life writing

Paddling Against the Storm

Oh, creativity. It required time, energy, and at least some level of peace, quiet, and mental space. But for the past three years I dealt with an overabundance of “you have to’s” that resulted in very little free time, energy, or quiet. In a most remarkable turn of events, at the end of a three-year marathon of obligations I was rewarded with a noteworthy and glorious gift: the first full week off at home in fifteen years, and during a national holiday no less.

In any given “normal” week I was alotted a very narrow window of time for creative pursuits after employment and family obligations were met, and a big event like a move to a new house always cut my free time to zero for weeks or months. My family and I moved five times in twelve years.

From 2010 to 2017, we moved three times to different houses around Kamakura, Japan, though moving to a new house in Japan was relatively easy for me. All I had to do was continue fulfilling my employment obligations on the Navy base and let the wife handle the planning, paperwork, packing, unpacking, and coordinating of kids. We also got significant help from family and friends.

We lived in Kamakura a total of ten years, during which time I never experienced a full week off at home. Okay, I did take paternity leave both times we had a new baby in the house, but of course those weeks could not really be considered “time off”. During the decade in Japan I did take a week or so off a few times a year, but that time always seemed to be dominated by family vacations and other events.

When time permitted I paddle-board surfed the beaches of the Shonan Coast. Whenever we moved to a new house, it reminded me of paddling against a strong offshore wind, using all my strength just to avoid getting blown out to sea. But over time the storm would pass and things would calm down enough for me to write a story or two.

Between 2016 and 2018 I even managed to write a novel in the lull between moves, though this effort involved extreme levels of discipline, dedication, and deprivation of sleep. I established a deadline to publish Tokyo Green by 2018 because for a long time I had known what horrible life-changing endeavor came next.

Our trans-Pacific move from Japan to the United States in 2020 was quite possibly the most difficult project I had ever attempted. I arrived in Utah (of all places) two months before the rest of the family. For a long time it left me with zero creative time and a very angry muse. There was a gap of almost one year during which I didn’t write a single blog post, between the “2020 Job Search Journey” and “The Great Return”. There was so much to do, and as the only adult American in the family I had to do all of it – the paperwork, planning, unpacking, getting the kids registered in school, and what-not – just as my Japanese wife had done in Japan. Fair enough, but I was also the sole breadwinner of the family, holding down a full-time career that I did not want, enduring the puss-spewing wound of a midlife crisis that would seemingly never heal. The Great Return was a storm that blew me out to sea so far that I could not see the shore.

As a year or two passed I found the time to engage in creative projects like 3D printing, pyrography, painting, and playing D&D with the kids, though writing on a semi-pro basis was still the furthest thing from my mind.

In 2023, I engaged in perhaps the second most difficult project of my life: yet another move, but this one just a couple miles away. It took comparable effort to defy America’s great, silent housing crisis and move us from our so-called temporary, low-cost housing to something more suitable for us. I took an eight-month break from writing blog posts, and my infrequent journal entries were for the most part to-do lists and gripes about not having enough time to honor the muse. My wife and I dumped an insane amount of time and energy into house-hunting. The miracle did finally happen, but once again I would tackle all moving tasks alone.

My wife and kids would be in Japan all summer. They weren’t escaping the move efforts; this trip had been planned long before we knew we’d be buying and moving into a new house. So once again, for the second time in three years, all moving tasks fell on my shoulders: the house-buying, the dreaded paperwork, the physical move itself, the unpacking, the additional furnishing, the necessary renovations, and everything else – all while holding down the involuntary obligation of a demanding career as sole breadwinner of the house. What an amazing thing my membership of the so-called American patriarchy was! According to whatever sadistic maniacs came up with this concept, I was the most fortunate and priveleged son of a bitch in the world.

For a few weeks in July of 2023 I did join the family in Japan, but for a couple of months I was alone without them in Utah. I hated our time apart, and it added additional stress. But I did get a lot done in terms of getting moved in and settled in the new house.

They returned in August and that’s when an even bigger wave of to-do lists began. For the next couple of months I was paddling with all my strength, continually solving problems around the house, and pushing back on the wife’s frantic pace of getting everything perfectly squared away in the narrowest window of time. We were going to be in this house for a long time. Did we really have to do everything right now? It got to the point where I’d flinch everytime my wife opened her mouth, because I knew she’d stack yet another task on top of all the other things I hadn’t yet found time to do.

