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Archive for March, 2012

(PERFECT) PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Becoming an excellent writer!

(Perfect) Practice Makes Perfect: Becoming an Excellent Writer

 

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

This old saw applies to writers as much as to musicians.

The reason why most people who shop their manuscripts don’t get published is because their writing isn’t very good. Agents and editors are looking, above all, for excellent writers. But how do aspiring writers set about achieving excellence?

Research scientists have, for decades, been interested in the question of what makes certain people really good at what they do. To find the answer, they have studied high achievers in many different fields: music and firefighting, chess and golf—even writing. Most of us are sure we already know why some people are great in their field: Talent – that mysterious quality given at birth to the fortunate few.  Wrong.

In study after study, researchers find that innate talent is not a prerequisite for success and that hard work alone does not make people great.

While successful people—those who achieve excellence in a domain—do work very hard, it is how they work that distinguishes them from others.

Just putting in hours at your chosen work is not enough; the only way to get better is to make sure you’re devoting those hours to what we call deliberate practice.

Most of us think that we know what practice is. We learned to play basketball and we remember practicing our jump-shot. We learn to play the piano and we practice scales.

It is unlikely, however, that what we have done and are, at present, doing is really “deliberate practice” and it is almost a certainty that we have never applied the concept of deliberate practice to improving our ability to write.

When most people practice, they repeat things they already know how to do.

Those who become experts in their field spend most of their time doing things they don’t already know how to do.

They are constantly challenging themselves to improve, to do things better, to gain additional skills.

Deliberate practice demands reaching for objectives that are always just out of reach and the practitioner knows that the only way to achieve those objectives is through immense amounts of repetition.

Athletes and musicians all devote themselves to practice; they know that’s the only way they can become good enough to compete at a professional level. Practice is how they learn their skills; practice is how they keep those skills sharp. But when do most writers ever practice?

For most people, the answer is: Never.

Why?  Because we learn how to write in school, where writing is always done under “performance” conditions: the writing will be read, assessed and graded.

Even in most creative writing workshops and writers’ groups, the focus is on performance writing. The writer is taught to write something good enough to get published.

The problem with this approach is that it’s impossible to learn your skills and to improve them if you never give yourself a chance to practice. Most aspiring writers are doing themselves a great disservice by focusing on trying to write publishable pieces. These writers simply don’t have the skills they need to produce professional-quality work. Instead of trying to get published, they need to devote themselves, at least for a while, to practice.

What, though, does a writer practice?

Writers need to possess two main sets of skills: “Content Skills” and “Craft Skills”.

Content Skills

The skills we use to come up with ideas and material for pieces of writing.  They include:

  • creativity
  • imagination
  • curiosity

Craft Skills

These are the skills we use to establish a natural relationship with readers, so we can transfer our content into their minds. They include:

  • an understanding of how a type of writing works (a short story does not work the same way as a novel or a newspaper article)
  • an understanding of how our chosen genre works (science fiction, romance and horror possess different rules and styles)
  • the ability to choose words and put them together in clear, eloquent, and “musical” sentences

One of the keys to deliberate practice is to break a complex skill down into component parts and practice each part separately.

To begin, write down all the writing skills you presently have.

Are you good at coming up with ideas? Do you have a well-trained ability to do research? Does your imagination give you vivid, detailed pictures? Are you good at finding wonderful words?

Next, write down all the skills you need to learn or to work on.

If you are just getting started with writing, you may find this difficult. If people have made comments on your writing, you can use those comments to make your list.

If, for instance, you have been told that your characters are not believable or your descriptions are fuzzy, then the skills of creating characters and writing descriptions go on your list.

Read a piece of writing by your favorite author. Now, write down all the things that writer does that make the piece so good.

How many of those things can you do now? How many of them do you need to learn how to do?

Your answers to these questions will tell you what you need to practice.

To get the most benefit from practice, keep these two principles in mind: repetition and reflection.

Repetition – lots of it – is required to make skills automatic, so that when you sit down to write your novel those skills are ready to work for you.

Reflection – What did I learn today? What do I need to learn next? – is what keeps you on track in your pursuit of excellence.

Developing Creativity

I once asked my students to define “creativity”. None of them could.

I asked them to draw what creativity means to them. A few could; most could not.

I believe the reason is because – in the U.S. and the U.K. (and I suspect all of the Western World) – creativity is looked at as purely the stuff of “dreamers” who want to pursue artistic endeavors and not “real work”. This is farther from the truth than the world being flat, but many take this view and discourage others from accessing what they believe to be an excuse for slacking off or avoiding reality.

In actuality, creativity is the process of producing something that is both original and worthwhile. Creativity is about finding new ways to solve problems and approach situations. Creativity is not a skill restricted to artists, musicians or writers; it is a useful skill for people from all walks of life.

If you want to further develop your creativity, you can:

1.      Commit Yourself

The first step is to fully devote yourself to developing your creative abilities. Do not put off your efforts. Set goals, enlist the help of others and put time aside each day to develop your skills.

 2.      Become an Expert

One of the best ways to develop creativity is to become an expert in that area. By having a   rich understanding of the topic, you will be better able to think of novel (pun intended) ideas and innovative solutions to problems.

 3.      Reward Your Curiosity

One common roadblock to developing creativity is the sense that curiosity is an indulgence. Rather than reprimanding yourself, reward yourself when you are curious about something. Give yourself the opportunity to explore new topics.

 4.      Build Your Confidence

Insecurity in your abilities can suppress creativity, which is why it is important to build your confidence. Recognize your progress, commend your efforts and always be on the lookout for ways to reward your creativity.

 5.      Make Time for Creativity

You won’t be able to develop your creative talents if you don’t make time for them. Schedule some time each week to concentrate on some type of creative project.

 6.      Overcome Negative Attitudes that Block Creativity

According to a 2006 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, positive moods can increase your ability to think creatively. According to Dr. Adam Anderson, senior author of the study, “If you are doing something that requires you be creative or be in a think tank, you want to be in a place with good mood.” Eliminate negative thoughts or self-criticisms that may impair your ability to develop strong creative skills.

 7.      Brainstorm to Inspire New Ideas

Brainstorming is a common technique in both academic and professional settings, but it can also be a powerful tool for developing your creativity. Suspend your judgment and self-criticism, then write down related ideas and possible solutions. The goal is to generate as many ideas as possible in a relatively short span of time. Next, focus on clarifying and refining your ideas in order to arrive at the best possible choice.

 8.      Realize That Most Problems Have Multiple Solutions

When you approach a problem, look for a variety of solutions. Instead of simply going with the first idea you have, take the time to think of other possible ways to approach the situation. This simple activity is a great way to build both your problem-solving and creative thinking skills.

 9.      Keep a Journal

Start keeping a journal to follow your creative process and track the ideas you produce. A journal is a great way to reflect back on what you have accomplished and look for other possible solutions. This journal can be used to save ideas that can later serve as future inspiration.

 10.  Try the “Six Hats” Technique

The “six hats” technique involves looking at a problem from six differing perspectives. By doing this, you can produce more ideas than you might have had you only looked at the situation from one or two points of view.

