Of Words and Notes

I mentioned a lack of self-discipline in my last post, and that it is one of the things that keeps me from being the writer I want to be. Continuing with that theme, this post is about practice.

“Practice makes perfect.”
Q: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? A: Practice.”
“Practice what you preach.”

Adages about practice abound, and it just makes sense to practice what I want to be good at, but I have a mental block about practicing writing. For some reason, I feel like I have to produce something when I write, and that creates pressure, pressure that shouldn’t be there during practice. Pressure is common in performing, or in producing a finished product, but it shouldn’t be a part of practicing. Journal writing and blogging are forms of writing practice, I suppose, and I should probably count them as such, but when I sit down to practice writing fiction or poetry, I feel compelled to produce something of quality, rather than just writing in a stream of consciousness or even basic expository style.

There is no shame in writing throwaway fiction from a daily prompt. Sometimes ideas might flow and the practice might lead to something bigger; other times, I might wind up with a loosely connected bunch of words that serve no other purpose. Why don’t I think that’s okay?

I play guitar, as well, and when I practice, I usually do so off-the-cuff, improvising, launching notes into the air to fade and disappear, with no record they ever existed. Unless I’m specifically practicing for a gig, I don’t feel the need to have a product at the end of my practice. I just play to get better and enjoy it, and there’s not nearly as much inertia for me to overcome before I start playing. It’s much harder for me to get the wheels rolling when I sit down to write.

But why? Functionally, there’s not much difference between throwing notes into the air and throwing words onto the page, so why do I have such a block against practicing writing, or more accurately, why do I feel the need to produce something of value when I write, but not when I’m practicing guitar?

I think I’ve turned fiction writing into my own personal bugbear, and with my recent story publication in Edward Bryant’s Sphere of Influence, I’m forced to challenge that bugbear. I want to capitalize on the momentum of this sale, and at first I was enthusiastic, even starting a new story from scratch for a different Mad Cow Press anthology. But after only a couple of days of writing, my momentum faded, and I stopped writing the story when I hit the brick wall mentioned in the last post. I know, I know, I should continue on with the rest of the story and figure out how to deal with the brick wall later. If I were in the rhythm of writing every day (or often, at least), I think I could do that.

Hence these blog posts. I didn’t make any new year’s resolutions this year, but I did set some goals. I want to write something at least five days a week. I also want to write 1,000 words of fiction on my WIPs each week. If I combine those goals, I could write 200 words a day and meet that goal easily, but I’m not going to lock myself into just doing productive writing. Some of those five days should be simple practice, probably from a writing prompt. An extended goal is to write one short story per month in 2018. At 1,000 words a week, that’s a reasonable goal, I think.

Heck, this blog post is about 630 words already. 200 words of fiction five days a week shouldn’t be impossible.

Dark Side of the … Movie?

I was in the grocery store today — the same one as before.  I was wearing my Pink Floyd shirt with a prism on the front.  The title of the album associated with that prism was printed across the top.  The courtesy clerk took special notice of it.

“What does your shirt say?  ‘Dark Side of the … Movie?’”

I faltered, but regained my composure quickly.

“‘Dark Side of the Moon.’  It’s one of the best selling albums of all time.  Came out in 1973,” I said.

“Album.  Huh,” he said.

Being the non-violent type, I just walked away.

2008 Resolution Results

Sporadically through the last year, I’ve followed up on how my numerous resolutions for 2008 were holding up. Here’s the final evaluation for 2008.

Creativity

1. Write more consistently, whether journaling, blogging, or creative writing.

Although I haven’t blogged much more than the prior couple of years, I have done a decent amount of writing and website design to support writing. I became the webmaster and a contributing editor for Rough Road Review, a poetry and opinion journal with a distinctly southwestern flavor. I also scored another regular writing gig (see below.)

I mentioned Ficlets.com in my last resolutions post back in May. Unfortunately, I just found out that Ficlets.com is shutting down as of January 15, 2009. That’s a bummer. It was really a neat little site. I didn’t wind up contributing more than one piece to it, but I read a lot of the pieces on there. I will repost my one Ficlet submission here soon.

