I didn’t write anything in March: Some thoughts on persistence

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Writing is tough work, and I think that is what turns so many people off of it. Sitting down at a computer with a blank screen can be daunting, and knowing where to start can prove overwhelming. Also, where speaking is a natural, biological thing we do as humans, writing is an invented technology and must be learned. Like anything worth doing, the work is hard to do. That being said, there really is one thing that can make it a little easier, and while this is mainly about writing, the advice here applies to anything that requires an element of labor in order to become good at something.

And so on to the point: I didn’t write a single thing in March. Various preoccupations kept me away, and while I could make plenty of excuses, what it really came down to was that I wasn’t leaving myself time to write, and so didn’t get very much accomplished. Of course, time off is both helpful and healthy, and it can lead to new ideas and better work as well; however, it can also lead to complacency, which, if you plan to write, is an easy trap to fall into. Basically, it’s far easier to not write and dream about that story or that blog post, than it is to actually sit down and do the work. The trouble, of course, is that story is never going to be written without the work that goes into it. There’s a quote that’s broadly attributed to Dorothy Parker (though there’s some evidence that it wasn’t original to her), that goes something like, “I don’t like to write, but I love having written.” I think this captures the sentiments of a lot of writerly types fairly well: we all like to have work that’s finished, but actually doing the work can be, well, work. And nobody likes work.

That, I think, is what makes it easy to step away from writing. At least it does for me. That being said, without the work, nothing is ever going to be accomplished. One of the major misconceptions about writing is that it’s some kind of magical process. It isn’t. Instead, it’s much more like training and developing certain habits of mind. As a parallel, if you wanted to paint, play piano, or get really good at running marathons (if you’re into such torture, I suppose), the logical idea would be to practice and train. That’s the only way to get better at those activities, and it works the same way for writing. Training for writing will lead to more and better writing in the same way that practicing the piano will make you better at piano. It isn’t rocket science, but it is surprisingly hard to do. This is where persistence comes in. I’ve heard the term “grit” used to express similar ideas, but I like the word persistence a little more. Persistence has an element of stubbornness to it that I think is important in the context writing. Basically, if you’re going to be a persistent writer, you are going to write. And that’s it. You’re not waiting for the voice of God for inspiration; you’re not daydreaming about published work or academic accolades; you’re writing.

I suppose the moral of the story, then, is don’t have a month like March was for me. This might be the closest I’ve come to a motivational post, but sometimes the reminder is helpful: if you want to write, and if you want to be a better writer, you’ve just got to keep writing. It will mean that you’ll produce a lot of stuff you wouldn’t want anyone to see, but that is what the backspace button is for.

-PWC

Abandoning major themes: storytelling advice from The Last Jedi

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Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Star Wars: The last Jedi came out in December of last year. It’s now April, so that makes this post just about 4 months later than it should be. I took the advice of a good friend and didn’t see it in the theater, so here we are after I finally got around to seeing it. The Last Jedi was a mediocre movie, even taking into account the rest of the Star Wars canon (and yes, I do mean the prequels), and it made a number of major mistakes along the way. The critiques of the story and the way that it treats the background lore of the Star Wars universe are many and varied, so I’m not trying to add to that mix. Instead, I want to focus on something that I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about when critiquing The Last Jedi: the major themes that the movie dropped from the overall story and what advice writers can take away from the failings of the movie.

First, some groundwork. In a story, the theme is what the story is really about. This is different from the plot in that the plot is all of the action of a story, and a theme is what the action is supposed to have us thinking about. Most good stories, and especially ones as expansive as Star Wars, have a number of themes that are supposed to draw our attention and get us thinking. In Star Wars, a good example of a theme is the way that various users interact with The Force. The Force itself is amoral, but the way that individuals use it determines its morality: they end up on the light side or the dark side. The theme, then, is getting us to think about how we interact with power, and what, as individuals, we should do with the powers and abilities we have. One of the ways that you can tell this is a theme in the story is that over the course of eight movies, it is an idea that keeps coming up again and again. This makes it different from the plot because each of the individual movies has its own plot lines. So far, so Star Wars.

