An Author’s Gift

Recently, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine. He’s a tremendous person with tons of talent when it comes to both music and the written word. He is humble and engaging. I enjoy our conversations. However, he struggles with confidence when it comes to writing. Man, do I get that? Yes, yes I do.

During the course of our conversation, I made a statement that has stuck with me. It was two sentences and I’m going to give you them one at a time, then put them together.

First: Writing is a gift to yourself.

For many people, writing is an outlet, a hobby, something they do because they feel the words. Sometimes, writing is used as therapy. Writing is also a profession that many, many people attempt to succeed at. 

gift-1420830_1920Whether or not you write for yourself or for publication, writing is an art form. It is like music and painting and sculpting and woodworking and any number of other things out there. Most people don’t pick up a pen, a brush or a guitar and right away know how to use those various instruments to create something good, great or magnificent. For most, our first attempts (and even our hundredth) aren’t all that good and are far from magnificent. Simply put, it takes time to develop the necessary skills to create art.

Like with any other learned skill, it can be frustrating, and so often we give up before we get started because we get discouraged that we can’t do what others do. Let me quote Theodore Roosevelt here:

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

If you know me at all, you have probably heard that statement. I, for the longest time, struggled with comparing myself to other writers. I struggled with comparing myself with their successes and the lack of my own. I struggled with wondering how in the world can someone who isn’t that good of a story teller sell so many books or have so many fans and I couldn’t do or have those things. I struggled with comparing myself to others instead of enjoying what I do and how I do it. It made it difficult to write because I would get so angry that I would rant and rave to my wife (who has always been so patient with me) about my failures and others’ successes. She always said, “You will get there one day,” and little by little, I have.

Back to the point. I learned how much I enjoyed creating stories when I stopped worrying about what others were doing and comparing myself to them. I didn’t say writing stories. I said creating stories. Creating is art, and I create art. But I don’t do it for you, the readers. I have to make that clear, not to you, but to me. I write stories for me. I create art for me. It is the one gift I can give myself every single day.

As of this writing, I have created over 2000 short stories, twelve novels, dozens and dozens of songs, a handful of poems and quite a few haiku.  I have created this art from my brain, my heart and through my fingertips. I have given myself these gifts over the years, and I have kept every single one of them. 

Part of this gift to myself is seeing growth in my abilities. I can go back and say, Man, I wasn’t all that good in 2004, but look at where I was in 2008, then where I was in 2010 and where I am, here and now. I can see growth in everything I write, everything I create. And it excites me and makes me want to create better works with words. That excitement is such a gift. 

Another part of this gift to myself is when I complete a story, when I see it through from beginning to end, I get to see the finished product. I get the self-satisfaction that I succeeded in creating something out of nothing. I get the joy of completion. These are gifts that others can’t give me. I can only give them to myself.

Second: Sharing your writing is a gift to the world.

We all have our favorite authors. They are like the relatives that give us the best gifts at Christmas or for birthdays. They are the aunts or uncles you go to when you need a pick-me-up. They are the people you can rely on to make a gloomy day better. You sit, you open one of their books and you begin to read. Pretty soon, you become engrossed in their words, mesmerized by their stories, and for a few minutes, an hour or two, the world is a little better because you aren’t dwelling in it. You get enjoyment from their stories. You feel because of something they wrote. For a while, you are alive in someone else’s world.

It’s an amazing gift you get to keep forever, either on your bookshelf or on a digital device (or both), but most importantly, in your memories. 

women-4465904_1920I see where people post pictures on social media with the caption, Making Memories. You see pictures of people at the beach and captioned or hashtagged with it is Making Memories (#makingmemories). You see pictures of people out to dinner and you see those words. You see pictures of people on vacation and there are those words, making memories. It’s like pictures we take out of a box from our childhood. If it’s a Polaroid (if y’all don’t know about Polaroids, Google is your friend) there is usually something written in the white space beneath the image. 1982, Tony, Buddy, Me. If it’s a photo that was developed at any fine establishment such as CVS, Walmart, Eckard’s or any other place like those, then most of the time there will be writing on the back of the image. The only difference is we made memories without saying, Making Memories and sharing all those photos with the world. #I’mreallygladwedidn’thavesocialmediawhenIwasakid. 

These pictures are all memories of the past, of when things were better or maybe worse. They’re memories. Some of those memories are the most beautiful gifts you can have. To be fair, some of those memories are like having bad hair on picture day at school. You want to forget that happened, but the picture is there to taunt you for the rest of your life.

Stories are the same. 

When an author shares their work with you, they are giving you a part of their gift to themselves. They are saying, hey, I want to share my gift with you. I want you to partake in my excitement, in my art … in a piece of me. 

