Category Archives: Other’s Experiences and Ideas

You Must Learn to Be Slow in a Hurry

Let’s say you are a dedicated pantser, someone who writes without an outline or a plan. If you are, you may be surprised by what you wrote when you read it again. I’ve written like this, and found that it leads to much work later, correcting my stream of conscious creations. I know when I’m in a good creative flow because (for me) things like spelling, selecting the correct homonym, grammar, and precise word choice go out the window. When I look back, I’m not just surprised at what I wrote, but aghast.
I first ran into this way of writing when competing in the National Novel Writing Month competition (NANOWRIMO). It encourages stream of consciousness writing and not editing your first draft. Some writing coaches also advise writing without editing instead of editing as you proceed.

Then, one day, you re-read something you’ve written, and you discover some surprises like:
1. A minor character took over one or more chapters.
2. You have holes in your plot.
3. Someone who died earlier, returns with no explanation.
4. Dogs that were killed by the villagers bark at invaders (love that one).
5. You mix up the names of the characters, E.G. Swan becomes Quodak, and Skean becomes Rose.
6. You have an actor do something out of character.
7. You surprise yourself by repeating a scene from earlier in your work.

You get the picture? If you’ve done any of these things, you have several choices:
1. You can throw out the offending lines, paragraphs, scenes, or chapters—yikes.
2. You can edit like crazy to tighten up your story and make it flow.
3. You can get creative and pull it together.

Here’s what I do now. I go through the book and highlight the parts that stay true to my story line. In another pass, I highlight in a different color any name changes, those can often be corrected by the Find and Replace command. Next, I highlight sections that don’t belong and remove them. I generally don’t throw those away. They go into a file of golden nuggets that I may use later. They may even go into another book. Where I’ve written a scene twice, I compare them and use the best parts for a hybrid scene that is placed in the right context.

Finally, I outline from the place I left the track to where I got back on course. With the name changes fixed, and the parts that don’t belong removed, I edit to make the story coherent again.
I’m giving you a way to untangle a mess, but I’ve come to believe there’s a better way of writing. Let me share a quote from the Old West gambler and gunfighter, Wyatt Earp, “Fast if fine but accuracy is final. You must learn to be slow in a hurry.” That’s an old west koan (a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment).

How can you be slow in a hurry when writing? Select the number of words you would like to write a day to finish your book in a year. My guess is that many writers would pick the number 1000. If you stick to your guns, your novel will be around 365,000 words. Children’s novels are about 16,000 words, a mystery novel about 70,000, while a thriller could weigh in at 100,000. You don’t want a tome of 365,000 words for real. So, cut your daily total to one-third your high-end estimate of what you want to write. Your goal will be around 350 words per day (wpd).
If that’s too short for you, kick it up a little, but no more than 500 wpd. Then, when you write, edit yesterday’s work to get you into a workflow before you write for the day. If you set your goal at 350 wpd, you’ll be done in 200 days; 140 days at 500 wpd. That leaves you with plenty of time to attend to the other tasks writers must accomplish.
That’s if everything goes as planned. Almost always, in my writing, I find multiple errors, the most common of which are POV errors and wordiness. The latter requires editing out excessive verbiage. The former requires a rewrite.

I chose to write about 500 wpd. A page is about 250 words. At 350 wpd, I feel like I’m just getting started when I’ve reached that limit. At 500 wpd, I feel more comfortable. To be true, there are some days I hit 1000 or 1500. Why? I get in a rhythm and don’t want to stop. Whatever your wpd goal turns out to be, it’s up to you. Keep Wyatt Earp in mind, if you go slow and focus on accuracy, you can learn to be slow in a hurry with better results.

(I can write two pages in the time it takes for my spouse to get ready to go out.)

Just one more thought. I know writers work on their stories when they aren’t working. They think about their tale while they’re doing other things. I sometimes tackle the largest problems between 11:00 PM and 2:00 AM, losing sleep. That is some of my most creative time.

