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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Squeaky Wheels and Squeaky Snow

This week, my family and I are in beautiful Beaver Creek, Colorado. Words can't accurately describe it, so enjoy the photo.

When we stepped out to go to dinner last night, the wind tunneled up the walkway and took our breath away. As we carefully walked out the back door of the place we're staying and headed down the last bit of the mountain toward Beaver Creek Village, we heard the snow squeaking beneath our feet. Normally, you hear the soft squish of snow. If it's deep enough, you silently step into it up to your knees. But last night, it was so cold that the top layer of snow froze. So as we traversed it, it squeaked.

Of course I couldn't simply overlook this phenomenon without finding out why snow sometimes squeaks. What I learned is that squeaking depends on pressure and temperature. Normally, our body weight presses on the snow and causes it to melt underneath our feet. The snow crystals slide quietly by each other. But when it's colder outside, the pressure applied by our footstep isn't enough to cause the snow to melt. Instead, the snow crystals break and crash into each other. They squeak.

In the ever-changing publishing industry, the spots available to new writers at a traditional publishing house grow smaller. The climate is colder than ever before. With the number of printed books purchased shrinking as the number of ebooks purchased grows, publishers are understandably more conservative about putting two years and lots of money behind an unknown. Resources are scarce. They won't risk what a publishing contract requires in the hopes that the reader stepping through the snow of available books will create a crevasse that leaves an imprint showcasing many. In the current climate, the snow doesn't melt when the reader steps into the field of available books, opening up many options the reader will consider. Instead, the reader's exploration of available printed books isn't pressure enough to open up the field. Instead, there is merely a squeak and only the ones at the very top are seen.

Unless the interest in printed books warms up again, unknown but talented authors will lay under the ice never to be seen in print because of the squeak created by the already known, lucrative authors sitting on top of the pile. Yes, we love our e-readers, but let's not forget the smell of ink. The crack of the spine the first time you open a book. The feel of the paper on your fingers. The sight of a book at the side of your bed, begging you to open it. The soft squish of powder snow.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Star Wars, Riding Bikes, and the Magic of Focus

My son loves Star Wars. So on Saturday, I took him to see "Episode I: The Phantom Menace" in 3D. Only seven-years-old, he babbled through the first ten minutes, despite my constant shushing, because of his excitement. As we sat there, it struck me that the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977--when I was just seven years old. George Lucas is a genius to create a franchise that lives on in a new generation. And it isn't just the movies. My son has the light sabers. He's been a Star Wars figure for Halloween. And we own two of the three movies in the recent prequel. Cha-ching, George.

I watched the movie with my son and found myself cheering for little Anakin in his pod racer. Of course, most of the movie depends on special effects over the quality of the dialogue. The freaky alien creatures, the space ships, the strange planets, and the Jedi's ability to harness "The Force" and move things. But as I sat there, a line from the movie struck me as oddly profound. Obi Wan's Mentor utters: "Your focus becomes your reality." Yes, Master Qui-Gon Jinn, it does.

Lately, I've found myself bumping along the rutted road of everyday life just going through the motions. Tending to my responsibilities, but in a passionless fog. I've focused on the monotony of each day rather than its beauty and the potential it possesses. Losing my focus on the opportunities around me and the incredible spirits inside the people I've surrounded myself with has left me cranky, unmotivated, and pretty crappy company.

As writers, we all go through lulls in our confidence. The struggle to get published seems to often be a sisyphean task. I build up the confidence and energy to send out query letters. I blog into the ethereal thing called the internet in the hopes of sharing my words. I read, read, and read more about the industry. Even since I began the quest of having "The Beauty of Grace" published, the industry has changed immensely. While before I knew the formula: query, query, and keep querying. Persistence will pay off. Now, e-readers have opened up a chasm that not only provides an alternative to traditional publishing, but also increases the number of authors out there. I see this as both a good and a bad thing. Such competition forces writers to polish their work until they can see their reflection, but it also can push good writing to the bottom of the fish net because the author sucks at self-promotion and marketing.

But today I decided to heed the words of Master Qui-Gon Jinn and shift my focus not from the size of the mountain before me, but to its peak. To focus on my goal rather than the struggle to reach it. To look up and keep climbing. Or, to the heed the words of another great man (my Daddy) that were uttered thirty years ago: "Baby, wherever you look, the bike's gonna go. Don't look down. Look to where you're headed."