Let’s look at that last part for a minute: hey, I want you to have a piece of me. Our stories are our babies. We’ve been with them from conception (the idea), to birth (the writing), to adulthood (completion). We’ve watched them develop and change, sometimes struggling to raise them (use the right words) and correct them (rewrites and edits). Then we let them go and we hope we’ve done our best. Sometimes, before we let them go out into the world, we hug them a little tighter (go over the story one more time), then we say, ‘Okay, child, it’s time for me to let you go.’

Sometimes, it’s terrifying. 

But we’re also ready for that story to go out into the world, to earn a living. They are our children, and by an author saying, hey, here’s my story, he or she is giving you the gift that is a piece of their hearts, their souls, their lives. And those authors want their stories to be accepted, to be loved, to be read and remembered in a positive light. 

My friend and I are both huge Pearl Jam fans. Back in August of 2019, my friend stood in a pub in Wilmington, Virginia, and belted out Once, By Pearl Jam. He dedicated the song to me. I still have the video on my phone. It was a gift to me, a memory I will always have (#makingmemories). It’s also a memory I cherish because it was so much a part of himself that he offered, not only to me, but to everyone there who witnessed it. 

If you’re an author, writing is a gift to yourself. It is a wonderful, beautiful thing to treasure, to look back on, like an old picture. It’s a gift you get to keep to yourself and you’re not being selfish by doing so. It is something nobody can ever take away from you. But if you choose to share your writing, then you are giving the world a piece of that gift, a piece of you and who you are. 

If you’re a reader, you can give a gift back to your favorite author(s). You can buy their books, you can write reviews and you can let the author know you appreciate the gifts they give you with the words they write.

As always, until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

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The Lyrics’ Tragedies

In 1972 The Statler Brothers came out with a song called Class of 57. I was two at the time. I can honestly say this is the first song I remember hearing as a child, though probably not when I was two. Sure there were probably others. Jesus Loves Me comes to mind, but it and most songs geared toward kids didn’t stick until years later. 

Class of 57 has an innocent sound about it, one that is tragic at the same time. The song is a recounting of the kids who graduated from high school and where they were now that they were grown ups. They sing of the places some of them work: the mill, driving a truck, fixing nails, a grocery store and so on. Innocent enough, right?

After the first chorus things get a little darker. One person was in an insane ward, another one was on wellfare. One of them breaks up a marriage and takes the guy’s wife, and well, the guy left behind commits suicide. At the time I didn’t understand what the song was about. I just know it stuck with me. Growing older and living life is hard. Things don’t always turn out the way we envision them. It’s kind of ominous, you know?

I have come to the conclusion that one of the reasons I like songs with tragic lyrics in them is because of The Statler Brothers’ Class of 57. The one verse I remember, even now, is the one where ‘Freddie took his life.’ The chorus is just as tragic. ‘Living life day to day is never like it seems’ and ‘things get complicated when you get past eighteen.’

I’ve always been drawn to those types of songs. 

One such song that comes to mind is A Day in the Life, by the Beatles. The very distinct sound of this lyric painted a picture in my head: He blew his mind out in a car.  I always pictured a guy in a nice black suit in a nice box-like car sitting at a red light with a gun in his hand. Every time I hear this song, and this lyric in particular, that image comes back to me. Only now it is a little more graphic in nature.

Fast forward to the 1980’s and Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles. Just the title did it for me. Then the accusatory lyrics of ‘What did you tell them?’ solidified my love for the song.

Two years later another song came out that I fell in love with, not because of a tragic event in the lyrics, but because I misheard the lyrics and thought the song was about someone dying. The lyric: ‘A little ditty about Jack and Diane.’ What I heard: ‘A little ditty about Jackie dying.’ I thought a kid named Jackie was dying and at the end when Mellencamp sings about two American kids doing the best the can, I thought Jackie had died and the two kids had not been able to save him. I pictured a teenaged girl sitting on the ground by a tree and Jackie lying beside her, his head in her lap. She stroked his hair as he faded from life. 

The End, by the Doors and Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen have equal standing in songs with tragic lyrics, though the deaths in those songs came across as intentional. 

The Offspring’s The Kids Aren’t Alright has stuck with me since the first time I heard it. The tragedy is though Jenny had a chance (you know she really did), she ended up taking her own life, much like Freddie did in Class of 57, though for different reasons. Both songs are similar in that the singer is looking back on childhood and dreams of a splendid life full of hopeful success. Yet, success didn’t happen for some. 

