On Writing Well – The “Show, Don’t Tell” Rule

 

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The “show, don’t tell” rule is the very heart of good writing. It’s difficult to avoid, especially when writing a memoir or some other type of nonfiction. But rather than saying a character is unselfish, show them doing something unselfish. If the story is told well, the reader will figure out that the character is unselfish without having to be told he/she is. Readers want to do some of the work. They don’t want to be told what to think, they want to think for themselves and make their own discoveries.  

The same is true of settings. Instead of simply writing “the diner was filthy”, a good writer will write something like, “I walked into the diner and was immediately assaulted by the stench of old meat. A hostess approached me who was too old to still be working, forced a smile that unintentionally revealed unfathomable world weariness, and led me sullenly to a formica table with chipped edges. As I sat and slid into my seat, a rat scurried over my foot. I looked under the table just in time to see its tail disappear into a ragged-edged hole in the ancient drywall.”

One might argue that writing “the diner was filthy” is just fine because it says it all, it’s brief, and the reader can just fill in the rest with his/her imagination. The problem is it’s boring. It’s also lazy. It doesn’t engage the readers’ senses or put them in the room. It doesn’t inspire the imagination or pull them into the story.

Besides, it’s a heck of a lot more fun to paint a vivid picture and transport yourself and the reader to another world; a world they can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. 

But here’s the catch – always leave more for the reader to discover for themselves. Don’t spell everything out too much. As Stephen King said, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

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The Depth of Our Loneliness (poem)

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I found this old poem by accident yesterday, excavated from a tattered, 25-year old notebook, written during my single days. I’m happily-married now with two girls (4 and 7) so though the poem is sad, there was a happy ending to the story. My heart is full every day. I shudder to think where I would be if I had remained that Steppenwolf out there in the cold, circling the campfire.

 

I was twenty-one years old
alone in an all-night diner
after another bad date
with a woman who couldn’t love me
no matter how much I gave
or how hard I tried.

Looking back, I know now
that I was asking the impossible.
We can never be more than we are
no matter how badly
someone else wants us to be.

There are a billion and one moments
that make us who we are.
Who could ever sort them out,
let alone rearrange them?

She was older than me
and had been hurt before
She was broken
and I could not fix her.
She had folded in on herself
and I could not unfold her
but I wanted her so desperately,
I couldn’t stop trying.
I saw a paradise
that she couldn’t see.

So I kept returning,
like a colt to a trough
too cracked and beaten to hold water.

After enough nights like that one
and a very bad ending;
after the storm had cleared
and the debris was swept away,
I returned to myself
and it finally dawned on me
how uncomplicated love really is.

We know when someone really cares.
We even know if someone can’t love at all.
It’s built in.
But the heart and mind
have never been much for communication
and the depth of our loneliness
can be measured
by how much we make it not matter.

I understand her now.
Time has humbled me.
The world has destroyed my delusions.
I am more mature, safer.

But now, I am afraid
that I will never love as hard
as that kid
who sat alone in an all-night diner
tasting a new kind of pain
deeper than he’d ever known.

Now, the world has broken me, too.

Royal Blood / Innocent Blood

I’m usually not interested in the royal family because of a combination of:

A) Having watched Braveheart too many times and seeing what they got up to in the past. (Mahatma Gandhi once said, “If two fish are fighting at the bottom of the ocean, the English probably had something to do with it.”) 

B) My disdain for inheritance, and being given vast wealth for nothing more than being born. This irks people like me who have had to struggle for every penny.

C) My parents are Irish Protestants from Belfast, Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. They had photos of the royals around the house for years. I never understood that since Ireland, like Scotland, was not occupied nicely, either. I even asked them one day, “It’s one thing to not want to declare war on England or bomb civilians like the Irish Republican Army did, but do you need to like the royal family so much? Doesn’t occupation demand resistance of some kind?” My father was a very erudite man so I expected an intellectual answer, but he and my mom actually didn’t know why they accepted and even celebrated the royals. “We just do” was their answer. It was very unsatisfying. 

But today, for the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed the royals, too. I watched the royal wedding, but doubt if I would have if not for the following headlines in my home, America.

Ten High School Students Killed in School Shooting in Santa Fe, Texas.

(That last one was enough, of course, but there were also the following bizarre occurrences in the land of the free and the home of the brave.)

Woman Jumps Off Building with Seven Year Old Son in New York.

Man Punches Pregnant Woman and Her Service Dog on Flight.

Shunned Jehovah’s Witness Mom Kills Her Entire Family

Father Leaves 18-Month Old Daughter in 120 Degree Car. (A daily occurrence in America.)