By late November of 2023 the worst was done. The persistent paddling had paid off. We were sufficiently settled in for the holidays, and I welcomed the winter snow. By mid-December all the kids’ holiday activities (the recitals, parties, and what-not) were done. Only one set of obstacles remained: Christmas get-together’s with family and friends.

Then, I was blessed with a double whammy of good fortune. First, my brother’s dog died. The original plan had been for my brother and his family to spend the holidays in Mexico, while my mom came out and stayed at their place to watch their dog who was too old to make the trip. Pico the Chihuaua was a a legendary dog and a great hiker, but with his death my mom cancelled her Christmas visit. “Shucks! Say it ain’t so!” I exclaimed with disappointment in my voice but with relief in my heart. I would so miss having someone around to make continuous unsolicited suggestions about how to improve my life during my one precious week off.

The next stroke of luck was that my wife got sick. I had never seen her so sick. She couldn’t get out of bed for days. The holiday plan-maker and to-do list filler-upper was effectively disabled! All I had to do was work and take care of the kids. This was a welcome burden compared to all the engagements she’d no doubt be planning and all the tasks she would otherwise ask me to do. We never identified whether she had COVID, but who cared? COVID was the golden ticket to my ideal situation: solace and exemption from unwanted holiday hustle, even if it resulted in death.

So, that was how I got my first full week off at home in fifteen years, and I remained strong and healthy throughout. What did I do with this time? I skiied. I walked. I unwound. I reflected, spent time with my family. I wrote goals, and thought about how to get back on track. What was the track, anyway? Where was I going? Through all the excitement I had forgotten who I was or where I had meant for my life to go. Why had I paddled so hard and for so long? What had it gotten me? Now that the storm had passed, what would I do once I at last set foot on shore?


The Making of Tokyo Green

TOKYO GREEN was published in the spring of 2019. It was about three years in the making, though in pure writing time it took fourteen months. A few friends asked why (and how??) I wrote my first novel during a time when I should have had zero time for anything outside of family and career. Here’s the official story for anyone else who’s interested. It might also benefit other new writers who want to embark on this crazy journey, too.

TOKYO GREEN: The Concept

It should go without saying that my primary motivation for writing anything is psychological need. I just feel better when I write. As a teenager I spent summer breaks filling notebooks with tales of imaginary worlds, but when it came time to choose an economic path in life I lacked courage and drive. I took the road most traveled, which did not involve any creativity at all.

Twenty years later there was hell to pay for my lack of courage. Midlife hit me hard. It felt like everything I had done professionally up until that time wasn’t worth a thing. No surprise, this was around the time I began journaling and writing short stories in an effort to keep the muse off my back.

In the summer of 2016 my wife and I took the kids to a small family reunion in Colorado. Our youngest was taking his first steps. For a few years I had been writing every day and learning from my mistakes, so by this time I had a few ideas for a novel kicking around. On this trip I decided to go with Tomo’s story, as he and I had a lot in common when it came to work. I was also fascinated with the story’s starting question: what would the world be like in thirty years? Looking at it another way I was asking the biggest question on any parent’s mind: “how can I prepare my kids for the future, with all the big-picture changes that are sure to come?” I started reading books and articles on the topic, and even corresponded with an actual futurist on a few thoughts.

Another motivator was my mild obsession with the idea that the subgenre of dystopia was dangerous for the human race. The future was a product of what we imagined it to be, so why not imagine something kick-ass? This was the theme of one of my favorite stories, Ray Bradbury’s “The Toynbee Convector,” in which a scientist lies to the world about a better tomorrow in order to save the world from itself. In reality the world was much better off now than when Bradbury wrote the story, but most people perceived it to be going to hell. This mass delusion was complicated by the means of distributing information media in the modern age. I did some more research, and read several non-fiction books by people who were trying to turn the tide of this bizarre phenomenon, well-known titles like Factfulness and Enlightenment Now.

Fueled with these ideas, I wanted to contribute my part (however small) to set the record straight. For sure there would be big problems in the future, but there was no reason to assume civilization would collapse. It was no accident the main character of Tokyo Green is the same age as my oldest son. I wanted to imagine a future for our children. Otherwise what was the point?