2. Find another outlet for article writing (since ComputorEdge has gone virtual.)

Back in May, I said, “… I did hear back from another [computer magazine], which is in its startup phase. We’ll see how that one works out.” It actually worked out very well. I’m now writing for Rocky Mountain TechLine at pro rates, and have been given assignments for four straight issues. W00t! The Editor/Publisher, Eric Wolferman, is wonderful to work with, and very encouraging. Through his influence, I think my non-fiction writing has taken a step up.

3. Publish some fiction. (Didn’t I say this last year?)

Um … Yeah. 2009, here I come.

4. Play more musical gigs.

My band, Steel River 3, played numerous gigs this year, and I have a new favorite coffeehouse because of it: Forza Coffee Company. Although I rarely drink coffee, the atmosphere at this place is wonderful, and the owner clearly cares very much about making his shop the best it can be.

5. Start teaching my stepson how to play guitar (his request, my responsibility to follow up.)

In May, I said, “It’s clear that Logan needs a Logan-sized guitar with standard tuning, but I haven’t had the money to get him one.” I’m pleased to say we did get him a Fender Mini Strat and amp, but I haven’t kept up my responsibility to teach him. For Christmas, I got him a new set of tuners for the Mini; the ones it came with don’t hold tune well. After I install those tuners and a fresh set of strings, we will work on the lessons.

6. Transplant my Variax electronics into a Carvin Bolt kit or Warmoth guitar body.

Money wasn’t there for this project, but I’m hoping to do it in 2009.

Physical & Mental Health

1. Learn how to get up earlier, consistently.

I have become more consistent about when I get up, though I stopped trying to get up as early as I was before, so this one was only a 50/50 accomplishment.

2. Utilize my handheld BalanceLog software to track my eating and exercising habits.

In May: “I haven’t been using it, but I’m at my lowest weight in the last few years. Go figure.” It’s amazing what can happen in a few months. Starting in September, I started gaining weight, and I’m just now starting to turn the trend around. What do you want to bet that if I had been tracking calories I wouldn’t have gained at the end of the year?

3. Ride my bike or walk to work more often. (If I get up earlier, this is not a problem!)

I did a bit of riding, but not enough, this summer. Currently, my bike is disabled (damn goatheads!) and the load of stuff I carry to work has increased, so I need to get a backpack. Both fixes are cheap, though.

4. Schedule dental appointments to get my teeth taken care of.

I attended my dreaded dental appointment, and my suspicions were confirmed. I will need a two-stage deep cleaning, and then oral surgery to remove three wisdom teeth that came in crooked. (The fourth grew in sideways, and is technically impacted, but the dentist recommends leaving it there because there is no chance it will ever erupt.) Unfortunately, we ran out of flex plan money in September, so I had to postpone the above procedures until 2009.

Financial Health

1. Get the amp out of the pawn shop, and never put it in again.

2008 was a horrible year as far as music equipment goes. Add to this list a 1996 Takamine acoustic-electric, the Carvin Bolt guitar kit I built in honor of my Uncle Leslie (see pic below) and a Fender Cyber-Twin Ver. 2.1 amplifier. I hung on to my Variax modeling guitar because it was the most versatile for playing gigs. The year ended on a positive note, however. I was lucky enough to receive a beautiful new Epiphone acoustic guitar from my wife and sister-in-law for Christmas. Right now, my Variax is in the pawn shop, but I will be able to get it out by the end of January. One of next year’s goals will be to set up an emergency fund to prevent the need for pawn shop patronage.

Carvin Bolt Guitar (from kit):  Leslie

2. Continue to provide quality computer consulting, but stop devaluing my services as much.

Consulting work continued to grow throughout the year, to the point where I had too many consulting jobs at one point and had to start turning them down. I think I did better regarding the value of my services, but there was one special circumstance in which I basically worked gratis. I don’t regret that, though. I did it for the right reasons, though I probably put it at a higher priority on my list than I should have.

3. Keep current on space rent, car payment, mortgage, and car insurance.

Things are looking up financially. We are current on our mortgage and space rent, car insurance will be paid this weekend, and we have eliminated the car payment altogether. We voluntarily returned our worthless van to the dealer, who then sold it at auction for $167.50. Yes, you read that right. We are stuck with a large balance on the loan, but that will be going away in the bankruptcy we decided to file in October. By the end of February, we should have paid off the bankruptcy attorney so we can remove that debt, as well as a number of other judgments (medical, etc.) that are threatening our livelihood.