  • Red Hat: Look at the situation emotionally. What do your feelings tell you?
  • White Hat: Look at the situation objectively. What are the facts?
  • Yellow Hat: Use a positive perspective. Which elements of the solution will work?
  • Black Hat: Use a negative perspective. Which elements of the solution won’t work?
  • Green Hat: Think creatively. What are some alternative ideas?
  • Blue Hat: Think broadly. What is the best overall solution? 

11.  Look for Sources of Inspiration

Never expect creativity to just happen. Look for sources of inspiration that will give you fresh ideas and motivate you to generate unique answers to questions. Read a book, visit a museum, listen to your favorite music or engage in a lively debate with a friend. Utilize whatever strategy or technique works best for you.

 12.  Create a Flow Chart

When you develop a new project, create a flow chart to track the presentation of your project from start to finish. Look for various paths or sequences of events that might occur. A flow chart can help you visualize the final product, eliminate potential problems and create unique solutions.

If all this sounds like a lot of work—well, it is.

Becoming a skilled athlete or musician is a lot of work.  Did you think becoming a skilled writer would be any different?

However, if you love to write – if you love it as much as Stevie Wonder loves to create music or as much as Michael Jordan loved to play basketball – then practice becomes a kind of dedicated play; a source of pleasure and fulfillment.

If you are willing to shift your focus from getting published to becoming an excellent writer, then there’s a very good chance that, eventually, your skills will take you to the “big leagues” of the writing world.

Just remember – practice does not make perfect…perfect – or deliberate – practice makes perfect; so, work diligently, but also work deliberately – to bring about the results you seek.

Until next time – happy writing!



HISTORY IN SPECULATIVE FICTION

HISTORY IN SPECULATIVE FICTION

I use history as a source and creative tool in most of my writing. Real world history has heavily influenced my writing since elementary school, since –after English – History was my favorite subject. History has been used as a source of terror in my horror fiction, and speculative history is a major part of my science fiction settings.

Among all spheres of knowledge, History – as a device for storytelling – best rewards our research.

History is not the absolute that it is often treated as, however. From the perspective of the present, the past can not be known with great certainty. Thus, history tells stories of past events, and – like all stories – is told by someone for a purpose.

History can be used to enlighten, educate, entertain, inspire, and influence.

Two history types are very useful for writing fiction: Imaginative History is history that is wholly created. This is the history of most fantasy worlds.

The other type is Speculative History. This includes the “what if” of alternate history, as well as the projection of possible events into the future, which is the history of most science fiction settings.

Both types use historical analysis to generate a plausible set of events. This allows us, as writers, to tap into these created histories to add depth and life to our stories.

By far, the simplest technique is to take a bit of real world history and use it for inspiration. Alter a few things, combine fragments together, and you can create something with depth and character.

Rewriting History

Begin with a change point – a historical event that you want to alter. From there, you can move on, creating changes until you end at the point your story begins. There are two theories with regards to change points. On one hand you can choose a major event, such as Germany winning WWII, the African Slave Trade never happening, or Frederick Douglass becoming President. The other theory is to change one small event and write what happens as a result, such as President Obama choosing Hillary Clinton as his Vice President, or Martin Luther King avoiding assassination.

Whatever you decide to write, the next step is to show how and why the change in history occurred. For smaller changes, this is easier. The larger changes often require a summation of smaller changes, which result in the larger change. The earlier the change point, the greater the ‘snowball’ effect of changes. To be believable, you must do your research. Otherwise, you may make a mistake in some detail in setting or dialogue and readers who have done their research – a common phenomenon in science fiction and fantasy – are going to call you out on it. The readers’ suspension of disbelief will fade; they will close your book; and they will tell the world – via all the social media sites – how much your book sucks.

Although you do not need to be an expert, it helps to be well versed in history. I cannot stress enough that, if you are going to write speculative history, you must research…research…research!

Alternate Reality

You sit down to write a new story or novel. You want your story to be alternate history, with strong elements of fantasy and science fiction mixed. In fact, you want your story to be about Harriet Tubman. You want the world she operates in to be of the steampunk subgenre of science-fantasy and you want her – and others in her world – to possess “superpowers” (by the way, this has already been done – see the novel Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman: Book 1 (Kings), available on Kindle and Nook). What you are now writing is Alternate Reality – you are going to have to change not just history, but reality itself.

This means adding magic, anachronistic science based on clockwork mechanics and steam technology, psionics, super powers and the like. As with the altering of history, this will cause cascading effects on the timeline that need to be addressed.

If magic is possible, what does that mean to history? How would aether-based physics effect the development of social and political structures? If people can read minds, what does that do to concepts of privacy? If you have people flying around and throwing horses over houses, what purpose does society put these powers to? These are questions intrinsic to certain genres, but they also apply to the alternate history that introducing changes in reality can bring.

One of the pitfalls of altering reality is that suspension of disbelief becomes an issue. The degree to which you convince the reader these things are possible depends – once again – on the degree of your research.

Some of you may say “Research isn’t necessary. After all, I am just writing fiction. A simple ‘it happens’ should suffice.” To that, I say that the reader is more sophisticated than you give them credit for. I also would say that fiction is not the art of just ‘making things up’. In fact, I envision fiction as a turkey drumstick: It is the bone of reality covered by the meat of creativity. Meaning, at the core of good fiction is reality and then you add layer after layer of creativity around that core.

In coming blogs, I will explore techniques to help you with your research and the use of sources beyond the internet, for – indeed – Wikipedia has become the ‘Cliff’s Notes’ (remember those annoying yellow and black books?) of the modern era: the information is often incorrect; it is the literary equivalent of secretly using a calculator on a math test; and everyone knows you used it.

More, later, on that, though.

Until next time – happy writing!



CHICAGO WYNTER

CHICAGO WYNTER

PART 1: 10 years ago

 

One

“Careful, Dr. Cruz, it’s hot!  Nuclear hot!” Yemi extended her cocoa-toned hand towards Dr. Cruz in warning.

Doctor Cruz placed his thick lips to the rim of the porcelain mug and took a quick sip.  “The hotter, the better in this damned deep-freezer you call a laboratory.”

“It’s going to get much hotter in here in a minute,” Yemi said as she smiled, knowingly, at her team.  “How’s your Chai?”

Doctor Cruz closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.  The tea smelled pleasantly of cinnamon, vanilla, honey and cardamom.  He took another sip.  “Tastes good, I think.  My taste buds are too cold for adequate critique.”

Everyone laughed.  Yemi raised her wrist to her face and squinted at the hands of her watch.  “Red should be waking up any minute now.”

A high pitched, electric chant rose from the storage room at the rear of the lab.

Charles, the electrical engineer on Yemi’s team, shook his bald head. “Voodoo Child.  It’s always Voodoo Child.”

Red shambled out of the storage room.  His long, kinky locks danced upon his shoulders as he threw back his head in ecstasy and worked his wizardry upon the strings of his guitar.  The ivory guitar looked to Yemi like an axe of bone.  An axe, wielded by a master woodsman.

“Well, I’ll stand up next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of my hand.”

