The Commencement Address

by Matthew Lowes

This year, the graduating class at the high school where I work asked me to deliver the commencement address. I was honored to do so, and I took the task to heart. It was a rare opportunity to speak to a group of young people at a transformative point in their lives. And with the parents, family members, and friends of graduates, as well as colleagues and members of the larger community gathered in the gymnasium, it was the biggest audience I’d ever had the opportunity to speak to. I’d like to share these words with you as well, so what follows is the speech I gave, pretty much word for word as it was delivered.

COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS

Delivered on June 9th, 2018 by Matthew Lowes

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I have to say, I am deeply honored to speak with you on this momentous occasion.

Some people expressed surprise that I would accept this task. But honestly … this is an honor I could not refuse. I am immensely grateful for the education I received, and for all my teachers, both in and out of school. So to me, to stand before a group of graduates and address them like this, is one of the highest honors imaginable.

Of course, I quickly realized that being honored is not really enough in a situation like this. It’s more of a … you know … you have to say something meaningful kind of situation. And so here I am, charged with saying something meaningful to you — something that might make a difference in your life and how you see yourself and the world.

It’s a tall order.

A few of you seemed concerned about what I would or wouldn’t say. You came around and asked me to say something specific, or asked if you could see the speech. But frankly, I turned down all requests. What would be the point of me speaking if you all knew what I was going to say. Also, I admit I didn’t entirely know what I was going to say yet. But since you all asked me to speak, I knew that I would have to speak from my heart.

The truth is, I know you just well enough to know that I don’t know the funniest anecdotes to tell, or the greatest accomplishments to highlight. But I know you well enough to know that I am grateful to have met you. And I know you well enough to know that some of you have struggled to be here, and others have overcome incredible hardships. And I am immensely proud of every single one of you.

Your accomplishments have encouraged us all. Your struggles have touched our hearts. And your presence has brightened our days.

Each one of you is worthy of far more time than I have here.

Nevertheless, I hope that I can give you some piece of advice, or a perspective on life that might be helpful. And with that in mind, I don’t want to reminisce about past glories, nor speculate on all the great things you may do in the future. I don’t want to pretend that there haven’t been hard times, or that there won’t be hard times to come. I’m sure there were, and there definitely will be.

Instead, I would like to talk about this moment, right now. For it is always in the present moment that we are living. It always has been, and always will be now. In this way, everything that has ever happened has happened today, and everything that ever will happen will also happen today. That is when our lives are unfolding. And this will always be the case, for you, for me, for everybody.

So let’s think about this. The past, as we remember it, is already gone. The future, as we imagine it, will never really arrive. It will always be now. This present moment that we are experiencing goes on throughout our entire lives. So how we live, here and now, is always what really matters.

This may seem obvious, but it’s a fact that is so easy to lose track of. It’s so easy for us to become distracted, unconscious of our remarkable existence in this present moment. And it’s so easy become wrapped up in our thoughts about what has happened and where it’s all going, or to become entranced by our ideas about who we are, what we’re doing, what we’ll become, what we’re capable of, what we should or shouldn’t do in the future, what could happen, and what it all means.

Of course we need to remember the past, to acknowledge and learn from it. And we need to plan for the future as well, to set course now for our greatest aspirations. But never forget that the present moment is all there will ever be. Whatever you do, even when you’re remembering and planning, you will always be doing it now. And even when you are not really doing anything, you cannot help but not do it now.

So whatever joy you seek in life, you can only find it in the present moment. And whatever you intend to accomplish, you can only work towards it in the present moment. And whatever problems may arise in your life or that you perceive in the world, you can only solve them in the present moment. And whatever kind of person you wish to be, you can only be that person now, in the present moment.

Life can seem incredibly complicated, but the truth is very simple. Moment by moment, we live these beautiful lives. They are filled with soaring heights, mundane plains, and abyssal depths. But whatever happens, have courage for the moment. For all we can do is attend to ourselves and the situation at hand, always living in this present moment.