It seems odd to say that things are looking up because we’re filing bankruptcy, but that’s becoming a sign of the times, I think.

4. Make a spending plan (a.k.a. budget) and stick to it.

I didn’t do too well with this, but I did what I could. I already have a more balanced spending plan in place for 2009.

5. Track finances better with Quicken on computer and handheld.

I utterly failed at this, because we lived paycheck-to-paycheck all year long. Hopefully 2009 will be better.

Home Improvements

1. Clean cat boxes daily.

This resolution started out well, and finished very poorly. I will definitely need to reaffirm this one.

2. Help more with household chores without having to be asked.

I think it’s safe to say that I improved overall in this area.

3. Reduce household clutter gradually (this will help mental health, too.)

As of late August 2008, this became impossible. Lannette’s father and sister moved out to Denver and lived with us (at our invitation, of course.) Her father has since found another place and moved into it, but her sister is not at a point where she can afford to live on her own yet. As long as we have an extra person living in the house, we will have to live with clutter, and I’m resigned to that.

4. Upgrade my computer (new mobo, RAM, and video.)

I actually accomplished this one in its entirety! Of course, it helped that my old motherboard completely died, so I was forced to upgrade.

5. Replace carpet with hardwood flooring throughout the house.

Money to do this was simply not there in 2008. Hopefully we can do this after the bankruptcy is finalized.

6. Landscape yard.

Well, my neighbor certainly did his part to help with this. He put a lot of work into building a partial low wall where we had discussed putting one. He used all the materials he had, but then I was unable to afford the materials we needed to finish the job.

7. Install carport/awning.

See #5 above.


Overall, I think I made some progress in all categories, which is not so bad. I still have room to improve, and I will need to recommit to some goals, but I’m ending the year knowing there’s hope, and that’s worth a lot to me.

Pwned

I’ve always had a poor relationship with money, and with pawn shops in particular. Currently, my Takamine acoustic-electric (which I’ve owned for a dozen years) and my Carvin Bolt guitar (which I built and finished from a Carvin kit) have both been in the pawn shop for two months. In addition, my Fender Cyber-Twin amp and Behringer foot controller have been in for over two months.

The paycheck I’m getting tomorrow is already committed to other, more important debts (mortgage, space rent, car payment), and I already skipped one month of payments on the pawned items. This particular pawn shop allows a loan to roll over one month; the payment amount is simply doubled in the second month. However, I would be surprised if they will let me roll into a third month without payment. They will probably just call it a breach of contract and put the gear up for sale.

That means I will have to say goodbye to Leslie, the Carvin I built and named after my Uncle Leslie, who was also a guitar player. And I will have to say goodbye to the Takamine, which I never named, but dearly love playing, especially at night with the lights off while my wife dozes next to me. I will also have to say goodbye to the most versatile amp I’ve ever owned.

This is not new for me. There have been a long string of guitars that I’ve loved, but parted with because of poor money management. In reverse order, the guitars and amps I’ve previously given up in order to pay creditors include the following:

Fender Contemporary Stratocaster (Japanese 1986 model)
Peavey Ecoustic amp
Gibson Les Paul Standard (American 1977 model, which I purchased from a friend; that one really hurts, because I not only lost a beautiful instrument, I feel like I let my friend down.)
Peavey Backstage Plus amp
Sigma/Martin acoustic guitar (which I modified to be an acoustic/electric)
Epiphone Strat Clone
Unbranded ES-335 Clone and small practice amp (which I inherited from the aforementioned Uncle Leslie)
Yamaha Classical Guitar (a gift from my first mother-in-law)
Takamine Mahogany Acoustic/Electric (early model; would be worth a lot of money today)
JB Player Strat Clone (nice, with a through-the-body neck and a Seymour Duncan humbucker in the bridge)
Carlos acoustic (a piece of junk, but my first acoustic)
Roland practice amp
Gibson Sonex 180 electric (my first guitar, also purchased from a friend)

As I said, it’s not a new process to part with guitars and amps in order to pay bills. But it doesn’t get any easier. In fact, it gets harder every time, and I’m tired of having to give up my music equipment in order to shut the creditors up. I’ve been doing it for nearly twenty years now, and it’s getting very old and depressing.

