Getting Off the Proverbial Duff!

Photo by Austin James Photography


As remarkable as this may seem, Yogi Berra is a writing guru who has helped me solve a thorny problem of perspective.

I’m not by nature lazy; although, I can fall prey to bouts of procrastination. The former is a potentially serious behavioral issue, the latter symptomatic of a fear or problem not yet faced. There is a difference. I think I recognize the difference between the two attitudes, and feel safe in my assertion that I am not lazy. I have been forced on occasion to do some heavy lifting on my own, and was more than capable of carrying the load, one foot in front of the other, gutting it out, doing what was necessary. Based upon these experiences I allow myself to assert that I am not lazy.

A recent change in tack, and I’m here referring to the sailing vernacular, is one in which I have endeavored to reinvent myself as a writer, a course that has produced a different kind of procrastination, a different specie of sitting on my duff, and until recently, I have not found a solution for this brand of sitting on one’s duff. I don’t mind saying I feel rather like a “duffus” – a term we used to describe ineptitude when I was young – and for falling prey to this malady.


Stories are about problem solving. Stories tell us how to live our lives. Show don’t tell. Conflict – a world turned upside down. A Heroes Quest. Story arc. Character arc. Three act. Four act. The terminology is dizzying. Through it all it seems to me that what makes a story is a crack in the narrative, story plus emotion, a moment of realization, internal and external conflict. We are hardwired for rising expectations and questions. The unsolved, the unanswerable is intriguing to us. We need to know more.

Consider this: I recently watched a documentary on the Kamikaze pilots of Japan. The entire undertaking was a terrible waste of men and machine, but it did give the Alies pause, and perhaps more than anything else convinced military leadership that the atomic bomb would really save lives. It was fairly interesting, as documentaries go, until the very end, when something irresistibly powerful grabbed my imagination. Can you possibly imagine what could be that powerful…?

I suspect I have your attention!

_DSF2222Near the end of the documentary, when Japan is about to capitulate, the commander of the Kamikaze squadrons is devastated by his failure to cripple the allied aircraft carriers and thereby crack the air-superiority of the Allies, and perhaps forestalling an invasion of the homeland. The Kamikaze flights are cancelled. There is a side bar on one young pilot who was in his plane, having made his final goodbyes to wife and family night before, was sitting in his plane waiting for takeoff when the flight was cancelled. Ho-hum.

The commander of the Kamikaze’s – whose name I do not remember – asks for volunteers to accompany him on one last attack on Allied ships at Okinawa. There are approximately twenty-four volunteers. The next morning they take off for one last historic face-saving, ancestor-honoring attack on Allied ships; but, they never arrive, never attack the ships, and are never heard from again!



 There’s a story! I watched almost ninety-minutes of this video without being really moved until this moment – a crack in the narrative – that raises more questions than were answered in the previous sixty-minutes. This is very much akin to seeing a multiple car wreck on the highway and trying to resist the need to look, to see, to know, to discover what rising action is unfolding. You can’t. That was it. That was story telling hook writ large. The only interesting narrative in the whole piece and it’s abandoned for final credits!

What does this have to do with getting off my proverbial duff?

First, I have heard the adage “Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” It is a most alluring trap, this need to get it exactly right, to be perfect in your telling of the most  important story ever – the one you’re writing at the moment. I have spent years, literally, working on a story that is more than a good idea, but finding the right way to tell the story has given me fits of frustration. It had to be perfect in its shape. The more perfect I attempted to shape its contours the more vapid it became – vapid is probably too harsh; but, I can say that of my work. I have put that project on the shelf on two occasions, and its not yet finished. Sometimes, an idea is just that – an idea, even a powerful idea. An idea does not a story make.

THE INTERNET IS OVERRUN WITH SELF-HELP GURUS of all stripes, some are incredibly perceptive and inspiring, others are somewhat jaundiced  in their perspective. I have watched seminars, read papers and newsletters of all brands that claim to have the silver bullet for crafting and selling your book. The DIY phenomenon is a remarkable development.

One recent seminar I listened to claimed to have the formula for writing and publishing a book in one week. This I had to hear. It’s true that one could achieve the publication of a book in that amount of time; the likelihood of creating a profitable book is something else. Still I listened to the process. His first step was to find a need that hurts, or scratch your own itch. I have been well-schooled in the philosophy of write what you know, and write for yourself. 

I DISCOVERED AN IMMEDIATE CONTRADICTION for me, one which I had not given time to consider at all. His starting point was writing for profit, that is, his principal goal is to sell books, in which case writing what you know may not be shared by a lot of people – maybe no more than 10 or 20! There’s not much profit there. Therefore, finding a need that hurts, or an itch that itches makes brilliant sense. It’s also well expressed metaphorically as a need that hurts. The remaining steps to publication were fairly standard and not especially remarkable save for the mentioned resources needed to handle this lightening speed.