There was another shooting yesterday at another high school somewhere in America but only one precious, irreplaceable child’s life was taken so it didn’t get much attention.

There were also the usual daily robberies, beatings, car chases and murder-suicides in Los Angeles, where I live.

Don’t get me wrong – every news day is bad in America, but yesterday was particularly awful, and it just happened to coincide with the royal wedding. I expected to see a headline that read, “England Celebrates the Royal Wedding! Meanwhile, in America, There Were Two More High School Shootings.”

Growing up in America, I never once imagined that my country would become so hopelessly lost. I maintain the stubborn belief that the vast majority of Americans are getting along great and the screwed up one percent just gets all the attention, but that one percent sure can do a lot of damage to morale. 

Then again, when I hear “music” thumping from car speakers and even in restaurants and bars with vile, psychologically and spiritually toxic lyrics (rap and death metal leading the way), and think of how these “artists” get rich preying on lost children and making them even more lost, I wonder if it’s only one percent of America that’s totally screwed up. (To heck with Joe DiMaggio. Where did you go, Simon and Garfunkel? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.)

So yesterday, in desperation to remove the headline images from my mind, for the first time in my life, I celebrated with the royal family.

I needed to see a wedding. I needed all the things weddings make me feel along with the betrothed – love, hope, faith, courage.

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I needed to see the cool, clean air over Windsor Castle.

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I needed to hear a choir sing a beautiful, hopeful song.

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I needed to see the stained glass windows of St. George’s Cathedral.

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I even needed to smile at the silly, whimsical hats the ladies wore.

I needed to see a house of God.

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I needed to escape, but since I couldn’t buy a plain ticket and flee in terror to someplace that happens to be more sane at this point in history, I turned on the TV. 

When the darkness in my soul had been brushed away a little, I looked at my two young daughters and Googled “home schooling.”

 

 

 

People Every Writer (and songwriter, singer and musician) Should Know – Mac Davis

People often say, “When you live in Los Angeles, you never know who you’ll bump into.” Well, I found that out quite literally (and the hard way) one day when I bumped – okay, crashed – into country singer and movie star Mac Davis.

For those of you too young or just unfortunate enough to not know who he is, this is him in his prime –

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I used to watch The Mac Davis Show when I was a kid and was amazed and entranced by his many talents. He was a natural performer. Pure charm. The segment of his show I enjoyed the most was called “Audience Improvisations” when people would give him random song titles and he would write the song to go with it right on the spot. It was incredible to me and one of the things that made me want to be a writer. Here’s an example. Mac’s a bit older now but as sharp and talented as ever. You’ll see my favorite song title improv in this clip. It goes like this –

My girlfriend burned her bra today.
It really was a shame.
Cuz she ain’t exactly Dolly Parton.
That sucker hardly made a flame.

I was driving down Sepulveda Boulevard one day and had just crossed Wilshire going into Westwood when there was suddenly a stopped car in front of me. I went right under it and scooped it up onto my hood. I would find out later that the woman in front of Mac realized she had missed her on-ramp to the 405 freeway and slammed on her brakes. He was able to avoid rear-ending her but because I was glancing left and right in the intersection, I saw Mac’s rear bumper too late. Mac got out – actually, climbed down out of his car – and he was not happy. Because he was one of my heroes, I recognized him immediately. I apologized. He immediately relaxed and said in his Lubbock Texas accent, “It’s okay, kid. It wasn’t your fault.”

As we waited for the police to arrive, he told me a story about how he crashed a Cadillac (I think) he called his “In The Ghetto Car” because he bought it with the money he received after Elvis Presley recorded the song he wrote by the same name. Mac wrote a ton of hits in addition to that one – Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me, It’s Hard To Be Humble, Texas in My Rear-View Mirror, I Believe in Music, etc. He told me he was going to star in a Disney Christmas special at Disneyland the next day and said, “I’ll wave to you.” A pretty damn cool thing to say to someone who just wrecked his rear bumper. 

I tell this story for many reasons – to show that not all celebrities are jerks, particularly those as seasoned as Mac, and those who grew up in Texas, not L.A. Mac is old school not just in terms of writing songs that actually make sense, have a clear beat, and are impossible not to like, but in terms of intelligence, class and charm, too. I was nobody to him. He didn’t say, “Hey, you’re that guy who wrote twenty stories for Chicken Soup for the Soul, aren’t you?” Nobody recognizes writers. He could have easily been unfriendly to me but he wasn’t. In fact, quite the opposite. He smiled and waved at me from Disneyland. Mac Davis is country, in every sense of the word.

So if you ever read this, Mac, thank you for your kindness, especially to someone who messed up your car. It’s easy to be nice when everything is going right, but one’s true character is revealed when things go wrong. You certainly passed that test. I hope to bump into you again someday – when we’re not driving.

