Summer Writing & Smiles

Summer Writing & Smiles

I smiled today. It was nearly involuntary. It emanated like a ray of light piercing through a small hole. That smile was summer.

I’m finishing up my second year of living in Saudi Arabia and a whole two-month writing bonanza stares me in the face. Oh sure, there’ll be family and barbecues and fresh berries and cherries. There will be baseball games and fireworks and long bike rides through the forest. And there will be writing.

Summer is when I become a ‘full-time’ writer. It’s when my brain can focus for long periods of time on items I’ve been itching to get at for an indefinite amount of time.  It begins in five days.

I’ve accomplished a lot this past school year. I’ve produced two original shows which I wrote, and I’m very happy with how they turned out. I finished the editing and publishing process for book three of my trilogy. I’ve written four or five short plays. A couple of which have already been produced. A couple more will be part of next year shows. I’ve even made some series in-roads into my 9th novel — some 10,000+ words already on its way.

So as I sit on my back deck, sipping a cold beverage, with my laptop in front of me, I’m smiling at what I hope to be able to accomplish this summer.

Finish novel #9 – It’s my first novel set in Malaysia. It is also looking like my first YA novel with four of the five main characters being teenagers.  This novel premise wasn’t even on my radar until about 6 weeks ago when a curious phrase popped through my mind. That’s how novels germinate for me. Usually a phrase, followed by an image, which grows into an idea worthy of long-format writing.  Then I develop the characters and let the story loose to see where it will go. This one is flowing, so I hope a good month of steady writing will produce a solid first draft.  Maybe by mid-July? Let’s see.

Start novel #10 – Actually, I already have. This idea I’ve been playing with for over a year and a half. I even wrote the first chapter already and I know where it’s going. But it requires a little research, so it will take some more time. I hope to have a solid start to this novel by the end of August. How about half-written? Nice goal.

Play-writing – I never discount play-writing because that’s the form that comes the most naturally to me. I have a show I wrote last year called Crazy Love, but I want to add one or two more pieces to it, so when the muse strikes, I set aside my novels for the afternoon.

Excited for summer? I hope you are at least half-excited as I am, and if you are, you’re plenty excited.

When was the last time you … ?

Think. What do you love to do but haven’t done it for a long time?

I know. There are reasons why you haven’t done it. Everyone has excuses.

I’ve done something this past week that I haven’t done in about a year and it’s been real enjoyable: guitar playing and song composing.

I won’t go into all the ridiculous reasons that my guitar was packed away awaiting a move that never happened for a year, but I can attest that it really has been a year without playing it.  And I missed it.

And it struck me how that cliched comment about “it’s like riding a bike”  came to the forefront of my mind when I put the fretboard in my hand for the first time in 12 months. My brain and fingers remembered everything. It’s pretty remarkable. I forget stuff all the time, but all the chords and finger positionings came naturally like I never stopped playing.

I plucked out some chords to the melody I created that matched some lyrics I made which are related to a new novel I’m writing. Yeah, a bunch of strange connections there.

But the point it this: I enjoy playing guitar. I enjoy writing lyrics. I enjoy composing songs on the guitar, and it felt great to do it again.

What about you? What do you love to do that you haven’t done in a long time? Try it out again. It’s been far too long.

I’ll leave you with some of the lyrics to my untitled new song.

RANDOM UNTITLED SONG LYRICS

Part of me is reaching, to set upon the stars

To grasp a piece of heaven, to lunge to places far,

       Part of me is crying out, to reach inside your heart,

  But I hold no ill will.

           No, I hold no ill will.

Part of me is trying. To understand this world.

Untangle all the colors that blindness tends to swirl

And form the ground beneath our feet that heaven’s gate unfurls

But I hold no ill will.

Yes, I hold no ill will.

The past it paints its canvas black with speckled sparks of light,

Glimpses to remind me of where I’ve been,

 The future holds the promises of many well-fought fights,

But I’ll never turn away from where I’ve been.

                 Cause I’ve seen the poorest soul be trampled to the ground,

 And I cannot turn away from where I’ve been,

        And I’ve seen the lights of fame adorning all around

Yet even more, it grips my breast, and hold it tight onto my chest

               All the places, good or bad, I’ve ever been

(copyright 2019 Mark W Sasse)

If It’s a Fad, It’s Not a Lifestyle

A few years back I was getting a check-up at the doctor’s office. Weight-wise, I was not where I wanted to be at that particular moment, and she spoke the truth to me: “You have to do the hard work.” In other words, you aren’t going to lose weight without making the right choices, without being disciplined, without making sacrifices.  No-one can do it for you!

