Kecak Fire Dance

Sometimes I witness something crazy and I think to myself, “that’s going in the novel for sure.”

This weekend I got to see the Kecak Fire Dance. The “Kecak” is a popular performance across Bali. “Kecak” is the sound that the men yell and chant with hip-hop enthusiasm.

While the men provide the A Cappella soundtrack, a costumed cast of heroes and villains re-enacts the basic storyline of the Ramayana, a sacred Hindu text.

It was a trip for me to watch this performance. Because I really did fall in love with the Ramayana when I read it back in college. When I signed up for the fire dance I just thought I’d see some guys tossing flaming sticks around. I didn’t know what I was getting into. Then as I watched the performance I started to recognize some of the scenes and characters: Prince Rama shooting the golden deer, the Princess Sita being lured out of safety by a demon disguised as an old beggar, and later placing a flower in the hair of the monkey god Hanuman.

I did more research as soon as I got home, and I learned that the performance itself was created by a German artist in the 30’s. Apparently Walter Spies traveled to Bali and he said, “Holy Scheiße”  this story’s got money-making potential. What he saw was the original Kecak trance ritual performed in the Hindu tradition by the local Balinese. He took the chant and the themes and adapted them into a dance performance.

Today the Kecak is performed all around bali. If you visit an old temple you can usually pay $5 or $10 for the one hour show. This is a fascinating example of what is referred to as the “modern art-culture system” – when Western Culture adopts non-western cultural elements and transforms them into art.

Also known as the “when white guys monetize non-western shit instead of inventing their own stories” system.

I went full Nerd on this performance because these days I’m in story writing mode. It was strange, mystical experience for me to watch a Hindu myth re-enacted in a language that I couldn’t understand, and realizing that I could still identify with the universal themes and tropes: the hero, the mentor, the princess that symbolizes innocence, the demon in disguise (wolf in sheep’s skin), the “all-is-lost” moment, the climactic battle, the “hero-at-the-mercy-of-the-villan moment.” Just to name a few. It’s time to re-read the Ramayana.

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Fear is the Mind-Killer

Dune by Frank Herbert

I found my “2017 New Year Credo” hiding in an old science fiction novel. It startled me last week like a stray cat on my doorstep, and now I’ve decided to take it in and make it mine.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

-From the novel Dune by Frank Herbert

Every time I publish something into the universe, I score a victory in the creative arena. Fear is the six-armed ogre who obliterates me by freezing me into inaction.

If I say, “I’ll create tomorrow,” then I lose. If I say, “I’ll improve my skills before I publish,” then I lose. Choosing not to enter the contest is the most popular way to lose. But I know what I’m capable of. And I know that all of my scary excuses are really just white bedsheets with eye holes cut in ’em.

There’s only one way to win in the creative arena. It’s time-tested, it’s simple, and it’s solid as a cinder block: Call it good. Publish it. Move on to the next.

Go With the Flow: Monday, August 24th

The earth spins in one direction. The mighty river does not reverse it’s course. Everyday I get a little bit older. Computers get small and faster every year.

All of these things are outside of my control. Why try and fight them?

When we orient ourselves against the natural order of things, we make life unreasonably difficult.

It’s like when a silly dog owner keeps a German Shepherd cooped up in the living room day after day. The dog won’t stop barking at cars. He won’t stop tearing things apart. It’s not the dog’s fault. He’s just trying to be himself, but the dog owner is expecting the German Shepherd to behave like a stuffed animal.

Or it’s like when a University tries to keep the boys and the girls separate from each other – to keep them from doing things that boys and girls do. The University makes it’s rules, it’s curfews, it’s laws, imposes these things with an iron fist. The problem is, those boys and girls can’t help but acting like boys and girls. No threat is great enough to counteract their nature. Those boys and girls will lie, defy, bribe, scratch, run, break windows, sneak around, devise complicated plots, stay up till all hours, perform impossible feats… they will find a way. Nobody is ever happy in this kind of scenario, neither the rule breakers or the rule makers. But the kids are just being themselves. The administrators are the ones pushing the boulder up the hill.

I guess maybe there are some battles worth fighting. But I’m not sure what they are. For this brief period of time that I’m a member of Team Universe on Planet Earth, I’d rather surf waves than fight to swim upstream.

I think this “go with the flow” advice can really help people in their everyday lives. I try to follow it myself but it isn’t easy.

There are universal trends, and there are also personal trends. Each of our unique personalities has a “flow”. We have strong currents and weak ones. We have natural tendencies that can’t be reversed.

Exercise is one of my favorite examples. We all know we should  exercise. But so few people actaully do it. Why? Because they haven’t found something they love, something they like, something that syncs with the flow of who they are as a person.

Running sucks. Lifting weights sucks. Only a small percentage of people in the world have the discipline to run on a treadmill everyday. But if we can find a sport we love, whether it’s slacklining or swimming or walking or tennis, then we won’t have to make ourselves exercise anymore. It’s a terrible cycle where we fall short on our goals, and then we feel guilty for falling short. Guilt is the second dagger, the one that kills.

It’s because we’re going against the flow, lying to ourselves that going to a gym 5 times a week isn’t so bad. It’ll never last of course.

