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MFA in Writing at Vermont College

Sunday, June 2, 2013

I am not depressed!

I am not depressed!

There, I got that out there.  I know my last few posts have leaned toward the negative side but that does not mean I am depressed.  No mother, I am not taking medication.  No Aunt Laverne, I am not standing on the edge of a cliff.  I have merely been sitting at my writing desk trying to pound out my latest story.

I fear that negativity is a hazard of the job.

I Googled “depressed writer” and I came up with 7,170,000 hits.  That’s a lot of depression.  Seriously!



Ernest Hemingway, John Keats, Proust and Mark Twain were all rumored to have suffered from depression.  A quick search of “writers who committed suicide” yielded over 400 names including greats such as Virginia Woolf, Hunter S. Thompson and Sylvia Plath.  

There is quite a bit of internet space dedicated to why so many writers are susceptible to depression.  Theories from lack of exercise to lack of a steady income to insupportable loneliness exist.  My good friends at Quirk and Quill recently wrote a blog on just this topic.

It is true that I could stand to exercise more, that I have yet to earn a penny from writing and my wife would certainly support the fact that I spend too much time alone at the computer.  But I am not depressed.

I have made a pact to be more positive.  I even Googled ‘happy writer’ for advice. Here is what I found:

FINISH YOUR S***!                         - Chuck Wendig

Don’t quit your day job                 - Nathan Bransford


Okay, so perhaps the uplifting isn’t so uplifting after all.

My point here being… writing is full of self-doubt.  As a writer I constantly second guess what I am writing. I accept this fact.  It is what I have chosen to do.  It doesn’t mean I am moving to Key West to drink beer and sleep with cats. 


In fact, today I plan to make a large glass of lemonade, turn the baseball game on the radio and write the next chapter of my novel.  Life is pretty good if you ask me.


Friday, May 24, 2013

The Best Lines Ever Written

The best lines ever written:

My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
                                                                                    John F Kennedy

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

                                                                                    Abraham Lincoln

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

                                                                                    Catcher in the Rye

We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

                                                                                    M.T. Anderson 

Frankly, my dear.  I don’t give a damn.

                                                                                    Rhett Butler

The End!

                                                                                    Me (finished rough draft tonight!)

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Greatest Rejections of All-Time

1981 – A second grade Jeff slowly approaches the girl of his dreams on the school playground.  In his hand he holds a homemade valentine card that he has spent all evening designing.  Inside the cut out heart are the hand written words, Will You Be Mine.  Jenny B. stands alone by the slide, her golden hair radiating in the sunlight.  Jeff senses the moment.  He approaches slowly and hands Jenny B. his heart.  Jenny looks around and yells, Cooties! loud enough for the entire playground to hear.  She runs away leaving Jeff alone with his heart. Rejected!


1988 – It is the last day of eighth grade.  The class organizes a boy - girl bike ride to the park after the final bell.  Everyone is supposed to meet at the bike racks.  Jeff eagerly awaits.  When the final bell rings Jeff yelps with excitement, stuffs the remnants of his desk in his backpack and scampers to Rawhide, his trusty bike.  At the bike racks he discovers that this boy –girl bike ride is actually a boyfriend-girlfriend bike ride.  Apparently there is a difference.  He counts the boys, there are twelve.  He counts the girls, there are eleven.  He suddenly knows who the odd man out will be.  Rejected!


1989 – It is the day of the big football pep rally. All members of the football team have been instructed to bring their jersey to the event.  Jeff eagerly puts on his number 45 and proudly walks to the gym hoping to be the one chosen to burst through the paper sign held by the cheerleaders and lead the team onto the field in front of a roaring crowd.  However, when he gets there he discovers that none of his teammates are wearing their jerseys.  Instead he finds them handing their uniforms to cheerleaders who quickly slide their favorite player’s jersey over their outfit.  As the team bursts through the paper sign and onto the field in front of the roaring crowd Jeff is the last in line and the only player wearing his jersey.  Rejected!


1990 – Jeff’s older brother, and chief basketball rival, has left for college.  That leaves him to play one-on-one against his younger sister.  He hopes to earn a starting spot on the varsity team this winter and is eager to polish his jump shot.  His sister reluctantly takes the court.  As she approaches, Jeff jabs left , backsteps, then quickly spins right.  He sees an opening, takes two dribbles and goes hard to the basket.  Out of nowhere his sister appears, arms outreaching, pinning his layup against the gutter overhang of the garage.  The ball rolls down the drive and out into the street.  He has been Rejected!