TOKYO GREEN: The Manuscript

Back in Japan, I resumed an online course by Holly Lisle called “How to Think Sideways,” the first ten weeks of which was a holistic approach to discovering one’s own true story that needed to be told. I probably had twenty thousand words of notes, world-building and character sketches before the real writing even began. I pounded out the first scene in August of 2016, and maintained a good pace of about 1,000 words per day for several months. I did most of the writing in the ungodly morning hours, and during my commute on the train.

Every November there’s something called “National Novel Writing Month” (NANO-WRIMO) in which writers from all over the world push themselves and friends to bust out 50,000 words (of anything) in thirty days. It seemed like a good idea, so I tried it, and by the end of the month I did indeed have an additional 50,000 words. The only problem was that most of it was crap. I know this event works well for many writers, but I won’t do it again. I have no problem motivating myself to work, and with this project I had already established a good, balanced pace of writing before the NANO-WRIMO month began. With the slight uptick in speed the story stepped out of tune. This produced some unexpected “Wild Bill” moments, senseless tangents, and subplot dead-ends.

Earlier I mentioned the muse. By this time he and I had become close. This might sound romantic to the uninitiated, but I can assure you it was not. As a left-brained techie I used to roll my eyes when people talked about their so-called muse. (The word still sounds too quaint, but there’s no better fit.) Suffice to say my muse was not quaint. I had kept him locked up in a closet for most of my life. Now he was a mean bastard who rode into town on a Harley and fought dirty when drunk. And dammit he was always drunk. He banged on the door any time of night and did not care if he woke the baby up. He blew an air-horn in my ear at 2 AM just because he had crazy new ideas. What did it matter if I had to get up in a few hours to go to work? I’m sure anyone who has been involved in a big creative endeavor can relate.

By mid-December, I had a 130,000-word beast of a manuscript that only I could love. It was thicker than a big-city phone book when printed out. Much of my real life had been running on auto-pilot during the four months of writing, so I put this ugly baby in a drawer for a few months while I worked on reuniting with family, coworkers and friends.

TOKYO GREEN: The Revision

In April of 2017 I pulled the heavy stack of paper out of the drawer and put it on a shelf. For a while I was afraid to take a look. I finally read it, and it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. In fact some of it was pretty good. However it was clear that it needed a lot of work. In the end it would take every scrap of my free time over the next eight months to revise. I used Holly Lisle’s “How To Revise Your Novel” (HTRYN) method, which was thorough (to say the least), grueling and extreme.

The revision process slaughtered about a quarter of the original manuscript. I removed scenes, added scenes, and rewrote all eighty of them at least once. The original story had been written from three points of view: Tomo, Kosei, and Sara. I gutted all the Sara POV scenes in the revision, because it just didn’t make sense that a story could be told from an AI point of view. (I reckoned that computers didn’t think like humans any more than submarines swam like fish.)

I catalogued every detail, item, and artifact, making sure each had its place. A third of the original characters were cut from the cast. I did a manual cut and paste of the physical manuscript, typed the whole thing in from scratch, printed it, read it out loud, and then repeated the whole process twice.

During this time it felt natural to withdraw from the real world. I grew my hair long over the course of a year and a half to the bemusement of my conservative colleagues. By the end of the revision it was shoulder-length. For most of a year I slept four hours, woke in the middle of the night, revised, and then crashed out for an hour or two before starting the daily commute. Real-world pressures mounted at work and home. My family pressured me to stick to our original plan and move back to the States. (Okay, to be fair this was my original plan, before the muse took control.) But the move would’ve required a year or more of my undivided attention to get my foreign-born family settled in, and TOKYO GREEN was not yet complete. So the muse rejected the idea in the psychological equivalent of holding a loaded gun to my head. It was very rough patch on the road to finishing this thing, and I was doing it alone. There was no way I could explain that I had a slave-driving boss in a second career that paid nothing at all.

At the end of 2017 I had something resembling an actual novel. The 130,000-word beast emerged from the revision process a lean, mean, 90,000-word version of its former self, which by total coincidence was an average novel’s length. Eighteen months after starting this project, it was time for others to take a look.

In January of 2018 I asked Matt Turano to help with content editing. He read the manuscript twice and sent a forty-page, double-spaced reply. It was a real treat to work with him. He applied the right balance of encouragement and hard critique. Some of his suggested changes were easy fixes, but some required a lot of work. The most significant mod was a re-write of the first chapter (for the fourth time!) to smooth out some emotion that made no sense. Back in the summer of 2016 I had pounded the words of the first chapter down with a bit of wage-slave angst, and after all the revisions some of it still remained. Chapter One was not the place to alienate readers with my problems. By the final re-write it was all Tomo, doing his thing.