Wisdom has not changed throughout the ages. But it’s up to you to discover what it really is. I can only give you a taste, point in the general direction, and encourage you to discover it for yourselves.

To all those ends I say: Be kind, be curious, be loving, be truthful. And I say all these things in the deepest possible sense.

Endeavor to find out who you really are and what your true potential is. I assure you, it’s way bigger than you can imagine.

And through it all, always strive to understand what it is to be a good person.

It won’t always be easy, but moment by moment, if we can just be that, everything else will take of itself.

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Thank you, and congratulations to the Class of 2018!

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What Did You Win, Eric?

 

Littlest Death: An Afterlife Fantasy (a.k.a., Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel):
Winner: Independent Publishers Awards Silver Medal for Fantasy.
Winner: International Book Awards for Visionary Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Fantasy Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Best New Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Cross-Genre Fiction

What Did You Win, Eric?
by Eric Witchey

Last time I posted in this blog space, I talked about award sickness because one of my novels had just won the Silver Medal for Fantasy Fiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Since then, that same novel has won First Honors in the Visionary Fiction category from the International Book Awards. It also won finalist (top five) positions in several other categories, including Fantasy Fiction. At the same time, another novel of mine won First Honors in the Fantasy Fiction category from the International Book Awards. Yet another book won a Finalist position for both cover design and short fiction. The books are, respectively, Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel from ShadowSpinners Press, Bull’s Labyrinth from IFD Publishing, and Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure from IFD Publishing.

Note: Thanks are in order here for Alan M. Clark for his cover designs for both Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure and Bull’s Labyrinth.

Has my good problem, Award Sickness, gotten worse? Yes. Yes, it has. Thank you for asking. On top of that, I now have another good problem. I now have conversations that go sort of like this:

“Congratulations! What kind of stuff did you win?”

“Uh. Um.” Eric looks down and shuffles his feet.

“Really,” they say. “Cash, like the Pulitzer or the Nobel?”

“Uh. No. It’s not like that.” Eric waves his hands as if to push the assailant away and avoid embarrassment.

“Well, what then?”

“Stickers?” It sounds so tiny and pointless to Eric, so he adds, “I won some really cool stickers to put on my books. And a certificate!”

“That’s it?”

“A silver medal on a ribbon. I won that, too.” He doesn’t want to say he could wear that heavy bit of kitsch around his neck if he wanted to shout to the world that he is the worst kind of self-impressed language geek.

This kind of conversation confuses non-writers who often think recognition of excellence means income or fame. Having won quite a few awards for my writing, I can say with some confidence that awards rarely translate into income or fame. Sometimes, but rarely. This absence of fame and fortune even confuses some writers, so it’s time to come clean on the whole award thing.

Here’s what I won.

On a purely material level, I won stickers, a medal, and several certificates.

On a marketing level, I won the right to have Littlest Death presented to an international audience at the New York Book Expo and at the Library Book Expo in New York. Also on a marketing level, Littlest Death press releases went out to 800 various media, blog, and vlog outlets for consideration for exposure. Oh, and I can put stickers on the covers that appear as part of the presentation and advertising on places like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and GoodReads.

Yay! Of course, I have no idea what that means in terms of sales. I won’t know for months, and possibly years, to come.

From my personal perspective, I won validation for the Afterlife Fantasy genre, which is embodied by Littlest Death. I had been thinking about writing an Afterlife Fantasy for some time, but I probably would never have done it because it would not have fit into any existing marketing category served by the octopus imprints of the big five publishers. A book like Littlest Death would have made the rounds of the imprints for several years. I’d have received the usual “loved this but not quite right for us” rejection letters. Instead, it came out from a small press that isn’t quite so risk averse.

Most important from my perspective, I won validation for the creative process that resulted in Littlest Death.