1998 – Jeff goes to Best Buy to purchase his first cell phone.  He is sure this is the only reason he does not have a girlfriend.  The throngs of women simply have no way to reach him.  He slowly looks over the selection careful to ask questions about each.  He narrows down his choice and points to the perfect phone.  The clerk smiles and tells him it was an excellent decision.  Jeff follows the clerk to the front register dreaming of future dates.  The cashier smiles as she rings up the purchase.  But she frowns as she slides Jeff’s credit card through the machine.  She frowns deeper as she tries again.   And again.  Jeff’s credit card has been Rejected!


2006 – There is a knock on the door.   A month ago Jeff has sent out his first manuscript to a literary agent.  He has been eagerly awaiting a reply ever since.  He opens the door to find the mailman holding the large manila self-addressed stamped envelope that Jeff had sent out a month earlier.  The mailman is holding out his hand as the postage was short.  Jeff owes twenty one cents.  Jeff digs in his pocket and hands over the coins.  He tears open the envelope before the mailman is even down the stoop.  Inside is a form letter of Rejection.  Jeff has just paid for his first Rejection!


2013 – Jeff receives another Rejection letter from a literary agent!  His rejection streak is still intact!  He is sure he is officially the greatest Rejectee in history!




Monday, April 1, 2013

Buzzer Beaters, Bracket Busters, Cinderella and One Horrific Leg Injury

My eyes are bleary and my pupils are bouncing like ping pong balls in a lottery hopper.  My legs are cramping from lack of use.  The shower stall is dry.  The couch has a permanent pocket imprint on the cushion.  There are Doritos crumbs on the carpet.  And my cheeks are sore from the permanent smile that has been plastered on my face for the past two weeks.

Here is what I have learned from watching 64 basketball games in a two week span:

Buzzer Beaters

A basketball game plays out like a good book.  The plot line pushes the action forward building anticipation as it moves.  Tension is heightened and suspense grows as thick as fog.  And through all of this the audience is taken on an emotional ride.  Your heart beats faster as the players sprint out to a fast break, the pit of your stomach drops as the ball rolls off the rim and you scream in agony when the referee calls a foul against your team.

But despite all of this it is the ending that resonates.  That one last shot where everything the characters have worked for the entire game hangs in the balance.  Will the ball drop in and the main character be victorious or will the ball clank off the rim in disappointment?

It must all come down to that one last shot.


Give me a 16-seed making a run at a mighty 1-seed and I am hooked.  I was enthralled with the miraculous march of 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast University into the Sweet Sixteen.  To me the NCAA tournament is about the upsets. 

Perhaps that is why my characters tend to be down-on-their-luck kids trying to make good, but finding a whole lot of trouble instead. Who doesn’t like to root for the underdog?  

What odds do our characters face?  If they are not steep enough lets ramp them up to NCAA tourney heights!

Bracket Busters
My brackets need to be blown up!  Seriously,  I can't pick a game to save my life. 
But you know what?  Despite the fact that my bracket has more red marks than my old physics exams I still had a blast.
So when that story you are writing takes a sudden and unexpected turn... take a deep breath... sometimes we don't quite know where we are going but the results are fun none-the-less!
One Horrific Leg Injury

After Sixty-three games of the basketball tournament you would think there would be very little that could surprise me.  But that is when the unexpected tends to jump out and grab you. 

I wasn’t much into the Louisville-Duke game the other night.  In fact, I was fairly indifferent toward the teams and was pretty detached from the whole game.  You could say I felt no attachment to the characters. 

That is until about half way through the game when one of the Louisville players contested a jump shot, landed wrong and suffered one of the most horrific leg injuries I have ever seen in a basketball game.  But it wasn’t the injury that captivated my attention as much as the reaction of his teammates.   The game came to a sudden halt and several Louisville players dropped to the ground in a heap, tears streaming down their faces and eyes wide with shock.  Teammates and coaches tried to lift them to their feet but the players appeared inconsolable.  As the injured player was being wheeled out on a stretcher the coach tried to huddle his team together as he himself fought back tears.

I was immediately hooked.  The characters that for the past hour  I had viewed with indifference now took on a whole new light.  I cared about these characters!  More than anything I wanted to see these characters succeed.  It was no longer just a story playing out before me.  This story now had emotion.

I felt this game in the depths of my heart.