As a storyteller, it’s important to think about what kinds of themes you are trying to write about, and how they interact with the plot, because the interplay between the two is what can make or break a story. Also, if you have a story that comes in multiple parts, a reader is going to be expecting the theme to carry through all the varying parts of the story. This could be individual chapters; this could be books in a series; or it could be individual movies. For example, I’m currently re-reading The Lord of the Rings, and a theme that repeatedly comes up all the way from The Hobbit to The Return of the King is that the humble halflings, the least of the peoples of Middle Earth, are the ones who save everyone. The idea being that it isn’t always the strong and the mighty who end up being heroes; sometimes, heroism comes from the least likely places. Now what would happen if halfway through, Tolkien just dropped this theme entirely? Say somewhere in The Two Towers, Gandalf takes the ring of power and uses all his might to blast open the gates of Mordor and throws the ring into Mount Doom. It would be an interesting twist, but would ultimately make for a very different story, and, at the same time, it would render all of what the hobbits had to do fairly useless.

The idea of this slight rabbit trail through Middle Earth is that if you abandon major themes of a story, you really fundamentally change the world you are writing in. Further, if you make those changes without solid explanations that make sense in the fictional universe, you’re going to lose your audience. That’s exactly the trap that Star Wars: The Last Jedi fell into, and it goes a long way in explaining the low audience score on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. There are probably more, but here are three themes that The Last Jedi abandoned without any good explanation.

  1. Family relationships: at the core of the Star Wars story is a theme about how fathers and sons relate to one another. What was Vader’s big reveal in to Luke? “I am your father.” What was Anakin’s surprise in the prequel movies? “There was no father.” Further, Anakin’s complaint about Obi Wan’s training? “He’s like a father!” The line that brings Darth Vader back to the light side? “Father, please!” A line Luke doesn’t finish because he’s getting electrocuted. Even more broadly, other family relationships come into the story as well. The thing that motivates Luke into nearly killing Darth Vader is that Vader finds out Luke has a sister. Anakin’s turn to the dark side happens after his mother is killed. You get the idea. The Last Jedi throws this theme completely out the window. There was plenty of buildup about who Rey’s family was going to be in The Force Awakens, and what was the payoff? Nothing. Rey’s family was no one. It’s interesting to see Star Wars branching away from the Skywalker bloodline, but there’s not really a solid, in-universe explanation for why this happens, and it completely drops a huge portion of what Star Wars is about. It also leads to problem number two.
  2. The Force: one of the single most brilliant things about the Star Wars prequels is that it made The Force biological. I know this got a lot of hate initially, but hear me out for just a second. This explanation of The Force took the abilities outside of the mystic mumbo-jumbo of the original trilogy and gave it a real explanation that works incredibly well in the Star Wars universe. This explains, for example, why Darth Vader is so powerful, and yet manages to be struck down by Luke. With Vader missing most of his limbs and being “more machine now than man,” he doesn’t have the organic tissue to actually harness and use The Force; however, his great power is transferred, genetically, to his son and daughter. Thus, Luke, having most of his limbs, is able to use The Force in a way that Vader cannot any more. This also explains why Leia is able to use the force in a limited way as well. Even without training, the biological power is such that she is still very strong in The Force. This even explains Kylo Ren who, although not a very impressive villain, is still very powerful: he’s still part of the Skywalker bloodline, and so still has the same power. Again, this is where Rey and her lack of a family becomes a problem. We get the idea that she’s incredibly powerful, but why? Where did it come from? Especially if her parents were just nobodies, how exactly is she so powerful? If it’s some kind of genetic mutation, wouldn’t that potentially mean other physical mutations as well? After all, we know she does have parents, so it isn’t some kind of born from The Force thing the way Anakin is. Dropping this theme creates too many questions, and, again, without a solid explanation, it isn’t doing the story any favors.
  3. Galactic Politics: answer this, if you can: why are the rebels rebelling? There isn’t much in the way of explanation given in the original trilogy, and from all we can tell, The Empire seems to be a fairly stable political structure with the infrastructure to employ plenty of people, and the funds to create enormous weapon systems. By all accounts, this makes the rebellion seem more like a force (no pun intended) for destabilization than anything else. There are two things that can go a long way in explaining why the rebellion is rebelling against The Empire, but we have to go slightly outside the movies. First, we need to ask a question: was The Empire really employing everyone? The actual answer is… no. In some of the books and comics set in the Star Wars universe, it gets revealed that The Empire is selling and keeping slaves to do the work. The movies touch briefly on slavery in the prequels as well, but this is mostly a non-canon explanation. That being said, it does go a long way in explaining how The Galactic Empire was able to grow: conquered planets weren’t just destroyed; instead, they were enslaved. Second, there’s a question of funds. Where exactly does The Empire get the money for what it does? The answer from logic and what we already know about real political systems is taxation. Yes, The Empire sells slaves, but that can’t be their only source of income. There must be some kind of taxation system in place. Additionally, there’s a lot of smuggling in the Star Wars universe, so we can make some interpretations about that too. Does The Empire set up trade regulations? Are they fixing prices or banning particular things? Since all of those tend to create black markets, we can assume that The Empire is doing all of that. So the crimes of The Empire are slavery, possibly heavy taxes, and possible over-regulation, banning, and price fixing. There’s one we haven’t touched on though: earthly empires do one thing the most: colonization. We can probably assume that The Galactic Empire was also setting up colonies on other planets, and we can also assume that colonization doesn’t look very different in space than it does on earth. So the cause of the rebellion, if anything, is quite possibly more libertarian in nature than anything else. They want freedom from slavery, taxes, regulation, and colonization. What does The Last Jedi do with this theme? Nothing. In fact, it changes it from liberty to hope for the oppressed and poor. This makes the rebellion in The Last Jedi more proletariat than libertarian. Now there’s the obvious response that The First Order is a different political system, and that’s true; however, from all that we can tell, they seem to be copying the political dynamics of The Empire. We can probably assume that they are also copying some of the crimes of The Empire as well. So is there an explanation for the change in motivations? Nope. At least, not an in-universe explanation.