Dr. Cruz pulled at the collar of his sweater.  “Is the tea making me so warm?”  He said to himself.  He looked around the laboratory.  Everyone was unzipping their parkas.  Dr. Cruz quickly unbuttoned his wool trench-coat.  “I’ll be damned!”

Yemi smiled and patted Dr. Cruz on the shoulder.

Dr. Cruz stared, wide-eyed, at Red as he sang and continued to play.  “You guys have done it!”

The team’s thermodynamics expert, Paige, rose from her chair and waved her sinewy arm towards Red’s guitar.  “Dr. Cruz, we present to you…the Thermophone!”  Paige took a deep bow.  Everyone applauded.  Red bit his bottom lip as he hit a hard-rock double crescendo.

Dr. Cruz joined in the applause.  Red slowly opened his eyes.  “Warm enough for ya’, Doc?”

Dr. Cruz leaped from his seat, wrapped his arms around Red’s shoulders and squeezed.  “Son, you just made history!”  Tears welled up in the corners of his eyes as he stood before the triumphant team.  “You all have just made history!”

“We couldn’t have done it without the financial backing of Cruzcorp.”  Yemi said.

“Yeah,” Red agreed.  “Now, maybe Yemi can relax, settle down and have me some babies.”

Yemi laughed and shook her head.  “We can’t raise babies in that storage room, Red.”

The lab erupted in laughter.

“Hey, my little condo beats that tent on Lower Wacker I used to call home.”  Red replied.

“Dr. Cruz’s mouth fell wide open.  “You’re homeless, Red?”

Red shook his head.  “I refer to my present situation as ‘residenceless’.  Home is where the heart is.”

Yemi rose from her swivel chair.  “With your permission, Dr. Cruz, let’s continue this demonstration.”

“Please, do, Dr. Falana.”  Dr. Cruz replied.

Yemi turned to her audio engineer, Trina, who was sitting at her mixing board.  “Trina?”

“The Thermophone – as we call it – absorbs externally generated sound, and then transduces the sonic vibrations into heat,” Trina began.  “The stronger the sonic vibrations – meaning the louder the sound – the greater the heat it generates.”

Trina began deftly pushing levers and pressing buttons on the mixing board.  A large amplifier, which sat in the corner of the laboratory, popped and hummed.  Trina nodded at Red.  “The guitar is now calibrated to the amplifier’s wireless frequency.”

Red climbed up onto a desk, pushed the papers on the desk onto the floor with his feet and assumed a wide-legged stance.

Charles checked the thermometer at his terminal.  “The temperature is now sixty-two degrees Fahrenheit,” Charles turned a dial beneath the thermometer.  “I’m reducing the temperature to fifty degrees Fahrenheit…thirty seven degrees…button up everybody…twenty degrees…six…four below zero…we are now congruent with the external temperature of negative twelve degrees Fahrenheit.”

“It’s all yours, Red!”  Paige yelled.

Red closed his eyes and gently caressed the sleek body of his guitar. “C’mon, Pearline,”  he whispered seductively.

Red lovingly stroked Pearline’s strings until she moaned her approval.

“Whoa,” Dr. Cruz quickly unbuttoned his coat and tossed it to the floor.   He turned to Yemi, who’s removed her parka as she closed her eyes and enjoyed the music.  “What is that he’s playing, Dr. Falana?”

“Maggot Brain.”  Yemi replied.

“Strange name for such a beautiful song.”

“Not so strange.  Put maggots on a wound and they will eat the decay and filth, leaving clean, healthy flesh.  This song, played by a master guitarist like Red, does the same for the brain of the listener.”

“Interesting.  It is quite cathartic.  Who came up with such a brilliant idea for a song?  Bach?  Dylan?  John Lennon, perhaps?”

Yemi laughed and shook her head.  “George Clinton and Eddie Hazel of Parliament-Funkadelic.”

Dr. Cruz turned away from Yemi.  His face had turned from dark olive to beet red.  “Okay, back to the experiment.”

Pearline’s moans and lamentations faded to a whisper.  Sweat poured from Red’s mahogany forehead and down his cheeks.  Red leaped from the desk.  Yemi rushed to him and snatched the down-filled jacket from around his shoulders.

Charles looked at the thermometer.  “Seventy-eight degrees.  One more bar and we should reach a hundred degrees.”

Red resumed playing “Maggot Brain”.  Pearline’s whispers increased to ecstatic cries.

The room grew very hot.

Dr. Cruz wiped the sweat from his neck with his hand.

Suddenly, Pearline’s cries died, as if cold hands had encircled her throat and cruelly squeezed.  The track lights popped and the equipment coughed and then…darkness…and silence.

“Damn it!  Trina groaned.

“Coats on everyone,” Yemi ordered.  “The generator should kick-in in just a second and we’ll commence with the demonstration.”

Minutes ticked by.  The temperature plummeted.

“That generator’s a no-go,” Charles said.  “Come on, Paige.  Let’s go check it out while we still have daylight.  More likely than not, the snow knocked a power line down and the generator probably just needs some oil.”

Paige slid on her mittens as Charles pushed open the heavy, steel door.  A rush of cold wind and snow slapped him in the face.  “Let’s make this quick,” he said.  “It’s getting nasty out there.”

Paige and Charles trudged out into the uncompromising Chicago winter.

Two

Heavy flakes of snow and marble-sized hailstones pummeled Paige and Charles as they struggled towards the alley behind the laboratory.  A high-pitched whistling pierced the baritone howl of the wind.  “What the hell?”  Paige said, as she looked skyward towards the conspicuous whistling.  Suddenly, a massive, shimmering cube came into view above her.

“Shit,” was all she could manage to scream before the immense block of ice crushed her under its tremendous weight.  The Buick-sized ice-block hit the ground with a thunderous crack and then exploded into thousands of shards.

Charles was caught in the maelstrom of frozen shrapnel.  His flesh shredded like cheese through a grater.

Charles fell to the ground beside the mass of bone and skin that was once Paige.  The wind snickered as snow quickly consumed their tattered bodies.

Three

What is taking those two so long?”  Trina asked.

“Dunno.” Red replied, as he plucked the theme from ‘Enter the Dragon’ on Pearline.  The temperature held at a brisk fifty degrees.

“Red,” Yemi sighed, as she pointed at his guitar.  “The light.”

Red examined Pearline.  The low-battery indicator flashed blood red.  “Damn,” he groaned.  “We’ve got ten minutes at best.  If Charles and Paige don’t get that generator on soon, it’s gonna get cold as a witch’s tit in here real quick!”

Trina yanked her wool cap over her forehead.  “I’m going out there.  They should be back by now.”

Trina pushed the door.  It did not budge.  She pushed harder.  Still, no movement.  She placed her back against the door, bent her knees and then burst backward, slamming her weight into the steel door.  The door remained defiantly still.

“The door’s frozen shut,” Trina said.  “Gotta go up top.”

“Be careful, Trina.”  Dr. Cruz replied.

“Careful’s my middle name.”

Trina bolted up the stairs and ran to the French windows on the balcony.  The windows were covered in frost.  She unlocked a window and snatched it open.  “I’m gonna take the fire escape,” she yelled, leaning over the balcony railing.

