Writing Sadness and Joy

I remember discovering, maybe when I was 12 or so, that it was a lot easier to write sad stories that have a strong impact on the reader than happy stories that elicit a similarly strong reaction. Now perhaps this was because testosterone was cracking my voice, reshaping my body into something I didn’t recognize, destroying my ability to relate to the opposite sex, and dragging my emotions through the melancholy muck of puberty. Certainly an angsty adolescence has brought many such not-so-profound revelations to the suddenly sage minds of newly minted teenagers.

But really, what could be easier than introducing a likable character and presenting an endearing detail, a tender moment, making your reader vulnerable just long enough to mercilessly slam your character into the pavement and grind his face on it? Who can resist the death of a child? The ultimate rejection of a character we identified with? The grand tragedy of human suffering, leading to meaningless death?

I’ve written my share of sadness in this world, and will probably pen a good deal more before I run out of stories and record keeping. Eventually, though, even the most obstinate of us have to graduate out of teenager-hood into the great world of responsibility, and then we have to ask “Why?”. No, not why the sadness in the world, though I’ll get to that in a moment. I mean, why am I writing at all?*

Sure it’s fun to toy with people’s emotions and bend their understanding of reality to my own version of history and events. But it really doesn’t take a mid-life crisis to get us thinking about purpose and intent.

Frankly, I want to have an impact on other people. Life seems rather pointless if you don’t make any difference doesn’t it? And if you’re making a difference, it seems that making a positive difference would be the way to go, right?

So, somehow, I’ve found that I’m not happy with my writing anymore unless I can forge good from my endless drivel. Suddenly there is the real danger of ascending from the contented darkness of happily achieved sadness to the despairing heights of unfound joy and ineffectual motivation.

Until you realize that my teenage revelation is a lie. Everywhere you see sadness, there you will find joy behind it. We knock down our characters so that we can cheer when they get back up. The fragility of life reminds of its inexpressible value, the incredible gift that none of us have done anything to deserve, but get to enjoy anyway, briefly or at great length.

Rejection brings meaning to acceptance; the chance of failure is the only thing that can possibly bring meaning to success. Suffering is required in equal amounts to our joy. Ultimately there is renewal, and life goes on, in all of its awesome grandeur.

So I take up my challenge to write the next chapter. The happiness that can grow out of sadness and hardship. The triumph that follows defeat. The renewal which inexorably follows collapse.

Even that hopeless teenager I mentioned before managed to find some wonderful friends, marry the woman of his dreams, and raise four beautiful children. Sure,  he’s still funny looking and his voice leaves something to be desired. With miracles and joy, I can truly say that he is happy.

If I can do it, anyone can. And they do, every day, in their own spectacular, quiet ways. That’s who I want to write about.

* Okay, I have to admit that I know why I’m writing. I write because I can’t stop the words from flowing out onto the page, the computer, the napkin I meant to use for lunch. I can no more refuse to write than I can take a vow of silence and never speak again. Some people can’t seem to speak without moving their hands about. Mine, like many others’, just seem to prefer a pencil or keyboard.

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Pumpkin Cookies

Especially in October, I start getting requests for pumpkin cookies. Sometimes I bake the pumpkins and puree the pulp for cookies, pumpkin bread, and pie. Other times I just use the canned stuff. I don’t think anyone can tell the difference in the cookies, really. For a change, I used white pumpkins for my cookies yesterday.

I have no idea what the origin of this recipe was, but I have tweaked and changed it over the years to meet my tastes and preferences.

Paul’s Pumpkin Cookies
1/2 C butter
1 1/2 C sugar
2 T molasses
1 egg
1 t vanilla
1 C pumpkin
1/2 t salt
1 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
1 t nutmeg
1 t cinnamon
2 1/2 C flour
2 C chocolate chips
Cream the butter and sugar, stir in the molasses and vanilla, and then beat in the eggs. Sift together the dry ingredients (everything else except the chocolate chips). Alternately add half the pumpkin, mix in, add half the dry ingredients, fold in, add the rest of the pumpkin, mix, add the rest of the ingredients. Fold in the chocolate chips.

Drop by heaping tablespoons onto a cookie sheet and bake at 350 for 12 minutes, or until the cookies just become firm and begin to brown. Cookies may not spread or flatten much during cooking.

Note that these have about 1/2 the fat of regular chocolate chip cookies.  All of the sugar, though.


