I write things. Maybe you'll read them.

It’s been over two months since my last post, but I assure you the delay is not a result of laziness.  Okay, not just laziness.  In truth, I have been working quite a bit on various projects and now that I have a few moments in the early morning, when all around me is quiet, I’ll scribble a little bit about them.

The Dead and the Dying–The manuscript for my recently completely horror novel is about ready to begin the long road of submissions.  After my previous attempt at writing a novel, I submitted a query to a total of one (1) agent, promptly earning myself a form rejection letter.  Two years out from that, I can see why it was rejected.  Before, during, and now after the process of writing TDATD, I came to realize how amateur I sounded in that letter and hope to avoid the same mistakes with my new book.  Also, I think I did a much better job of writing this time, which always helps the chances of a book catching the eye of an agent.

The publishing industry typically shuts down over the two weeks or so surrounding Christmas, but I am not one of those many, many authors who start watching the clock as soon as they hit send on their email or close the door to their mailbox as though they are waiting for some dish being heated in the microwave.  More than acceptance (although that certainly does help), I think authors want closure more than anything.  It’s the waiting that kills.  A yes is joy beyond the world, but a no is at least an end to the nail-biting.  As for my novel, I am perfectly willing to take things slowly to avoid looking like a neurotic writer.  I want to be someone an agent will enjoy working with, not the freaks and weirdos I have read so much about on various agent websites and blogs.

I have a spreadsheet made with all my target agents, and have been working on my query letter for a few weeks, looking for just the right mix of hook and professionalism that will get me a hearing that lasts at least to a partial manuscript submission.  I’m not expecting miracles, but I do think the book has merit and is as good as some of the published books I have read over the past few years.

New, As-Yet-Untitled Project–Last week, I began work on my third novel manuscript.  I will keep the details secret for now (on the off chance that I can actually sell the damn thing), but I’ve been looking forward to working on this piece since I first came up with it.  It sat on the back burner for a while, waiting for that one connection to really bring the whole thing into focus.  One day near the end of TDATD, the connection hit me–fully formed and so obvious that I rolled it over in my head for days looking for what was wrong with it.  After five days of writing, I am at 6000 words, which is a pretty good start.  I’m really hoping to get some momentum going on this one to keep my mind off my submissions.

Harry Potter and the Golden Sepulcher–My guilty pleasure.  I started this fan fiction on Mugglenet.com with the idea of using it as a change of scenery after working so hard on TDATD.  What has happened instead is that I’ve put together a story that I really like and hope to continue, but right now it’s dying on the vine.  With nine chapters posted, I’ve had a lackluster chapter 10 saved for some time, waiting for a second opinion before I decided to go back and rewrite it.  My few loyal readers on Mugglenet are clamoring for an update and I hope to provide it soon.  The only problem is that I’m losing that lovin’ feeling where this story is concerned, so I am combatting that by going back through Rowling’s books, hoping to be reinspired.  My tentative plan is to spend five days a week working on the new novel, one day on Harry, and one day completely off from writing.  If I have any spare time aside from my regular writing times, though, I hope to spend those on rebuilding chapter 10 into something both entertaining, but also something that leads the story in the direction I want it to go.

For anyone not familiar with any of this who would like to read the fanfic piece, you can find it here

Horror Novella–In between all the other things I’m working on, I’m hoping to pump out a horror novella that I’ve been itching to write for some time.  The story is actually inspired by an event in my life, twisted to meet my own macabre needs.  I still need to do a bit of research regarding 911 call centers, so if anyone knows a good resource online where I can pick up some information, feel free to drop me a note.

And, of course, all my writing must come after the “day job” which, being retail management, is insane this time of year.  By the time I get home, often after midnight, it’s sheer force of will that sits me down at the keyboard to peck out my 1000+ words a night.  Still, I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t get something out of it and what I get is a chance to decompress, to leave behind my dark thoughts about customers, my employees, and inventory levels.  I don’t know what I would do without my escape hatch in writing, and I need it more this time of year than any other.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to post a few more times over the coming week.  I have a couple of books to review on here, plus some general observations about starting a new novel, the scary submission process, and other things related and unrelated to writing.

Stay tuned.

