Uncovering Original Ideas

There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.

~ Mark Twain

The sentiment above can be found in Twain's autobiography, and I find it to be an artful way of communicating what I think is simply a plain truth in the world of storytelling--it's all been done before. 

Original ideas are exceedingly rare, and by that I mean that we're talking generational timelines here. The major literary blockbusters of the new millennium aren't original stories. Fifty Shades of Grey and the Twilight saga have been done before (and much better, I might add); even J.K. Rowling's admittedly imaginative magnum opus, the Harry Potter series, owes a narrative debt to the works of such masters as C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle.

I find this idea liberating and comforting, all at the same time. I recently finished my first fiction since wrapping up my doctoral degree at UCF (a novella about introducing shoggoths into the treatment of infertility), and it has been exhilarating taking work back out on submission and then settling into another story. 

I ran hard today, thinking about which of the dozen or so stories that have been banging around in my head I wanted to write would be. I thought about length and plot and themes and markets. I thought about deadlines and workflow and attempting something new and fresh.

And I found an "in" and I'm thrilled to be working on the next story. 

But the truth remains that every story we write is the product of taking an old idea and running it through the mental kaleidoscope. If the story works and is well told, creative, and says something about the human condition, then the writer has succeeded in making a "new and curious" work of art.

This is a great thing, and it's why I kick back every night for a few hours with a good book. I love reading different approaches to communicating universal truths.

I just read Ray Bradbury's sinister, delightful, perplexing, and masterful short story "The Veldt." It's a vicious tale, told largely in spare, keen dialogue punctuated sporadically with Bradbury's trademark virtuosity for breathless, whimsical description.

But is it a story about technological overreaching? That's a large part of it, sure, but at its core its about patricide and matricide, and the uncanny emotions of the maturing child. In that way, it's as timeless as the works by the ancient Greeks and just about everything in between--up through contemporary stories like Stephen King's "Children of the Corn."

It's important for writers never to become paralyzed by the looming specter of originality. Doing so may actually have an inverse effect, in which an attempt to create something wholly unique spins the artist off into the realm of foolishness, incoherence, or absurdity. 

Keep that imaginative cupboard in the back of the mind open. Listen to the world around you, and work to find those interesting connections that add depth and complexity to timeless human stories. Doing so is a clear and honest path toward good storytelling...


"Heartbeat" by Mat Kearney

Sometimes a person just needs a bit of positive dance music to get going, so here is one of my favorites by the serially underrated Mat Kearney. Mat's an Oregonian, by the way...


Moving The Players Championship Back to March

 I first attended The Players back in 2006, which was the last year that the tournament was contested in March. It was a riveting event, and it catalyzed my love for attending PGA Tour events live. There is something about watching the approach to the game by those who make millions playing it that is both inspirational and instructive. I have always enjoyed studying how these players prepare, carry themselves, and interact with each other and the fans.

PGA Tour professionals are great with interaction. I've seen superstars like Fowler, Spieth, and Day spend hours signing autographs. Phil gives fist bumps. Bo Van Pelt once complimented my daughter, and Vaughn Taylor and I had a conversation. These athletes are approachable and genuine, and watching them has been a pleasure. It's why I not only attend The Players Championship, but I also attend the Winn Dixie Open and the RSM Classic up in Georgia.

Good times...

So when the news broke last night that The Players had moved back to March, my wife was super stoked. Since 2007, the tournament has concluded on Mother's Day. That's a good thing for moms that love golf, but not such a great thing for moms that are indifferent, but who are married to husbands that love golf. Couple that with my son's birthday in early May, and the tournament has always been contested at a congested time in our personal schedule.

My wife was excited. Me...I'm fine either way, and I mean that sincerely. It's cooler in March, but I love wearing sweaters and the rain didn't bother me at the tournament that I attended. Will the weather chase away some fans?

Possibly. I think the social fans that come out after 5:00 p.m. to be seen around 17 on Friday evening might find other things to do. But the tournament will be more comfortable for walking fans like me (I once walked more than twenty miles in a day, watching it from the first group to the last) and I don't expect it to compete too directly with March Madness.

I love golf, and this is my favorite tournament of the year. What can I say? Sawgrass puts on a great show and puts up a great test. That isn't going anywhere, and everything will be fine in March.

In the final analysis, this will be a good move that makes the PGA Tour better overall. It cements a huge tournament in every month from March through August, and it makes the FedEx Cup a better set of events because it won't have to compete with the NFL.

I hear so much negative feedback about the move, but that feels like a lot of hype to me. The tournament might lose some of the sun dresses, but that was never what it was about anyway. The Bogey Grille isn't going anywhere, so play golf, fellas!


Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

I was fortunate to steal a little bit of time last week to see movies in the theater with both of my girls. My daughter and I enjoyed Spiderman: Homecoming on Wednesday, and my wife and I watched War for the Planet of the Apes on Friday. These were two fine films, but Mats Reeves's contribution to the Planet of the Apes series was hands-down the finer film. In fact, I don't think I've seen anything this year that I enjoyed (or would recommend) more than that film.

Reeves tells a compelling story that pays homage to Apocalypse Now (in one subterranean scene, someone has scrawled "Ape-pocalypse  Now" on the wall in red paint) while commenting on the nature of intelligence and the importance of speech. The movie plunges us into the central conflict with some expository notes on the simian flu just before a harrowing battle scene. The pacing here was excellent. Reeves (who co-wrote and directed) seems to have a keen eye for when to take the foot off the gas an allow for some fine moments of narrative reflection.

This film impressed on all fronts for me. The writing was excellent, the acting was strong (Woody Harrelson gives one of his best turns in a long time here--his final scenes are riveting), the effects are believable and will hold up over time, and the score was pitch-perfect. It's rare that I notice the score very often in great films, and that's usually a good thing. I don't like to be given clues about by emotional temperature by the filmmakers. But I was cognizant of the score (that insistent, single-note piano snippet particularly) throughout this film and it was always complementary to the storytelling. This is a violent film that feels contemplative and reflective as well. It's definitely a film that asks some important questions about the nature of mercy, the importance of our ability to articulate our thoughts, and the horrors of genocide.

Andy Serkis, as is usual for his work, is awesome here as Caesar. The swagger, gate, and facial expressions he renders bring the character to life, making the film's third act all the more difficult to swallow.

I give this film an 'A' mark and put it high up there in the pantheon of recent sci-fi and fantasy coming out of Hollywood. Give it a look in the theaters, friends, because you'll want to feel that audio in the film's violent conclusion. I thought Cinema 14 was launching for outer space, right there beneath my feet...


I Am Pulling For You, Blake!

The Jacksonville Jaguars picked up the fifth-year option on Blake Bortles yesterday and, predictably, this news is the talk of the town. I think it's even overshadowing the risky maneuver the Jags pulled to draft Dede Westbrook.

Starting quarterback is the most important position in all of American professional sports because it is the most important position in the most lucrative and popular league this country has. The fortunes of these teams rise and fall with quarterback play, and finding a trustworthy signal caller is the core of any NFL scouting department's mission.

The Jaguars have struggled in recent years to draft a franchise quarterback. Byron Leftwich had a cannon and he was tough as nails but his mechanics were off and he never could get it going here in Jacksonville. Blaine Gabbert has all of the measurables, but Gene Smith and company never put a decent team around him. He's not a great quarterback, as evidenced by what he's done in San Francisco, but I think things could have gone much better for him if we could have surrounded him with even an average offensive line and receiving corps.

Blake Bortles is an interesting case study in this subject. He had a rough go of it as a rookie, piled up some fine stats in his sophomore year en route to breaking the Jacksonville touchdown record, and then seriously regressed last year. But even in that regression, he played two strong games (including one with around a 70% completion percentage) with a new coaching staff. Did Doug Marrone pull something out of Blake that Gus never could have, or is that sample size too small for any meaningful analysis?

I think it was wise of the Jaguars to pick up the option on Bortles because I believe that he can be a top-twelve NFL quarterback. I also see it as relatively low risk and high reward, as outlined in this rundown from the Florida Times-Union. Blake has some major financial incentives to put this team on his back and improve his play, but I don't even think those incentives are the end-all and be-all of why he will succeed here in town.

Blake is tough. His teammates appreciate that and they play for him, even if he doesn't always throw the best ball.

Blake is mobile. Yeah, he's had 23 and 22 combined turnovers in the last two years, but his critics rarely discuss the many times that he has scrambled for first downs and touchdowns.

Blake can get the ball downfield. He led the league in 2015 in passes of longer than twenty yards.

He needs to take better care of the ball and improve on his touch and accuracy, but I think he's a smart guy and a great athlete. I really hope that he is improving his mechanics and training hard in California, or all of this will be for naught. I'll let those rumors of Blake's bar habits out at the beach alone--the man is 21 and can do what he pleases, but he needs to follow the example of players like Brady, Brees, Winston, Mariota, and Newton, who all take exemplary care of themselves in the offseason.

I would say that, for Blake's career, he has been above average 75% of the time. He has been bad 25%. He has never been great. 

Can he get there? Which Blake will lead the Jags in 2017? I'd like to think we'll see the great version of Blake Bortles, and it's not just because I'm a UCF alum. I love my Jaguars and I don't want to go back to square one. I want Blake Bortles to be the man here, make that option pay off, and take this team to the postseason.

I am pulling for you Blake. Make it happen... 