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Organizing the Pieces

writingscrapI find myself writing bits of stories, poems, or even song lyrics in odd places. Sometimes an idea shows up and demands that it be written down while I’m eating, or in a meeting, or waiting for the bus, or on a telephone conference. Consequently, scraps show up on my desk as precious bits of napkin, envelopes, or powerpoint cue pages. They are found amid meeting notes on my computer, saved as email messages to myself, and scattered across a dozen types of word processor files on every computer I’ve ever used.

From time to time I attempt to track them all down. When, in the course of getting things done, I fill up a steno notepad, I flip through it page by page, typing up anything that seems like it might be potentially useful. Deconstructing the heap on my desk always results in a motley pile of mismatched paper products, from which I seem to be less successful in gleaning–perhaps because I mistakenly assign them more permanence than the notebooks that I’m about to entomb in neat paper boxes, somewhere in the garage.

Mining the creative pieces out of old computer system backups, however, seems to be the least dependable of my content collation routines.  Everything I’ve written in the last ten years is saved…somewhere.  I think.  If I could just find a SCSI-1 interface with a Centronix port to hook up my old SPARC drive.

Even when I know where information is stored it doesn’t necessarily do me much good.  I just purchased a 2TB drive for the purpose of short-term backup in my house.  That’s 2,000,000,000,000 characters of storage.  At this point the total data storage in my house is approaching the storage requirements of the Library of Congress (itself a unit of storage capacity).  I spend far too much time down in the stacks of my own personal research library.

So, for anyone who writes on a regular basis, how do you keep track of it all?

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Thinking About It

I need a lot of off the clock thought to write anything more than a page or two.  Somewhere in the dark, scary recesses of my subconscious, oversize concepts are digested and reassembled, like leaf cutter ants feeding their subterranean fungal colonies.  Dim shapes appear in the ultra-flexible fabric of thought as ideas are juxtaposed and connections are tried and discarded or selected.

Sometimes it is like building a nest.  The pieces come from many places and are of various materials, woven into the written structure so each one depends on the next.  The developing form is built from experience and observation, but the shape is an independent creation; anecdote feeds analogies, and these service explanation and elucidation, but the integrated whole, while sustained by its members, resembles none of them.

Whether the piece I am working on is a research paper, essay, or creative fiction, I seem to require at least as much time on this particular step as on the actual writing itself.  No amount of later organization or revision can make up for lost time in pondering what I am writing, because the substance itself is weaker.

With all of the demands on my time, it is often the demands on my consideration which wreak the most havoc on my tortured writing.  While I can set aside a place and time to write–perhaps even escape the chaos of home and the clammer of work to set words on paper, if I have not expended the time and effort in thought then the product is shallow and leads no where that I care to go.

Chaos and clammer, though, are excellent materials for nest building.  With a bit more space and time for digestion, it could yet produce something interesting.  In the way of “hey, check that out,” rather than “ugh, what did I step in,” I hope.

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It’s My Fault

[Note: this was written to a United States audience on 4 October 2008, in the midst of the US election furor, and before we had a good grasp on where the economy was going.  I believe it is more broadly applicable, however, so am posting this previously unpublished piece here.]

Who’s to blame for the circumstance we find our country in?

I am.

And you are.

And, in fact, everyone in this country who has failed to do what they might to make it better.

Everyone who has purchased something they can’t afford has contributed to the overwhelming debt load.  Everyone who has bought a house that was beyond their means is responsible for the mortgage crisis.  Everyone who has failed to make their voice heard is responsible for the choices of their elected representative officials.

Everyone who has not provided help to the needy is responsible for the failure of the welfare system.  Everyone who has not reached out to the homeless shelters is responsible for the homeless.  Everyone who has not lended strength to those who find themselves in weakness is responsible for the weaknesses in our country.

We are responsible, you and I, for what happens in this country.  It is convenient to point to a handful of men and women sitting in legislative chamber and say that they are at fault for our laws.  But if we haven’t lobbied for good ones, voted for representatives whose views we support, rather than just who seem likely to get the elective support of our favorite party, told them what we expected of them, praised their good choices and protested the bad ones, it is we who have chosen poorly.

It is convenient to point at the president and say, “HE did it!”.  But he is a single man in a democracy, founded on the principle that no King George can ever do anything to us that we don’t have a voice in.  United we are strong–stronger than anything the world has ever known.  Divided against ourselves, our neighbors, and yes, even our leaders, we are weak.  We have the power to make our nation weaker than any the world has ever known, simply because the Constitution has given us that power.