I spent a month making these final revisions. Afterwards I declared my midlife crisis to be over and once again dropped the book in a drawer.

TOKYO GREEN: The Product

For most of the next year I enjoyed the awesome feeling of not having a secret second job.

I did explore the idea of traditional publishing for a while, even though I wasn’t sure it was right for the book. This was new territory for me, so I pursued it for the learning experience alone. Jane Friedman (author, publishing insider) was nice enough to correspond with me a bit. Out of twenty submissions to various agents I got two bites. An agent and I went back and forth about possible representation.

In the end I concluded traditional publishing was not for me. I wanted to do things on my own time, and I was not open to making big changes to fit an existing niche. As a reader I didn’t think traditional publishing had done the best job of providing me with what I wanted to read in the past twenty years, so why should I trust them to tell me what to write?

A year drifted by and I forgot about the project. This might seem unbelievable after so much effort, but I had this complacent feeling like the demon had been exorcised. I was at peace. Still, the idea of making my small contribution hung in the air. If a book was dropped in the forest and nobody was there to read it, was it ever written at all?

In January of 2019, I asked EJ Clarke of SilverJay Editing to copy-edit the book, and got Ida Jansson of AMYGDALA DESIGN (Norway) to do the cover.

So now I’m on the eve of finally publishing this thing and I think back to my teenage years of daydreaming and filling up notebooks with tales of imaginary worlds. I feel like the best part of me is vindicated, even if this novel doesn’t make a cent. If you’re thinking about writing a novel or embarking on some big creative endeavor then consider this: The economic me has made some money over the past twenty-five years in this thing I call a career. For sure I’ve met some good people along the way. But if every minute of it was wiped from my memory I wouldn’t miss a thing. (Hell, if such a service existed then I might pay to have it done!) On the other hand, the experience of completing a meaningful, creative project is a memory I wouldn’t give up for anything. It’s an accomplishment I’ll take to the grave.


Striving for Mastery

Someone said that mastery of (any?) skill is reached at ten thousand hours, and this seems to have been accepted as a general guideline. I wonder where I am on the mastery scale for writing? How much longer do I have to go? What happens once I reach mastery? Is it like the scene at the end of Highlander when lighting shoots out of my mouth and all the windows around me shatter? Every word I put down on paper from then on is carved into tablets, written in gold? What will my title be? I’m also pretty good at putting bait on the end of a fishing hook, but I don’t want to think about what my title would be after reaching mastery in that skill. At the end of the day I’m not taking this ten thousand hour thing too seriously, as I’m sure it’s possible to be better than ninety-nine percent of people at a given skill in a much shorter period of time. Still, it’s fun to think about where I stand.

Is there a mastery for writing in general? Maybe so, but if would it be fair to say I’m a master at writing fiction, if eighty percent of what I’ve written are random thoughts in a journal? Probably not. For now let’s assume there’s a general mastery for writing. That means I can add up all the journals and non-fiction accounts of things I’ve written since I started writing as a teen? (This brings up another good question: is it fair to include a cumulative total if the training toward mastery is not done sequentially. In golf, for example, I know that taking a year off and starting again is more or less like starting at a beginner level. I wonder if the same is true for writing, if I took a few years off?)

What counts as an hour of writing anyway? Is “writing” only the action I’m performing at the moment, or does it include the many hours of revision that is often involved in creating a published work? Let’s say it includes revision hours, too.

So assuming the ten thousand hours towards mastery does not have to be day-to-day consecutive, and it can be any writing at all, that means I can include all the notebooks I filled with plots for D&D adventures while hanging out in my mom’s basement as a kid. It includes all the short stories and papers I wrote in college, all the journals and letters and anything that involved crafting sentences for others to read. I’m not going to include emails and birthday cards. That seems to be pushing it too far. Looking back twenty years would result in a vague estimate. It might be helpful to look at more recent years first. On average I’ve put more quality words on paper in my last eight years in Japan than any other time of my life. I’ll start with total word count, and then try to work out some way of measuring hours of writing from that.

Forty essays in the theme of “Leisure Maximus” for a total of forty thousand words. (Funny how that worked out to exactly one thousand words per essay.)

Twenty thousand words on a “Brief History of Economic Me” and related essays.