I do still have one guitar at home, thankfully: a Line 6 Variax 300. The Variax is the most versatile guitar I’ve ever owned — despite the fact that it has rather poor build quality — and it’s become my main gigging guitar. I won’t be letting down my band mates if I lose the guitars and amp, I’ll just be letting myself down.

Again.

I’ll talk with the pawn shop tomorrow and see if they will let me roll over one more month. If they won’t, I’ll just ask to say goodbye then and there.

About those resolutions …

Back in February, I followed up on how I was doing with my New Year’s Resolutions after only a month. I was surprised to find that I was doing pretty well. Let’s see how I’m doing now that we’re five months into the year.

Creativity

1. Write more consistently, whether journaling, blogging, or creative writing.

I haven’t been able to attend my writing group for the last month or so because the meeting day changed due to a scheduling conflict for Melanie, the group’s instructor. I don’t have to have a writing group to write; I could blog every day if I simply had the motivation, and that would count as writing. In other words, I just used the writing group as an excuse for not writing. Sorry, Melanie. I take that back and restate it thus: I have not met my goal of writing more consistently.

I did, however, finally check out Ficlets.com after reading about it a few times on Wil Wheaton’s blog in exile. More on that a little later in this post.

2. Find another outlet for article writing (since ComputorEdge has gone virtual.)

I never heard from one of the computer magazines to which I sent a query letter, but I did hear back from another one, which is in its startup phase. We’ll see how that one works out. In the meantime, I wrote a second pro bono feature article for ComputorEdge, officially my 25th article for them. (Link goes to a PDF of the online issue.)

3. Publish some fiction. (Didn’t I say this last year?)

Other than putting a little piece up on Ficlets, I haven’t done anything in this regard except think about it. I think I like Ficlets, though. I’m a fan of structured writing, and the 1K limit on posts forces me to write tightly.

4. Play more musical gigs.

SR3 has played a couple of gigs recently, and we have a few more lined up. We will probably play at Federal Heights Day on September 20, as well.

5. Start teaching my stepson how to play guitar (his request, my responsibility to follow up.)

We haven’t done much with this since our initial attempts. It’s clear that Logan needs a Logan-sized guitar with standard tuning, but I haven’t had the money to get him one.

6. Transplant my Variax electronics into a Carvin Bolt kit or Warmoth guitar body.

I’m still not in a position to do this yet. I have scaled back my grandiose plans, though, and will be simply transplanting the Variax electronics into a nice body and adding a tremolo. I’ll save the passive pickups for a future project.

Physical & Mental Health

1. Learn how to get up earlier, consistently.

Through March, I did very well with this. However, I’m back to having a hard time getting up on time in the morning. In an effort to make progress, I have stopped taking the medication that was making me bleary-eyed in the morning, with no apparent negative effects. The key is going to be consistency. I need to get to bed at the same time on most nights, and then I will be able to get up on time easier.

2. Utilize my handheld BalanceLog software to track my eating and exercising habits.

Again, I haven’t been using it, but I’m at my lowest weight in the last few years. Go figure.

3. Ride my bike or walk to work more often. (If I get up earlier, this is not a problem!)

I still have not ridden my bike to work as much as I would like. Now that spring is here, I really have no excuse.

4. Schedule dental appointments to get my teeth taken care of.

I have not done this yet, despite my wife’s repeated urgings to do so. I’ve definitely dropped the ball on this one.

Financial Health

1. Get the amp out of the pawn shop, and never put it in again.

I had planned to get the amp out in February, but then I got a major wage garnishment from the State of Colorado for back taxes. (This relates to the 401k disbursement I took to buy my house not long before Intermountain Color — now Signature Offset — fired me and two other managers with no severance pay.) With this garnishment almost behind me, I’m hoping to get the amp out soon, as well as the two guitars I had to pawn in order to make rent and mortgage payments. 🙁

2. Continue to provide quality computer consulting, but stop devaluing my services as much.

I’ve been doing well on consulting. In the last week alone, I have made over $200 on consulting. I also have decided to take on the web hosting and design for a liberal poetry and essay site. In the interest of no longer devaluing my services, I parted ways with Flying Pen Press in March. The amount of time I spent working on the site was not worth the return I received when compared with other consulting jobs, so I officially resigned as their webmaster. I wish no one in the company any ill will, and I still want the company to succeed. I simply won’t be part of it when they do.