“Okay.”  Yemi yelled back.

Trina turned back to the window and was met with by a battering-ram of snow, which slammed into her chest and sent her rocketing over the balcony railing.

She hit the floor with a loud thud.

Columns of snow poured over the balcony.

“Madre de Dios!”  Dr. Cruz screamed, as he drew a cross on his forehead and torso with his fingers.  He stared incredulously as the avalanche continued to pour from the upstairs window and over the balcony.

“Trina!”  Red cried, staring at Trina’s twitching body, as it disappeared under a mound of reddening snow.

Yemi fell back into her chair.  “No.  No.  No!”

Pearline’s low-battery indicator flickered and then went dull.  The guitar choked out one final note.

“Pearline’s dead,” Red said.  “No spare batteries.”

Yemi pulled her cell-phone from her jacket pocket.  Her fingers shook as she pressed ‘9-1-1’.

“Hello?  We’re at forty-three thirteen west Lake Street…Falana Technologies…there’s been an accident…my audio engineer…my friend…is dead.”

Tears flooded Yemi’s cheeks and exploded as they landed on the armrest of her chair.  “She…she fell…Trina Malloy…My name is Efunyemi Falana…Efunyemi Falana, yes…okay, please hurry!  Thank you.”

“What did they say?” Red asked.

“The streets are covered in ice.  There’s five feet of snow out there.”

“Jesus,” Red said, as he hung his head.  “It’ll take hours.”

“Yeah.”  Yemi’s shoulders shook as she began to sob.

Dr. Cruz ran to the door and pushed.  He pushed until the color under his nails went from rosy to off-white.  “We have to get out of here!  If we don’t, we’ll freeze to death!”

Yemi closed her eyes and rubbed her temples.  “Dr. Cruz, calm down.  The door is snowed shut.  The windows are death traps.  Let’s huddle together and think this through.”

Dr. Cruz slowly turned away from the door.  “Yes, of course.  You’re right.  Think this through.  Yes.”

Red ambled over to his ad hoc condo.  “Be right back,” he said, as he disappeared into the storage room. He reappeared a minute later with a bundle of newspapers cradled in his arms and several thick, wool blankets over his shoulders.

Red spread one blanket out on the floor and then covered it with the newspapers.  He threw another blanket over the newspapers and then sat upon it cross-legged.  “Sit here,” Red said.  “I have blankets for everyone.”

Dr. Cruz and Yemi sat close to red and wrapped themselves in blankets.

“Why the newspapers?” Dr. Cruz inquired.

“For insulation,” Red replied.  “Holds the heat.  Old vagabond’s trick.”

Yemi forced her eyes to look everywhere but the crimson snow-mound in the center of the laboratory.  Her gaze caught the thermometer, which read ‘nine degrees’.

Dr. Cruz blew his warm breath into his clasped hands and then rubbed his palms together briskly.  “C-cold.”

Red handed Dr. Cruz and Yemi two large wads of tissue paper each.  “Squeeze a wad in each fist, place your hands under your armpits and rub your forearms up and down your chest,” Red ordered.  “It’ll warm you up, some.

Dr. Cruz and Yemi followed Red’s instructions.  Red craned his head towards Yemi and peered into her eyes.  He noticed that Yemi’s walnut-brown face was now a blue-brown patchwork.  “Hang in there gorgeous.”

Yemi forced a smile through the shivers.  “We make it out of here…dinner’s on me.”

“And a movie.”  Red replied.

A laugh crawled from between Yemi’s blue-brown lips.  “Sure.  I’ll even throw in a bucket of popcorn.”

“Damn, it’s a date, then.”

Red, Yemi and Dr. Cruz laughed weakly and huddled closer in the darkening lab.

The thermometer cracked at eighteen degrees below zero.

Four

“Christ, what happened here?”

Uniformed police officers cleared a path as the paramedics rushed in with stretchers…and body bags.

A paramedic knelt down beside Red and placed two fingers on his neck.  The warmth against Red’s cold flesh stirred him.  His eyes fluttered open.

“This one’s still breathin’! The paramedic shouted.

“Guess there is a friggin’ God.” A police officer responded.

As the paramedics strapped Red onto the stretcher, movement on the balcony caught his eye.  If his vocal chords were not constricted from hypothermia, he would have screamed.

On the balcony was what appeared to be a man – or a man-like thing.  The creature was stark white and dressed in a white, tailed tuxedo and white top-hat.

The man-creature leered down at Red, smiled and then tipped his hat.

Red felt nauseous.  The room whirled and dipped.  Whirled…and dipped.

The creature kicked his white, spindly legs up like a dancer in a cabaret burlesque.  It pirouetted and then disintegrated into delicate flakes of snow.

Red faded into unconsciousness as the wind cackled in his frost-blackened ears.

PART 2:  The Present

One

“Red?  Red, you there?”

An adolescent boy crawled into the spacious, four-person tent. His corduroy trousers made swishing noises with each movement of his thin legs.

“Red?”

“I’m right here, Stew.”

A lantern flickered on, illuminating the tent in dim, white light.  Red sat cross-legged at the far end of the tent.

Stew giggled.  “Pushups in the dark again, huh?”

“Gotta always be ready son.”

“Ready for what?”

Red did not answer.  Stew looked around the tent.  The walls were lined with prints and photocopies of articles about Chicago blizzards spanning several years, but – in particular – about the blizzard a decade ago, which claimed the lives of hundreds of homeless people – and a team of scientists, along with a billionaire industrialist, who were all involved in some sort of failed project.

“Oh,” Stew nodded.  “Ready for him.”

It.” Red said.

“But, isn’t it still in hibernation?  You said…”

“It’s been ten years, Stew.  Today’s the first day of winter.  Nap-time’s over.”

“So, what do we do?”

I destroy the sumbitch.  You stay your ass away from here until I kill it…or until the first of spring.”

Stew shook his head.  “I wanna help, Red!  I…”

Red pushed upwards with his massive arms and sprung to his feet.  “I’m not kiddin’, Stew!  Old Whitey ain’t nothin’ to play around with!”

Red drew his guitar from its leather case.  “Besides, Pearline is all the help I need.”

The tent’s door-flap flew open and the tent was flooded with sunlight.  Red blew out the lantern.

A woman stuck her head into the tent.  To Red, her smile seemed brighter than the imposing sunlight.

“Come on, guys.  We have to set up.  In about two hours, the lunch crowd will be pouring in.”  The woman said.

Stew scrambled towards the door-flap.  “Coming, mom.”

Red slipped his parka on over his safari vest.  “I’ll be right out, Denise.”

Red dipped his hands in and out of a crate in the corner of the tent, snatching out handful after handful of D-batteries, which he quickly stuffed into the many pockets of his vest.

“C’mon, Red!”  Stew called.

Red grabbed Pearline and then glided out of the tent.  “Ok, let’s motivate!”

Denise kissed Red on the cheek.  “Morning, Red.”

“Morning.”

Stew tugged at Red’s parka.  “So, what are you doing after we close, Red?”