Today, I’ll touch a bit on the day job, the one that almost pays the bills so I can come home and write until three or four in the morning.  I am a manager for a national pharmacy chain that will remain nameless (although a lot of our checks are mistakenly made out to Wal-Mart).  There are several things about said position that I don’t enjoy, but one of the few perks is the six feet of books directly across from the toilet paper.  Don’t ask me about why this sort of adjacency makes sense–I don’t know.

Instead of taking the smoke breaks enjoyed by other members of management, I use my few moments of idle time to browse the selection of paperbacks.  Almost exclusively, we carry bestsellers by the biggest names, usually long after the buzz over the novel has passed.  I enjoy going through the new arrivals every Friday, but my frequent browsings have left me with one question.

Does anyone write about a protagonist that is not a:
–former/current agent of the FBI/CIA/NSA or some other government agency
–other form of law enforcement officer
–former Navy SEAL/Special Ops
–erudite professor ala The DaVinci Code?

Of the fifty or so titles we carry at any one time, over half (yes, I counted) revolved around protagonists of this sort.  Are we so enamored with Dirty Harry and Clarice Starling that we must have a million novels about them?  I understand the thriller/suspense story is hot right now, but I want a change from these cookie-cutter characters.  Give me the same stories as told by Elmore Leonard, whose characters represent more shades of gray, usually dark gray.  Give me Harry Dresden from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, combining magic with the noir.  For that matter, give me Encyclopedia Brown–at least he never had to overcome some tragic failure in his past to solve mysteries.

Give me original characters, or give me death.

I’m sure some of the books are great reads.  I also can’t deny the marketability of such works occupying the top of the bestseller lists.  Still, this process of browsing books in my store has caused a fundamental change in the way I look at my own writing.  Instead of developing an idea and just plopping any (pick one of the above characters) into it, one of the first things I look at is how the story might be different, or better, with an unlikely protagonist.  I’m not looking for some POV character the reader won’t relate to, only to expand the reader’s scope.  One of the reasons Agatha Christie was so successful with Miss Marple is because, at the time, the archetype detective was more like Sherlock Holmes, not an elderly lady as concerned with her garden as solving murders.  Tolkien could have focused his Rings trilogy on the warrior-king Aragorn, but instead he focused on the docile, diminutive hobbits, making the story more interesting by giving us characters more like ourselves, but in extraordinary circumstances.

Perhaps this bias of mine will decrease my chances of publication.  So be it.  I could write a story fitting this mold, but what can I write that hasn’t already been published in the last five years in some form or another.  Instead, I would rather focus on the unexpected–both in what I read and what I write.

 

I am ashamed that, as a self-proclaimed fantasy fiction fan, and a writer of the same, I came so late to The Wheel of Time series. I picked up The Eye of the World about three years ago, anxious to learn whatever I could about what made the series so successful and what had driven so many people to obsess over the world Robert Jordan had created. Perhaps, I thought in my simplistic scribbler’s mind, I can find some sort of magic bullet that will help me achieve a similar level of success.

What I found, however, was far more valuable than any shortcut. Beyond anything I learned as a writer from the adventures of Rand al’Thor and his friends, I was captivated by Jordan’s mastery of the genre, his striking detail and his brilliant characterization. Rather than taking notes on the structure of the story or his use of modern themes, I was swept away by the sheer force of Jordan’s storytelling. Instead of dissecting the tale to see how its parts fit together, I sat in wonder at the whole, too awestruck by the narrative machine to even consider how it worked.

I have read one book in each of the last three years and am still planning to pick up the fourth from my local library as soon as I’m ready to take it on. A great deal of fantasy fiction is like fast food–it satisfies for the short term, but leaves the consumer longing for something more, something substantial. In The Wheel of Time, each book is a feast of the imagination, a seven-course meal of unrivaled description and sublime dialogue that leaves the reader full and sated. Each turn of the wheel, like any exquisite culinary masterpiece, requires time for digestion, which explains why I have only read one per year. It is possible to be overwhelmed by Jordan’s prose and creativity, to almost be intimidated by the ferocity of his voice. Still, regardless of the time in between turns for the individual reader, the story’s resonance is such that at any point I could pick up the next volume and know exactly where I left off.