These are just three examples of themes that The Last Jedi dropped without any good, solid explanation, and like the example I gave from Tolkien, it makes for a really different story. Basically, for a universe that has managed to stay more or less consistent in its themes for years, these were huge departures from established work, and, understandably, estranged the established Star Wars audience. So what is the advice here? Let’s say you’re a new writer. You have a story that you’ve written and a theme you’ve developed, but you’re also working on a part two that is going in a very different direction and has a different main theme, but you still want it to be connected to the same universe. If you don’t find yourself writing a different story altogether, then the advice is this: think of a convincing explanation. The theme-dropping in The Last Jedi is not necessarily the problem. It will divide loyal fans either way, but if it had a convincing explanation for the changes, then The Last Jedi would have been much more acceptable. So make theme changes if you want, but in a multi-part story, the important thing to keep in mind is that a convincing explanation for the changes will go a long way in making a coherent story and keeping readers convinced.

As an aside, this is true for a lot of other businesses as well. One of my favorite bars, for example, was an Irish pub that decided (seemingly on a whim) to become a tiki bar. That change had about the fan reaction that you could imagine.

Always have a good explanation, people!

-PWC.

Bright and verisimilitude: in which I write a review

This post contains major spoilers for Bright. If you haven’t already watched it, you should probably see it before you read this. You’ve been warned.

I know I’m in a little late to the game here, but I finally got around to watching Bright, one of the latest of Netflix’s movies to come out with some mixed reactions. The movie is essentially based around a question that sounds a little bit like something a literature grad student would ask after a few too many PBRs: what if you took a fantasy world and set it in modern times? And that’s essentially the Bright universe. Set in LA, the story takes place a couple thousand years after the defeat of The Dark Lord, an event that isn’t fully explained other than the fact that the orcs decided to side with him. After the defeat, and due to their poor decision, orcs are essentially treated as the lowest tier of a three-tiered social structure with Elves as the elite social class, and humans as (basically) the middle class. The story itself follows the characters Nick Jakoby, the first orc cop in the LA police force, and his partner Daryl Ward, a human police officer who is none to pleased to have Jakoby there. The plot is a somewhat by-the-numbers hero’s tale where a man (and, sorry for the sexism, it is typically a man in these stories) is pulled from humble beginnings because of circumstances that are outside of his control, is given or finds some kind of magical object, suffers some manner of temptation or dark time only to rise above and vanquish the evil. If that sounds like the plot of a lot of movies, it’s only because it is. It makes for fairly enjoyable, albeit somewhat repetitive, storytelling, and Bright is no exception. I liked the movie, but other than the fantasy world in the modern times, there’s not a lot that’s unique about it. This is generally why the movie came out to mixed and/or poor reviews, but there’s a more serious problem with the Bright universe that needs a little critique: the problem is magic.