The End of A Vast Landscape and the Beginning of a New Journey...

I began researching graduate schools in late 2011 with an eye toward finding a terminal credential that would help me improve my skills with digital composition, communication theory, and media studies. I looked at programs across the country that had a variety of different approaches. There were creative writing PhD programs, American Studies programs, and old-fashioned English PhD programs. I got into some and was denied entry into others. I thought seriously, albeit fleetingly, about a move for our family that would have taken us into a completely different part of the country.
Ultimately, I found a program in Orlando at the University of Central Florida that has exceeded my expectations and helped me grow as a scholar and a person in ways that I never could have anticipated when I began attending classes in the fall of 2012.

UCF was rigorous, practical, and engaging. I took courses in HTML and XML theory, Web design, transmedia narrative theory, electracy, technical writing, modern rhetoric, writing for the Web, and cultural studies. I published three essays, completed thirteen classes, passed three qualifying exams, composed a six-chapter, 300-page dissertation, and successfully defended that research project in a culminating exam last week.


I am very thankful to UCF and to the faculty in the Texts and Technology program. The aims of the program, which combines traditional and historical communication theory with cutting edge computer science, are perfectly applicable to my work in Florida State College at Jackonsville's Converged Communication program. I have forged friendships and made relationships that I plan to keep well into the future, and I know that I am a stronger writer because the work I have completed has been met with greater enthusiasm by editors and readers. 

I am participating in commencement in a few weeks with my family in attendance, and that will formally conclude at least one part of the process. But beginning with my classes at FSCJ in May, I will begin a new journey as I completely re-vamp my teaching approach and curriculum to help our students at FSCJ. 

These are exciting times, and I couldn't have arrived at this place without UCF, the Texts and Technology program, and T&T's amazing faculty and community of scholars.


The Wind Through the Keyhole

I am re-reading The Wind Through the Keyhole, and I am enjoying it just as much the second time through as I did a few years ago. I love the narrative approach here, as Sai King both fills in some backstory on Roland's life as a greenhorn gunslinger while also delivering a truly delightful (if not somber) embedded narrative in the center of the tale. 

King does this often, and to great affect. Whenever writers trot out that old saw about showing versus telling, folks are curious about the actual strategies one might use to reveal character or setting or plot in a way that feels natural and unforced. That is showing, and one of the best strategies is to tell a related story. King wants to illustrate the scope of Bobby Fornoy's genius in "The End of the Whole Mess," so he has his narrator tell a pair of stories about how he built a glider and a radio as a child. His chilling novella 1922 is chock full of great tangential, but wholly engaging and necessary, stories. All of it amounts to depth and complexity in the storytelling. 

I am also reminded of King's depth as a writer when I revisit his stories from this universe. It's easy to overlook his skills in writing magical realism and epic fantasy, but one shouldn't. He's got a lot of Tolkien and Lewis and Bradbury in him, to be sure...

This is a fine novel for both engaging with a great story and studying the structure of a pithy fantasy with a keen embedded narrative...


Mapping A Future...

There are any number of ways that a young person just beginning his or her adult life can approach the future. I knew in my bones when I turned about fifteen that I had to leave Eastern Oregon. I did just fine in high school--3.5 GPA and played a sport in every season. I took AP courses and I enjoyed learning and the teachers I was fortunate to work with in Pendleton.

But I knew that I had to attend college and earn a degree in order to satisfy myself and achieve my goals. I focused, again, on sports. When I think about my youth, it was always concentrated on two things: sports and the outdoors. When I lived in John Day, I lived to fish and play baseball. By the time I had moved to Pendleton, my passion was playing soccer. 

I applied (and was accepted) to Oregon, WSU, Gonzaga, and Linfield. The last option was the only place where I could realistically play soccer in college, so that is where I went. 

We drove across the state in early August. I had just turned eighteen. My mom and dad helped me set up my room and look for a job in McMinnville, and then soccer started and it was brutal. Mac is hot and humid in August. There were about forty of us trying out for nineteen spots. We practiced twice a day in the sweltering heat, and campus was empty because we all showed up two weeks before the rest of the campus population. 

It was a trying, exhilarating, nerve-wracking time for me, but I worked my ass off and made the team. So began my Linfield journey, and I'm thankful for what I learned at that school every day.

I played soccer and ran track there. I earned my bachelor's degree and met my wife and joined the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity and I made the bulk of my best friends. I still speak with the guys that stood up for me at my wedding at least monthly. We still get together every year, and I miss them all the time.

What I'm saying is that Linfield gave me my life, and I'll always be thankful for that. I have moved on to other places and attended other schools, but I know my formative learning took place in McMinnville.

When students ask me for advice on the future, I tell them to be mindful of their studies, their goals, and their expenses. Oh, yeah...Linfield is a private school and is a bit expensive. I still owe some money on my student loans and I am about to hit forty years of age.

