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The Endless Phase

There are 12 commonly accepted phases (or stages) of life, and they’re laid out something like this:

1.Prebirth:  Potential
2.Birth:  Hope
3.Infancy (Ages 0-3) Vitality
4.Early Childhood (Ages 3-6):  Playfulness
5.Middle Childhood (Ages 6-8):  Imagination  
6.Late Childhood (Ages 9-11):  Ingenuity
7.Adolescence (Ages 12-20):  Passion
8.Early Adulthood (Ages 20-35):  Enterprise   
9.Midlife (Ages 35-50):  Contemplation
10.Mature Adulthood (Ages 50-80): Benevolence
11.Late Adulthood (Age 80+):  Wisdom
12.Death & Dying:  Life

Intellectually I understand what that list is trying to tell me…that a phase represents a distinct stage of development, or a temporary pattern of behavior that follows a natural progression…but emotionally I tend to believe otherwise.  I can’t help but flashback to my youth where I’d frequently overhear my parents discussing how my infatuation with comic books, or action figures, or wanting to be a forest ranger (that was in college) was just a passing phase.  How many times have you heard something similar?  How many times have you said something similar?  You tell me…at what point does a fixation – a passion – normally manifested during a particular phase of the developmental process…become more than that?

Take my brother (older by one year) for example. He goes through phases like I go through clean underwear.  One month his phase is souping up old cars, the next its scuba diving, the next its dirt bikes, the next its gun collecting.  And when he goes through a phase, HE GOES THROUGH A PHASE, meaning that he becomes totally wrapped up in it and commits all of his time (and a lot of his money). But when he moves on to his next compulsion, he loses interest in the previous (which means they’ll be a flurry of activity on Ebay soon).

Seeing this behavior in my brother I’ve been asked by family members – and frankly I’ve poised the same question to myself – if my writing (and all that entails) was just a phase?  I bet a few of you have even asked the same question of yourself.  For my part, I’m going to do my best to answer that question here today.   

The seed that led to my infatuation with the written word and the roots that subsequently spouted from it were planted in junior high, blossomed with school newspaper in high school, and continued spreading as I moved into college majoring in Journalism. But this passion went dormant shortly thereafter, with only an occasional flash of life, as I was forced to confront the realities of GPA’s, school loans, early morning alarms and cold dinners, heart-stopping love, dirty diapers, mortgages, coaching clinics, scholarship applications and everything else that tend to induce follicle disembarkation and enlarged prostrates. It wasn’t until two of my three children had flown the coop that I found myself with spare time I was unaccustomed to. All it took was a sprinkle of attention and the warmth of my interest to rekindle a decades old love. That was almost eight years ago, and the funny thing is…I feel like I’m just now hitting my stride.

Is this a phase?  Though I may stop writing for a while…which I’ve done several times…that doesn’t mean I’ve moved on or that anything has ended.  This may be a phase…but if it is, it’s an endless one…with multiple levels to mark my continued development. I consider myself a work in progress, and that means the definition of ME is open-ended, but a piece that will always be part of that answer will be…writer.


My post last week was actually a re-post, and truth be told, it was a re-re-post.  I originally wrote that piece in April of 2010, and then I used it again for one of my Déjà vu Blogfest entries, and the third time was last week.  I’m not sure why it bothers me when I do that because most of my current readers weren’t following me back then, so the piece is actually new to them, but it feels a bit like cheating anyway. So today I resolved myself to making sure I wrote something original…and guess where that leads me for a topic.  Talk about putting pressure on myself.  How can I write something original…about being original?

Originality is... a by-product of sincerity. ~Marianne Moore

It’s a common notion – original ideas are a thing of the past – everything we see now are simply masterfully conceived derivatives of a unique (at the time) concept. Fine. Let’s deal with that head-on.  Who cares? I have one word for you – Vampires.  Here’s another – Zombies.  Shall I go on?  Lost love.  Unfulfilled prophecies.  Revenge.  These are all stories that revolve around the same idea…but handled very differently…and more importantly…successfully.

I may not be different, but I'm definitely not the same. ~William J. Dybus

I’m a 5’9” tall Caucasian with hazel eyes, a shaven head and a pudgy nose.  How many guys (and maybe a few women) do you think there are in this world who look like me? I’m also right-handed, have a gap in my two front teeth and a lazy eye when I’m tired.  That probably narrows it down some more, but the truth is there are still thousands of guys who look just like me – but you know what, I’m still unique. My education, life experiences, and moral values help others to put me in categories with people who are similar, but still -- I’m unique.  Why? Because what sets me apart from the 7.2 billion others…is my mind…and the way I express what’s in it.