Ranking the most influential fantasy authors of all time would produce very few names, if any, before Robert Jordan. Along with Tolkien, Lewis, and, now to some degree, Rowling, he helped define, not the boundaries that ruled fantasy fiction, but the idea that no boundaries existed, that all was possible. Drawing from his life experiences and his expansive personal knowledge, Jordan created a world that the reader experiences with all the senses, a setting so real that reality itself disperses in its wake. One does not simply read Jordan’s work, one lives it.

The true tragedy of Robert Jordan’s passing comes not from the loss his devoted fans will feel, but from his being robbed of the opportunity to complete his life’s work, to bring the Wheel through its final turn. According to the sources I have seen in the media, the last book in the series, tentatively titled A Memory of Light, will be completed by his family and published. While this will bring grateful closure to the many fans of the series, the moment will be bittersweet as Mr. Jordan will not be here to experience it with us or to hear our praise.

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. This passage began the series that so many of us have come to love. Again, the Wheel has turned and an Age has passed with the death of Robert Jordan. To fantasy fiction, to our hearts and minds, he is a legend, but now that legend has become memory.

Mr. Jordan, you are missed.

 

 Now that the manuscript for my second novel is finished and waiting for me to dress it up, I have time to think about writing from the forest standpoint before I venture back into the trees. I already know of several changes I want to make–scenes I want to add, description that I need to tighten up, a character that I need to introduce earlier in the story–and I look forward to rediscovering my own book. After a well-deserved break, jumping back into my story will be an often exhilarating, sometimes embarrassing, experience. I am certain there will be be parts that make me groan with disbelief over my own ineptitude, but I hope there will be more passages that strike me as more poetic than they did when I first set them down.

Over my past few days of idleness, I’ve reflected on the process that I take in composing a novel. I come from a background in retail management where I am always looking for new, more efficient ways of making a profit for my store while controlling expenses. That same exercise holds true for my writing–I continuously look for new ways to produce a cleaner manuscript, avoid repetition, and provide myself with less work during the rewrite. Now, I look back over the past few months I’ve spent on my first draft and try to pick out all the things I could have done differently. Thankfully, I see few areas of opportunity than I did after finishing my first novel, an abandoned (for now) fantasy novel that will rest quietly on my hard drive until I am famous enough to get it published.

One thing I have learned about myself as a writer is that my ideas tend to come in the same general pattern. With both my finished novels, my ideas arrived in two parts–the beginning and the end. I could see how each story would begin, imagining the first scene down to the dialogue, and how each would end. The hard part, I have found, is building the middle to link the ends together. It’s like walking along a rope bridge suspended over a raging river–full of uncertainty and only safe on either shore. When I reached the final scene in my recently completed manuscript, the words poured out of me like the waters of that river, so thankful was I to be at the end. That scene, conceived at the very genesis of the story, waited in limbo while I tread one step at a time across the bridge, not looking down.

Now that I am on a semi-hiatus (I am piddling around with a piece of fan fiction just to satisfy my own needs), I have begun thinking of what story I want to tell next. I have several candidates–a science/historical fiction piece, a thriller, and a magical realism novel are leading the pack–and in each case I have the beginning and the end already figured out. I look forward to telling each one and the many more I’ve thought about over the years, but I know when I’m beyond my stretch of shore and over the rushing water, navigating along that precarious bridge, that the real work begins.

However, that’s also when the magic begins. While writing the first and last scenes gives me a certain level of satisfaction, mostly from the act of just getting them down on disk instead of floating around in my head, that joy pales in comparison to the act of writing something that surprises even me while I’m creating it. Even finishing the work does not match the perfectly worded phrase, the particularly poignant dialogue, or the resonant simile as it springs from nothingness, flows out through my hands, and arrives neat and whole on my computer screen. Of all the feelings I have experience as a writer so far, this is the best.

Three nights ago, I finished the first draft of my second novel. Writing “The End” beneath the last paragraph brought an end to approximately four months of almost-nightly labor. At around 65k words, it is almost half the size of my first attempt at writing a novel, but I also think it is much better than my first. A big story in a small package.

Now, the hard part begins.

