Of Heroes and Ordinary Men

As of late, I’ve been reading a book called Ordinary Men. It’s a recount of German police battalion 101; a documentation of the men who served as part of Nazi Germany’s Order Police during the Second World War. The policemen, as cataloged by author Christopher Browning, are given an assignment on the morning of July 13, 1942 that would change their lives forever. And subsequently, the lives of every Jewish man, woman, and child living in the ghetto of Jozefow. Though only police officers, the battalion is handed down orders to “liquidate” the entire ghetto and thus, murder every single Jewish person – amounting somewhere in the thousands – that resided within. As you might suspect, the orders are carried out in full. But, not without consequence. In the days and years that follow, the members of Battalion 101 experience extreme regret, bitterness, and entanglement of their very souls. It’s a chilling read and a grim reminder of how quickly things can devolve into madness.

What’s more, the book chronicles how so many of these average police officers were given a choice: to carry out their orders or to simply “walk out.” The majority of them did not choose the latter. And though some did outright, a vast majority of officers participated. The details of which I will leave for those who wish to read the book themselves.

As a writer of fiction, I am in the business of creating stories. Stories that not only tickle the imagination, but project images and ideals of I would constitute as heroic. For without heroism, few protagonists are memorable.

And yet, when it comes to real life, the heroes we find in story are remarkably absent. Bullies surround a kid at school and no one intervenes. An employee knowingly removes money from the company bank account and those in the know turn a blind eye. If confronted with these situations ourselves, we’d all like to believe we’d rise to the occasion. That we’d mirror the heroes of our favorite fantasy or fiction and become the star of our circumstances. However, as I’m reading through Ordinary Men, it’s easy to see that we aren’t always as virtuous as we tend to think, nor are we as brave as we’d choose to believe. External forces – coupled by our own internal ones – drive us to self-preserve, to retain self-interest, and forego the sacrifice that might be necessary to simply do what is good and just.

But, what is good and just? Writers have been tackling what is right and what is wrong since the beginning of time. And the more specific and morally gripping the scenario, the cloudier our answer tends to become. Yet by continually engaging in stories that challenge our thinking on these matters, we continue to cultivate the best parts of ourselves: the traits most associated with what is admirable and what is desirable. And that’s worth writing about.

For more on that topic, check out my latest podcast We All Wish We Could Be The Hero.

Good. Evil. What’s The Difference To A Writer?

Good versus evil. It’s a common tale; one that’s recreated and retold over and over again: Luke vs. Vader. Aragorn vs. Sauron. Harry Potter vs. Voldemort, to name a few. As a youth, I was exposed – like so many others – to this age-old battle. Bedtime stories portrayed what it meant to be “good” and by contrast, what it meant to be “bad.”

Often, readers differentiate good from evil because the authors make it known to them. The most common form is the monomyth, as coined by writers like Joseph Campbell. It’s the idea that a hero – the protagonist – embarks on a journey, sparked by a call to action, to upend some injustice that has been done to him or others. The climax of the journey is a showdown between protagonist and antagonist; with the antagonist representing the opposite objective of the protagonist. And in most cases, it’s the villain whom the hero must upend.

Yet, not every battle between good and evil is so black and white. Popular stories like Game of Thrones present characters who one moment may seem virtuous but a few scenes later reveal their selfish intentions. Heroes and villains are thus, harder to pinpoint.

To go even further, Showtime’s television drama, Dexter, follows a serial killer who – ironically enough – only kills “bad guys.” Though murder would usually be considered wrong or evil, in this narrative, the prospect of killing villains is portrayed as good. Or at the very least, is meant to challenge the viewer as to what he or she would do if given the same situations as Dexter.

For more on this subject, be sure to check out my latest podcast episode. And be sure to subscribe to my channel, The Writer’s Lens!

2017, A Few Notes

Ah, yes. Reflection time. Every blogger / online commentator’s opportunity to throw together a good list of “me moments”. One last shameless self-plug before the new year rings in. And since I’m not beyond shameless self-promotion, I did want to talk about a few things. Some worthy of note for progression’s sake. Some not-so-much but certainly worth mentioning.

So, here goes:

Worthy of note: I started a podcast. I have a small background working in radio and looking back, I’m sad I didn’t pursue it way back when. The Writer’s Lens has opened a lot of healthy dialogue and a lot of doors too. Not to mention (but I will) I was able to start the podcast because of the generous gift of a microphone.