A Nod, A Smile, and Misunderstanding

When I was teaching Tae Kwan Do, I noticed that beginning students would smile and nod when I gave them instructions. They would then repeat their error. I would show them the correct way again. The smile would come, then the error. For some, the idea they were not executing the intended move correctly would eventually come. For others, it never did.
Don’t get me wrong, I am no exception. As an educator, I observed my own learning. I too would smile and nod, then continue to do things wrong until I eventually caught on. I think it’s part of human nature for beginners to believe they have grasped subtleties, when they don’t even know what subtleties exist. Time eventually sorts out those who aren’t going to learn, and those who will progress.
It doesn’t end there though. When I was a second-degree black belt, I observed a student who was a fourth degree, practicing Poomsae (memorized moves against an imaginary opponent). He broke every move down to its basics, he even studied the placement of each finger, his feet and toes, his eyes, and so on. I laughed at him—called him OCD.
He was promoted on his next test, I wasn’t. I wasn’t asked to test again for a long time. I plateaued. One day I was wondering why I wasn’t progressing as I watched Jay (not his real name) going through his compulsive routine. I had this thought, Maybe it’s me that’s crazy and not Jay.
I changed my routine to concentrate on breaking each move down to its basics, emulating Jay. In a few weeks, the Master Instructor asked me to test again for my third degree. I tested and passed.
I transferred that bit of learning from martial arts to my everyday life. When I’m stuck on something, say writing. Instead of trying harder, I go back to the basics and work on them.
(I’ll use the gender-neutral name Pat for the following.)
The reason this is on my mind now, is we have a new writer in my critique group, Pat. The first day Pat met with us and announced his/her fiction piece had reached seventeen paragraphs. Almost everyone said, do you mean chapters? Pat said, “No, I mean paragraphs.” Pat was a true newbie.
Time before last, when we met, two people in the critique group offered the same observations that would make Pat’s writing better. Pat, nodded, smiled, and thanked them.
At the most recent meeting, two others (not at the previous meeting) gave Pat the same exact critique. The nod came, then a smile, and a thank you. This time Pat took notes.

Metathinking About Your Writing

My comments today apply to editing, not to writing a first draft. Writers commonly say first drafts should be written without editing, though I know some who edit every line as they go. My practice is to write without editing first, and then begin the editing process, which often takes longer than the writing.
When we edit our own writing creations we are metathinking about writing, i.e. thinking about our thinking as writers. ( ) We’re considering how good our writing is and what we can do to make it better. Over time, some of our metathinking becomes automatic. We internalize it and no longer must think about it. For example: if you work with an editor who will not allow the word ‘they’ to be used as a coordinating conjunction without the addition of the word ‘and,’ you internalize that over time and automatically add the ‘and.’ (Just an example, I know some editors allow this today.)
There’s another kind of metathinking that’s a bit harder, in my opinion, I call it Dub, for short. I think of it as a muse that sits on my shoulder, reading my writing, making almost inaudible comments. Dub comes from the word dubiety: the state or quality of being doubtful; uncertainty (a synonym).
Where does Dub come from? I noticed over many years of having my writing reviewed or edited that it was not unusual for me to have a little twinge of doubt when I wrote something. Then, in critique, someone would say, you should say this in a different way, or did you consider this rule, etc. I could have saved myself the critique, if I had listened to Dub.
I didn’t talk to others about Dub for a long time until I heard them say, “Oh, I thought about that, but didn’t change it.” After hearing that many times, I decided to amplify Dub’s voice. Whenever I feel that twinge, I think, “What are you telling me Dub?” I stop and listen to my own out-of-awareness thinking and make myself aware of what’s going on. I consider this a deeper way of metathinking that the systematic process of analyzing my aware thinking.
A writer friend said she could never do this. She went on to say that she doesn’t know how she writes, where the inspiration comes from, or how she thinks. In fact, she writes two hours a day, reviews what she wrote the previous day before she begins, and carefully vets her own writing against standards and practices she’s learned over her last twenty years of writing. Everything she does is on automatic.
Now, whenever Dub mumbles something, I stop writing and think about what he is trying to tell me. Usually, I can spot the problem quickly. Sometimes, it eludes me for a while. For example: this week I was working on a chapter in a novel and something bothered me. Listening to Dub, stopped what I was doing, and looked the chapter over. I couldn’t spot a problem. Then I recalled a ‘rule’ found in Top Ten Reasons Your Novel is Rejected: and How to Avoid Them, by Lois Winston:
“A crucial decision the writer must make in each scene is to choose the point of view character for that scene. The scene will have the most impact if the POV character is the one who has the most to lose at that moment…”
Later, she says:
“Keep in mind that there is no rule that states each chapter must be in one character’s point of view, or even each scene must only be in one character’s point of view.”
When I recalled what she had to say about POV (many others have said it too, just Google ‘fiction rule “Who has the most to lose”) I saw my problem. The POV character in my chapter had nothing to lose. Any of several other characters had more to lose, but one, and only one, was putting her life on the line. That led me to change the next two chapters, which improved my book.
So, I suggest you listen to your inner Dub and stop writing when you have a nagging feeling that something’s wrong. Dub is almost always right.