Boy, we hate to think that the things we want require hard work. Let me win the lottery! Surely an agent will discover my talent! World, please. Notice how awesome I am. Make it easy for me!

Ah, no.

You want to get into a top-flight college? Hard work.

You want to write a novel? Hard work.

You want to be a movie star? Hard work.

You want to lose weight? Hard work.

But here’s the difference between something being a fad and being a lifestyle. We all put hard work into particular things at certain times in our lives. I remember a particular diet I was on in 2005. I put in the hard work. I achieved the success I wanted. Then I stopped putting in the hard work. You can imagine the results. My fad faded. And my waistline, well, … yeah.

Same with writing. How many people are enthusiastic to write their first novel? They work and work and possibly even get it done, but when instant world-wide fame isn’t bestowed on them, they move on and never write again.

Hard work is needed. But sustained hard work, over years, without giving up, even in the face of little success or many unpleasant bumps in the road — in other words GRIT – is the only way that your hard work season becomes your hard work lifestyle.

I wasn’t ready to listen to that doctor about a decade ago. But more recently, her words are sinking in.

In 2002, when I started my first great novel, I wasn’t ready to make a lifestyle change and become a writer. I put in a minimal amount of hard work and abandoned it. It took another ten years before I was ready to put in the hard work of being an author for the long haul.

You aren’t going to reach your goals overnight. Or in a month. Or maybe not in a year. But much is achievable with a steady hand on the plow, ignoring the criticism, pushing back the doubts, and keeping your eyes straight ahead on what’s important to you.

Only you can do the hard work.

Are you ready for it?

Making Peace with Increments

Successful discipline in any field is the art of making peace with increments.  Whether writing a novel, losing weight, learning guitar, studying for a master’s, or driving in a traffic jam heading home on a Friday afternoon, if you can come to terms with where you are at, you’re on the right track to success.

Humans are famously impatient. We like results. Like yesterday. How many diets go awry because tangible progress has slowed or because discouragement sets in thinking how much further the journey is?

How many stalled novels have bit the dustpan of obscurity over the years because 4000 words seems much too far away from 50,000 words?

But if we can make peace with increments, rejoice in the small, be happy in the seemingly insignificant, EVENTUALLY, your goal will be reached.

Guitar. I’m not a musician, but I love music and I have always loved writing lyrics and thinking up melodies to match.  About fifteen years ago, I watched a friend learn guitar. I was intrigued. I asked him what he did. He said he practiced for thirty minutes everyday for six months. At the end of those six months, while he wasn’t Eddie Van Halen, he was capable of playing chords fluently and even joined the worship band at his church. I was impressed, so I said to myself that I would try it. I got a basic guitar book, a guitar, and  cleared aside 30 minutes a day, and I started playing. It was painful, figuratively on my ears and literally on my fingertips. But as the daily thirty minutes went by, my fingers started to develop callouses and my chords started to develop some attributes of musicology. Six months later, he was right. I could play the guitar. I plateaued at that point because I achieved what I wanted. I wanted to play enough guitar to help me write songs. Success. And I owe it all to increments.

Novels. I’ve said this before. I was a failed novelist who never wrote a novel. I always wanted to write one, and about seventeen years ago I finally started. I wrote three pages, destroyed it all, cried inside, and abandoned all hope of ever writing a novel. About ten years later, through my renewed interest in writing prompted by a new pursuit in drama, I tried again. I wrote little by little. I tried to enjoy the process. I tried to understand the long-haul mentality. I enjoyed where I was in the process.  I counted every word every day. Literally. And before I knew it, I had written a 61,000 word novel.  Then I tried to write another. Now I’ve written eight, and I’m still at the early point in my journey.

Whatever you are trying to accomplish, don’t get stuck lamenting how far away the finish line is.  But DO focus on two things:

  1. The daily increments. Have you done what you can today in your journey? If you can say ‘yes’ to that, then be proud of yourself.
  2. Look back at progress. Look where the increments of the last two weeks have taken you. The last month. The last two months. Remind yourself of where you came from and let it reaffirm that you are on the right track.

I write this for myself, because I’m on other journeys as I write. Perhaps I’ll share another time. But I hope this can be a small reminder to those on a journey of accomplishment that if you make peace in the increments, you will find your way.

Merry Christmas: A Vigil for a Starry Night

On a night when the clouds cover the stars like an impenetrable mountain cliff, I wait for a sign. A small tinge up my spine. A desperate plea for the ancient ways to speak once again. I wait for the light, hoping it will come, hoping it will be enough. .

The stars, spread brightly out like colored snowflakes flickering across the onyx sky, reflect a distant constellation, and begin to re-enter the atmosphere, piercing through the fractured clouds, giving faint and distant light to the voidless black, the empty sea, the sandless desert, the vacant abyss that is deep within me. The light, hushed and dimmed by a millennium of travel, is all I have. Is all I ever had.