Worthy of note: I got connected with many other creatives. And I was able to support them via my podcast while keeping up with them throughout the year.

Not-so-great: I got really sick. I didn’t share this publicly, but I went through a strange time this year where I became ill for a really long time. In short, I was having stomach issues for a couple months and things got a little scary for a while. I don’t write this as a please-pity-me moment, but rather, acknowledging how much this put my 2017 plans on hold. When 2017 started, I was hoping to finish my second book, The Shadow of Mars, and simultaneously start a few other projects. But, all that changed right around the end of January. Creatively, I was brought to a standstill. I found my downtime filled with anxiety rather than freedom and it really took a toll on me. Thankfully, I got pain-free in summer and just in time too, as that’s when the gift of a microphone came my way (to do that whole podcasting thing).

Worthy of note: I grew bolder. Not just in my creative pursuits, but in my faith too. This year my faith was tested more than any other previous year. But instead of retreating into a safe space, I learned how to present myself in a manner that was both gracious and firm. By no means did I master the technique, but I know I made leaps and bounds in this area.

Not-so-great: Social media drained me. And I’m pretty sure it drained a lot of others too. Since I’m a self-published author and Internet surfer, I check in to social media daily. However, I didn’t do it as much as I used to (which is probably a good thing according to current studies on the topic). The angriest voices became dominant voices. Or the ones who were most controversial. Or the ones who were the most divisive. That being said, I found that dipping out – even when I didn’t plan on it – turned out to be a good decision. Every time.

Worthy of note: I got handier. This is not necessarily a creative endeavor, but I wanted to make note of it. Well, maybe it is. Let’s just say I can do more than change lightbulbs around the house now.

Worthy of note: Lastly – to keep this post relatively short – 2018 holds potential. For anyone, really. Hope is a powerful ally. It’s an ally we forget we have when things don’t go as planned. My faith in Christ is something I’ve had to learn to grow in as I’m such a cerebral guy. When I find out about something new – and it interests me – I dive in deep. I find as much information on the topic as I can. And I don’t rest until I come to some kind of conclusive end on the subject. One which I can stand on. Faith is not always as black and white as that and contrary to what some may think, this does not make it illogical or foolish. Rather, it builds a new awareness in us.

Here’s to 2018 and learning to grasp onto hope – even more than I did in 2017.

I want what you have; I want to do it better; and I want you to fail

Within the Ten Commandments, there is one in particular that focuses on our thoughts. And that commandment says this: “Do not covet.”

Depending on whom you ask, this may or may not be one of the richer and philosophically deep commandments among the bunch. Not as straightforward as “do not murder” but just as thought-provoking as “you shall have no other gods before me”, I’d argue. Those three little words give us some major insight into our thought life. How we interpret other people’s successes. How we measure ourselves against our neighbors. How we relish the thought of usurping another’s ideas and then watching as they fall.

If there’s one thing social media has taught me, it’s that looks can be deceiving. A person may tout their perfect relationship one day only to break up horribly the next. Tis a fickle place, the Internet. But, when applied to online entrepreneurship – like, self-publishing – the journey to start a following can be demoralizing. Especially when you are witness to all the other success stories that are out there.

Such becomes the tendency to compromise ourselves. Throwing money at fruitless ventures. Or adopting habits that don’t work for us. I can attest to buying business cards that didn’t make much sense for me to do so.

These are the pitfalls to avoid. But, even as I type this, I understand the difficulty in doing just that. Because we are always comparing, sizing up, and measuring ourselves by the ones we wish we could be like. I have found during my own journey that one needs to establish a healthy balance of. And even more importantly, establish a mindset that doesn’t revolve around getting everything that think is necessary.

Rather, seeing what others might desire and then trying to help them achieve it. More on that in this week’s episode.

 

Do you have deadlines? Or do you have ‘creative checkpoints’?

I have a love and hate relationship with deadlines. I love it when I make my own. I hate it when they are handed down to me (with completely unrealistic expectations for completion). But, on the other hand, I love getting deadlines from other people. It makes me want to prove myself. I have a goal and an objective that forces me to make things happen. Because if I’m honest with myself, I know how making my own deadlines can go: I get lax. I put things off. I don’t have anyone holding me accountable but me.

Such is the struggle.