Some Recommends for Reading

So, you’re into writing fiction, think you are near the end of your book, you have edited it, have hired an editor, had your friends read it, maybe you even took it to an English Professor at your local college. Good for you. Still have a nagging feeling that there’s more you could do to make your novel better? There’s good news: I have two books that will guide you through taking some final steps to making your work of art better.
The first is a Workbook that accompanies a book of almost the same name. It’s the workbook I’m recommending. It’s Donald Maass’s, “Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.” It tells you how to revisit your writing in a purposeful way to make it better. It has, with each chapter, exercises you can go through to make your work stand out.
I’ll list the chapter names for the first five chapters:
From Protagonist to Hero
Multidimensional Characters
Inner Conflict
Larger-than-life Character Qualities
Heighten Larger-than-life Qualities
The exercises in each chapter are the thing that makes this workbook valuable.
The second book I’d recommend is, “5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing, C.S. Lakin, et al.
Again, I’ll give you the titles of the first five chapters:
Flaw #1 Overwriting
Flaw #2 Nothin’ Happenin’
Flaw #3 Weak Construction
Flaw #4 Too Much Backstory
Flaw #5 POV Violations
There are two things that make this book of interest: First, I have heard many of the issues brought up at conferences, critique groups, and elsewhere, but rarely from an editor’s point of view. The book has examples in each chapter and recommendations for recommendations for remedy. This is a book filled with basic, down-to-earth suggestions for improvement of your work.
Secondly, and somewhat akin to the first point. Editors wrote this. Often, when I hear what editors want, it is second or third hand. Here five editors share their secrets without filters. They even comment on each other’s ideas. Their writing is practical, not pretentious. It is a rich book, filled with valuable information that any serious author should have.