I soon discovered that finding the need that hurts was also a charming trap, much like the perfect anything. Laziness is one thing; but, procrastination is quite another. Laziness might well be damning, and for many people irreversible; but, procrastination, I have learned, is symptomatic of a deeper issue, a deeper fear. There is a cure, however, and I will share that cure with you today. The cure is curtesy Yogi Berra!

That’s right. The New York Yankee Hall of Fame catcher… and sometime humorist.


The first is “If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else.” It is the somewhere else that we should remain open to and receptive to in our journey. Once again, holding on to the perfect when discovered alternatives might be light years ahead in relevance, interest, and marketability are trumpeting a sea-nymph’s call to adventure, if however slight and distant. We have to listen as writers. Or, as Yogie would say, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

The second writing tip from Yogi is this: “Think! How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?”

I have laughed at his remark on many occasions, but Yogi will have the last laugh because it’s basically very true. Think too much and you will end up in trouble. Think too much before the pitch and you’ll be frozen when it happens. Think too much after the pitch and the next will catch you off guard. Hitting is instinctual. Writing is our life turned instinctual, where connections are born on the fly and incubated over time. The impulse to create is born of a moment with attendant references and connections that are produced only by an emotional and internal confict.


 My job is not to create a need that hurts, but to discover the need that hurts, and who am I to say what needs have a threshold of pain that reverberates across the greatest numbers of people. It’s a road trip. You have a destination in mind, but along the way you will discover the need that hurts among the greatest number of people and then mastering that discovered need after mastering who you are, connections are made across many ideas that just might develop into one remarkable story.


I must no longer worry about that need that hurts, I’ll find it if I dig. Ben Hogan was fond of saying that he dug his game out of the ground. His practice ethic was legendary, as was the flight of his ball, the movement of his shot. I’ve read that one can not understand unless you saw it. Dig your story out of the ground. Don’t look for a specific story with laser focus, be ready to find a crack in the narrative that grabs and continues to raise questions that demand answers.

I’ve discovered this today while writing and reading. This post has been dug from the ground, and it’s only fitting that we close with another writing tip from the narrative master, Yogi Berra: “I want to thank you for making this day necessary.” — On Yogi Berra Appreciation Day in St. Louis in 1947. 

Harter here!

Writing Is Thinking?

gallery-thumbnails-4Someone who thinks logically makes a nice contrast to the real world. And you needn’t worry about what people think because they don’t do it very often. Thinking. Two Scotch witticisms that are especially useful today when I discover yet again that writing is actually thinking.

You might say it’s writer’s block in disguise. It’s not that there is some obstacle confronting our writer’s brain that makes us unable to write. It’s not a block at all; it’s simply the absence of thinking.

I must admit that writing, or the process of writing, which exists somewhere in the recesses of my brain has this finite coat of armor that seems to suggest it springs full-born when the writer takes a pen in hand or fingers to a keyboard, and rejects any notion that it could be otherwise. I allow this silly thought to permeate my brain, inculcating it with a poisonous mask guaranteed to stall whatever juices are moved by the muse. Surely, I am well aware that writing is rewriting, and all that attendant author baggage. We are a mass of contradictions, every one of us; it should not surprise me.

gallery-thumbnails-3If I think that writing is thinking – which is surely true – then there is no pressure to write because I’m thinking – thinking on paper, on screen, on point, target, whatever the on might be. The point is it’s an action that takes place in this moment and is something upon which I can build. No writing; no thinking. There’s your writer’s block! It’s a failure to generate thinking, not writing. The writing is a handy tool for making these thoughts visible and tangible for consideration and refinement. Unspecified thoughts floating about the brain fall into the category of dreams; you know, the stuff of filmy, gauzy, transparencies that evaporate with the slightest distraction.

Think out loud. Think on paper, on screen, on paper bags if necessary, and writing has the potential to materializes; not full-blown but begging for refinement, shaping, and pleading for us to enter the realm of thought to leave our unique imprint. After much thinking, and only after much thinking, does writing truly spring full-blown upon the page. It’s the ubiquitous over-night success on Broadway!

gallery-thumbnails-1I know that writer’s block is a crutch, it’s a warning sign in the Writer’s Storm, a none too subtle hint that thinking has left the building. If we simply think about what we are writing and not create by magical conjuring, our hearts will be rewarded.

It is amazing how transparent these ideas are when finally grasped. I know Writer’s Block is a crutch, an easement, a stalling tactic, a mental illness needed to justify our unwillingness to think. I’ve known it but never admitted it!

Till now.