You must not come to the blank page lightly

After witnessing their teammate withering in pain on the side of the court I expected the Louisville team to quickly cave to the mighty Duke Blue Devils.  But I was completely surprised when Louisville did just the opposite.  They did not appear timid or afraid… just the opposite.  They attacked their opponent with smothering defense and aggressive drives to the basket.  They bombarded the Blue Devils with powerful moves to the hoop and long range three pointers. 

I was reminded of Stephen King who once said, “You must not come to the blank page lightly.”  To be successful writers we must attack the page no matter what obstacles or hardships we may face.  Rejections, insecurities, bad critiques or stalled stories must not deter us from our goal. 

Always push forward.   

Write on my friends… write on!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

One Shining Moment

Tomorrow tips off the greatest two days of the year. Thirty-two basketball games in forty-eight hours! And I plan to watch them all.  

The ball is tipped
and there you are
you're running for your life
you're a shooting star
And all the years
no one knows
just how hard you worked
but now it shows...
One Shining Moment, it's all on the line
One Shining Moment, there frozen in time

But time is short
and the road is long
in the blinking of an eye
ah that moment's gone
And when it's done
win or lose
you always did your best
because inside you knew...
One Shining Moment, you reached deep inside
One Shining Moment, you knew you were alive

Feel the beat of your heart
feel the wind in your face
it's more than a contest
it's more than a race...

And when it's done
win or lose
you always did your best
because inside you knew...
One Shining Moment, you reached for the sky
One Shining Moment, you knew
One Shining Moment, you were willing to try
One Shining Moment, you knew
One Shining Moment...

David Barrett
For many years this song has been the anthem for March Madness basketball. It is played at the end of the NCAA Championship game when only 1 of the 64 teams that started the tournament is still standing. 

As a kid I would sing this song in my driveway while shooting free throws.  I would lie in bed humming these verses and dreaming of pulling up for the winning jumper from the right wing.  I would say these words to myself before practice to remind me that if I worked hard enough then maybe… just maybe… my One Shining Moment would come true.

But now as I read these words they take on a different meaning. It is no longer hitting the winning jumper of the NCAA tournament that I dream of.  Now, my Shining Moment consists of those times when the story begins to unfold on the page.  When the characters of my stories come alive in my head.  When the pictures in my mind and the words on the page converge in a magical moment. 

Here's to all of our Shining Moments… whatever they may be.



Tuesday, March 12, 2013

I think it's about time we talk Pirates!

Yes, Pirates.  A blog is not complete until you discuss pirates.

This past weekend my wife and I went to see the Real Pirates exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum.  My wife would not allow me to dress in my seaworthy garb and floppy hat in order to get in for half price so I had to fork out full admission.  But she could not stop me from saying "Aye Matey!" to everyone at the exhibit. 

Seriously, what is better than a good pirate story?

High Sea adventure!

Buried Treasure!

Heroines in distress!

Okay, okay… talking like a pirate is better!

Blimey! You landlubbing Sea Dog.  You’ll be sleeping with the fishes in Davey Jones’ Locker if ya don’t agree.

What did I find the most interesting part of the exhibit you ask?

Well, I did laugh hysterically every time I saw the word Poop Deck and booty!  But I must admit that these certain hilarities were not the highlight of the day.  That honor goes to walking the plank.

Can you imagine?  There you are standing on the edge of a long board dangling above the ocean - miles from the nearest landfall.  Behind you stands a pack of snarling pirates with sharpened cutlasses ready to carve you to pieces.  In front of you nothing but rough water, circling fins and near certain death.

Do you turn back and take your chances against an army of angry pirates out for blood… or do you jump in the ocean and face a school of hungry sharks.

On second thought I can relate quite well to this dilemma. 

In fact, for the past several weeks you could say I have been standing on the edge of my own plank. Behind me are the snarling faces of doubt.  Evil, angry faces telling me to come back to the ship so they can tear me to shreds.  Who do you think you are trying to send out a manuscript?  You're no writer!  You're just a bilge-sucking swab!

Ahead of me circles the fins of the publishing world.  Shiver me timbers!  I can’t even see land.  I’m just supposed to jump in the frothy waves hoping that they drag me to shore.  I’m certain shark bait here.  Dead men tell no tales!

Oh, to be sitting on the Poop Deck with a nice booty by my side!

What to choose?  Crawl back to the ship to be carved by doubt or jump and be swallowed by the ravaging waters of publishing! 

It has come time for action.  I can’t stand on the plank forever.  I must make a decision.