Since I started writing books, I never gave deadlines much thought. I could always work at my own pace. Nobody was looking over my shoulder. Yet as I began to release more stories and I saw people reading them, the pressure began to mount.

How soon can I get the next one out? 

If I don’t finish this next project by the end of next month, will I lose the interest of my readers? 

Should I move on to something else? 

A lot of questions began to circulate; the majority of which revolved around uncertainty. And where uncertainly festers, so does anxiety. It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I worked at a pace dictated by my audience, then I was going to sink fast. I would never be able to keep up and the quality of my work would diminish. So instead of trying to create unrealistic deadlines for myself, I decided I needed to work smarter, not with a sense of fear. I needed to make checkpoints, not hard stops. I needed to give myself space to breathe; not suffocate.

As much as creatives want no borders – no barriers to their creative impulses – it is of the utmost importance that we structure ourselves around a schedule. In that way, we can allow for our creativity to flow, not constrict.

For more on that, I’ll be discussing in my latest episode: “Do you have deadlines? Or do you have creative checkpoints?” 

 

Should we separate art from the artist?

Human beings can create extraordinary things. Human beings can also do horrendous things to one another. And yet, somehow, the same people who are capable of doing horrible things may also be capable of making beautiful things. It doesn’t seem logical. Yet, humans defy this simple equation every day.

So, when an artist does something – say morally unacceptable – do we immediately negate everything he or she has ever done? On the basis that we disagree with his or her personal life? Or do we let it slide because hey, it’s not the art we disagree with, it’s the person. And one’s art – be it story, film, a painting –  ought to stand on its own. Right?

Bestselling author Andrew Klavan tends to think so. His admission that once a piece of art – written, painted, sculpted, etc. – is made for the masses, then it’s no longer the artist’s; it’s in the eyes of the beholder, so to speak. It takes on its own identity. And thereby is apart from its source.

This is a tough call, I’d argue. After all, one of art’s primary functions is to invoke a response. Good or bad. It’s up to the consumer. But, if we are more aware of the person who made it, then we might have a different outlook on what has been produced.

This perspective is becoming increasingly difficult to hold to by today’s standards. After all, we live in the age of social media. People’s thoughts and knee-jerk emotions can be plastered all over the world in a matter of seconds. So if you’re someone of influence, those words or phrases can spread like wildfire. As can allegations against your name, brand, and image.

Such has been the case of many starlets and celebrities in 2017. Kevin Spacey was fired from his hit television show. Harvey Weinstein’s entire legacy was left in tatters. And to go back aways, Bill Cosby’s wholesome stand-up comedy now looks like a cover for his secret life of seduction (this one has really hurt me).

All that being said, do we marshall on knowing that these people had the best intentions in mind? Or do we reject their work because they’ve offended us? The jury may still be out on that one.

Until then, I’ll continue debating this very topic.

Who is rooting for you?

In prep for my next episode, I’ve been thinking a lot about this question. Writing a story – well, writing anything – tends to be a solitary vocation. Like, shooting a free throw; or running a race; or giving a speech. You’re alone in every sense of the word.

So with that in mind, who is in your corner? Who is helping you along the way? Who is waiting on the other side of whatever it is you are doing? I’ll be honest, I didn’t give the idea of “teamwork” much thought when I started writing books. I’d always understood writing to be something akin to a self-help journey. It was me against the paper (or laptop, if you prefer). I wasn’t interested in asking for assistance. And I wasn’t inviting anyone’s approval either. That would only muck up my progress; deter me from ever finishing.

But, then I finished my passion project – let’s say, my first book. And there was joy. There was some relief too – only now, what was I to do with it? I hadn’t told too many people about what I was doing. I was actually a little embarrassed to tell people what I’d been up to. I mean, doesn’t everybody want to write a book nowadays? And yes, several folks were intrigued, even interested. But, here’s the thing – none of the people I told had been eagerly awaiting its release. There’d been no anticipation. No build up. I’d simply dropped in one day and said what I’d done in my private time.

This may sound contradictory to what I said earlier, but those experiences had me completely underwhelmed. Only later did I realize – and this may sound foolish – that I had expectations I wasn’t even aware of. And to have nobody there at the finish line saying, “Great, here’s what we do next”, I was back where I began: just me, my laptop, and my idea. Without a team of helpers, I was still going to face the uphill battle… alone. Yes, I had people willing to purchase my book out of the gate, but I had no “brain trust”; I had no “think tank”. I was simply off in space, wondering if I’d wasted my time with I’d done.