3. Keep current on space rent, car payment, mortgage, and car insurance.

Because of the garnishment I mentioned earlier, we did get behind on mortgage and space rent again. With my next check, the garnishment will be over, and we have a payment plan in place to have both space rent and mortgage payments current as of May 31 (including the June mortgage payment!) After August, things will be easier, because our mortgage will go down by about $275 per month. Before then, I should be receiving a raise at work, as well. See that light at the end of the tunnel? It’s actually daylight, not a train this time.

4. Make a spending plan (a.k.a. budget) and stick to it.

The “Mad Money” budget that I made is working pretty well, although most of my Mad Money has either gone into the gas tank or to help pay bills. Again, after my (hopeful) raise and reduction in mortgage payment, it should be much easier to stick to the budget, as well as pay down other old debts.

5. Track finances better with Quicken on computer and handheld.

I have completely fallen off the wagon with Quicken since my last post about this. I need to take statements for the last three months and reconcile them with my Quicken account so I can get back on track.

Home Improvements

1. Clean cat boxes daily.

I started out the year well with this chore, but I’ve fallen back again. I’m not as bad about it as I once was, but I’m definitely not in the habit of cleaning the boxes daily. This is one of the simple things that I can control; I just need to do it.

2. Help more with household chores without having to be asked.

I still help out in the kitchen, though not as much as I was. Again, I’ve backslid on this, and again, it’s something I can control.

3. Reduce household clutter gradually (this will help mental health, too.)

This is a tough one. Lannette and I have too much stuff and not enough room, and although I consider myself to be fastidious, I get overwhelmed with clutter and give up. We have made some changes; the city had a trash amnesty day recently, in which we got rid of quite a bit of unused stuff, and we’ve re-arranged some of the storage cabinets inside the house to make them more useful. Lannette found a china hutch and buffet on Freecycle, which allowed us to free up one of our huge bookshelves that we had been using as a pantry. This means I can bring in the books that I still have in storage in our shed. 🙂

4. Upgrade my computer (new mobo, RAM, and video.)

Eventually, my old motherboard died forever. The culprit: bad capacitors. I have fixed other motherboards with similar problems, but this one had far too many capacitors leaking brown fluid to spend time replacing them all. So, I was forced to upgrade to a new board, and now I have a great base upon which to build. Unfortunately, I’m running onboard video because I couldn’t afford to get a new PCI-E video card to go with the new board. When I can, I will get a good video card and maybe get back into gaming a bit.

5. Replace carpet with hardwood flooring throughout the house.

No change here. I really hope we can do this this summer. It will take a good chunk of money and a lot of work, but it will get rid of the carpet that the cats ruined, will make the house easier to keep clean, and will increase the value of our home.

6. Landscape yard.

Things are moving on this front. The park where I live replaced some poorly made rampart walls with better ones, driving piles into the hillside to help support the walls. This left a lot of old rampart bricks available for resident use, so my neighbor collected a lot of them. His lot sits about four feet below mine, and we would both like to see a low wall placed along the property line, which I would backfill with the dirt I moved into our back yard when building our shed three years ago. I just found a $10 used wheelbarrow to help with this task. My neighbor doesn’t have enough bricks to run the length of the yard at the height we need, but I promised him that I would purchase the necessary bricks to bring the wall up level with my yard later this summer.

7. Install carport/awning.

Nothing has changed in this regard. I would love it if I could build one of these this year. I can envision it, but I don’t know if I can afford to do it, either in terms of money or time.


Overall, it feels like I’ve backslid since February, particularly in the areas of keeping up with the catboxes and the household chores. The garnishment didn’t help things any, and if I’m able to rescue my amp and guitars, I will be very surprised and happy. I just hope there’s not another garnishment waiting around the corner.