Still, I don't regret any of it, and I will have these loans finished off soon. I think it's important for young people to work backwards from the important goals--family, location, and work--in planning their futures. 

Be mindful of which jobs will satisfy you. Prepare for a family, if that is a goal, and carefully pick where you plan to live. 

We targeted Florida because of everything it has to offer our family. Fishing, camping, hiking, kayaking, golf--this place is Eden, in many respects. We had opportunities in other places, but California and Alaska weren't in the cards. Florida, thankfully, was...

I think it's important to save, plan, prepare, and work. I delivered pizzas, waited tables, transplanted grape vines, coached soccer, taught at an after-school program, and managed a video store in McMinnville. I took a full load of courses and ran track and played soccer. I did it all so that I could have a future with Jeanne and a life in the moment. 

So enjoy your time in school, but look toward the horizon. What kind of life will you have in your thirties? What about your forties? Where will you live, and how will you live? 

Now is the time to pose those questions, and also to take actionable steps toward giving them some answers...


The Silver Coast

The bell clanged and Ali sprang from the stool like he’d been shot out of a canon. He danced around the periphery of the ring and, even as the trespasser moved in for the kill, it was clear this was a different fighter. Ali peppered the great shadowed face with four piston-quick rights—holy-hell-and-sit-aside-momma shots. The last stunned the bastard, and Ali pounced. The creature covered up and Ali wormed his way underneath, jacking his fist up and up and up and up again, and then one final time, beneath the trespasser’s mitts, rocking him backward with each blow.
And now that hideous face was changing. Fleming squinted in the dim light. He leaned forward and saw, from the corner of his eye, that Scott and Carter were doing the same.
The trespasser threw a roundhouse and Ali ducked it. The great man spun clear and thundered a savage blow to the back of the creature’s head. A shower of black, viscous gelatin spackled the canvas floor, mixing there with Ali’s blood. 
And now Ali roared! His bellow filled the gymnasium, and Fleming felt chills race down his back. Dundee shrieked encouragement from the corner, punching the air like a trader on Wall Street. The trespasser turned and stumbled across the ring, looking for refuge, but Ali stalked him, throwing punch after punch.

Care to read more about Ali's last fight? Try The Silver Coast and Other Stories...

Welcome, 2017!

While 2016 was satisfying for our family on so many fronts, I can't help but get excited about turning the page in 2017. This stems from nothing more than the urge to improve. Working in academia offers educators so many opportunities for renewal. Because of the evolutionary nature of information, progress, technology, and communication (among so many other critical domains), we always have something new and interesting to discuss. Because of the nature of new student groups, new teaching windows, and different teaching modalities, educators can always tweak things or add texts or revise materials. 

I do this for at least one class every year, and I'm excited to say that I am going to completely revise the materials for both American literature and technical writing in 2017. I am going to teach some different writing assignments, use some new technologies (spicy nodes and glogster), and bring some different texts into the fabric of what I'm doing with students. 

I am excited to coach Lyla's soccer team again this spring. After teaching a full night schedule at FSCJ and working Monday-Thursday from 4:30-10:00 p.m. (after looking after Luke all day), it will be a blessing to get back outdoors with the kids this spring. Children are filled with optimism, and I've been blessed to work with so many that are truly coachable. They can take criticism and they try hard, and that's all a coach can ask for...

I'm writing fiction again! I have been asked to contribute a pair of themed short stories in 2017, and I am working on another collection of short stories. What can I say, it's my favorite medium...

I am thrilled to be nearing the end of my work at UCF. I couldn't have picked a better program of study for the work I am doing at FSCJ, and I am very thankful for the help and guidance I've received in the last year in developing my dissertation...

In terms of sports, man...things can only get better. Let's go, Oregon. Let's go, Portland Trailblazers. Let's go, O's and Jags! C'mon, Knights! Let's go, Jumbo Shrimp (yep, that's our minor league team here in Jacksonville)...

I'm going to read more for pleasure this year. I'm going to cook and bake, and I'll have a few rounds in the 70s on the golf course. I'm going to help people when I can, and I'll be sure to ask for help when I need it on my end. This is how we make it--by relying on each other as members of a community.

I resolve to remain politically involved in where I live and how I live. I think now, more than ever, we have a real need to become monitoring citizens in this American democracy, and part of that is speaking out about issues that need to be addressed. The Rogerian compromise is something I see a lot of value in, and I plan to work hard to listen more and strive for compromise where possible.

Be well where you are, and best to you and yours in 2017. Make it a great year--a year of growth and renewal!

You Know When It's Good

If you spend any real time at the word processor, you understand that sometimes the writing flows and you just know in your heart and in you...