I have to take a step back here to define a term first. Verisimilitude is the ability to appear true or real, and for fiction writers, this is the ability for a story to appear real. Basically, it’s the capacity for a story to be plausible, even/especially if it isn’t possible. This is, of course, something that all fiction has to deal with at some level, but it is a very particular issue for speculative fiction like fantasy and science fiction where, in the former, you have magic, mythical creatures, and magical objects, and, in the latter, you have potentially unbridled science and technology. Because in fantasy and sci-fi these things are so far removed from actual, lived experience, they require something that makes them believable and, most importantly to make them believable, something that makes them limited. Otherwise, what you end up with is a storytelling device that can potentially be anything and do anything. This renders any problems the characters have null and void because, hey, when in doubt, magic out, right?

There are two examples I can bring up here when it comes to verisimilitude in fantasy: Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Both of these universes have magic in them, but there are particularly important limits that are built into the story to make them believable. First, the Potterverse. In that universe, magic is potentially unlimited except for one key aspect: it has to be learned. This puts an important limit on the characters in that their use of magic is only as good as their capability to learn it, and in fact, some of the trouble that the main characters get into is actually because they don’t necessarily know all the spells needed to be able to do anything. Further, the fact that we see them learning from books means that magic is also discovered and written down by scholars who are experimenting with various capabilities. This leads the reader or viewer to two conclusions: first, a particularly gifted student could potentially become very powerful, but there are still going to be limits in terms of what a person could reasonably come to understand. Second, there would need to be experiments done in order to create and teach new spells which makes the understanding of magic in the Harry Potter universe (dare I say it?) scientific or, at the very least, empirical, leading to the conclusion that magic is not really an unlimited power. Granted, this verisimilitude completely breaks down when it comes to the magical objects in the universe (time turners and horcruxes? Really?), but at least for the characters, the magical system in Harry Potter is generally believable and never really becomes so powerful that the problems the characters face are easily resolved with the flick of a wand.

Speaking of magical objects, this leads us to Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. In these stories, magic is a given as well, but it actually is not nearly as prevalent as it could be. Aragorn’s miraculous healing is, well, miraculous, but other than that, Tolkien’s universe doesn’t really have much magic. Instead, Tolkien put most of the magical stuff into objects. The rings of power, for example, don’t really get their powers spelled out clearly, but are generally seen to inspire, to persuade, and, in the case of the One Ring, to control. This is true for many of the objects in Middle Earth. The named weapons, for example, are more like symbols of inspiration than truly magical objects, and even though there are wizards in middle earth, they are basically given the not-very-magical power of wise counselling to the other characters. Even when Gandalf comes back to life, it isn’t so much a miracle as it is the fact that he hasn’t finished his job and so gets resurrected. Once again, this lack of the divine-intervention-kind-of-a-thing that magic can be in a story makes the reader more invested in the actions of the characters because it leaves the reader thinking that the characters are 1.) believable, and 2.) actually facing a problem they can’t magic their way out of.

Let’s circle back to Bright. Magic is a given, and like Tolkien, it is all in the objects: magic wands, one of which has been found by the police officers, Jakoby and Ward. Are there some limits on the use of magic? Yes, only brights can use the wands without being exploded. At this point, a good fantasy writer would want to leave the viewer with some sort of explanation. What does it take to be a bright? Is there something that distinguishes the bright from everyone else? Is there a way to know that you are a bright if, in fact, you are? The movie gives us nothing, which, of course leads to a predictable plot point: one of the two cops is going to be a bright. How will this person find that out? By using the wand in a moment of desperation, of course. The lack of explanation leads to an incredibly predictable plot, and, since Will Smith plays one of the cops, it’s an easy guess as to who the bright is going to be.

We already know who is going to wield the wand then, so what does the wand actually do? Well, it’s hard to say. It has a very unexplained set of powers that includes the following, according to the movie:

  • Giving you a million dollars
  • Giving you ten million dollars
  • Making you taller
  • Making you shorter
  • Making your dick bigger
  • Time travel, I guess?
  • Explosions!
  • Resurrecting characters (who really should have died)
  • And sealing up/releasing The Dark Lord.