I wait for the reflection to reach me, hoping one refracted beam from a star long ago still exists, the same ancient light that awakened the shepherd’s eyes one cool and lonely night. Can the light that ushered in a new millennium, awaken a new epoch within me. If so, it might be enough for my heart to go on.

In the midst of tears, in the solitude of our inner being, we yearn to be on that impoverished hill, to understand the magnitude of that sight, a heavenly light illuminating a darkened heart, a heavenly chorus rising to a crescendo of glory.

Will I choose to believe its truth, not blindly though because I know what the light can do for one’s soul.  And though the unbearable pain releases not its grip, I have a question to answer. Does the light still exist for me?

Does the same sky, which God ripped open that night with his right hand, planting angelic heralds of peace on the clouds to rustle awake the shepherds, still exist for me? Can he reach into my clouded heart and announce the truth like a heavenly chorus? If it is so, all suffering and cause of angst still present throughout the world will be no match for the blessed announcement: “A Child is born.”

PERSON: This child is born.

Hope

My mother-in-law, a beautiful human being, passed on from this life today. It’s been a difficult day for the family, and as my wife boards a flight to head home to be with loved ones during this time, I was reminded of one simple word: Hope. It’s a word I strongly believe in. And as I processed the day with that word in mind, here’s what I wrote:

 

Hope is not a homeless cast-off, living in squalid conditions on the edge of the sunset’s shadows.

Though you will find it there.

Hope is not a forgotten word, buried under scientific jargon, dying an abandoned existence in a dusty appendix.

Though surely you can scan the final pages with your index finger and find it there too.

Hope is not an empty, opiate-filled wish, meant to pacify the cravings of a desolate heart.

Though hope is comfortable in emptiness, tucking neatly in an upside-down crevice of a turned-out pocket.

Hope is the undefinable assurance, proved to the heart by a million micro-steps of life, that joy can never be fully extinguished.

Hope is as high as a thousand-mile mountain peak, yet as thin as an inch-thick stream spreading out indefinitely in all directions.

Hope casts off doubt and lingers until despair yields to its indomitable message.

When the world doesn’t choose hope, hope merely grows stronger, encouraged in the throes of life’s storms, emboldened on the faces of the faithful, ensured that the weary will find their way, that the righteous will find their reward, that a simple seed planted long ago will find its way home.

Only One Way to Go: Down

I was driving a van up a one-way, steep mountain incline. Four of us were on our way to a mountaintop retreat with a van packed with luggage and accessories. I whipped around one steep turn and gunned it in first as I plodded up the hill when a horribly sick sinking feeling struck me: this van was not going to make it. It bogged down and nearly stalled. The power had dissipated. The only thing which was still going higher was the engine temperature. A driving predicament presented itself in vivid tropical terms: to the left was a steep cliff down to a quick death, to the right was walled cliff straight up, to the front was the steep grade my van couldn’t conquer, so only one option remained. Down.

As I looked in my rear view mirror, I didn’t like this option any better than the other three. Well, okay, it was better than the cliff to my left. The mirror revealed a narrow steep path I would have to back down. At the bottom of the grade was a hairpin turn that I would have to make in reverse with a van full of people. If I missed the turn, we would scoot into a large gully. I didn’t like our chances. I wanted better odds, but if I couldn’t get better odds, at least I hoped I had good brakes. I didn’t want to back this down, but there was no other choice. We couldn’t very well stay stuck on the steep grade for eternity.

So with the clutch pushed in, I started backing down, now hoping, trusting, and wishing on the brakes.

Life, from time to time, gives us little moments to increase our awareness of our own humanity. One slight misdirect and it all goes crashing over the cliff. The heart rate increases, the tense eyes are brought tenser by the dour movement of the eyebrows, muscles contract, the voice is slightly raised and urgent, sights and sounds are zoomed into a narrow focus — keep it tight, keep it real, stay focused, a lot rides on this — and you give it all you have to make it right, even if it doesn’t feel right in your gut.

When was the last time you felt like this? When was the last time that circumstances gave you a lesson in humanity, its frailness, its fickleness, its fleet-footed-ness?

In this particular case, I backed the van down to the lip of the curve, and as providence would have it, a van-sized pull-off was on the right. All I had to do was pull up the hill a smidgen, back carefully into the pull-off without my front tire falling off the cliff on the right, and I was on flat ground in the middle of mountain. I could breathe again.

Whatever cliff you are next to, keep the focus, look for the nearest pull-off and remind yourself that it’s a good day to be alive.