I could go on for pages and pages about this, but there is one more I want to mention. I’m not particularly an Ed Sheeran fan, but the song Castle on the Hill struck a chord with me the first time I heard the end of it. I almost switched the channel in the car, but when The Boy said he liked the song I left it on. Then the last verse happened and someone’s brother overdosed. I was hooked. 

Morbid, I know.

The thing I find to be common denominators in most of these songs is how life can be cruel. It can be tough. It can be heart wrenching. It can lead us down paths we never thought we would take. Things are complicated. It’s that simple. I related to these songs and many more like them because they speak about life, and they are honest by saying life is not always easy and sometimes it is tragic.

I guess that’s why I write darker stories. Horror is nothing more than a mirror of the real world outside our doors. There is tragedy in every life. I explore those tragedies, with as much tact and care as I can, just as The Statler brothers did in Class of 57. 

Thank you for reading, and as always, until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

When A Story and Song Are Alike, But Different

Have you ever heard a new song and thought, ‘hey, this isn’t half bad.’ At some point in that song things go astray and you shake your head and say ‘that doesn’t really fit with the song.’ It made you stop, right? I bet you even had that confused expression on your face, the creased brows, curled lip, maybe even the sideways tilt of the head.

The first time I heard this song I did just that:

The song starts with the guy practically talk-singing, not really singing at all and then, what? What the heck happened? They actually sang the chorus.

‘Wait a minute,’ I said with my brows creased, lip curled and head slightly tilted. Yes, I was confused. ‘Hey, is this the same song?’

Turns out it was. At the end the dude starts talk-singing again, which totally went with the beginning of the song, but not the middle. What? What?

Here’s the thing: the song kind of grows on you and after you listen to it a couple of times, you realize, ‘hey, maybe this is supposed to be this way after all.’

It’s an epiphany.

Okay, do you have all that?

Stories are the same, well with a little exception.

Have you ever been reading a story and thought, ‘hey, this isn’t half bad.’ I bet you have. Then, at some point during the story, the character does or says something completely out of, well, character. So you stop reading, go back and reread the last few lines and you still can’t figure out what just happened. You go back, read again. And again. And again.

Oh, wait a minute. There it goes. I understand now.

There’s that light bulb moment where you get it and all is well with the universe.

Except, it isn’t.

The similarities between songs and stories that seem to have parts that don’t make sense in them end there.

If a song throws you out the first few times you hear it, it’s okay. It still can grow on you like a really bad skin disease. Not that a skin disease is a good thing, but songs have a chance to redeem themselves by listening to them until you start to like them.

Stories don’t have that benefit. If a person is reading and all of a sudden things come to a grinding halt because something doesn’t make sense or something doesn’t sound right, then there’s a problem. Sure, the reader can read that part again and again until they get it, but the flow of the story has been disrupted. The great feeling of a moving piece has been ruined. Even if a reader gets it on just the second read, it lingers in the back of their minds and they never really forget it.

‘How was that book, Herbie?’

‘Which one?’

‘The one you just finished.’

‘Oh, it was good, but there were a couple of spots that didn’t make sense.’

‘Really?’

‘Don’t get me wrong. The book was good, but there were a couple of times where I had to reread a part to understand it completely.’

That should never happen. As readers, you should never have to stop and reread anything, unless it’s good. If it confuses you, then it’s a problem

As writers, we have to try and make as much sense as possible without spoon-feeding the readers everything. The stories have to unfold and our characters have to be realistic. Scenery and descriptions need to be as realistic as possible—they’re characters as well. There has to be action tempered with character development.

I’m not a big fan of just writing what everyone else writes, or in the conventional style that everyone else writes in. I like to tell stories in an easy style, conversational tone and all. I also experiment with narration and story style. It keeps things from getting boring for me.

In the short story collection I have been putting together over the last few weeks, there are a couple of unconventional pieces; stories told not quite like the others. I like them.

When I am done with this collection, I think I may have to do another one down the road. One that is strictly non conventional in the storytelling. But that’s for later on.

During the selection process, my wife Cate, read every story in consideration. She pointed out things, including parts that made her say, ‘huh?’ It is at those parts where I have fallen down in my storytelling. Thankfully, she’s great at catching things for me. She pulls no punches and has stabbed me through the characters more than once.

Writers please get someone to read over your stories. Someone you trust, and not necessarily someone who is going to tell you, ‘oh that’s great.’ You need someone who is going to tell you there is an issue, someone who will tell you, ‘hey, I got confused here.’ Those are your best friends in this business.

Writing stories is similar to songs, except they have to make some bit of sense in the end and can’t lose you along the way. Readers are less forgiving than all of us who love music. Keep that in mind when writing that complex plotline.