In my relationships. In my work. In my hobbies. The way I eat and the way I sleep. I can always find areas where I’m working too hard. Where I’m going against the natural order of things. And then, instead of putting my head down and pressing on into the storm, I try to change directions to a better course.

***

Right now I’m working on my novel. That is, I’m working on the outlining and the plotting of my upcoming novel.

And whenever I get off course with the planning, whenever I fall behind, whenever I find that I’m uninterested, or that I’d rather do the dishes than work on the novel… whenever I get stuck, I try to remind myself to swim downstream again.

There’s no way I’ll ever finish a novel that I’m not excited about. I’ve tried before. It has to be something I care deeply about. It has to be drawn from my own emotional well. It has to feel like fun. Or else it’ll never work.

So that’s why I’m thinking about all this. I’m thinking about that compass that points to the magnetic center of my childhood soul. I try to go with the flow. I try to keep the needle pointed toward passion and away from work for work’s sake, at all costs.

Stand Up Comedians: Monday, August 17th

The problem with everyday life is that it’s so damned predictable. We know exactly what the day will bring before it even begins. We know the answers to the questions before we ask them. The world is full of mystery and magic but most days we don’t see any of that.

When danger happens, when thrill happens, when things crash, when people cry, when people get lost, when the wild weather sweeps across the plains – that’s when we see magic in the world. That’s the point where stories begin.

I’ve been on a stand up comedy kick. I love listening to stand up comedians because they never say what you think they’re going to say. They are unpredictable. They get bored quick with simple normal life. They see a scenario or a situation from multiple angles. It’s not easy to pull some shit over on a comedian, because they question everything. They don’t take anything at face value. They’re busy deducing, extrapolating, imagining. They’re quirky. They laugh a lot. What’s not to love?

Of course I love comedians, and not just because they’re funny. But because they’re writers underneath it all. They’re artists who deal in words and phrases and stories. They make a living by turning creative ideas into package-able products, finding an audience, and delivering their magic night after night.

But the best thing about comedians? They don’t take anything too seriously. They don’t get hung up easily. They don’t get offended easily. They see humor in everything, and don’t take themselves too seriously.

These are things that I often appreciate about writers too. How they bring fresh perspective, how quirky they are, and often funny too in their own way.

Someone who deals in words and language, day in and day out, appreciates how fluid meaning really is. They appreciate alternate meanings, different points of view, and a well delivered phrase.

I’ve heard that stand up comedy is a uniquely American thing at its roots. And also that Mark Twain was the first original stand up comedian, because of how much he performed his readings in front of an audience. And obviously for his snapping wit, which is still entertaining all these years later.

If that’s true, then it means that writers and comedians (Americans at least, and maybe others too) all share a common ancestor.

I don’t know how comedians do what they do, but I’m thankful for what they bring to the world.

As for me, I’ll do everyone a favor by sticking to writing, and staying well away from the stage.

How to Develop Your Ideas: The Million-Dollar-Skill: Tuesday, August 4th

In yesterday’s post, I busted a common writing myth.

I said that, “Writing is the easy part of the Writing Process. The true currency of the writing ecosystem is not the hard work of writing itself, like many believe, the million-dollar-skill is IDEA DEVELOPMENT.”

Unfortunately there is no easy way to turn your idea into a fully formed story. There is no failproof process. Scientists know surprisingly little about the “magic” of the brain. For all of our advancements, nobody knows exactly how the mind or consciousness works, which means we’re still pretty clueless about how ideas come to be.

BUT, fortunately for you and me, many bold and badass creative human beings have paved the road to success. We can pick and choose from their tactics. We can learn lessons instantly that it took them years of trail and error to determine. We can borrow their methods, and we can certainly borrow inspiration from the ones who came before us.

A true artist is a sort of magician. They take a concept, like a seed, and transform it into a finished product. It’s that process that we want to study and emulate.

So here is a list of methods and tricks that I’ve come across in my research. These are things I’ve tried myself to implement, and have had some bit of success with:

  • Composition Notebooks – Screenwriters, Novelists, and writers of all type talk about this method. They keep a specific notebook or a specific journal that is dedicated to a single project. Whenever they have an idea related to that project, they jot it down. Keeping all of the notes in one place helps to build momentum. Some writers will fill entire an entire notebook of ideas and ramblings, before attempting to shape those ideas into a workable outline.
  • Notecards – A lot of times we just need a cue, a stimulus, or some sort of outside prodding, in order to get the ideas flowing. Good ideas are often born out of associating two seemingly unrelated things. Many authors talk about using this process: take a bunch of notecards, on each notecard write a single word or phrase, it could be a person, a place, a thing, an event, an object, anything… The idea is to keep the cards simple. Once you have a whole lot of them, you can mix them all up and start experimenting. Let your mind run wild with the random associations that the note cards bring to mind.
  • Follow Author Neil Gaiman’s Advice – including some fantastic prompt questions to get your worker bees humming.
  • Dream Journals – Many authors write in the morning, when the world of dream is still fresh. Once the “real day” begins, and you start dealing with bills, chores, errands, work, the creative mind tends to get buried under these responsibilities. Dreams are truly the stuff of stories: they are Scary, Crazy, Sensational, Sexy, Colorful, Unusual, Unbound by the Laws of Physics, or the Usual Restraints of the Ego. The more you recrod your dreams, the more you’ll begin to remember them. It’s not uncommon for even the most serious, respectable of authors to credit their success to a random, run of the mill dream.
  • Ray Bradbury’s ListsI wrote a post about this method not too long ago. It’s a great way to get the idea muscle working.
  • Become an Idea Machine – James Altucher has built a career around the practice of being healthy and coming up with ideas. If you are looking for inspiration, I HIGHLY recomend the daily podcast by James and his wife Claudia, “Ask Altucher“, or reading James’ blogposts. Here is one of his most popular posts – all about how you can become an idea machine.
  • Study Story Structure – The Art of Story is truly fascinating. There are so many good books and authors out there. Here are a few that have inspired me. These kind of books are SO important, because they give aspiring authors a framework to work within. They really teach you how to transform your little baby ideas into full-fledged, gripping, masterful stories. Check out…
  1. Super Structure by James Scott Bell
  2. Story by Robert McKee
  3. Story Structure by William Bernhardt.

So there you go. Hopefully these are some helpful resources for how to come up with ideas, and how to turn those ideas into real life stories. I really, really hope they are as useful for you as they were for me.

In my opinion, this aspect of the writing process (IDEA DEVELOPMENT), is much more difficult, much more magical, and much more fascinating than the actual “sitting down and writing” part of the process.

If you know of any other good tips, please let me know, I’m always on the hunt.

Be Damn Proud: Thursday, July 23rd

The struggle to write has more to do with discipline than it does with writing.

Anyone who has ever committed themselves to a goal understands. Maybe you have a craft that you’re trying to develop – piano, graphic design, muffin baking, public speaking. Maybe it’s a health or a weight loss goal. Maybe it’s trying to improve a difficult relationship, learn a new language, adapt to the environment of your new job. Spiritual goals, mental goals, you name it…

They’re all painstaking pursuits, they’re all sure-as-shit downright difficult. And that’s not the only thing they have in common. At the foundational level, every pursuit is the same. They all require hard work, discipline, and more hard work.

To determine the true nature of such goals, we can apply two scientific filters:

1) Can you buy the results? (No)

2) Is the goal attainable for anyone? (Yes)

My favorite example is physical health. The best part about physical health is that it’s literally available to anyone. And no matter how rich you are, you can’t buy an efficient heart or an optimal body weight.

If the goal is buyable, then it’s not worth being proud of. If the goal is something that’s only attainable to a select few, and has nothing to do with your hard work (your skin color, your height, the country you were born in), then you would be silly to be “proud” of such an achievement.

But if you worked for it, if you persevered, well you should be proud as hell. Don’t be shy. You know you earned it.

The more I struggle with my goal to be a writer, the more I appreciate the achievements of my peers. When I meet a musician, or an artist, or someone who speaks 4 languages – I just want to hug them and congratulate them.

Because I know know without a doubt that, at some point, they wanted to quit. At one point they got knocked down and picked themselves back up.

And that’s the golden stuff of life that the best stories are made of.

 

 

Rage Quit: Tuesday, July 14th

It’s easy to assume that the reality you are existing in is the only reality available.

There’s a hilarious phrase I just found out about. It’s called “rage quitting”. You can YouTube it. You’ll find videos of people going insane over games, screaming, cursing, throwing game controllers, smashing keyboards, and upending the poker table and storming off in a fury. This is called rage quitting. And it’s pretty funny to watch as long as nobody gets hurt.

So what’s the source of humor – why is rage quitting so funny? Obviously it’s not funny to the one who’s quitting. It’s funny to the onlookers because we realize that “hey, it’s just a game.”

Now I don’t think our “real lives” (our jobs, routines, friendships) are just a silly game that we can quit anytime we want. But I do think that a lot of our suffering comes from getting sucked too deep into the monopoly game of life. We forget that there are other realities. We let our failures carry too much weight. We pretend that our successes are more valuable than they really are.

When you climb to the top of a mountain and look back down on the world, it’s hard to imagine that your “troubles” ever troubled you. That’s why traveling is so important. Traveling gives you some perspective. It takes you out of the game you’re playing, let’s you look a little more objectively at the situation.

I’ve playing a mental game when I’m on my way to work and I catch myself being negative. Or when I’m feeling like tomorrow won’t be any better than today.  I like to imagine that it’s the first day of a month long vacation. How would I feel? And as I think about it, I start to really feel that way, to look around and enjoy things more.

It’s hard to step outside of your current situation and realize that you have a choice. But that’s the weird and powerful thing about humans that makes us different from other animals. We are capable of being sad on a sunny day or happy during a hurricane. (I think I got that idea from the author Walker Percy). It’s our special power. And we can use it to our advantage.

Its up to you which frequency you want to tune into. Some people say the world’s doomed – and they’re absolutely right. Some people say there’s hope and beauty around every corner – and they’re right too. Both are true. The question is only, “which party are you going to?”