You’re the One That I Want. Wait a Minute . . . Who Are You?

I love the movie Grease for the nostalgia and catchy tunes but it contains possibly the worst message for young girls ever.

Sandy is doing so well with Danny that he ditches his leather jacket for a letterman sweater to impress her. His friends give him a hard time about it but he says, “Come on, guys. You know you mean a lot to me. It’s just that Sandy does, too, and I’m gonna do anything I can to get her, that’s all.”

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But despite both of them being hopelessly devoted to each other, Sandy decides to shed her Sandra Dee sweetness, start smoking and transform herself from the wholesome girl next door to a hussy anyway.

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I suppose the writer pondered whether he should have them break up and then have Sandy alter her basic nature out of her desperation to win him back, but realized that would make her appear pathetic. Why then? I never did get it. The message to girls is, “Wholesome and innocent are stupid. You’ve got to become a slut to really get the boy of your dreams!”

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To top it off, the entire high school dances around to celebrate her transformation. The happy energy is enough to make just about everyone completely miss all the destructive psychological programming.

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But maybe there was a deeper meaning to this in the mind of the writer, such as the loss of innocence America experienced shortly after the 1950’s? The shedding of the restrictive social mores of that era that shocked all their stodgy, old parents so much in the following decade. i.e., free love, the sexual revolution, drugs for “mind expansion”, etc.

Or maybe the writer was saying loss of innocence is inevitable so we might as well embrace it.

Or maybe I’m just overthinking it and this was just a cool song and a cheap gimmick to give Sandy a character arc.

There’s no point denying sexuality, either, as many of the movies from the 1950’s did due both to censorship and to the fact that America and art was simply more innocent then. For instance, in bedroom scenes, both actors had to have at least one foot on the floor. Open sexuality was so frowned upon, in fact, that Jayne Mansfield’s career was ruined when she exposed her breasts in a bathtub scene in her increasing desperation to dethrone Marilyn Monroe as America’s #1 screen siren.

Censorship finally ended and the pendulum swung back the other way. It’s still swinging and will never swing back, just as surely as innocence, once lost, can never be fully restored. We can only taste it in flashes, like the aroma of something sweet carried on the wind from far away, and savor it for a moment before it evaporates again, always too soon.

Sex is part of life, of course, especially for teenagers wrestling with the mystery of love and the questions of self-worth and desirability that accompany it. But I’m always surprised when I see a local library or mall hosting an outdoor screening of Grease. Overthinking has got to be superior to not thinking at all.

 

 

Coincidence: God’s Sense of Humor?

Okay, this is too weird not to share. 

My eldest daughter has reached that age where her teeth are falling out.

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Her first lower incisor came out and she took it to school to show to some friends. This is big news in the first grade world, as is how much dough they took the Tooth Fairy for. Of course, there is no agreed-upon amount between parents so some kids end up feeling like their teeth are more valuable than other kids’ teeth. 

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Anyway, she was having a little picnic on the front lawn of the school with some friends when she realized she had dropped her tooth. Tragedy strikes! She started crying because she was really depending on that Tooth Fairy moolah. About a dozen parents and even more kids started looking for it. After five minutes or so, the father of one of her friends found it so there was a happy ending. I told him I didn’t know how to thank him, he really saved my little girl from a lot of heartache, blah yada etcetera.

A few days later, he told me his daughter had lost the exact same tooth. My daughter and his daughter and all their friends were doing their usual picnic on the lawn when she lost her tooth somewhere on the lawn, too! Everyone started looking for it and I found it, in exactly the same spot where my daughter had lost her tooth several days before! So I got a chance to repay her dad, after all, and in exactly the same way. Talk about a tooth for a tooth!

There are hundreds of kids at the school, the front lawn is vast, and over a dozen people searched both times. What are the chances? I can’t help thinking coincidence is one of the ways God entertains Himself, that old prankster. He probably told the Tooth Fairy all about it. 

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Loving and Killing

Sunday is a day of contrast for me. I go to church in the morning and hear sermons about how to love, then I meet friends in a park and study Krav Maga and learn how to kill bad people.

In case you’ve never heard of it, here’s a good demo video of Krav Maga (WARNING: some violent scenes) – 

As much as I love the philosophical aspects of martial arts, I hate that its still necessary to know how to fight in this world. When I was a kid watching sci-fi movies, the future was always depicted as a time when people communicated telepathically, wore white robes, and swore off violence decades earlier after an apocalypse had finally happened and taught them all (too late) the folly of hatred and aggression. These survivors were usually disfigured somehow. So the message was clear – spiritual advancement comes at a terrible cost.