When I teach, I often say that craft tools should be based on the underlying linguistic and cognitive principles that govern the reader’s internalization of emotion from story. The test of a principle-based tool is pretty simple. It must be all of the following:

  1. Useful as a descriptive tool for finished, text-based story.
  2. Useful as an analysis tool and solution predictor for revision of text-based story.
  3. Useful as a design tool for the production of text-based story.

To that end, I have spent about 25 years obsessively characterizing and recording tools that fit the above criteria into a personal catalog. I use these tools constantly, and I teach them to others. However, prior to writing Littlest Death, there were a few tools in my box that I believed fit the criteria but that I had never actually tested on the design level. I had only used them as diagnostic and revision tools.

I used the opportunity to write my Afterlife Fantasy to test the design power of the untested tools. Specifically, the tools I often used in revision and description but had not really applied during story design were:

  • Irreconcilable Self as a control for character psychological and sociological development.
  • Vertical Story Analysis as a design tool to support manifestation of Dramatic Premise (Lajos Egri) and Character Arc prior to composition.

I’m not going to explain these tools here. Sorry. It would take too long. I’m just saying that these tools have been in my box for a while, and I have used them to revise many stories that went on to sell. In fact, I used them to revise Bull’s Labyrinth, which won the International Book Award for Fantasy Fiction. I also used them to revise some, but not all by any means, of the stories in Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure. I had just never used them up front before initial composition, so I felt a little bit like a fraud when I taught them because I had only proven to myself that they worked on two of the three levels of proof for “tool” that I require.

Once Littlest Death went into print and I started getting emails from people who cried tears of joy while reading, I felt pretty good about having demonstrated the tools’ usefulness in design. Once Littlest Death won two awards and several finalist slots in competition against many thousands of other novels, I started thinking it might be worth considering a few more such experiments in design.

What did I win?

I won validation of knowledge, confidence in that knowledge, and the confidence that sharing that knowledge with others will be useful to them.

Writing in Black and White

 

By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

When I write I see color. It is so important to me that my very first blog featured in ShadowSpinners was titled “Writing in Color”. As I create each scene paintings float through my mind. Vivid shades of red overlay scenes of anger or lust. Glossy vermilion sparks in my mind when writing about nature. Undulating blues flow over me when water is featured, and ribbons of yellow flit through happily ever after scenes. I could continue, but you get the idea.

If you follow my blog you know I’m also an artist. In the past six months I’ve been creating a series of paintings titled “Sounds of Southern Blues”.   Three of the paintings are complete and the last one will follow by the end of the month. The backdrops of each of the paintings have only shades of black and white and the accompanying grays they create. The only “color” in each one is the particular musical instrument featured. This style of painting is a first for me, and has been quite a learning experience.

Now is where you ask, what does this have to do with writing? Over the same span of time, the past six months, I’ve been knee deep in the final editing stages of completing a novella. This has been another first for me, since the only stories I’ve written in the past (at least for publication) have been short or flash fiction.

Here comes the black and white part of my blog. I’ve not written any new stories during this time. As a result, I came to a startling realization when I saw no color as I read a paragraph in my novella for what must’ve been the twentieth time. My familiar muse of seeing the words burst to life in Technicolor had abandoned me.  Both of my creative pursuits were seriously lacking in color!

Upon further investigation I came to the following conclusion. I’m only given the gift of writing in color during those giddy first stages of creating new worlds, meeting new people, and forming new ideas. Easily done when writing short stories. Not so easy when writing longer pieces. After this earth-shattering phenomenon sank in I began to wonder if I could actually complete my novella.

But never one to give up I found myself sitting the next day once again staring at the colorless paragraph. I was determined to complete the edits given to me by my publisher.

Have I mentioned I paint and write in the same studio? I looked away from my black and white story and over at the sax painting. Its shocking blue appeared to be visibly vibrating off its backdrop of black and white, and a thought began to form.