Happy thinking! And let me know about the full-blown ideas that emerge…

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Writer’s Storm

Intransigent is the best description for our world. Regrettably is a most applicable modifier of that word grouping. Heels are dug in, eyes set, jaws are flexing, and language pejorative in tone; and, all instructive of a deeply felt anger for something: that is much of our world. There must be another path other than one which sets us up for conflict beyond the war of words experienced now; for surely, escalation is inevitable. Our world is being returned to tribes of localized domains, or is it more useful to say demons!

Man in stormAt sixty-eight years of age, I do not consider my life winding down, maybe it is just beginning to rev up; and, maybe my real value or purpose may only be coming into focus: later than never. I have spent more than forty years interpreting other people’s stories as a director and teacher of drama. It is time I begin telling my own stories for those things that most inflame my thoughts and passion. We need myth makers, a Joseph Campbell postulation that I have used on students for years, and should now turn back on the teacher. Stories, I believe, can be so more effective in moderating thought, because we experience through story, not just think. The time to think is after the story. The commonality among all of us – our humanity – is uniquely accessible through story, which can bypass current social and political filters, if done well. Sometimes, those cultural/tribal gatekeepers are so strong that penetrating to humanity becomes difficult. We protect ourselves from distracting or challenging thought by not listening, and burrowing deeper into our prejudice. And, the world is full of competing thought. Still, story may be the only way to sneak past those gatekeepers and awaken the basic humanity we share that knows no color, religion, political affiliation, or class distinction.

I once thought that I would reinvent myself after so many years of teaching and producing theater. Reinventing had a nice contemporary sound, flashy, hip, modern, with it, and all the other hype rampant on the internet. I started a blog, the purpose of which was to reinvent myself as a writer. I began writing about writing. If people could make a living helping when they really had no credentials for helping, then why couldn’t or shouldn’t I write? I quickly ran out of topics to write about concerning reinvention. Surviving and blogging were difficult to juggle. There is a lesson in that, however. Commitment is a hurdle many of us fail to clear on many levels, personal, socially, politically, and intra personally. Divorce is the easiest example. People changing jobs every year another. Nothing begins without commitment; but everything ends without it.

The truth of me may be I was never invented in the first place, so reinventing was… cheesy! Kitschy! This may not be a process of reinventing, so much as a process of discovery, understanding, or awareness. I was also skeptical of all these people making money by offering help in the form of coaching or from their published books. Digging deeper seemed to suggest to me they got rich by selling ways to get rich. They were not applying some learned knowledge gained by becoming successful at something else and extrapolating a method. They got rich offering to help people. There was something inauthentic about their methods. Now, let me make a distinction. I am not critical of people helping other people, far from it. These marketeers on the internet were simply jumping on a self-help craze without any real evidence to suggest they were capable of helping. It is one thing to offer support, quite something else to say let me show you how to do this. I didn’t do it previously, I’m doing it now.

imagesMy purpose is to be heard and understood as a voice of reason, moderation, and common sense for the greater good. Our world does not listen. We only understand what we understand, and make little or no effort to widen that knowledge, or embrace a greater breadth of experience. Stories can be an instrument of that purpose since they can become the new myths or guiding beacons for our personal behavior. Myth makers are essential for the mental health of any society. I am beginning to write stories intended to change how we see our world, and how we fail to appreciate the gaps in our understanding, which I believe to be considerable.

To that end, I shall publish at least weekly my current thoughts on my writing, sample chapters, or other relevant information about these topics. If I may use a metaphor, I’m calling these writings A Writer’s Storm. Conflict is the essence of any story, and the story of this journey of mine will surely involve conflict with forces unseen and perhaps only knowable in a limited sense – hence The Writer’s Storm. A storm will cease, at some point, and calm will ensue. I suspect these will be times to enjoy the completion of a project, or the calm may be otherwise known as Writer’s Block!

photog in stormWhat conflicts will I encounter in this storm? First, I’m not trained as a creative writer, and I have not been writing creatively for the past thirty years. I have not read a book a week for the past thirty years either. That’s not to say I don’t read. I have long had the desire to write, not the desire to be thought of as a writer, but the authentic desire to be heard and respected, to matter, to be authentic in my passion. The third challenge or conflict is mastery. A secondary goal, I suppose, might be to prove the sages wrong: I can produce valuable work without having written for thirty years, or reading for over thirty years. Ten thousand hours is theoretically the magic number for mastery, or 417 twenty-four hour days, or twelve-hundred and fifty eight-hour days, or 3.4 years of eight-hour days. That’s a steep climb, but I have been writing regularly for 4-5 years, just not in eight-hour chunks of time.

So, there you have it: the forces conspiring to keep me from my goals: 1. Training 2. Experience 3. Mastery. Fairly formidable challenges, I must admit; but, I suspect they might pale in the face of commitment and determination… otherwise known as “will.” Do I have the “will” to say I will and then do?