Denise rolled her eyes.  “Here we go, again.”

“Going home…probably work on some material for tomorrow’s performances.” Red answered.

Stew smiled slyly.  “Mom rented ‘Manchurian Candidate’.  The Denzel version.  I know the Sinatra version is your favorite movie, but this one’s even better, Red!”

Red shook his head.  “Well, if anyone could top ‘Old Blue Eyes’, it’d be Denzel, but a better movie?  I dunno.”

“You’re welcome to come over, Red,”  Denise said.  “Now, give the matchmaking a rest, Stewart!”

Stew crossed his fingers behind his back and smiled.  “Yes, ma’am!  Whatever you say.”

“I wish I could,” Red sighed.  “Next time, for sure.”

“You’re welcome, any time, Red.” Denise replied.

The trio trudged along through the snow, past the other homeless citizens of Lower Wacker Drive.  Denise hugged and “helloed” everyone that was out and about.

Red snickered as he nudged Denise.  “Ever miss it out here?”

“Actually I do, sometimes,” Denise answered.  “Not enough to make me move back though!”

Red laughed.  “I bet.  We can’t have that, anyway.  We need you right where you are.”

“Especially me, mom,” Stew chimed in.  “Without you and Streetwise Café, my game collection would be lame!”

Denise shook her head.  “If I could get you to read half as much as you play those video games, I would be overjoyed!”  Denise pressed a button on her keychain.  The doors of her SUV clicked as the locks were opened.

Stew frowned.  “If I read that much, my joy would be over!”

Red laughed.

Denise smiled and shook her head.  “Get in the truck, Stewart.”

Everyone climbed into Denise’s vehicle.

Denise crept along Michigan Avenue.  Large snowflakes clung to the windshield.

Denise turned on the wipers.  “Snow’s getting heavier.”

Red stared out the passenger window.  He felt his heart racing.  His throat constricted and his tongue felt thick.  It was almost time.

Denise gasped.  “What in the world?”

Red snapped his head in Denise’s direction.  “What’s wrong?”

“Some fool in tails is dancing in the middle of the street!”

Red peered through the windshield.  About half a block away was Old Whitey, the thing that had taken his friends from him a decade ago.  The thing that had taken his home.  The thing that he had been waiting for, had been – it seemed –waiting for him also.

Stew peeked over Red’s shoulder.  “Red is that…?”

“Yeah, son,” Red replied.  “That’s it.”

“That’s what?”  Denise asked.

Red threw the hood of his parka over his head.  “Stop the car, Denise.”

“Why?  What’s…?”

Red planted a gentle, but firm hand on Denise’s arm.  “Denise, stop the car!”

Denise veered towards the sidewalk and slowly came to a stop.  Red continued to stare at Old Whitey as it danced closer.

Old Whitey’s stick-like limbs and angular joints whipped through the crisp air as it performed its ballet on ice.

Denise stared at the creature through the windshield.   Her fingers gripped the steering wheel tightly.   “Okay, guys, explain.  Who is that?”

Not ‘who’,” Red answered.  “What.  The Norsemen called it ‘Ymir’, the ice giant.  When it came to America with the Pilgrims, Native Americans called it ‘Winter Katsina’ and also the ‘One Who Sleeps Like Bear’, because it sleeps for ten years after every feeding season.  I call it Old Whitey.  It’s the thing that murdered my friends and all those hundreds of homeless ten years ago.

“Like Daddy, mom.”  Stew said.

Old Whitey skipped closer.  Denise could now make out it’s sharp features.  Like a man, but…different.

“My God!” Denise grabbed Red’s hand.  “What do we do, Red?”

Red undid the latches on Pearline’s case.  “We’re going to get out and head for Grant Park.  Stay on my heels!”

Denise shook her head.  “Shouldn’t we drive?  It’d be quicker and the snow is getting worse.”

“If you stay in this vehicle, it will become your tomb.  That thing will trap you in here, Denise.  Now, let’s go!”

Red hopped out of the SUV.  Denise followed.  Stew climbed out of the SUV and ran to his mother’s side.  Denise tucked Stew’s scarf into his jacket and then took his hand.

Pearline began to purr as Red’s fingers danced gracefully across her strings as he played a rendition of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ ‘I Put a Spell on You’.  The snow beneath the trio’s feet began to melt into puddles as the song escaped Pearline’s internal amplifier.  Red increased the volume.  A wave of heat emanated from Pearline.  Old Whitey grimaced in pain as the searing air struck it.  The creature leaped backwards out of Pearline’s range.

Stew unzipped his jacket and untied his scarf.  Red unzipped his parka.  Denise stared at Red as she unbuttoned her coat.  “Red, how in the hell are you doing this?”

“It’s what we were working on ten years ago,” Red replied.  “Let’s move.  Stay close!”

Red trudged on.  His fingers did not cease caressing Pearline’s strings.  An expanse of warm, moist land stood before them, as Pearline cleaved through the ice and snow.  The ground behind them, however, was buried under massive mountains of snow.

A short distance away, Grant Park’s band shell rose up out of the snowy horizon.

Red yelled over Pearline’s cries.  “Almost there!”

Stew peered over his shoulder.  Old Whitey was on their tails, surfing on a mammoth wave of snow.  The creature flashed Stew a wide, crooked grin.  Stew snapped his head forward.  “It’s close, Red!  Real close!”

“Don’t worry, it won’t come close enough to harm us.  It can’t stand the heat.”  Red replied.

“So, what’s the plan, Red?”  Denise asked.

“Me and Pearline will keep Old Whitey at bay while you turn on the speaker system at the band shell.”

Denise shook her head.  “They keep the band shell locked, Red.”

“I busted the lock a week ago.  Pearline is already calibrated to the wireless system.  Now take Stew and go!”

Red whirled around to face Old Whitey.  Denise and Stew jogged towards the band shell.  Red strummed a chord on Pearline.  “Come on, you murdering sumbitch!”

A flock of crows flying overhead cawed in support of Red’s defiance.

Old Whitey smiled at Red and then looked up at the birds.

“Oh, God!  No!” Red whispered.

Old Whitey returned his gaze to Red.  It nodded and grinned and then blew a kiss skyward.  The crows, now frozen solid, stopped in mid-flight.  They hovered in the thick air for a moment and then began to rain down over Red’s head.  As the birds descended into Pearline’s field of heat, the ice melted, leaving the dead birds heavy with moisture.

Red was caught in a rainstorm of crows.  The birds battered his skull, shoulders and arms.  Pearline was knocked from his hands.  The guitar slid across the pavement and landed in a patch of dirt.  Red stumbled and fell.  “Denise!  Stew,”  Red cried.  “Pearline!  Grab Pearline!”

Denise turned around and darted towards Pearline, but a piercing scream stopped her in her tracks.

“Mama!”

Denise turned in the direction of her son’s cry.  Old Whitey had it’s cold, willowy fingers curled around Stew’s neck.  Stew shook violently.  His skin was a pale blue.

“Stewart!”  Denise rushed towards Old Whitey.

The creature held Stew off the ground with one hand.  With the other hand, it slowly unzipped its fly.  Old Whitey licked its snowy tongue across its lips as it leered at Denise.