Yes, the sax spoke to me. Doesn’t the artwork in your home speak to you? It said I’d already created all the color my novella needed. What it now needed in these final edits were cohesive shades of black and white so the color could jump off the page just as it, the sax, was doing as it spoke to me. I looked back at my paragraph where ghost like glimpses of the color I’d created shone. They began to meld with the black and white creating a visible path. I followed the path through the paragraph I’d been struggling over, and as if by magic I found myself moving on to the next paragraph.

As I now work in finalizing the last few pages of edits, I’ve came to realize the color in my story would be nothing without what I now see as a black and white backdrop. It is what contains the filler, the mundane staging involved in writing something longer than a short story. Black and white are now the other colors I look for when writing.

So the next time you get bogged down in layers of edits, understand it’s just the much-needed black and white backdrop. Without it your readers will not be able to experience the vibrant, colorful, unique world you’ve created.

How do you psych yourself up to read your works in progress for the umpteenth time and get through edits?

 

“Saxophone in Blue” Original Painting by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

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The Full Moon, Fractals and Aufheben

by Cynthia Ray

Did you see that gorgeous full moon last night?  Most of us live in cities, and spend a good deal of time in front of computers and televisions.  Our connection with the skies, with nature and with each other is mediated, one step removed, unless we take time to notice, to connect, to look deeper.

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Lately, I’ve been marveling at the intricacy of the universe we live in.  In fact, my fascination with the geometry of the universe could be called an obsession.  The Golden Mean, or Fibanacci Sequence is everywhere.  From the spinning galaxies, to the whorl of our fingerprints, to the tiny shell lying on a beach.

nature spirals

The cycles, the spirals, the movements of the planets and the patterns they create draw me into their centers and back out again.Not only does nothing stand still, but everything moves in complex geometric patterns of amazing beauty.  We all fit into these cosmic patterns, but the patterns are bigger than we are and we may not always perceive our place in them.

Events, processes, and stories move in spirals, and in fractal designs.  And yet, we tend to expect things to move linearly from a beginning point, along a line called progress to an end point.  We expect everything to go according to plan. Thanks heavens few things ever do!

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While we are in the middle of our life, it seems chaotic and messy, but if we could rise up 10 thousand feet and look at the patterns of our interactions with one another, of our experiences, perhaps we would see an exquisite, perfect design being woven.

What does all of this have to do with writing?  Everything.  Stories that progress linearly and predictably from point A to point B put us to sleep.  Stories that move in spirals and fractal unfoldment fascinate us.  Think of flashbacks, stories that begin at the end and then move to the beginning, stories where actions of one character change the course of another character, who changes the course of another and so on, the structure becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Another way to describe, or visualize the hero’s journey is Aufheben or Aufhebung.  It is a German word with several seemingly contradictory meanings, including “to lift up”, “to abolish”, “cancel” or “suspend”, or “to sublate”. The term has also been defined as “abolish”, “preserve”, and “transcend”.  Here we see the heros journey presented as a spiraling to resolution.   The multiple meanings of the word, offer many different approaches to how the story may progress. In fact, fractal storytelling describes a process where there are acts within acts, within acts and the structure of the story cascades into an unending pattern.

aufheben

Mike Bonifer, describes fractal storytelling in this way: “Fractals define and connect the story elements in a network. They do not, however, CHANGE the story, and change is where participation is most powerful. So to be effective as human beings and organizations, we need to understand the nature of fractals AND the phenomena of their changing, and of how new fractals, new patterns, emerge. Fractals are helpful for the growth and expansion of the networked narrative. They do not, however, account for the change in the narrative, i.e. when and why the pattern breaks and becomes a new pattern. i.e. No fractal can explain or account for the existence of another fractal, any more than Lolita can explain the existence of Phantom of the Opera. And yet, there is a scenario out there in the universe of possibilities, where Lolita and the Phantom fall in love and make music of their own. So we need more than narrative fractals, along with nodes and influencers, to define what’s happening and where, in the network, are the opportunities for anything but bigness and expansion. We need Exploration and Newness, too. This means new stories, or at least new fractals composed of old ones.”