When I finished my first novel, I did as I was instructed by many experts in the publishing industry and let it sit for a few weeks before I dove back in to start the editing process. Halfway through editing, my computer died and, in my foolishness, I had not made a backup of the revised work. The rough draft rests peacefully on my new computer, likely to never see the light of day. Like a summer romance, my first novel was a great relationship while it lasted, but there was never anything permanent, nothing to stick with for the long haul. I’ve fallen out of love with it and in love with my new project.

When editing begins on the new story, I already have several things I want to change. My writing process consists of getting everything down in the first draft, then closing any gaps during the rewrite. There were times, fewer with this novel than the last, when I knew as I was writing that I would have to revisit the passages, even as they appeared on my computer screen, would have to go back and clarify what I was trying to say or find a better way to describe what was happening. There were also times, more with this work, that I looked at what I had written with the kind of pride that only comes when you surpass what you believed to be your limits. These lines, whether for their poetry or their wit, make the process of writing seem less like work and more like what it is–an act of passion.

Now, the job turns from basic construction to making every line feel special. All the awkward transition, the phony-sounding dialogue, the ham-handed descriptions, have to go in order to achieve a manuscript that I will be proud to submit to agents and publishers. In On Writing, Stephen King describes himself as a “putter-inner,” someone who adds more detail than is needed to story, then must cut it out to achieve the resonance he is looking for. I, on the other hand, am a “leaver-outter.” There are several scenes that I need to go back and add to better explain what is going on, including one that bears directly on the climax where I added a critical character I had neglected to place earlier in the story.

However, editing is a dangerous thing. The temptation comes from wanting to add too much, from not knowing when you have done enough and not giving in to the urge to over explain. When I write, I tend to be a bit “alpha-omega” in my basic design. I know how to start and how to finish the story, but getting from the former to the latter is a difficult road that often comes out half-formed on the page. In these cases, I realize even during the act of composition that I will have to go back and add scenes. I suppose that I could go back and make the changes as soon as I realize they are needed, but I’m scared of interrupting the narrative flow I’m counting on to get me to the end of the story.

In the meantime, you must also part with as much of the story as necessary, an act of addition by subtraction. This process is similar to a game of Jenga. In this popular game, the object is to remove wooden blocks from a tower constructed of them without knocking over the whole. The first draft is building the tower, stacking the blocks as quickly and as efficiently as possible in order to play the game. Editing is removing the blocks. Like in Jenga, you want to take out as much as possible without toppling the tower. Every word takes up valuable space in your manuscript and every last adjective, adverb, and prepositional phrase must pay for itself in the balance sheet of your story. Nothing extraneous must be allowed to remain.

That is the advantage of the first draft. When you finish, you can look back and see all the holes in your story, all the mistakes in the design, all the places that do not shine.

I’m looking forward to editing my book. As happy as I am with the rough draft, I do accept that it is just that–rough. There are elements that I want to add, places where I need to add, places I need to subtract. There are true groaners that, under closer scrutiny, will seem like pure ineptitude. Still, I accept the challenges these present. I accept the chance to shine.

 

I would like to spend a year with Thomas Harris. Maybe even two. I want to get up when he gets up, eat breakfast at the same table, go with him to shop for produce, and simply follow him around to see what he does on a day to day basis. Perhaps, standing in his shadow, I can see why it takes him so long to write the books he does.

I realize that the detail he incorporates into his novels–the history, the art, the languages–require a great deal of research and thought. I understand that the stories are complex and portray characters with psychological issues far beyond the range of the average person’s comprehension. Still, since Black Sunday appeared in 1975, Harris has written only four novels, including his breakout work, The Silence of the Lambs. In the past four, the role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, arguably one of the greatest characters in modern culture, has increased until Hannibal the Cannibal has become front and center in Harris’s writing. In Hannibal Rising, Harris expands what we learned of Lecter’s past in Hannibal by describing the events that led to the rise the monster we know from his earlier books. We see the gruesome murder and consumption of his sister during the second World War. We see Lecter’s development through adolescence, his education, and his early adult life, along with the beginning of his homicidal yearnings.