A column of thick ice, in the shape of an erect penis sprung from Old Whitey’s fly.  The cold-beast torqued its hips powerfully.  The ice-penis struck Denise in the face.  Denise tumbled across the sidewalk.  Her momentum came to an abrupt halt as she careened into a light pole.  Denise lay still.  Blood streamed from her nose and mouth.

Red struggled to his feet and then stumbled towards Pearline.

Old Whitey hurled Stew in Red’s direction.  The boy collided with Red’s back.  Red and Stew collapsed onto the pavement.

Stew raised his head slightly.  “Red,” He groaned.  “You okay?  M-mom?  Where’s mom?”

Red was silent.  Stew looked around to check on him and found Red standing – statue still – behind him.

“Stew,” Red called softly.  “Run, son.”

Red’s eyes were as big as silver dollars.  Stew looked up to see what had Red so spooked.  What he saw nearly drove him to madness.

Old Whitey had transmuted itself into a massive, gaping maw several stories high.  Its teeth were icy stalactites and stalagmites.  Its tongue, a vortex of snow.

“Run!” Red screamed.

Stew dashed towards the band shell.  Red turned and leaped towards Pearline, which was now nearly covered in snow.

The gaping maw roared and rushed forward, swallowing Red’s legs in mid-leap as he bounded towards Pearline.  Red stretched his arms as far as he could.  He wrapped his fingers around Pearline and held her tightly as Old Whitey completely consumed him.

Stew ran into the band shell and closed the door behind him.  His heart beat a drum-song in his chest.  He wanted to hide somewhere and cry, but his mother needed him.  Red needed him.  Hell, the whole city of Chicago needed him as far as he could tell.

Stew cracked open the door and peeked out.

Old Whitey had taken the form of a naked woman, whose belly is full with child.  The creature pinched its turgid ice-nipples and squeezed its snow-mound breasts.  Ribbons of cold mist streamed from its tits.  Old Whitey pirouetted gleefully and rubbed its rotund belly.

Stew fought the urge to vomit.  “Oh, no!  Red!”

Stew frantically searched the band shell until he found the mixing board, which was similar to the one at Streetwise Café, only bigger.  The boy quickly examined the board.

“Here it is!”

Stew pressed a small, black button.  “Come on, Red, please!”

Stew peeked outside.  Old Whitey continued to prance around.  To Stew, the creature looked like an expecting mom from some cold Hell.

“Red, if you’re alive, please do something!”

Silence.

Old Whitey danced.

Tears streamed down Stew’s cheeks.  “Please.”

A familiar tune – low and distant – tickled Stew’s ear.  “Is that…’Summer Breeze’?  Red?”

Old Whitey stopped dancing and grimaced.

The speakers on the stage hummed.  Sound exploded from them.  “Yep, Summer Breeze!” Stew shouted!

Old Whitey clutched its belly and screamed in pain.

Denise, stirred by the music, rose to her knees.  The music grew louder.

Old Whitey’s belly split open.  Red fell to the ground and continued to play furiously as the cold-creature screamed and convulsed.

Old Whitey melted away, as did snow and ice within a mile radius.  The air grew balmy.

Denise threw her blood-stained coat to the ground.

Stew darted out of the band shell.  By the time he reached his mother, he was sweating.  “Feels like summertime!”  Stew said as he held Denise tightly.

Red stood up and limped over to Stew and Denise.  “It’s over,” he said, as he embraced them both.  Old Whitey’s gone!”

Denise nodded her head towards a small mound of snow behind Stew.  “Almost gone.”

Red limped over to the snow-mound.  “Turn your heads.”

Denise and Stew complied.

Police sirens wailed in the distance.

Red unzipped his fly and moved his hips in circles as he urinated on the mound.  The snow hissed as steam rose from it.

Red paused to inspect his handiwork before limping back to Denise and Stew.  “We’d better get out of here before Johnny-Law arrives.”

Denise nodded.  “Yeah, I wouldn’t want to try to explain this.”

“Everybody okay?”  Stew asked.

The sirens grew louder.

“We’ll live.” Denise replied.

Stew patted Red on the arm.  “So, Red, what are you doing tonight?”

Red smiled at Denise.  “Checking out the Denzel version of Manchurian Candidate if the offer still stands.”

“Denise grabbed the lapel of Red’s safari vest, pulled him to her and pressed her soft lips to his.  Denise winced as pain radiated from her lip to her left eye.  “Ouch!”   Denise shook her head.  “That didn’t go as well as I planned it, but you get the point.”

Red blushed.  “Yeah.”

Denise and Red embraced as they laughed.

Stew clapped his hands.  “Yay-uh!  Don’t sleep on the matchmaking skills, bay-bee!”

Two

“Must have been some kids playin’ around in here.”  A burly, ruddy-toned man  shouted as he searched the band shell.

A slimmer man, but just as ruddy-skinned, peeked his head into the band shell. “Hey, Karczewski, check this out.”

Officer Karczewski shuffled out of the band shell.  “What ya’ got, Valentine?”

Officer Valentine pointed down at the steaming mound of snow.  “Looks like they just left.  Whaddya think it means?”

Officer Karczewski stared down at the numbers and letters scrawled in the snow with urine.  “Number four…Y…E…M…I…‘Four Yemi’?  Hell if I know.  Probably some hippity-hop homeboy slang.”

Officer Valentine pulverized the mound of snow with his tactical boots.  “Yeah,” he said with a nod.  “Probably.”



CYPHER 16 – A short story by Balogun

  CYPHER 16

“Wzup, wzup, WZUP!?”  Dialex grinned widely into the camera.  His shiny, coal-black skin reflected the noonday sun.  Four burly police officers kept the restless crowd behind a roped off area around the camera and sound crew.  “This is your brilliant, talented and sexy host, Dialex and you’re watching ‘The Real’ – the joint where your favorite hip-hop artists show their freestyle skills in the cipher alongside the dopest unsigned MCs on the streets of New York, Atlanta, L.A and Chicago.”

Dialex thrust a thin finger towards the camera.  “That’s right, baby!  We bring the freestyle underground above ground and let you peep how the top ballers in hip-hop keep it real!”

The kinetic host walked towards the crowd.  Excited teens and young adults screamed, clapped and jumped up and down as he drew nearer.  “Today, we’re in Atlanta, the dirty-DIRTY,” Dialex began. “And we’re hangin’ out with rap phenomenon, Fate, the man who put the ‘P’ in pimpin’.”

He held up a CD.  On the cover was a photo of a scowling, cigar smoking man dressed in a black tuxedo and a silver mink coat.  The man’s head was crowned by a silver Fleetwood Dobbs hat.  Above the hat were the words ‘Pimpology 101’.  “Now unless you’ve been in solitary confinement for the past year, you know that Fate’s latest joint, ‘Pimpology 101’, has sold over eight million copies since its release six months ago and the latest single, ‘Pimp-Stick Preachin’’, is at number one on the Billboard charts for the fifth week.”