And isn’t that true? Don’t we learn most quickly and deeply when things are worst? Some would argue that pain and the avoidance of further pain is the only thing that ever changes anyone. It is rare for one to learn anything once and for all, or to learn from someone else’s experience.

I’ve studied boxing, Dutch kickboxing, Okinawan karate and wrestling, but my black belt is in Northern Shaolin Kung Fu. My latest love is Krav Maga, the Israeli army combat system, which I’ve been studying for about four years now. The two styles are very different. Kung Fu is soft. Krav Maga is hard. Kung Fu is pretty. Krav Maga is practical and direct, not dynamic enough for movies and tournament kata demonstrations. There are hundreds of techniques in kung fu, most of which are based on the movements and fighting styles of animals. Krav Maga tries to limit the number of movements so there’s less to remember, and those movements are based on natural, instinctive reactions.

I chose this style because it’s considered one of the most deadly modern martial arts, because I’m getting older and my daughters are, too, (and prettier), and because I’m alarmed every day by the craziness in the news. Things don’t seem to be getting better. Every day a new collection of horrors assails all us normal people who have never had a problem not assaulting, molesting, raping, or killing anyone, and to whom such things are inconceivable. 

And that is the reason martial arts are still necessary. Most people wake up and do their best to be happy and kind to others, thinking about their goals and how to achieve them. Others, thankfully the extreme few, but the ones who get all the attention on the news, wake up and immediately start planning who they’re going to rob, rape or kill that day, where they’re going to sell their drugs, what area they’re going to search for houses to burglarize, what schoolyard they’re going to hang around hoping to catch a parent not watching his/her child. Evil has always existed and it still does. It even appears to be growing. The reasons are many and a subject for another blog or series of them.

So I’ll keep training to protect those nearest and dearest to me, and even a stranger if I see someone being victimized, even as I wish it weren’t necessary. I’ve never been the type to look the other way, to my wife’s dismay. I’m proud of that. When someone who is victimized in broad daylight is interviewed, they often say what made the assault worse was all the people who looked the other way, who walked by as if they didn’t hear her/him screaming. Most people are just too terrified to help. Some have a good excuse – being small physically, being unarmed/untrained, age, etc., but too often they’re just selfish, concerned only about their own skin. So evil wins again.

The battle between good and evil has always been and always will be. I know what side I’m on. Jesus said to turn the other cheek, but we only have two. And as the saying goes, evil flourishes when good men do nothing. So I’ll love people, even those with evil in their hearts, and do my best to steer them away from evil before they do anything wrong. But if they act on their evil impulses, or if they already have and are unrepentant, and I have a chance to punish them, the full weight of my thirty years of training in how to break bones and cut off their air supply will crash down around them. Our forefathers didn’t create this beautiful country at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives so that their sons and grandsons could just hand it over to the trash of the world.

On the back of the U.S. dollar, there’s an eagle with a quiver of arrows in one talon and laurel leaves in the other. The leaves are a symbol of peace, which the U.S. always tries first. But the arrows are there just in case the leaves are rejected. All men’s arms should be equally able to embrace or destroy. All men’s minds should hope for the best but prepare for the worst. And all men should possess weapons that can be laid down or picked up, depending on whether an angel or devil crosses their path.

For instance, many years ago, I was driving past my local mall when I saw a woman with a very worried expression walking along a sidewalk and a man walking equally fast about twenty feet behind her. I passed by at first, then trusted my instinct that something wasn’t right and turned around. I followed them for a few blocks and he turned every time she did. I finally pulled into a driveway behind her, blocking his path, and asked if he was following her. With a horrified expression, she said, “Yes, he started following me in the mall and won’t go away!” I got out of the car and stopped him, asked him what he was doing, etc. He tried to go around me so I stopped him again. He got mad and took a big, primitive swing at me. I spun him around and put him into a chokehold until he passed out. That’s when the woman’s husband came flying out of her house, which was only a few more doors down, thanked me and finished him off. He was still beating him senseless when I drove away. The woman waved and said thank you as I passed her. That is a much happier ending to me than the alternative – the woman getting punched unconscious and raped in an alley or some bushes.

I want to be everyone’s friend and love everyone. Unfortunately, not everyone else feels that way. So I train so I can be who I am (happy, loving, friendly) with the knowledge that I can be very dangerous if I need to be, and only if I need to be, after all other options are exhausted, only when cornered or unable to ignore an evil act. As Imi Lichtenfeld, the founder of Krav Maga, said, we train “so that we may walk in peace” – the same reason I go to church.  

When I get to heaven, I hope Jesus pats me on the back and says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” – for loving people, and protecting them.