Left Brain, Right Brain Writing and Editing

While at a writer’s group last week, listening to a writer comment, I had a thought that bears more consideration. Which side of the brain should I use during writing and editing? (see: )
The right-brain abilities include: Recognizing faces, expressing emotions, music, reading emotions, color, images, intuition, creativity.
The left-brain abilities include: Language, logic, Critical thinking, numbers, reasoning.
More recently, research suggests the two sides communicate easily, so it is not clear that the right brain/left brain is real distinction is valid.
These comments refer to writing fiction. My comments do not apply to non-fiction.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake that bifurcated brain functions are real. Expert advice suggests that on your first draft, you write without editing. Why? Free style writing uses creativity, and intuition, and expresses emotion, all right brain functions. When you edit, you are using a left-brain functions, critical thinking, logic, reasoning, and language. So, if you edit while writing, you are stifling your creativity.
I know people who say they cannot write without editing. Translated into brain speak, they are saying, “I can’t turn off my critical thinking and rely on creativity. They hamper themselves.
Then, after you get a first draft, you let your work get cold, don’t look at it for a week or more. What’s going on here? If you try to edit immediately, your right brain is still engaged and you can’t to detect errors. It happens to me all the time. I write something, and then ‘edit’ it immediately. When I read it at a critique group, the others stop me and say, you didn’t write what you just said. I am reading what I thought I wrote and not what I wrote. I cannot see my errors.
If I let the work cool for a week or more, I can see errors immediately. That’s because, my right brain has lost its connection to the work and when I’m reading, I’m using my language and critical thinking functions.
The same thing happens in reverse when we read someone else’s work. Our language/critical thinking functions are working and we can see other’s errors immediately.
After my story has cooled, I look at it again. I’m looking for errors of any type, weak verbs, too many adverbs, passive voice, and weak sentences. On one of my edits, I’ll have my computer read aloud to me what I have written. Again, I usually find a few instances where my eye skips over errors I ‘can’t’ see.
Finally, after I’ve polished my work as much as I can, I have one more task. That is to put in character’s descriptions, clues to the reader about their emotions, express myself musically, talk about colors and textures, create images for the reader, and creatively engage their intuition about the characters, their interactions with others, and their lives.
My shorthand expression about this is that I want to help the readers suspend disbelief, become emotionally involved with my characters, and experience the character’s world using their own right brain activities as a proxy for the character.
If I do otherwise, I lose them. If I use language that jerks them out of relating to my character, say I’m writing science fiction and I have a character use old west language, they’re lost.
If my logic fails, for example I have a passive character commit a violent act with no reason. Their critical thinking kicks in, as in ‘this character wouldn’t do that,’ or things don’t add up, or reasoning fails them. I lose the reader and they put the book down.
Any violation of left-brain thinking pulls the reader our of suspended disbelief, and the story falls apart.
In short, the formula looks like this:
1. Write the first draft quickly using your right brain
2. Edit several times using your left brain
3. Edit several times using your left brain to engage the reader’s right brain to connect with the story and the characters

A Thesaurus for Emotions

I recently found a reference book for writers that I like. It’s called The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman & Becca Publisi, 2012, e-book formatting by: Cyber Witch Press.
I have used it in editing some of my work. The authors have two other works 1.) The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes, and 2.) The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. I haven’t used the other books, yet.
Here’s how the Emotion Thesaurus works:
• Identify the Root Emotion – the character may be awash with emotions, but pick the dominant one.
• Utilize the Setting – match the emotion to the setting
• Less is More – use a sparing part of their descriptors
• Twist the Cliché – if you come up with a cliché, change it to make it yours
• View the Entries as a Launching Point – don’t just copy what they have, add to it, change it, make it yours
• Try Related Emotions – don’t just look up one emotion and use that; look at several that are close together and decide which fits best
• Visceral Reactions as Physical Indicators – if your character is experiencing something internally, what would be a tale tell manifestation of that emotion?
The authors wisely suggest you use their work as a starting point. Don’t just copy their words, use them as a taking off point.
Let’s look at part of one emotion, the first one. It’s adoration. First, they define Adoration. Then they give some physical signs. They begin with ‘lips parting,’ slack or soft expression, and’ walking quickly to erase the distance.’
These are followed with about thirty other physical signs.
Then they go to Internal Sensations. They begin with ‘quickening heartbeat.’ Which makes perfect sense.
Next they go on to Mental Responses., For example, a wish to move closer or tough.
They go on to find Cues of Acute or Long-term Adoration. Follow that with identifying emotions that adoration may escalate to.
They finish their list with Cues of Suppressed Adoration.
Finally, they end their sections by offering Writer’s Tips for that particular emotion.
Check it out. I got it for less than ten dollars and have found it useful.
Here is one way I use the Thesaurus. When I catch myself using the same descriptors, I look up other descriptive clues . We fall into word patterns we favor, that’s part of Voice. But, using the same words too often is monotonous. If you’re like me, you keep a regular thesaurus at hand when you’re writing. That’s for when you use the same word too often.
The Critique Group I go to has members who will point out words you use too often. They call them echo words: a word or phrase that recurs in a sentence or paragraph. They recommend changing them to synonyms.
Take a look at this book. I hope you find it useful.