Tonight I chose the water! 


Stay tuned to see if I survive. 









Saturday, March 2, 2013

Getting Old

I am officially old.

I came to the conclusion today.  It did not hit me all at once of course.  It is simply a combination of recent events that has led me to this conclusion.  Let me recap my week.

ESPN did a story about Barry Larkin’s son who is the star point guard on this year’s University of Miami basketball team.  Now if you are not a sports fan this may not mean much to you.  But I remember arguing with my brother about this new rookie shortstop for the Reds named, Barry Larkin.  My brother thought he was a sure All Star; I was not convinced.  I just looked it up… that conversation took place 27 years ago!


I pulled an oblique shoveling this week.  Seriously, my side feels as if it went ten rounds with Mike Tyson.  It is throbbing as if it's been peppered by right jabs.  Let me repeat… I hurt myself shoveling. What’s next...pulling a hammy while golfing?  Man, am I old.


My sister sent me this really cool skit of Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake doing a take on The History of Rap.  The thing is… I knew all of the songs in the skit.  Every single one!  It was THE HISTORY OF RAP and I knew every single song.  I am as old as Rap!


I play basketball on Saturday mornings in a Men’s league.  The High School season is over so many of the guys brought their teenage sons to play with us this week.  Thinking of myself as spry, I stepped up to guard these young whippersnappers.  Ten minutes later I was sucking wind, my back was twisting into knots, and I had given up a triple double!


I went out to dinner this week at 4:30 in the afternoon.  I was the only one under 80 in the place.


But what really put me over the edge was a conversation on the radio as I drove home from work.  The fact that I was listening to talk radio should have been signal enough that I was old. But it was the conversation on the radio that opened my eyes to how the years have passed me by.  They were discussing how the Los Angeles Times announced this week that they were cutting back on their newspaper coverage and cutting out the box scores in the sports page.  Their reasoning was that most people get their news through the internet these days and this made box scores obsolete.  What?  Wait a second… I used to spend hours as a kid reading over the box scores in the paper.  I used to love sitting there and letting the games play out in my mind as I read the stats.  I didn’t need ESPN or YouTube or Bleacher Report.  I had an imagination.


I can’t believe that kids today have no need for the box scores.  What do they do while eating their Pop tarts and getting ready for school in the morning?  Am I that much of a dinosaur that I like the feel of a newspaper in my hand?  Am I that old that I prefer to let the games play out in my mind instead of seeing hyped up replays flash across the screen at a techno pace? 


How did I get so old?

It is 8:30 pm on a Saturday night, I am tired and I am going to bed to ponder this very thought!




Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lessons Learned at McDonalds

I am just about through the birthday gauntlet!

January and February are like a landmine of birthdays for my family.  I have three family members who celebrate birthdays in January and another three in February.  That is six presents, six cards and six family parties in the span of eight weeks.  Coming off the Christmas holiday, this stretch can break even the strongest of birthday party-goers. Add in two weeks of classes in Vermont and I am pretty much exhausted.

So, I admit I pulled a truly bad uncle move this week.  I combined two of these birthdays into one trip.  That is right- I took my two nephews to McDonalds to celebrate their birthdays together.  Hey, it sounded good at the time.  I would get a little nephew-uncle bonding time.  I would give my sister a bit of a break.  I would get two birthdays out of the way.  And I would come across as the fun uncle. 

Now, anyone out there with kids is laughing at me right now.  Because a trip to McDonalds with a four and six year-old is not as easy as it sounds.  Let’s just say I am out of kid shape!  I have muscles that hurt that I never knew existed. 

Here are the lessons learned from my innocent birthday trip to McDonalds:

Houdini would have had a difficult time getting out of a car seat. 
How many buckles do these things have anyways?  And of course one kid can easily undo the seat and jump out of the car while the other is stuck like he’s in a straitjacket.  Kids don’t wait patiently by the car for their brother either.

People go through the drive-thru because they are in a hurry. 
Seriously, it was like Frogger crossing the parking lot.  I don’t even think people slow down at the window, they just speed right through.  It was like Mario Andretti snatching a Happy Meal! 

Kids don’t do well with lines.
                They can’t stand still and have the attention span of a gnat. 

Kids can smell a crappy Happy Meal toy a mile away.
There is no pulling one over on kids.  They may be young but they understand a scam when they see one.

Chicken Nugget is false advertising.
                That wasn’t chicken is all I’m saying.