Basically, the magic is too powerful here, and, without any limitations or constraints other than the fact that only a bright can use it, the wand can potentially do anything. In a story line, all this does is make the challenges the characters face seem like they shouldn’t really be problems at all. This much power renders enemies impotent and dilemmas easily solvable. In short, it makes for a pretty useless plot.

Where, then, does this leave us? Bright was a fun movie. The action was great, the shooting and fight scenes were amazing, and even the slo-mo, bullet-time had me cheering. As a mindless action movie, Bright was worth the watch. Right up there with Pacific Rim, as far as I’m concerned. As a serious take on fantasy, the complete lack of an attempt at verisimilitude left a lot to be desired, and that isn’t even to comment on the issue of race relations that, I suppose, it was trying to touch on. That is a review for a different armchair critic. Should you watch it? Yeah, go for it. There’s a part two in the works, so I’ll see that one as well. Hopefully the second part fixes some of the issues.

But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

-PWC

You don’t have a calling or why I should go fishing

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There’s nothing quite like fishing. To go fishing is to get a nice breath of fresh air, to be outside in the sun, and to get time away from the city. It also allows you a time and a place to just sit for a while and think. Fishing is intentionally taking things slowly. Even fly fishing, although significantly more active than using bait, still involves a lot of patience and quite a lot of waiting. It’s a wonderful hobby, overall, and I tend to think that more people should get into it.

After having gone fishing quite a lot and caught quite a lot of fish, I know quite a lot about fishing. I’m even fairly good at it. I even have a few philosophical opinions about the differences between meat fishing and catch and release, and, on certain occasions, I have a fairly intense desire to go fishing. You could possibly say that I even feel called toward fishing. But of course, that’s absolute crap: I’m called to something else, right?

In all honesty, both ideas are incorrect. There’s a myth that many people believe in that goes something along the lines of “having a calling,” or “being called toward” some profession. Personally, I don’t buy it. The discussion quickly becomes overly deterministic when people are talking about callings: something like if you’ve added x, y, and z to your childhood the result will be that you’re meant to be a doctor. The other way having a calling is discussed is as a convenient shorthand for being passionate about something. Either way, there is one major flaw: people are always looking for a calling. One calling. Singular.

I would like to substitute the myth of the calling with two things: first, a range of possibilities that a person can engage in. Of course, there are some limits. I’m a little short to play professional rugby, for example, but within the range of things that I am capable of doing, there is quite a lot of possibility. For the vast majority of us, this is the case. Unless for some external reason we are being forced into one profession, most of us would be able to learn to do quite a lot of things and would be able to learn to do them well. Which is where my second substitution for the myth of the calling comes in: work. I would argue that, given the time, everyone could learn to do what they want, but the vast majority of people do not. The reason is simply that it’s work, and nobody likes work (there are people who claim to be workaholics, but they are liars and cannot be trusted). In the middle of all of this, of course, is passion. What a person is passionate about will lead them to be interested in working at it, and, of the range of possible things they could do, that passion will also lead to a particular path. That’s not a calling; that’s putting in the effort and being personally invested.

But perhaps that sounds an awful lot like a calling, so here’s where my real critique lies: the more people who are busy looking for their one purpose in life– their calling– the less interesting the world will be. What we lose there is people who are willing to bounce around a bit and try new things. Maybe there’s an accountant who has always wanted to be a singer, so what’s stopping that person from singing? If it’s that the accountant feels that accounting is a calling, then that is a poor choice, indeed. The idea of having one, singular calling is a strange limit that we put on human potential, and we would probably all be better off without it.

Let’s have one more anecdote to show my point: Franz Kafka. Whether you love or hate his writing, he is still remembered as a great author of the 20th century. His day job was writing insurance reports, and by all accounts, he was actually quite good at it. Think about that for just a second. Imagine what a loss it would be to the literary world if Kafka had decided that his calling was to write insurance reports instead of the surrealist novels he is known for. With that in mind, I would say that we’d be much better off forgetting the entire concept of having a calling along with all of its singular-profession determinism.