Seventy thousand words on the Family journal.

Forty plus flash fiction and short stories for a total of fifty thousand words.

One hundred and fifty thousand words on the novel Tokyo Green. (Minimum! Again this is a rough estimate. The original manuscript was one hundred and thirty thousand words. The final product was ninety thousand words. There were at least twenty thousand words of notes, character sketches and world-building. And there were scenes rewritten and others written from scratch during revision. So how to arrive at a total here?)

Sixty thousand words of two unfinished novel manuscripts.

Two hundred and fifty thousand words of notebook “doodling”. I estimate a minimum of five hundred words per day written in my notebook on the train, and I’ve made the round-trip commute over two thousand times. This comes to one million words, but much of this doodling went into the journals and stories mentioned above, so I won’t count it twice.

This comes to six hundred and eighty thousand words.

Does it make sense to get a words-per-hour total from this?

Again, I’m trying to estimate time spent on the craft, and the above words represent the words in their final form. Certainly journaling and doodling takes much less time than writing good fiction. There’s no way I can make this exact, but I’ll try to be fair.

After thinking about it lunch, I decided on one thousand words per hour for journaling, doodling, and unfinished manuscripts; and two hundred words per hour for finished essays and works of fiction. I can spend up to ten hours crafting a five hundred word flash fiction story to perfection, but can get through many more words per hour writing and revising a longer work. Two hundred seemed fair. So that’s three hundred and eighty thousand words at one thousand words per hour, and three hundred thousand words at two hundred words per hour, for a grand total of three thousand three hundred and eighty hours of writing in eight years. This is close to my original ballpark figure of thirty five hundred hours, which averages to a little more than an hour per day writing over the course of eight years.

How many hours did I write before arriving in Japan, dating all the way back to my junior high school years? Who knows? I’d guess at least as much, maybe less. Let’s say twenty-five hundred hours as a conservative estimate. So maybe I’ve clocked six thousand hours of writing time in my life. I can wait to see what happens when I break ten grand.


What and Why I Write

The next few decades are sure to be a wild ride. Big picture changes are happening faster than anyone can keep track, and I can’t wait to see how it all turns out. This is why I write speculative fiction.

Good or bad, the tech we create changes who we are as a species, forever. Five hundred years ago the printing press was a kick in the face to the status quo of Europe. But the kick happened in ultra-slow-mo compared to the pummeling social media gives civilization today.

With change comes conflict, and conflict is the fuel for stories that burn rubber down the road. As a writer and big picture thinker, it’s a good time to be alive.

Dystopia is boring. If our collective imagination really is our preview to the future, then we can do better than that. The characters in my stories challenge the status quo in new and productive ways, contributing a positive spark (or even a course correction) to the turbulent ride we’re on.

There’s conflict between nature and tech, a give and pull dynamic, without which nothing evolves. I wonder about our collective threshold for unnatural behavior in the pursuit of money. Will we choose soul-sucking comfort and security in an office cubicle under the glow of bright fluorescence, or will we do something more in tune with our DNA?

It’s my morning commute and I’m on the train, writing the old fashioned way, with pen and paper. I sit between a uniformed school girl and a salaryman, each of whom is tapping their smart phone like a frantic chimp scraping bark off a tree. Is this natural behavior? Who knows? I’m just another clever ape who works a day job under fluorescent lights.

For me, writing is the kind of obsession seen in the movie “Close Encounters,” when artists of the world are called to create something resembling Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, without knowing why. The main character of the movie starts with a mashed potato sculpture at dinner and ends with a ride on the mothership into outer space.

Writers like to describe writing as something they “must do,” usually said in the double negative, like “writing is something we cannot not do.” I can relate. There’s plenty of conflict between the muse and me.

For a long time I kept the muse locked in a box in the basement like the gimp in “Pulp Fiction,” because I presumed to have more important things to do. A few years ago the muse escaped. Understandably, he was very pissed off. Now I have no choice but to appease him. There’s no putting him back in the box.

Real life requires most of my waking hours, between a busy family life and a professional gig that pays the bills. With my remaining sliver of freedom I’d prefer to take it easy, or pay down my sleep debt. “I don’t think so.” says the muse. “The mothership is calling. Get in, loser. We’re going for a ride.”

Life would be perfect if only I could devote all my work hours to writing, and appease this bastard muse. Or would it? Without sufficient conflict, nothing ever evolves.