McDonalds Play Land is about as sanitary as a still pond in the Amazon.
The little kid drooling all over the slide put me over the edge.  I didn’t know this was a water park!  And unlike every mother on this planet… I do not carry hand sanitizer everywhere I go. 

Ice Cream cones are not designed to be eaten over time.
I consider my nephews pretty bright but why they couldn’t figure out that ice cream melts, I have no idea.  And unlike every mother on this planet… I do not carry wet naps everywhere I go.

Kids, for some unknown reason, enjoy screaming.
They enjoy screaming at one another, at other kids, at adults, at mirrors, at slides, at windows, at tables, at milkshakes, at store clerks, at climbing ropes, at ball bins, at ceiling fans, at French fries, at the ketchup stand and at one over-stimulated uncle!

Gobs of dried and crusty ketchup are just gross!
                Do kids dip their fries right on the table?  Seriously?

Kids have worse hearing than old people.
I vote for hearing aids for all kids under the age of eight because they obviously can’t hear the words, “it’s time to go home.”

Kids that can climb twenty feet high through a tiny little slide tube have the upper hand on adults.
                A parent elevator would have come in handy, Mr. Ronald McDonald!

And speaking of Ronald McDonald… he is one creepy dude.
                What is he?  A clown?  I’m not sure what’s going on with that guy.

Video games are melting kids’ minds.
With a huge climbing apparatus, numerous slides, a gigantic tub of balls to crawl in and new Happy Meal toys within arms-reach my nephews only had eyes for the little video game station in the corner.  I would have NASCARed it through the drive-thru, taken the food home and sat on my sister’s couch if I wanted to watch them play video games.  Get outside kids!  Run around!  Be creative! 


Perhaps I should have gone back to school to become a video game designer and not a children’s writer.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Flowers, Literary Agents and My Mother

Tom Waits is “big in Japan.”
David Hasselhoff is huge in Germany.

I, however, am big… at the Janesville Rotary Botanical Gardens!

That’s right.  Thanks to the mega-marketing machine called Mom, the employees of the Botanical Garden are discussing my blog while pruning petunias and trimming tulips.  In the span of a week my mother has managed to double my readership.  Check out my newest readers at the below link… and tell them that Jeff sent you… fine tell them that Jeff’s mom sent you!


I have no smooth transition from flowers to literary agents so I won’t even try.  I will just abruptly change topics on you.

I recently read an article that compared finding a literary agent to choosing a marriage partner.  I will admit as I was reading the article I had some trouble with the analogy.  Sure, I get it… if you are going to choose a literary agent to represent your work you need someone you can completely trust, someone you can work with, someone who will guide you and be there through the good times and the bad.  On a very simple platform this analogy works.  However, what if you were a dork?

Let me explain.

Look at this picture of me in high school.  This is me at graduation surrounded by several of my friends.  I am the one in the middle behind everyone.  What do you notice about this picture? Okay… stop it… it was the eighties and we all looked that way back then!

Do you know what I notice?

I notice the fact that I am in the back, behind everyone else.  This is pretty much where I was in every picture back then.  I never liked to stand out. I never wanted to be the center of attention.  I was quiet and shy and comfortable with standing in the background. In other words I was a dork.

You know what else I notice about that picture?  There are no girls around! None. Zip. Zilch. Nada.  In fact, the only picture of me with a girl back then would be if she happened to walk by in the background while the picture was being taken.  Look at the girls in this picture.  I am the farthest thing from their minds. Girls didn’t even know I existed back in high school.  Girls had more lively discussions about the rat in the gym locker room than about me.  You could take the five most popular girls in school and they may not even remember me.  I was not even a blip on their radar screen.  In other words I was a dork!

So to me… finding a literary agent is not like finding a marriage partner.  To me it is more like being back in high school and trying to date the most popular girl in school… the most popular girl in school who doesn’t even know I exist.

Literary agents receive hundreds of manuscripts a day.  They represent big name authors who win flashy awards and actually make money on their books.  They entertain the captain of the football team while everyone else is trying to get their attention.  They are the prom queens of the literary world.

I am once again a dork.  I am in the back trying desperately to be seen, too shy to step from the shadows.

I beg you literary agents… don’t overlook the shy kids in the back.  There might just be someone there who is full of potential and talent.  Someone who is willing to work his tail off to be special.  Someone who will go head over heels for you if given the chance.  Someone who could change your life. 

Give the kid in the back a chance…

… otherwise he will sic his mother on you!