-PWC

On getting stuck in a writing rut and what I do about it

I managed to get myself stuck in a writing rut over the last week, so of course I did what anyone would in this situation (or so I imagine) and did a Google search for writer’s block. I’m not really certain what I was expecting, but what I got was an incredible display of writing advice. Some of it was good, most of it was bad, and all of it was a little too self-helpy for me, so I thought I would add my own advice to the mix: keep the word count in mind. By this, I don’t mean that all you need is to add extraneous detail to get to a required word count– here’s looking at you, beginning composition students. Instead, I mean that writing sometimes needs a definable, clear goal, or it can become maddening.

My own goal is to write around 500 words per blog post. The number gives me enough space to actually say something interesting, but not so much space that I ramble on and on. That is, of course, in addition to the various other things that I write, but the 500 word minimum has given me a clearly defined goal when it comes to writing. That being said, here’s the advantage, and here’s what setting a word count goal can do for writing.

The main advantage of a word count is that it feels like an accomplishment. This is true even when it really isn’t and all you’ve written is a hot, steaming pile of garbage. We’ve all been there, but at least you made the word count, right? Typically, there’s something in the garbage pile that is worth saving, and it’s easy to write more than the goal. This means that my advice is to set the bar reasonably low when it comes to word counts. One hundred words is probably too low, but if that’s where things start, so be it: revel in the 100 words. The feeling of accomplishment will probably be enough to keep the writing going for at least another 50.

Setting a word count can also provide you with some much needed parameters. Writing is difficult, after all, and writing with no clear ideas can be even more difficult still. It isn’t much, but a short word count can give you a nice box to work in, and it can make a useful jumping off point if something needs to be longer. Again, no one is saying that you can’t write more. The problems only come about when the word count is consistently missed. That can quickly become demoralizing. Meeting the goal not only helps writing, but it can also make you want to write more. If 500 words is too easy, add another hundred and then keep going.

I tell my students every semester that I teach writing that it was a skill that can be practiced. I might argue that getting out of writing ruts and avoiding writer’s block are also fairly easy to practice as well. A quick, 500-word practice is enough to keep me writing, and as it becomes easier and easier to do, it might just be a quick warm-up instead.

-PWC

Getting back to writing

After a few years of teaching writing, I finally asked my students a question I’ve been getting at for quite some time, but never really put into words before: what is a good writer? Now that I’m out of the classroom and will be for a while, I’ve got a chance to reflect a little on what I learned from asking the question. I can’t necessarily share their answers directly because of various policies about student work, but to summarize a lot of the answers, a good writer, to them, was a persistent writer. Someone who just keeps on going and going. I admit that lately, I haven’t done much of that myself. At a certain point, I put down my pen or stopped typing and just never really picked it back up. Habits are like that. You can do the exact same thing for years until one day, you don’t. I was a habitual writer until I wasn’t. There wasn’t any particular reason why; no grand lessons to be learned or anything– I just stopped.

This, then, is my attempt to rectify the situation. I’ve had a knack for writing that I built for quite a while. Quite a long while, in fact. Since I was teaching first year composition at the university level, I went back once to look at my own first year essays. I either had kinder teachers than I am, or the standards were very low where I got my associates degree. My writing was terrible, but I somehow passed my classes. I saw writing, at the time, as a challenge: I knew what I wanted to say, so the question was, how could I get that across clearly to another person? So I kept at it and practiced and learned until I was a fairly good writer. Those skills don’t ever really leave (it’s somewhat like riding a bike), but they can remain dormant for years.

I didn’t completely abandon writing, of course. I went for and completed a master’s degree, but writing for classes– even for graduate school classes– is not exactly the same as writing for the enjoyment of writing. And, now that I’ve finished my graduate work, the path forward is one big question mark. I’ve decided, then, to pick up where I left off, as much as I can anyway, and continue to write. That’s the plan for the time being: no particular aim in mind, no particular agenda, just writing for the sake of writing: writing to get back into the habit of writing. I might add something to my students’ views of what makes a good writer. Persistence, yes. Practice certainly helps as well; however, I would add that the other thing that can make a good writer is the ability to come back to it. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to keep writing again. After all, writing is an active process and it is far easier to be passive; however, that’s just an inclination toward laziness that all of us have. For my part, I’ve decided to use the time I’ve got and this space to keep writing. And maybe that will make me a good writer, too.

-PWC