting, I’m a part-time chauffeur for a local car service company. That’s when the first epiphany occurred.

I was driving a client from Logan Airport to a downtown Boston hotel. I knew exactly where the hotel was and how to get there. Nonetheless, we are required to have GPS running on all jobs. I was literally two blocks away from the hotel when the GPS suggested I take a right turn. It was a confusing intersection with three possible right turns. I took the middle one and was forced to get onto the Mass Turnpike heading out of town. I was able to remedy my mistake but only after wasting about ten minutes of my client’s time and my own. I can state unequivocally that I would not have made a wrong turn if I’d been navigating solely on my own. No way.

Epiphany Number Two occurred yesterday. I’m working on a new novel with a much larger array of characters than I normally handle. One of those characters suddenly took over a scene – in a way I had never envisioned but in a way that was totally in sync with his values and personality. That scene prompted a significant swerve in the storyline and is now leading me down a path full of additional creative opportunities. I love when that happens because it tells me the story is working. The characters are taking charge instead of me. So what was the core of the second epiphany? I don’t think the character revelation would have happened if I had been following a detailed outline (ordering me to turn right when I knew I should go left).

There are two types of novelists – outliners and “seat-of-the-pantsers.” I am decidedly a member of the latter camp. It’s not that I have anything against outlines. I can see how they might serve a purpose, but from my perspective they are a time-waster. When I get an idea for a book I want to dive right in, get to know the characters, and let the plot develop over time. My new novel, Going Both Ways, was close to half-written when the lead character made a mistake which turned into a decision which turned the whole book in a new direction.

I guess the bottom line to me as a writer – and a driver – is that I’m okay getting lost occasionally. But I want to get lost and rediscover where I am on my terms – not due to some lame GPS app or exhaustive outline. But that’s just me.