This different way of thinking about storytelling has given me the courage to venture into some unexplored writing territory.  I hope it sparks some inspiration for you as well.  If you are as intrigued as I am, you can find out more about it here .

And I will leave you with a picture of Broccolli, because even Broccoli grows in fractal spirals-and it is delicious.

fractalbrocoli

 

Resuscitating a Manuscript

By Elizabeth Engstrom

I have a new novel coming out this summer. Guys Named Bob.

This book was written long ago, had some serious interest by my agent, and several publishers in New York. I never inked a deal because they wanted me to change things I didn’t want to change.

Years later, I’ve evolved with regards to how I view my art and my career, and the message I want to send out to my family, my friends, my fans, into the universe. It was time to make big changes to the manuscript.

This was not an easy thing to do. Technology has changed radically since I wrote that book, and technology changes everything.

rewriting

But I worked with it, and I altered the story to fit who I am today. I still rejected some of the changes those editors thought I ought to make in order for it to be more of the mainstream type of book they wanted to publish, so clearly, this is not a book for everyone. But it is a book that I wanted to write then, was heartbroken when it wasn’t picked up by a publisher, and now that it has been picked up, I’m delighted to put it out into the marketplace.

Bottom line: Some projects take more time than others.

My book Candyland was outlined during a dinner party on the back of an envelope. Seriously.  It practically wrote itself, and very quickly. My agent and I had a falling out over it, and I fired him as an agent. Since then, it has been published in an anthology, as a stand-alone novel, and was made into a movie (Candiland).

Other books take years to write.

Guys Named Bob took decades. I wrestled with committing to it, wondering if I had anything original left in the tank. Was I now just rewashing old story ideas? Did this mean I was finished as a writer? Am I even capable of writing anything new and fresh?

Well, yes. Life has interfered with my writing career for a while now, but I’m back at it. I have a list of projects to finish, and have a renewed passion and excitement for them.

Bottom line: Life has its seasons. We evolve as writers. No experience is wasted. Joy, heartbreak, disappointment, love, desperation, insecurity, determination… These are all things we must experience first-hand before we can put them on the page. And while the circumstances of a piece of fiction may need to be updated, those emotions remain eternally relatable.

And oh: I have a new website. Check it out. http://www.elizabethengstrom.com

 

Sitting Vigil

By Lisa Alber

It’s a surreal time right now. I haven’t been writing — at all. I feel like I could never write again, and I’d be fine with that. My two sisters and I are hanging out with each other in Mom’s house more now than we have in the last few decades. N is like an Energizer bunny. She has trouble sitting still and is out for a run now. K is mellower. She’s plugged into her tablet, watching a movie. Me, here I am. It seems that when the chips are down, I do continue to write, don’t I?

Thus far today, we’ve opened the door to the hospice chaplain and social worker, a hospice delivery of more morphine, a guy from the funeral home, and even a Catholic priest to issue last rites.

I say “even” about the priest because although we’re solidly Catholic on both sides of the family, we Alber sisters weren’t raised with religion. We figured it would be nice for Mom to hear the sacraments to help her along the process of letting go these mortal coils. Couldn’t hurt anyhow.

To my surprise, the ritual of the sacraments comforted me. I’d never heard them before except in movies, never seen a vial of holy water before, never shaken a priest’s hand and said, Nice to meet you, Father.

Fawn, my eight-pound dog, spends most of her time curled up against Mom’s shoulder. I’m amazed by her instinct. Mom’s oblivious — constant morphine now — her breathing noisy and a tad erratic. She hasn’t consumed anything since yesterday morning. I keep wondering why she’s hanging on. What’s holding her here? How do we help her let go?

We have no control over this, of course. We’ve each had our alone time with her to say goodbye and let her know that it’s OK to move on.