As a fan of Harris’s early works, I was eager to read Hannibal Rising, but not with the same interest that I read Hannibal and I place the blame for this mostly on Harris himself. Lecter is a wonderful character in Silence, all the more threatening because of his intelligence, his unknowable mind. It is this enigma, this sense that what happens behind those piercing blue eyes is beyond our understanding, that makes Hannibal Lecter one of the greatest villains I’ve ever read about. So, when Harris sets about in Hannibal and Hannibal Rising to explain how that evil mind works and, worse, gets you to identify with him, to assume his point of view, it completely dispels the magic draw the character has for me. I don’t want to relate to Hannibal Lecter. I don’t want to feel sorry for him, to support him in his quest for vengeance against those who killed and ate his sister. I want to relate to those trying to stop him, trying to understand him. I want to be the common man–Will Graham or Clarice Starling–who must fight my awe of his genius, swallow my fear, and beat him at his own intellectual game.

For me, Hannibal Rising is a case of infatuation gone wrong. Harris seems too enamored by his ability to add depth to his creation to realize that, in doing so, he shows us the zipper running down the monster’s back. His tale is still rich in detail, but seen from Lecter’s end, this serves only to give the novel a snobby, elitist feel, further alienating me from the writing. In making Lecter shine, Harris casts a shadow over the other characters in the book, leaving them small and one-dimensional. There are still several scenes that display the author’s mastery of the gruesome and unexpected, but even these feel like a overblown curriculum vitae for the young Lecter.

I remain a fan of Thomas Harris and, even though I found this book disappointing, I will pick up his next one when it comes out. What Harris does well–pulling the psychological strings of our terror and setting it all to classical music–he does better than almost everyone. Hannibal Lecter is a cultural icon, his place in society enhanced by the brilliant acting of Sir Anthony Hopkins, but I’ve seen things through his eyes long enough. It’s time to look through someone else’s, someone who will be assigned the task of chasing down the monster without becoming his next victim. Let us return to Graham or Starling or some other figure who must rise up to face the threat of Lecter. Let us, Mr. Harris, be the common man again, facing the terror of Hannibal the Cannibal.

 Have you taken my advice from Part One and done as you were told? Gone off to write the next great novel or short story or personal narrative or radio jingle? Have you left my post with great intentions but no idea where to start? I thought you might be back. Well, dear reader, I have a suggestion.

Fan fiction.

To someone with Pulitzer ambitions, who has already been practicing their interview for when their novel becomes an Oprah Book Club selection, fan fic seems like becoming a literary whore, but I say there are benefits, particularly for someone new to the writing process, from whoring yourself out.

First, the essence of fan fiction is that the authors write about something they like–a favorite book, a great movie, or even a cheesy television series. The stories can be true to what they know or can vary widely from existing canon, coupling characters that would never, under any circumstances, get together; or exploring beyond what we know about the inspiring work. One of the benefits, aside from the sheer act of creation, of writing fan fic is that you are often writing about something you have a passion for. Right now, for example, in between work on the final couple of chapters of my novel, I am working on a Harry Potter fan fiction that picks up where J. K. Rowling left off after the Battle of Hogwarts in the last book. (For anyone who would complain about the vague spoiler here, I would say that if you haven’t read the book yet, you’re not a true fan anyway.) I am an avid fan of Rowling’s work and can’t stand to see Harry, Ron, and Hermione age nineteen years in the time it takes me to flip a page. Damn it, I want to know what happened in those nineteen years and if she won’t tell me, then I’ll figure it out on my own. That passion, the overriding need to know what happened or what could happen under the right circumstances, is what creates good writing. No author ever became successful by being indifferent to his or her subject. Every novel you see is an act of passion and if you learn to harness the passion you already have for something else, it will be easier to do when you have an original idea. When you physically, mentally, and emotionally need to know what happens in your own story, you can drive yourself through all self-doubt and cast aside all excuses until the work is complete.