At that point, I understood I needed more than myself, my laptop, and my idea – I needed people in my corner. I needed a team helping me from start to finish. Jeff Goins refers to this concept as a tribe; created not for the purpose of trashing my ideas or giving me new ones they thought was best, but a group to confide in and help me think beyond the story I was crafting.

It was a hard lesson, but with some patience, I found myself a part of a local writer’s group. One that would grow exponentially into almost 10 members. And I must say, I would not have made it as far as I did without the accountability and help from fellow creatives. So now, here I am, finishing the second installment of my Mars series and I can say that having people in your corner is paramount. Yes, it’s nice having Mom or Dad and Aunt or Uncle cheering you on, but who is checking in with you? Who is challenging you on meeting deadlines? Who is reminding you why you started all this in the first place?

Because let’s be honest, if you aren’t gathering those voices around you, then you’re most certainly hearing the opposite ones. The ones who want you to fail; they aren’t rooting for you to win. They only want you to lose. So, again I ask – who is it that is rooting for you

“Our memories aren’t perfect.” – Brent McLaughlin, writer

In my latest interview, I posed a question to my friend, Brent McLaughlin, what it was like to journal on a regular basis. Aside from giving our thoughts a place to rest, Brent summed up his experience like so: it’s a means to look into where I’ve been; where I’ve come from. Because as he put it, “our memories aren’t perfect.”

I couldn’t have agreed more with that statement.

I’ve never been good at keeping a journal. I make time for reading in the morning. I make time for writing the next chapter of my book. But, when it comes to decompressing my thoughts in a journal form, I just don’t do it. And as of late, I wish I did.

Rushing from one thing to the next in life can make us feel like hamsters on a wheel. Most of us are good at setting goals. We look at our resources. We set our parameters – and we go for it. Yet we don’t always know how or what brought us there once we make it (if we even do). I believe if we took more time to reflect on what it was that got us through, we might appreciate our accomplishments more. We may slow down more. We may even enjoy our lives more.

Because, again, our memories aren’t always perfect. And we need those little reminders as often as we can get them.

The Writer’s Lens – On YouTube now!

I’m happy to announce every one of my podcast episodes can now be found on YouTube.

So not only are my interviews on YouTube, but every one of my individual episodes too.

And if you’re someone who doesn’t like doing the YouTube thing – no worries – you can still find me at iTunes and Podbean.

Because not everyone needs a visual to go with their audio, of course.

 

“How old are veterans anyway? I wanted to change that perspective.” – Dr. Robert Snyder, author of “What is a Veteran, Anyway?”

Veterans’ Day has come and passed. Yet, I am reminded of a great conversation I had with a veteran – and author – who was kind enough to let me interview him. On both fronts: being an author and being a veteran.

Dr. Robert Snyder is a professor, author, and former Iraqi war veteran whom I had the pleasure of meeting at a book signing back in October. He was covered from head to toe in military garb, and when I asked what he’d written a book about, I was (somewhat) surprised to find that he’d penned a children’s book. Its title was What is a Veteran, Anyway? And after some conversation, I asked him to appear in an interview for my podcast, The Writer’s Lens. When he agreed, we were able to dig deeper into the inspiration behind his book.

Turns out, Dr. Snyder had a vision for teaching young people about war veterans – a concept I found as intriguing as his rationale for doing it (and I’ll paraphrase): “When you think about a war veteran, you may visualize someone well into his or her’s later years. But, not all veterans are like that.”

In addition to that, Dr. Snyder hopes to educate others on what a family may experience when one’s parent is overseas. I can say I’ve never had that experience as neither of my parents served in the military. But, I have had the experience of family (my eldest brother) and friends / acquaintances being in active duty. The strain of these circumstances can be relationship-threatening both abroad and back on home soil. Dr. Snyder tackles these bigger concepts in picturesque form that isn’t too gritty and isn’t too “child-like” either. His work has earned him the distinction of being the 2017 winner of the Notable Social Studies Trade Book award for young people and a rather rigorous tour schedule (see his photos from recent events here). 

To see my full interview with Dr. Snyder, you can hop on to YouTube. Or, if you’d rather audio over my smiling face, you can find the audio-only version on iTunes or going here.

You can also find Dr. Snyder on Facebook and Instagram.