There’s so much people don’t warn you about when it comes to end of life. Like how much pain there is with the littlest of touches. Like how pain itself can anchor people too much to this life — that our bodies naturally resist death. We’re giving her morphine every hour now to lessen the resistance. It seems like a lot, but, man, I’d do anything not to see her get a frowny face in sleep and to help her relax into the next stage, whatever that may be. No one tells you that morphine aids in the process of letting go but in itself isn’t what causes the heart to stop.

This is where I am today. I wonder about my writing. Wonder if it even matters. I’m going to make chocolate chip cookies in a little while because we have the makings for them. Seems like something to do to pass the time. That’s another thing people don’t warn you about — the waiting. Death takes its own sweet time.

Patiently Pondering Puddles in Pursuit of Poetry

by Christina Lay

The other morning as I pulled out of my driveway on the way to work, I found myself waiting for a little kid who, squirrel-like, was meandering around in the street right behind my car. I watched him out of my rear view mirror until he was finally far enough away I could continue. Only then did I see what he was doing.  He was going puddle to puddle and jumping in each one, then standing there, transfixed. Maybe field testing his galoshes, or measuring the depths in scientific pursuit, or imagining what it felt like to be a tadpole. Probably delaying arriving at school, much like I delay arriving at work every day.

As I drove away, I flashed back to myself at that age—about seven-ish, I’d guess—and a rainy day on my way home from school. I had to cross a big playing field and that day, the field was more pond than grass. Oblivious to everything else, I wandered back and forth, jumping in puddles, watching the ripples, most likely feeling how cold rain water and wool socks aren’t a good mix and basically having a jolly good time until I heard a car horn beeping. My mom, in a valiant effort to save me from getting soaked in the torrential rains, had driven the five blocks from our house to the end of the field to give me a ride. And there she sat, watching her crazy kid go puddle jumping.

Not much has changed, I’m happy to report. I’m still much more a first-grader in galoshes wandering through the world in questing admiration than a sensible adult who actually arrives at work on time.  But what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with writing?

Not a hell of a lot, except for the fact that it’s April (or was when I started writing this), which means torrential spring rains and poetry. April is National Poetry Month and my first thought as I drove away watching that crazy kid standing in the gutter was that he was seeking out little moments of poetry. A scrap of haiku.

Puddles in the path

How can I not jump when

School, the big nap, waits?

So I’m not a poet. But poetry has always informed my writing and when I want to go deeper into a character’s emotion, or the quality of a setting, or the truth behind a relationship, it’s the quiet moments that I seek out. The feel of rain soaking into socks. The reflection of a hazy sun in a puddle.  The things not said.

I’ve been attending the symphony a lot lately, and one thing I’ve been learning is how to appreciate the silences. The purposeful pause, the breath held. With all those instruments clamoring away to create a glorious noise, the moment of silence can be an extremely powerful thing.  As can a reflection in a puddle.

I am naturally a curmudgeon and the louder things get, the faster, brighter, ruder, and more brutal movies, books and music seem to become, the more I resist. The more I want to be the kid in galoshes, oblivious to all but the simple wonders. Like waiting for a hummingbird’s buzz or the trickle of a stream, it takes more effort these days to hear the silence and notice what is not moving, what is not flashing, blinking, or shouting for our attention.

If your characters are in the middle of a screaming argument, a sudden silence might be much more powerful than a string of obscenities. If your character is racing to battle, the sensation of rain soaking into his boots might give us a better glimpse into his heart and mind than the thunder of cannons and the vision of body parts flying.  If Cinderella is arriving at the ball, having her notice a dandelion sprouting through the cracks in the brickwork might prove more telling than an extended description of the palace.

And then everything can explode. Or not.

As entertainers, we do tend to focus on the grand and exciting moments. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we don’t forget the importance of the threads that hold the crazy quilt of reality together. When the ordinary and divine meet, and we look up from the page, and say “oh”. When we as artists achieve the goal of expressing the inexpressible and using words to say what is beyond words.  That’s poetry, and we could all use a little more of it.