The second benefit to writing fan fiction is that, on most online sites, readers are allowed to review your work, allowing you continuous, and sometimes immediate, feedback on the quality of your writing. However, you should brace yourself for this fact–not all feedback will tell you how great you are. Some people who review your work will offer constructive criticism meant to improve your writing while some will, for reasons still unknown to me, trash you simply for the sake of tearing you down. Once you weed out the trash talkers, use the constructive comments to improve your writing. If one person sees a flaw in your story, your style, or even your grammar, more will probably see the same thing, particularly editors and agents who do such things for a living. As you write and read what people think of your work, you become more aware of the blind spots you have and are quicker to seek and destroy them. The editorial process, something which many authors have trouble with, becomes easier as you learn to look for your mistakes rather than to look over them. Another benefit of reader reviews is that when they are good, they boost your confidence. Anyone who has ever poured their heart and soul into a piece of writing, only to ship it off to some publishing entity, wait for six months, and receive a form rejection letter can tell you of the importance of keeping your confidence up during and after the writing process.

One more positive that I’ll touch on regarding fan fiction is the sense of community you find on many fan fiction sites. When a group of people get together and apply their imagination toward a single thing, regardless of the form their creativity takes, it allows people of similar interests to share ideas and, in many cases, help each other build confidence in their work. Fan fiction communities, in this sense, offer the same benefit as conventional writing groups, that sense of camaraderie that comes from common interests, common labors, and common dreams.

I was skeptical at first about writing fan fiction. I thought that adding my own two-bits to Rowling’s series would be a waste of time, a distraction from the works that I thought might be commercially viable. Then, I realized that, by thinking along those lines, I was missing the point of writing entirely. We don’t write to make money, to make friends, or to make it sound like we’re trying to get out of our miserable jobs. We write because we are driven to write. We write because we have passion and that passion needs to be expressed when and where we can find an outlet. For your writing to be worth reading, it has to fill a need, not a want. I want to make money. I want that Pulitzer. I want to be on Oprah. I NEED to write.

And that makes all the difference.

P.S. If you would like to read my contribution to the Potter universe, go to Mugglenet.com’s fan fiction site and find “Harry Potter and the Golden Sepulcher” by leesmiley (my less-than-imaginative pen name). Feel free to leave me a review and read some of the other works on there. Very creative, we Potterphiles.

 At some point in my career, hopefully when I’m an internationally-known author, I would like to look back on the early blog posts, laugh, and think with nostalgia how much of a struggle life was. Hardship, when viewed from the far side, is like a near-miss car crash. You look in your mirror and think of how close things were and, with a few more inches of misfortune, how much worse they could have been.

In the meantime, all I can do is hold onto the wheel and hope I don’t get hit.

After taking some time off to think about what I want to write about here, I have decided that I will focus on writing more than the other aspects of my life. I may still discuss the odd facet of retail management or make a general observation about something in our culture that I feel passionate about, but from here on, I hope to use this blog as a place to compile my thoughts on writing–my approach to it, my feelings about it, and, hopefully, my successes with it.

Right now, I am an unpublished author, newly 31 years of age. I have completed one novel–a fantasy of 120,000 words–and am nearing completion on my second. My current project is a horror novel that will probably top out at 70-75k. Obviously, it is much shorter than my first, but it is also, in my opinion, much better.

The writing process is best learned on the job. You can read all the books about writing, take all the courses you like, attend all the workshops you can find, but the only way to improve is to do it. My first novel, while a pretty good story, has some serious problems that I could recognize even during the course of composition. That is why, good story that it is, it will likely never see the light of day. You, dear reader, might ask why I would spend three months writing a novel that I don’t plan to publish. The answer, the short answer, anyway, is that I have received more from my unpublished first novel than I could from my second novel, even if it achieves publication. By starting a long piece of fiction and, more importantly, finishing it, I have convinced myself that it is possible for me to become a writer. It is the foundation on which all my later writing will stand, the cornerstone for my life as a successful author or as a life-long struggling writer.

As I said in an earlier entry, I was inspired to pick up the pen again by Stephen King’s On Writing, using it to brainwash myself into believing I was a writer. From there, it was only a matter of finding the discipline to say what I wanted and to say it damn near every night until I finished. If you are a new writer, a fan of King’s fiction, or someone just looking for a bit of general inspiration, you could do worse than to buy the audio version of On Writing and listen to it about a hundred times.

Another book I would recommend to new writers is Your First Novel by Laura Whitcomb and Ann Rittenberg. The former is a published author who, in the first half of the book, offers sound and practical advice for writers looking for direction in their craft. The latter is a literary agent who picks up the publishing process with the manuscript submission and takes it all the way through to publication day and beyond. Their explanations of publishing protocol and the plain-spoken descriptions of the printing process demystify the daunting and sometimes-bewildering world.