Spaghetti Sauce

Malcolm Gladwell has a presentation on TED about spaghetti sauce. (

In this video, he talks about the work of Howard Moskowitz, a statistician. Years ago, a sauce maker hired him to research the question: “What is the best spaghetti sauce?” He found the data that emerged wasn’t ‘useful’ in the traditional sense. A single sauce didn’t win out as ‘the best.’ Instead, people’s preferences varied. For some time the results troubled him. He kept trying to come up with a way of identifying ‘the best.’
One night while he was having dinner in a restaurant, the answer hit him. There is no ‘best’ spaghetti sauce. There were clumps of people who had different tastes in their sauce choice. That’s why the data didn’t coalesce into a single peak.

He went back to the company executives and urged them to give up the quest for a ‘best sauce.’

Instead, he counseled them to several choices under their brand name. That is why, when you go to the super market, you find several types of sauce for each brand name. They’re no longer trying to produce the single best. Now they market to different tastes.

Other marketers caught on to Moskowitz’ marketing plan. After that many product offerings popped up on every aisle in all stores. For many, the good ole days when there were two choices for bread or milk are longed for. But, they will never return.

You could say the same thing about music. Music is divided into many categories. People listen to the music they like and ignore the types they don’t like. There’s no accounting for taste, as the Romans were wont to say. It isn’t long ago that you could go from one region of the country to another and hear a different style of music. That still exists, but in pockets. I’m sometimes surprised to hear a song I’ve never heard before that has been around for decades. Often, it’s in a genre I don’t listen to much.

Likewise, fiction comes in various packages and appeals to different tastes. There is no better genre when it comes to music, food, or fiction. That’s why the best science fiction novel might be laid aside by a true detective reader. They may think it as boring.

Now, e-publishing is biting into what’s published. Small groups of men, often in New York, determined the public’s tastes. With the emergence of e-publishing, the experts are often wrong about reader’s choices. They need to be introduced to Moskowitz.

Using Correctional Software

I discovered when spell checkers became ubiquitous I liked computer corrections software.
Let me tell you my story about my spelling errors. I’m from the South. I use diphthongs when I speak (elongated vowels). I also use what is called the ‘schwa.’ That’s a vowel sound that’s lightly pronounced and unaccented in words of more than one syllable. (In dictionaries it is signified by an upside-down e. It us pronounced ‘uh’ no matter which vowel is represented.) These two features of my regional accent make spelling some words difficult for me. I can’t sound them out. I neither pronounce or hear the sounds correctly. When I try sounding them out, I put in the vowel I think is there. The schwa makes getting it right a one in seven shot.
For example. When I hear myself say the word, ‘together,’ I hear the words to-gather—the first e is so soft it sounds like an a to me. (When people speak with some other accents, I can hear the ‘gether’ said said. When I spell it like I hear it, I get it wrong. So, I had to memorize the words that I get wrong because of my accent.
Often when humans correct, they have a holier-than-thou attitude. The computer has no attitude, just a sign that it thinks the word is misspelled.
Later, grammar checkers appeared. The built-in grammar checker in Word, Grammarly, and Ginger are examples of those. At times I will use more than one grammar checker.
Recently, a piece of software appeared called Hemingway came to my attention. Hemingway is different. It checks for readability, sentences that are hard to read, sentences that are very hard to read, phrases that have simpler forms, adverbs and passive voice. You can import files from word, or write on the fly while it edits.
I would never slavishly follow any software’s ‘corrections.’ Sometimes they are wrong. For example, if you go to the second paragraph in this blog, the third sentence from the end, you will find the word sound. I used it correctly. Ginger suggests changing the word to ‘send,’ as in, ‘send them out.’ That makes some sense, but it would change the meaning of my sentence to something I didn’t intend. That’s why you have to check what the software recommends. Even if you accept the change, you have to reread your sentence to make sure everything agrees with the new sentence construction.
The element I like the best about Hemingway are the two that suggest your sentences are too difficult. When I first used a readability scale, I was in graduate school. The first paper I used to check my readability turned out to be on the 26th grade level. Graduating college is on the 14th level, add a master’s and you have a 15th, add a Ph.D. and you have a 19th… You get the picture. Let’s say it took someone with two Ph.D.s to read my paper. (Not two people, one person with two Ph.D.s.)
That’s not good. Writing is supposed to communicate with the reader. No one could read my writing and make sense of it—at times, not even me. It’s the writer’s job to make their prose readable, not the readers. So, if I wanted to keep my audience, I had to learn to write on a readable level.
One of my professors suggested I work on my papers until they were at an 8th grade level. That’s about the level of a good newspaper. I was able to do that. Now, most of my works of fiction are on a 4th or 5th grade level. It takes work for me to get there.
Using interactive editing software has another advantage. When you are required to go back through your text, even several times, you find those things that we skip over. Many people, myself included, often read their own text for what they think is saying. We anticipate where a sentence is going and read what we think is there. For example, there is a popular ‘test’ on social media that goes like this. See if you can find the error in the following sentence:
“Approximately 85% cannot find the the error in this sentence.”
Many don’t see the double the on their own. The computer is not fooled by anticipating what’s going to be said, it’s literal. It knows having a double the is unlikely, so it’s highlighted.
Editing software will never replace creativity (I hope), or uniqueness of expression. Used with care, it can help you to avoid mistakes that detract from your creative work’s readability.