Dialex tossed Fate’s CD into the crowd.  A couple of teenage girls wrestled over the CD for a few seconds.  The larger of the two girls won the match and hugged the CD to her breasts after giving Fate’s photo a kiss.  “Fate ain’t just killin’ ‘em in the record stores, on the radio and in the clubs.  He’s slayin’ ‘em onRodeoDrive,MichiganAvenue and Buckhead, with the opening of FPG – Fatal Pimp Gear – inBeverly Hills,ChicagoandAtlanta.  Fate’s lines of clothing and intimate apparel are the hottest joints on the street…and in the bedroom.”

A thunderous roar rose from the crowd.  Dialex looked toward the glass doors of the FPG Buckhead store.  “Oh snap, Fate’s comin’ out of FPG Atlanta now!  Let’s go holla at our boy!”

Fate sauntered towards Dialex.  His maroon – beaded cornrowed hair danced on his broad shoulders with each swaggering step.  Fate’s carnation-pink, linen suit was complemented perfectly by maroon, ostrich-skin sandals and a maroon fedora.  His all female entourage – or ‘Stable’ – as he called them – were each dressed in white FPG sundresses, except for his bodyguards, who wore white miniskirts, white sports bras and white, garter-belt holsters, which housed nickel plated, pearl-handled .40 caliber pistols.

Dialex smiled widely as he pounded on Fate’s extended fist with his own. “Wzup, Pimp-Daddy?”

“I’m cooler than a snowman in an air-conditioned igloo, baby,” Fate crooned.  “What’s crackin’?”

“I’m keepin’ it crunk and bringin’ the funk, dog,” Dialex replied.  “You ready to do this?”

“I was born ready, playboy,” Fate said.  “See, I been rockin’ ciphers since I was a young playa in Chi-Town, hangin’ with my niggas on 112th and Halsted.”

“Well, let’s head down to the Auburn Avenue Research Library, where Cypher 16 – a conclave of some ill MCs – is turning the crowd out in the parking lot as we speak!”  Dialex bellowed.  “And y’all folks out there watching, just chillax, we’ll be right back after this commercial break.”

“Hold, up playa,” Fate said, as he placed a well-manicured, mahogany hand on Dialex’s shoulder.  “I just wanna let the fans know that, by the time this show airs, my movie – ‘Wild Hunneds’ – will be in theatres, so y’all go check a nigga out.”

“Well, y’all heard it right here, peoples,” Dialex replied.  “Fate will be rockin’ the big screen, so ya’ll check ya’ boy out!  We’ll be right black.”  The host grinned into the camera as he tapped his flat chest with his fist.  Fate slowly sipped Patron from a crystal and platinum goblet as a voluptuous, young, honey-toned woman, with bleached-blond afro-puffs, massaged his thick shoulders.

****

            “We’re back!  I’m your host, Dialex, and you’re tuned in to ‘The Real’!  We’re down at the Auburn Avenue Research Library in the A-T-L, with the Grand Professor of Pimponomics – Fate, who is about to jump in a circle of dope MCs – featuring Cypher 16 – and show his freestyle skills!”

Dialex waded through the rapturous crowd and made his way to the circle of MCs. “Cypher 16 just got back from six months in Nigeria, studying what they claim is the source of hip-hop and it appears – from the reaction of this crazy-hype crowd – that they brought back some raw, funk, dudu-type shizzle,” Dialex shoved his microphone under Fate’s chin and yelled over the roar of the multitude of adoring fans.  “What do you think of this crowd, Fate?”

Fate placed his lips close to Dialex’s microphone.  “The crowd is amped, playboy, or as we say here in the A: They crunk as hell!”  Fate slid his Oakley shades down to the bridge of his nose and peered over the maroon frame.  “There are some fine ass hoes out here too, baby-boy.  If they head right, I might give one or two the privilege of joining my stable.”

Dialex chuckled.  “You better be careful, Fate.  Your son might be watchin’.”

Fate smiled slyly.  “Hell, Li’l Fate know what time it is.  He a little playa his self.”  The Grand Professor of Pimponomicse lifted his goblet up to the camera.  “Hey, Junior, daddy loves you, big boy.”

Dialex pointed towards the cipher, which was steadily rocking the crowd.  “You ready to shake ‘em up, Fate?”

Fate tilted his fedora down over his left eye.  “Hell yeah, let’s do this.”

Dialex, Fate and Fate’s ‘Stable’ stepped towards the cipher.  The production crew of ‘The Real’ followed closely behind.

At the request of a fan, Cypher-16 was performing their hit song, “Nat Turna”, a-cappella.  Fate had seen Cypher-16 perform before, but there was something different about this performance.  Something that gave Fate chills and he hesitated before stepping cautiously into the circle.

The cipher seemed to engulf Fate.  To smother him.  Fate was, at once, hot and freezing cold.  He struggled to step out of the circle; to turn and sprint back to his Bentley; but he could not.  Fate was rooted in place…a young oak, planted in a circle of ancient iroko trees.

The MCs in the cipher began to slowly sway back and forth in unison, as they chanted:  “Nat Turna…plantation burna…machete swinga…death bringa”.  The crowd stopped jumping and joined in with the swaying…the chanting…and pumped their fists in time with the chant.  “Nat Turna…plantation burna…machete swinga…death bringa”

Fate felt himself being tugged…pulled…snatched into a pit of whirling darkness.  Something in the darkness ripped at his flesh.  The moist blackness swallowed the screams that tumbled out of his gaping mouth.

****

            Suddenly, the darkness faded and the light of the world returned.  Fate looked around feverishly and the scream returned, but, this time, there was no darkness to swallow it.

He was on the deck of an old ship, which reeked of rancid meat, rum, saltwater and blood.  “Nat Turna…plantation burna…machete swinga…death bringa”.

Fate’s shrieks were but drops in the ocean of screams that rose from the hold of that old ship.  The hold, from which emerged ten men.  Ten men, whose flesh held no light.  Ten men, who laughed heartily as they dragged a sinewy, Black woman – and a lion of a man – by chains, which gnawed at their wrists, ankles and necks.

The woman – jet-black and half a foot taller than the tallest of the ten, pale men – struggled futilely against the heavy, iron shackles as the ‘man-lion’ was slammed onto his forearms and knees.

A pale man stood on each of the giant’s wrists and one stood on each of his thick ankles.  One pale man tethered the woman to two rusty, iron rings embedded in the deck of the ship, then joined his comrades in line behind the fallen, captive warrior.

The woman tried to close her eyes but could not, because her eyelids had been stitched to her brow.  She was unable to shut out the horrors which she knew were about to be inflicted upon her husband:  The bloody defilement of an African giant at the hands of frail, leprous beasts.

The warrior refused to scream, but could not fight back the vomit that erupted from his belly.  The woman yelled ancestral curses at the pale men as they laughed and fulfilled themselves.

The last pale beast – called “Captain” by the others – traced the giant’s spine with the tip of his yellow-pink tongue as he knelt behind the warrior.

The pale men cheered the Captain on as he thrust himself into the ‘man-lion’ again and again and again.

The pale men giggled with glee.  The Captain laughed and thrust…laughed and thrust.