So, quit reading this and go write something. Anything. Even the works that will never come close to publication teach us something about the writing process, and about ourselves.

 Finding success is like finding a particular restaurant in a large city where you’ve never been. You don’t know how to get there and, even with written directions of how you should proceed, you never know what obstacles you might encounter along the way. There are always things denying us access to the life we want. The most common of these are our own excuses. We hem and haw over the bad luck we’ve had, the uncommon difficulties we’ve faced, the people, legitimate or not, who have stood in our way.

If I look at the friends I had in high school, most of which I have at least retained some contact with over the years, I see a great deal of personal success. They have become doctors and lawyers, engineers and scientists, entrepreneurs and business leaders. In some cases, they have attained exactly the type of success they were looking for when we were all dreamy-eyed high school students, looking out upon a great, open world brimming with opportunity. In some cases, they have gone beyond those ambitions, finding not only professional success, but also personal success in the form of spouses and children. They have nice cars, nice homes, and, overall, nice lives.

In many ways, I feel like I have fallen short of success as I saw it when I was in high school. Graduating third in my class, with a full scholarship and endless possibilities ahead of me, I was expected by all, myself included, to find all those things I have listed above, all those things that, to the world at large, form our definition of success. Instead, I have worked at several mediocre jobs in the retail industry that, while not being minimum wage, are still far less glamorous and lucrative than I was expecting. I have gone through a bitter divorce that often remains bitter to this day. I married too young, became a parent too young, and gave up my scholarship to pursue what means I could to provide for my family. I live in an old, but comfortable house (comfortable when the air conditioning and heat work), not the palatial estate of my dreams. I drive an old minivan instead of the new cars that I moon over as they pass me on the long drive back and forth to work every day. Some days, those cars passing me by represent all the opportunities that I have had, passing me by as I struggle along.

Still, I blame no one but myself for where I am, if these is any blame to be had. My current situation is a direct result of the decisions I have made, not the uncontrollable events that have happened to me. I did not have to do things that led to so early a marriage or divorce. No one forced me to have children at such a young age. I was not coerced in any way to give up my scholarship in order to do what was best for my young family. All these things, and countless others, were my decisions and mine alone. Throughout the years, I have often been forced by my own hand to rewrite my plan for success until almost nothing remains of the hopes I had leaving high school.

Am I a failure? That is a question I have asked myself numerous times over the years and always the answer is the same. No, I am not a failure. What I am is someone that has been forced to take a long look at what success means to me and rework it, change that meaning around, condense it down until it reflects the positives I have built in my life.

I am now married to my best friend and cannot imagine being more perfect as a couple with anyone else. I have established myself as a competent manager and motivator of people who not only gets the results that are demanded of me, but who also supports and builds the self-respect of the people who work under me. I have written several short stories, a first novel, and am nearing completion on a second novel which, I am happy to say, is better than the first. I now have four wonderful children and, although I don’t spend as much time as I would like with them, they are all growing into intelligent, remarkable human beings and that, more than anything, enables me to consider myself a success.

Success is not reached by staring at the horizon. Success is found beneath one’s own feet, a step at a time. No one standing still, basking in their own glory, can look back and see what success has meant to them because success is a constantly moving body, building upon itself one inch, one foot, one step at a time. With these steps forward in my life, there have been some steps backward–lost jobs, financial problems, rejection letters from publishers–but each of these makes those steps forward all that more important to defining my new sense of what success is. I would still like to have the BMW, the six-figure salary, and the house on the hill, but that definition of success no longer applies to me. Success to me is a hug from my children . It is a kiss from my wife when I bring her flowers. It is a well-played tennis point. It is a thousand words on my novel before I go to bed. By these measurements, my measurements, I am successful beyond anything I ever hoped for.

 Original Thought, age unknown, died Thursday after a long illness. The funeral and burial will be skipped as nobody gives a damn. Any notes of condolence can be mailed to MTV studios in New York where they will be promptly ignored.