 It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation. ~Herman Melville

As a writer I see aspects of my work that bear a resemblance to other authors, especially those I’ve read and admire.  Does that mean I’m imitating them?  Was Hank Aaron imitating Babe Ruth when he broke the all-time home run hitting record? They both used a bat…and swung at a ball to try and send it off as far as they could. Was that imitation? Heck no. In the writing world an author’s distinctive voice typically comes from a myriad of influences that have pooled over time into personalized expression.  Sure some elements may stand out more than others, but it’s still as unique as a fingerprint.

The fastest way to succeed is to look as if you're playing by other people's rules, while quietly playing by your own. ~Michael Korda

Ever heard of a game called Telephone (or Chinese whispers)? It’s a game played around the world, in which one person whispers a message to another, which is passed through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group. Teachers and instructors use the game to demonstrate how errors typically accumulate in the retellings, so the statement announced by the last player differs significantly, and often amusingly, from the one uttered by the first. What are usually emphasized by these exercises are the reasons for the breakdown like anxiousness or impatience, leading to erroneous corrections. But what about the other reason, the one that’s overlooked?  Some players deliberately alter what is being said because they are reinterpreting the information and passing it along in their own unique fashion. Are they to blame because the message came out of the chain different then it started…or should they be celebrated?

In a society that rewards originality…but depends on conformity…isn’t it nice to know that we can do both? :)

Black Ice

I’m in Chicago again this week, me and the temperatures that can’t seem to find double digits. Something that I’ve heard a lot of on the news and from co-workers who have firsthand experience, is Black Ice. It made me think of one of my older post that is still relevant today (and will always be that way) that bears the same name, so I thought I'd post it for you today.  Hope you enjoy it.


Anyone from a predominantly cold climate is intimately familiar with the term Black Ice.  For those of you lucky enough to claim ignorance, it refers to a type of hazardous road condition that occurs when ice with few air bubbles cover the throughways, making it virtually transparent.  Many an accident has been caused by drivers cruising along until they hit a patch of the slick coating and find themselves suddenly fighting to maintain control of their vehicle.


What you may not be aware of, we as writers have our own sort of Black Ice to guard against.  Moreover, this is a peril of our own making.   


There’s your reader, traveling down the road you’ve paved for him with your eloquent prose, losing themselves within the world you’ve created, when suddenly it happens.  Their attention wavers and they lose traction.  They begin to do something universally feared by writers of all content, they begin to skim.  Forced to jump ahead, searching for stable footing, an attempt to re-connect with the story line that had become abruptly burdensome.  Why? What happened?  The author failed to detect the Black Ice he unknowingly allowed to creep into his work.  It’s the material that bogs down exposition by including too much descriptive detail, mundane character interactions, or a plot contrivance that over-stretches the limits of believability.  It could even be the result of sagging momentum (see The Scooter Method). Consequently, the reader becomes distracted, or even worse, annoyed because they find themselves slipping through paragraphs or even whole pages.  Whatever the reason, the reader goes on the alert and the author’s reputation has taken a hit.


So how can we as writers prevent Black Ice from sabotaging our own work?  By its very definition, it’s extremely hard to detect by ourselves.  We re-read our stuff so many times its hard not to skim.  This is an area where our beta readers and critique groups are so crucial.  Consider them the salt or sand preventing the ice from taking hold in the final draft.  Used properly they can highlight sections where they feel themselves being taken out of the flow of the story, especially useful for first time authors. 


To be fair, skimming is just as much about the make-up of the reader as it is the intent of the writer.   That is why we have to work twice as hard to make sure we don’t give them any reason to slip.  Glue them to the page.  Clear away anything where ice can form.  Some of our most prolific authors would do well to remember this particular hazard.  It is our responsibility and shouldn’t be shirked in the name of we can’t please everyone. 


Let’s face it, no matter how hard we try and the measures we employ, some amount of Black Ice will probably sneak in anyway.  The occasional slip and slide can be forgiven.  But continually turning a blind eye to the problem will eventually impact readership, and status.


What about you?  Do you have a method for spotting Black Ice?  Care to share?   



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