Saturday, February 11, 2012

We Are More Than We Know

In finishing "Looking for Alaska" by John Green, I came across another epiphanous quote: "We are more than the sum of our parts." It reminded me of the lyrics in one of my favorite songs: "You are more than the sum of your past mistakes. You are more than the problems you create. You are more than the choices that you make." We are complex creatures. We have physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects that define us, influence our decisions, and create the indelible mark we each leave. No one leaves this world without making a difference. Some make great positive differences: Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Einstein, Jesus. Some make great differences that scar our world: Adolph Hitler, Josef Mengele, Pol Pot. Some make small, but lasting, differences. We all leave a mark. Even the homeless man who shuffles through the drive through at our Starbucks each day for the free coffee they give him has a past. A story. Whether good or bad, his life left some mark.

Many aspects of our lives are within our control: what we go to college for, who we marry, where we live, the job we take. Some aren't: where we were born, who we were born to, illness, death. We can't choose to be born in Prattville, Alabama or Sierra Leone. We can't choose if we're born with mental illness, a birth defect, or something else that puts us a little behind the starting blocks. We can't choose if we're born into wealth, with gifted intelligence, beautiful, or with a musical talent. These aren't our choices. What we do with these things--with whatever we've been blessed with in life--is our choice. And our mandate.

Just as importantly, we must remember that we are more than the sum of these things. Our lives aren't defined by social status + education + talents and gifts. Instead, our lives are defined by something indefinable. The passion and drive inside of us that propels us to succeed, to give, to share, to love. To be more than the sum of our parts.

A truly good book isn't good because the plot is propelling, the characters are engaging, and the dialogue is realistic. A remarkable book doesn't leave its mark because the grammar was impeccable, the story arch clear, or the chapters consistent and relevant. The book that you read more than once. That you pass along to friends. That you talk about long after you read it. That you blog about. A great book transcends what appears in its pages. Reaches you beyond its words and characters. Touches you in a place you didn't know about or had forgotten about and brings you enlightenment in some way. I can only hope my writing comes close to this.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Is the Chase Worth the Pain?

After finishing the fabulous "The Fault in our Stars" by John Green, I tackled another of his Young Adult novels, "Looking for Alaska." I admire his ability to intertwine deep philosophical ideas into his work by simply using a phrase, a snippet of dialogue, or a quote. There is no agenda. No proselytizing. No abuse of his platform. Instead, the little bits add depth to both his characters and the story, in addition to making you stop and think.

While reading "Alaska," I read this quote: "The Buddha said that suffering was caused by desire...and that the cessation of desire meant the cessation of suffering." Obviously he's referring to self-imposed suffering, and not that which occurs due to circumstance, natural disaster, or illness. There is no escape from that type of suffering. I believe he's referring to the type of suffering we often impose on ourselves. It can be financial suffering that didn't result from the loss of a job, but from consumption beyond our means. Bigger homes, nicer cars, expensive clothes. Wii's, Kindles, iPods, iPhones...the list is long.

We experience other types of self-imposed suffering, rooted mainly in our desire for love and acceptance. My father and I suffer as a result of our desire to have a relationship with my mom. Her disease has robbed us of her words, her smile, her wisdom, and her mean, Southern home-cooking. When we're with her, our hearts ache because we want her with us. Not even death will dissolve the suffering because we'll continue to miss her. Of course, this suffering was imposed by her illness, but only in the absence of a desire for a relationship with her would we find freedom from that pain.

Others suffer from broken relationships, broken dreams, and broken checking accounts. Freedom from that suffering could only be found in letting go of that love, that friend, that aspiration. Letting go to simply sit in a place of empty contentment. But is this living? We sometimes need to let go of certain desires. But the ones that cause the greatest (again, self-imposed) suffering stem from relationship and the pursuit of a dream. If we let go of those things, our suffering might ease. But so will our quality of life. We should seek to mend broken relationships and continue to pursue a better future for ourselves and our children. Happiness and pain are two sides of the same coin. We can't know happiness without knowing sadness. And we can't appreciate the light without having been in the dark.

So I will continue in my desire to have "The Beauty of Grace" published, either traditionally or as an ebook, despite the frustration that inevitably accompanies this pursuit. Because the desire exceeds that frustration. The Pain is worth the Gain.

I will also never stop missing my mom. Even though it splits my heart in two.