Perhaps that is a bit much, but I do wonder where original thought has gone. In today’s society, most of our opinions are based not upon careful consideration on our parts, but on the influences we encounter every day–the media, the church, our peers, our parents. When someone questions these force-fed ideas, they are ostracized and ridicules, often without the strength of will to stand by his or her convictions in the face of scrutiny by the majority. Instead of using our reason and our hearts to interpret what we see and hear, we sit like baby birds in the nest, our mouths and minds open to whatever the meal of opinion is that day.

And why do we do this? What has led us to the degrading position of looking elsewhere for what we should think and feel? In my opinion, laziness is the chief culprit. If someone else, especially someone in a position of perceived authority offers an opinion, surely they must have thought it out properly. Surely the authority figure has a better understanding of what the issue is and what should be done about it. Right? Why should I engage the gears of my brain and actually think about something when a ready-made position is available like a frozen dinner waiting to be microwaved for dinner. We don’t require deeper understanding or a full view of the issue from all sides. All we ask for is a stance that we can heat for 2 minutes, give a quarter turn, and heat for an additional three minutes.

Where have all the philosopher’s gone? There was a time, now in our distant past, when someone could be called a philosopher and not be subject to ridicule. Great thinkers in history, the Kants and the Humes and the Kirkegaards of the world, have all vanished or faded into obscurity. The philosophers of our age are invisible or, worse, relegated to the role of jester in the court of public opinion. Are stand-up comedians like George Carlin our last bastion of free thinking? A person now who would introduce themselves as a philosopher would get, at best, a roll of the eyes and a grin that says “Oh, so you’re not suited for real work?”

The symptoms are most evident in our youth. Ask any but the most exceptional person under the age of 25 about such issues as cloning, North Korea, or Israel, and you’ll receive a blank stare. Trust me, I’ve tried. Having worked with dozens of young people over the years, I am shocked and disgusted by the lack of awareness most of them have about the world. As long as these things don’t interfere with TRL, Sportscenter, or Taco Bell drive thru, they are content to live in complete ignorance of what is going on in the world. America is raising a spoiled, materialistic youth that, much like the current presidential administration, is fine with turning its back on the problems of the world for our false utopia, heedless that such behavior is, in large part, has driven so much of the world against us. The United States, once a beacon of compassion and civility, has denigrated into a global bully, pushing our ideals, our government, our troops, and our religion on those we consider a threat. We have failed in Iraq not because our military was not up to the task, but because our government did not bother to gain some understanding of Islam and the influence is has on every aspect of Muslim life. If the Iraqis had wanted democracy, they would have attained it, just as we did, before we stepped in and forced it upon them. Democracy will not work in a society where there is no separation of church and state, where, in fact, the state is subservient to the church. In the Islamic world, there is God’s law, and that is good enough.

Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) said that “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” We are losing that battle, bewitched by the ideas given us by the media, the government, and so many other outlets. We allow ourselves to be relieved of any personal responsibility for how and what we think for fear that our own opinion, arrived at through questioning the world around us and careful deliberation of the facts, will not match the popular opinion set by people in authority with no more right to decide than we have. People who have never cracked open a Bible cry out against sin. People clamor for the legalization of marijuana who have never seen the devastating effect it can have on a person’s life. If you are not for us, as the saying goes, you are against us. With so many opinions born of ignorance and close-mindedness, how can anyone, in good conscience, trust what they believe or feel to the minds of the uninformed?

Perhaps original thought is not dead. Perhaps it has gone into hiding, fleeing from the onslaught of pop culture, pop religion, and pop government. Perhaps it waits in the woods, like a hermit, awaiting a time when it is needed, a time that may never come. Perhaps we are moving toward Durkheim’s theory of a collective consciousness, where all the members of our society share a common understanding and common set of values. But look around you. Look at your neighbors, your coworkers, the people you see on television. Do you truly wish to share one mind with such people?

I’m not advocating blowing up televisions, refusing to pay taxes, or quitting church. All these things have benefits that we cannot otherwise attain. What I do believe, though, is that we should examine what we see and hear, question the information and opinions given us before we adopt them as our own. We should be a part of the world, with its myriad of problems and conflicts, not living in one of our own making. Perhaps then, original thought will creep back into society, take up residence, and offer some hope of reason.