Fate stared in horror as – suddenly – the Captain’s face began to shift…to change.

“Nat Turna…plantation burna…machete swinga…death bringa”

The face of the jet-black African woman shifted…changed.

“Nat Turna…plantation burna…machete swinga…death bringa”

The man-lion’s face shifted…changed.

“Nat Turna…plantation burna…machete swinga…death bringa”

The woman’s face became the face of Fate’s mother…shrieking…wailing…spitting ancestral curses.

The warrior’s face became the face of Fate’s son…sobbing into his own vomit as the Captain ravaged his body, spirit and soul.

And the Captain’s face…the Captain’s face became Fate’s own.  The face of Fate…Grand Professor of Pimponomics…raping his child.  Devouring the essence of his beautiful, Black son.

“Nat Turna…plantation burna…machete swinga…death bringa”

Fate became dizzy…nauseous.  The ship…the world…began to somersault…to twist…to spin.  Once again, the darkness overtook him and, again, he was dragged into the cold-hot pit.

“Nat Turna…plantation burna…machete swinga…death bringa”

The darkness faded again.  Fate found himself back in the circle amongst the swaying, chanting MCs of Cypher 16.  He convulsed violently as he sobbed.

He stared at the goblet in his right hand.  The Patron inside cast a cloudy reflection of his face, which was wet with salty tears.  Fate hurled the goblet to the ground.  The crystal shattered and the platinum base rolled out of the circle.  He then snatched the maroon fedora from his head and tossed it into the puddle of Patron and shattered crystal which swirled at his feet.  He stomped the FPG insignia on the fedora’s crown and crushed the hat under his ostrich-skin sandals.

The circle of MCs closed in around Fate and embraced him as he shook and cried and thanked the ancestors for his death and rebirth at the onyx-stone spirit-hands of…Cypher 16.



A CRITIC CRITIQUES CRITICISM CRITICALLY

A CRITIC CRITIQUES CRITICISM CRITICALLY

 

I am a writer. I also teach writing – in an academic setting and otherwise – to children and adults from six years old, through sixty years old. I have found, throughout my decade of teaching the craft of writing, people have little understanding of the difference between criticism and critique. This has caused problems of great magnitude. Writers who have had their work criticized and have been hurt because of it, become defensive when anyone begins to offer a critique of their work because they are unaware that there is a difference between critique and criticism.

We often throw out criticism (mistaking it for critique) of someone’s work and when the person gets upset, we then scoff at them for having “thin skin”. We do not consider for a second that their reaction was to our destructive handling of their work. If someone attacks, you should defend. This is not having “thin skin”; it is having intelligence.

Criticism is a cutting-down, or diminishing of an idea, thought, creation, circumstance, way of life, word or action. Since being affirmed in life…being recognized…being acknowledged is almost a sacred meaning of life to us, we spend our lives worrying about being criticized for what we do and for who we are. Our world, then, often becomes that of avoiding criticism.

Criticism is meant to arrive at a higher or better ‘truth.’ The assumption is that there is a single ‘truth’ and it can be accessed through certain thoughts and disciplines and lifestyles. It is a knowledge-as-dominance game. Thus, if we are criticized, it is taken as an indictment of our self. It means that we, ourselves, are not good enough. We are insufficient. It is based on identity.

Critique is not born of identity-making. Critique is not in service of a single ‘truth’. It understands itself to be toward liberation and its possibilities. Critique opens questioning and makes single-truths unstable so as to be more inclusive of difference.

In closing, I would like to remind us of how valuable it is to examine the meaning of words. We should understand words and the power inherit in them. To do otherwise can lead to misunderstanding, hurting others and being hurt. Please, understand that a critique is a detailed evaluation of something. Critique, as a verb, is not synonymous with criticize. “Milton critiqued my story” means Milton evaluated my plotting, character development, dialogue and descriptive techniques, but does not necessarily mean that he found it lacking. “Milton criticized my story” means that he had a low opinion of it.

  • Criticism finds fault. Critique looks at structure.
  • Criticism looks for what’s lacking. Critique finds what’s working.
  • Criticism condemns what it doesn’t understand. Critique asks for clarification.
  • Criticism is spoken with a cruel wit and sarcastic tongue. Critique’s voice is kind, honest, and objective.
  • Criticism is negative. Critique is positive.
  • Criticism is vague and general. Critique is concrete and specific.
  • Criticism has no sense of humor. Critique uses humor to soften the “blow” of the critique.
  • Criticism often looks for flaws in the writer as well as the writing. Critique addresses only what is on the page.

I wish you continued success in all you do.

Less fighting; more writing!



ARE YOU A WARRIOR, OR A WORRIER? – Overcoming “Fear”

OVERCOMING FEAR

Most people of African descent (i.e. Black folks) aren’t as successful as we could be, simply because fear is keeping us from taking action.

Whether it’s fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of our own people, fear of other people, or even fear of success, the end result is the same: we don’t take the risks necessary to make ourselves successful.

In actuality, this isn’t fear at all; it’s worry.

Fear is a natural signal that warns of impending great bodily harm or death. Fear is productive and life-saving. True fear is a gift that signals us in the presence of danger; and it is involuntary; it will come and get our attention if necessary.

Worry is the fear we manufacture; it is a choice. Worry is not a precaution; it is the opposite because it delays and discourages constructive action.

True fear and worry (unwarranted fears) may, at times, feel the same, but you can tell them apart. True fear is a gift that signals us in the presence of danger; thus, it will be based upon something you perceive in your environment or your circumstance. Unwarranted fear or worry will always be based upon something in your imagination or your memory.

There are five basic ways to overcome worry:

1. Increase Your Familiarity

The more you do something that scares you, the easier it becomes.  Take, for example, the common worry for writers: selling.  The only way to overcome this is to get out there and sell. Accept the fact that you will receive some rejections – maybe a lot of rejections before you get a sale; but how many sales will you make if you don’t get out there at all?

2. Rehearse Courage Mentally

When it comes to feelings, including worry, your brain cannot differentiate between what is real and what is imaginary. If you repeatedly rehearse something in your mind, while at the same time visualizing yourself as being calm, confident and collected, your behavior in the real world will imitate your imagination.

3. Reframe the Worry

Create a comparison in your mind that makes your worry seem trivial. For example: There are hundreds, maybe thousands of authors with half your talent and skill selling their books. Against that perspective, what have you got to be afraid of?

4. Reassociate the Worry

Have you ever been to an amusement park? If so, you probably paid a fair amount of money … for the privilege of being frightened out of your wits! Taking risks in business is, in fact, a lot like riding a roller coaster – except that you get to do some steering, so you’re actually a lot more in control. It turns out that worry you’re feeling isn’t really worry at all; it’s excitement! 

5. Make the Worry Useful

Although worry can be debilitating – when viewed from the right perspective – worry is actually just a call to action. If you’re afraid to ask for someone’s business, for example, it’s just your subconscious mind telling you that it’s getting close to the point where you need to ask for their business. Feel the worry, and then do it anyway.

Put the above techniques in your mental bag of tricks, and your worries – no matter what they are – will stop holding you back.



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