New Year’s Blog: Keep on Trucking

Novel writing is a long-term struggle with little good coming of it. Why would I say something like that? After years of contemplating how long does it take to get one published, I found this quote: “What this means is that writing those three or four novels an average writer has to before they burn through before they write a publishable novel will likely take years.” John Scalzi, 6/09 Whatever, Probably just made of bugs Blog. .
Again, I would like to return to my martial arts training for a comparative example. As an educator who was also a martial artist, I noticed that many of my martial arts students would smile and nod their heads as I instructed them on techniques. To their way of thinking, they had just mastered something new to them with little effort. My observation, to the contrary, was they executed the technique incorrectly before I explained it to them and continued to do it wrong after I told them and showed them the correct way to do it.
There was a gap between their assessment of attainment and mine. They sometimes had a look of disappointment when I, or another instructor, told the how to do it again, and again, and again. It was our practice as instructors not to tell students they were wrong or use any other negative assessment, but to show them over and over how to execute a technique correctly. Somewhere along the way, I might notice they began to doubt how perfect they were. It was only after that little spark of doubt warmed and glowed they began to improve on their technique. Some of them reached the level of mastery they only thought they had before. The wise ones began to doubt their perfection in other areas. That gave them room to grow. If they stayed confident in their perfection, they seldom progressed and eventually gave up on martial arts.
Once they got a technique right, when they practiced it perhaps 1000 times, it was theirs. They had the technique drilled into their muscle memory so completely that when a situation called for a certain technique, it was there without thinking. After years of practice, they had years of techniques at their immediate disposal.
For some examples: I fell off some airplane steps one foggy evening. As I was falling, I tucked and rolled and got up from my fall without injury. A fellow martial artist was standing on a platform setting up a display in a department store. He forgot he was on the platform and stepped back to get an overall look at his display. He fell, but managed a back fall technique and was uninjured. Another friend was riding his bicycle and a motorist ran him off the road. When his bike flipped, he executed a forward roll and was uninjured.
Each one of us had no time to think about the steps in a break fall. If it hadn’t been in muscle memory, any one of us would have been injured.
So, cross walking this to writing is obvious to me. Many beginning writers, including me, believe they are doing perfectly when we begin. We love our own work and think others will love it too. It’s only when we give it to someone who really knows what they are doing (often not your best friend), that we discover that there may be some holes in our writing.
As we continue, we may find that we have to go to grammar and creative writing books. Or, we may have to read many ‘how to write a novel’ books. We have the same kind of doubt the martial artist has just before they begin to make real progress.
For many aspiring writers, that doubt comes too late. They are discouraged and stop writing. They may give any reason like, “Editors were against me; I couldn’t find a decent agent; or the game is rigged to only publish New England writers.” But the real answer is they didn’t doubt their ability soon enough. They didn’t begin to grow after their third or fourth book.
For me, the conclusion I hope people reach is that it is important to keep on working on improving, keep a little doubt about your level of perfection and keep on trucking.