UmbrellaI invite you to share in this journey, to follow where my passion leads, and to comment on similar or disparate experiences. They will indeed be appreciated by me, and I expect anyone who happens to be on a similar journey.


-Writer’s Storm

Writers and Passion – Fire or Venom?

Recent events provoked me to question my passion, my desire to do what I purport to be necessary, and I wrote about that issue last week. It will not go away!

And shouldn’t.

Last time, I challenged my desire for success in comparison to what others are willing to do, and do in pursuit of their goals. The desire to achieve regardless of obstacles is oxymoronic; of course, it’s necessary. It’s easy to succumb to an obstacle; rationalization is a sneaky devil, one which never attacks when the writer is in full throttle. No, it’s waits for the smallest of openings to begin its subversive magic, multiplying with the veracity of vicious cancer. Recognizing those early openings becomes essential. A word about that later.


handsMy son, a professional photographer, spoke to me of a celebrated photographer – I can’t recall the name – and quoted the man as having said: “I’m not that talented, actually. I just work hard.” I’m equally familiar, as you, with that mantra. I’ve heard it voiced since I was a kid.

The better question might be “What stirs my heart?” Can it play to my writing? In what way?

There are several things that stir my blood, elevate my blood pressure, or cause me to pace and begin an internal monologue of fire and venom. One such catalyst is social injustice, the other being sports. This is not to suggest that my family’s well-being or safety does not motivate me; it does. I am addressing my creative life.

Many people might find these two catalysts unusual in their juxtaposition. I don’t. Sports reflect our social world, so it is for me reasonable that these two phenomenons should “trip my trigger.”


bustI am admittedly a news junkie, either consuming televised news reports, or reading newspaper accounts all the time. I shall also admit another source of news: Facebook. Facebook is a cesspool. Choirs preaching to the choirs with an amazing lack of civility, thought, and logic. I have enough friends and acquaintances on both sides of every issue that I am continually seeing passionate beliefs from both sides. What is instructive in Facebook is the level of venom and stiff-arm tactics from both sides. Nobody engages, all simply lob talking points that are not debatable. They are not debatable because of how they are phrased. If the statements contain an indictment they are not debatable! My take-a-way is that we are short on civil discourse and alarmingly lacking in willingness to engage. It takes great restraint for me to refrain from commenting on Facebook. There are no reasonable discussions to be had with the opposing choir! So, Facebook is actually sobering.

Suffice it to say politics boils my blood, especially when there is something I perceive as a social injustice, stupidity, or a failure to understand history. My book has evolved into a political statement of sorts. But, it is still difficult to write, remain true to the premise, and not make it preachy. This is difficult to do, as well. I’ve never tried to write a sports story…


With regard to sports, I love the storylines of sports. Watching the recent Wimbledon finals, the match between Djokovic and Federer was the quintessential distillation of all I mean to discuss today. Both men are passionate in their pursuit of a Wimbledon Championship, both men are talented and playing well. My personal favorite was Federer because it would have been an amazing achievement for a man 34 years of age – old in tennis-speak. People have written Federer off for the past year, but he has roared back with a dance on the court. Federer Turns Back the Clock, read the headlines.


Nobody beats time. Djokovic proved the better player today. Roger won something in a manner of speaking because he made it to the finals of Wimbledon yet again, but was turned back again in the finals by the same opponent of a year ago. I’m a sucker for the sports underdog, or the champion who does it right – ethics again.

Still time is the ultimate arbitrator – alliteration between arbitrator and traitor is too much to pass up. Time betrays us all, and perhaps time wins out over all the dedication, hard work, and passion we can muster.

So, if these things, politics and sports, seem to pull my strings, excite my passion, give rise to energy of action, I should try to utilize those two elements in my writing – simple enough, unless the real wall is time. No matter how much you may want, if there’s no energy to act… you’re screwed!

I mentioned earlier a return to a comment about aware of that creeping disease of rationalization. The one personal method I have used with some success to avoid the insidious encroachment has been meditation. Meditating twice a day, early morning and before going to bed, has helped maintain a healthy frame of mind and enable me to keep the real priorities firmly in the forefront of my mind. I recommend the use of meditation.


Where time is concerned, I have no other choice but to try and burnish my mind with resolve, ala Djokovic, and try to ignore the fact that his resolve defeated Federer, who probably just ran out of gas… Still we can find some measure of burnishing for the heart when we realize that while Rodger lost the Men’s Singles Championship at the Cathedral of Tennis, he nonetheless played in the finals. So, I may never be a run-a-way NYT Best Seller, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be published and read with respect.

There is something on which to meditate!

Since you have read this far, I shall offer a bonus: The following is a voice recording of yours truly reading one of his short stories. This particular story is a favorite of my son who thinks it cries out for development into something larger. It is my one and only venture into science fiction.