If we choose to work against each other we will lack even the strength that a tyrant or an oligarchy wields to act in a single direction.  We have the power to be great, but we chose at the founding of this country to grant ourselves the power of our own undoing.  If we look for our own arrogant ideas of how we would like things to be, discarding the lessons of the past, the legacy of our forefathers, the wisdom of our peers, we will truly deserve the poverty and desolation we will find ourselves in.

We can build this nation, together.  We can support each other.  We can be responsible for our own decisions, rather than expecting to force others to take care of us.  We can act rather than expecting others to act on our own behalf.  We can build up rather than tear down.  We can praise what is good, provide strong alternatives to what is bad, and pitch in to do our part, rather than complaining about others’ efforts, whining about what we cannot change, and seeking to direct the labors of others.

We must be responsible for our own share of the debt.  If our households are not built on solid fiscal responsibility, how can we expect the government to be?  If we do not lift our neighbors and give to those in need, how can we expect the government to catch those that fall?  If we do not expend our time and effort in the service of our fellow man, how can we ask the government to roll out new services and keep the ones which are already in place?

Before you criticize that teacher, be sure that you are the teaching example that you ought to be.

Before you criticize anyone, be sure of your own place.  If your affairs are in order, you will have no need to whine or complain, because your character will be self-evident and your actions in the home, community, and nation, will speak for themselves.  The little things have the greatest effect, and you don’t know how far your simple actions will reach.

Once you are where you should be, if you truly know how something can be made better, do something about it.  Don’t complain about the schools, volunteer to help in the schools.  Don’t complain about the political system, get involved.  Don’t complain about the companies, found your own company or help build the one you work for into an example of how it ought to be.  If your ability to do these things is not adequate to the task, then your judgment is suspect as well.  Work to gain the insight, experience, and understanding of what needs to be done, and then get to work changing it.

It matters not how well you succeed in each of these.  The effort is worth the doing.  The example will inspire in places you may never witness.  But the combined effect of even a few individuals dedicated to these concepts will be greater than the sum alone.

So don’t tell me about the president.  Don’t tell me about the lawyers or the CEOs.  Don’t tell me about the school system, the disillusionment with the American Dream.  Tell me what you are doing about it.  Tell me what people are doing right and how we can help them to keep doing it.

And then don’t tell me, just do it.

230 years ago this was a land torn by war, conflicting loyalties, uncertainty, and death.  A great nation was forged from those trials, and a great people emerged.  But it didn’t happen with the signing of the declaration.  It didn’t happen with the surrender of Cornwallis.  It didn’t happen, even with the production of the Consititution and its attendant Bill of Rights.  It happened as a people came together in unity and strength.  And it didn’t happen all at once, or in one place.  It happened bit by bit, state by state, town by town, household by household, individual by individual.

I don’t want to hear that things are going to pieces and there’s nothing you or I can do about it.

I don’t believe it.

This is the time to choose.  Which side are you on?  Are you on the side of building up, or tearing down?  Will we see the rebirth of the greatest nation that has ever stood, or the calamitous collapse of pride which will replace the Roman Empire as a standard for civilization lost?

It’s up to you.

And me.

It’s my choice.

I am responsible.

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Gentle Words

adeniumbuds Peace.


These are what life is all about.  We struggle with hundreds of important issues each day.  We win some, lose a few more, call it a draw and work on it tomorrow.  But really, peace and joy are what we’re after–they are the yardstick by which we measure our satisfaction with the world and ourselves.

Our success, building on this, depends on the degree to which we bring peace and joy to ourselves…and others.  As human beings we have a capacity for altruism which informs our own sense of self.  In helping or harming we help or harm ourselves.  Ultimately, as social beings, we rise and fall together, mutually building up or tearing ourselves down.

Our peace and joy must be built; we cannot rise while tearing down.

Physicians have an oath: to do no harm.  Unfortunately this is too broad for us, because in this world there are many who have mistaken what will bring them peace and joy, and they seek satisfaction from tearing down.  From these we require defense, and defense can bring harm to an attacker.  Sometimes patterns of anger and hate are so strong that much force must be exerted to remove them.  There is no glory in this, and no joy will come of it until we are once again able to lift each other.  Forever our joy is tempered by sorrow for those who reject it.

The world is wide, the variety endless.  The internet is overwhelmed by words, such that my few contributions seem almost meaningless in the vast torrent.  Perhaps, though, you, gentle reader, will find something to help you in your own building, for who knows the potential of a few gentle words?

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