Lessons From a Tomato Can

As a professor, I reject out of hand students’ protests that they can’t do something, that they have never done that before (they don’t seem to realize that no one who hasn’t done it hasn’t done it before), or that they won’t even try. Here’s the reason.
September 28th, 1980, I had just come back from a two-week camping trip with three teens in the wilderness expanse of the Sangre de Christo Mountains in New Mexico. I went to work that day, ran five miles after work, and then joined some friends at the Bombay Bicycle Club for happy hour. I had a few drinks, and then dinner before going home.
Once home, I watched the news, talked with my wife and son for a while, and then went to bed. An hour later I woke up screaming. I was in intense pain and I couldn’t speak. I found out later that I had aphasia. I could think the words I wanted to say, but I couldn’t speak them or write them. I experienced confusion, apathy, fatigue, ringing in the ears, and depression. My arms were paralyzed.
Depression doesn’t really call to mind what I experienced. Have you ever heard someone say, “I felt a wave of depression?” That’s what happened to me; I literally felt the depression crash over me like a wave. There was no warning, no precipitating event. I would be normal one moment, the next I was crying uncontrollably. I found that most people are disconcerted when a man starts crying desperately.
I also learned that I, as a man, had defined some of my personhood as being able to do things. Since I was paralyzed, I couldn’t do things. I had to have people help me. I lost that part of my manhood.
After a few days, I went to the hospital and once there, I was put into rehabilitation. It was to last three years. Every time I reached the level my physical therapist wanted, she would raise the bar.
One day she told me I wasn’t like other patients, she said, “Most people give up.” I told her that as long as I could gain a single skill back, I would never give up.
At the end of three years, the hospital dismissed me from its outpatient rehab program. Their reason for dismissing me? I could lift a 10 ounce can of tomatoes ten times. By their definition, I was now normal. Before being paralyzed, I was a weight lifter. I don’t consider being able to lift 10 ounces as anywhere near normal. Before I left the hospital, I asked the physical therapist to help me with a home PT program.
I set up some pulleys and weights, and began my home physical therapy on my own. Every day after work, I did an hour of PT.
One day my son asked me if he could take Tae Kwon Do. I told him sure. We began going to TKD several nights a week. (I could use a car, but it probably was not safe for me to do so, looking back on it.) After watching him for a while, I went back to the hospital and asked my physical therapist what she thought about me doing TKD. She said, “Anything you do to get your arms moving and keeping them moving is good for you.”
The next day, I asked the TKD instructors if I could join their school. They welcomed me. When I reached this degree black belt, one of my friends asked me if I knew what my nickname was when I joined the school. I didn’t. He told me it was, “The basket case.”
Everyone referred to me as the basket case and all knew who they were talking about. Then he said, “You are anything but a basket case now.”
In time, I gained my strength back, stopped having depression, and overcame fatigue. I eventually earned nine black belts.
During my worst days, I realized I could have died from my reaction. I found out I was allergic to Bactrim. It sank in on me that I could have ‘bought the ranch.’ I decided I was going to do the things I had always said I wanted to do, but put on the back burner.
I went back to school and earned my Ph.D. continued with my martial arts training, and took a cut in pay to get a place at a community college. I went on to learn Spanish and how to play the guitar. I also began writing fiction.
I hope you’re beginning to understand why I hate to hear students say, “I can’t…” before they have tried. They are self-limiting just like I was before I realized that the things I was putting on the back burner would stay there unless I made the decision to do them and do them now.
I keep the 10-ounce can of tomatoes on my desk. It’s there for those times when I start to think I can’t. It’s there to remind me I can.