Until we meet again, my friends…

The Truth, Horror and Faith and Their Coexistence

I was going to sit and write about my book, about my thoughts on Along the Splintered Path and where I see my writing going. I may still write about some of that here and I guess part of this will be about my writing. But I would like to start with something else.

I will try to keep this short.

I want to state, quite clearly, with the revelations of last week and the mindset that I have, the way my heart feels deep inside, I will not preach to anyone. It is not who I am. It is not who I wish to be.

I think opportunities present themselves to the willing Christians out there who genuinely want to share their faith. I don’t, however, believe that I can approach anyone (especially folks I don’t know) with one agenda: to witness and witness alone. I think (mind you, I think) that witnessing is an important thing, but I also think there is a time and a place and the right circumstances have to be in place in order to do so.

I want to say something that may offend a few folks and if it does, I’m sorry. This is how I feel. This is how my heart feels. There are far too many Christians out there doing nothing to help better the world. Flip that coin over and look at the other side: There are far too many Christians forcing themselves onto people and running people off from the Lord. Neither of these approaches gets the message out there. Neither passiveness nor aggressiveness works.

The Bible says: By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)

To paraphrase here: They will know us by our love for one another.

A heavy handed approach rarely ever works these days. Compassion and love and gentleness and understanding do. Yes, I said understanding. Our world is such a diverse place to live in and people are so different in many aspects. We shouldn’t try to change them, but accept people for who they are. Trying to change people is a personal agenda. There are no two ways around it. However, Jesus commands us to love one another and it is that love that leads to understanding.

There is a lot of bitterness toward Christians and rightfully so. Too many Christians either do nothing or are too heavy handed in their approach. There has to be a balance and when there is balance there is opportunity. Find that balance and the journey, I believe, will be that much more rewarding for you.

One more thing and I will move onto something else: If you are a Christian, then your actions will speak louder than your words unless your words are spoken with an angry spirit. Just something to chew on.

***

The world is a vampire
–The Smashing Pumpkins
Bullet with Butterfly Wings

Welcome to my nightmare
–Alice Cooper
Welcome To My Nightmare

It’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God, I know I’m one

–The Animals
House of the Rising Sun

I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door and it has been painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facin’ up when your whole world is black.

–The Rolling Stones
Paint it Black

You know the day destroys the night
Night divides the day.
Tried to run
Tried to Hide
Break on through to the other side…

–The Doors
Break on Through

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
Focused on the pain
The only thing that’s real

–Nine Inch Nails
Hurt

Obviously, these are lyrics to songs, all of which I love. I think lyrics are some of the most powerful words written. Regardless of what the song is, someone (and it may only be one person) will get something from it. That makes song lyrics so powerful.

The lyrics above could be considered dark by many. For me, they are beautifully rendered truths that someone felt as they wrote them.

I said that to echo something a friend of mine said recently when trying to figure out the next step in my writing career and whether to continue writing at all. That friend would be Steve Lowe, my sick-o bizarro writer friend.

AJ – I would have to think that everything you have written reflects a period of your life and what you were experiencing, something that you felt compelled to document and seen through the lens you were looking through at that time. I see nothing to be ashamed about with that.

Several others chimed in with their thoughts, all of them uplifting and giving me some reassurance in, not my stories or my abilities, but what I’ve chosen to write.

I’m proud of my work. I’m proud of the stories I’ve managed to get published over the years. I’m especially proud of Along the Splintered Path, my three story e-book collection. They reflect me during a period of my life and that life, as I’ve said before, is an open book for anyone who wishes to know about it.

Admittedly, I’m heading into a new phase of writing, but let me say this: Horror and Faith can coexist. They have since before the serpent first tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit.

I’m a horror writer. That’s the bottom line. I’m a horror writer, and for the last week or so I’ve debated, prayed, and discussed with folks the very idea of writing what I love to write and balancing it with my faith.

I’d like to think my stories are told honestly, that there is truth in the words and actions of the characters. It’s that truth that I enjoy writing about.

It takes a special person to write horror. No, I’m not talking about monsters here. I’m talking about the horrors of the world; the way the world is today. True horror is all about good and evil. Not just good. Not just evil. Both of them and the battle that takes place between them.

There is a lot of redemption in horror stories. The good ones rely on the spiritual warfare going on inside a person’s heart and mind. Good horror reflects on life and the decisions people make. Good horror is truth and it is that truth I wish to continue to bring you. I hope I continue to succeed at that.

Thank you for visiting Type AJ Negative and for reading. There is no greater sadness for a writer than to have no readers.

Until we meet again, my friends…