Tag Archives: creative writing

Heart of Darkness: physical & sexual abuse



News release:

     An NFL player hurls his fist into the side of his finance’s face. Down to the floor, that’s where she fell – out cold, like a dead fish on a frozen shore.
Man wanted sex, wife refused. Man head butts wife, broke her nose, punched her in the face, and threw a shoe at his eighteen-month-old child.
Two Madison twelve-year-old girls repeatedly stabbed a twelve-year-old girl, and left her for dead. The victim has since recovered physically.
Man physically and sexually abused a young woman held hostage for nearly ten years.
Teenage male forced a five-year-old boy to perform oral sex. After ejaculation, the teenager urinates in the little boy’s mouth. Two people stood by and watched.
Each day thousands of people are sexually and physically abused; women, men, children, sexual orientation, it makes no difference.
Recently we have been inundated with stories of physical and sexual abuse in the National Football League. The video of a football player hitting his finance and knocking her out is dramatic, especially when played continuously over the national airwaves. People are alarmed, shocked, hoping for justice, but as several moons pass, the outrage will pass as well. Abuse is not a new phenomenon. You see, this is not about the NFL, this is about our nation, and how we deal with the epidemic – physical and sexual abuse.
In the heart of darkness, that’s where victims reside, possibly for the rest of their lives. It’s not that they don’t recover, they often do, but the memories can surface at the hint of days gone by. In quiet moments, I sometimes recall memories of abuse that make me angry, followed by a tear or two.
Behavior is controlled by an individual’s concept of reality, and when viewed collectively, define who we are as a nation. Reality is built on our genetic makeup and life’s experiences — nature and nurture. Developmental biology tells us that we are a combination of the two. Nature tattoos us with a genetic makeup – DNA – while nurture is a product of what we see, hear, smell, and touch, and the countless life experiences that mold our core. From the beginning, we are organisms with a genetic blueprint that continually interacts with our environment causing change to occur as we move from conception, to childhood, to adulthood, and finally to death.
You can’t know what you don’t know, that’s what my therapist said one day. She continually challenges me to be more insightful rather than riding the waves on my imaginary surfboard. I now understand that when we reach adulthood, we are programmed to function within our perceived reality. What we perceive as right and wrong, is not necessarily right and wrong.
Science tells us the same. The brain has over one-hundred-billion nerve cells called neurons. When information is transferred from one neuron to another, the gap between neurons are filled by chemical substances called neurotransmitters, which fire across the space, sending signals to other neurons. At times, brain activity might resemble a well-lit midway at a county fair with hundreds of rides and booths operating simultaneously. Trauma alters the neurons in our brain, affecting our behavior, our reality.
A child’s reality is like putty and can be reshaped by exposure to good role models and positive experiences. But repeated abuse turns their reality into hardened putty found in a winter storm; more difficult to mold, but still possible. Daily contact with compassionate teachers who provide attention, supervised interaction between children, role models of appropriate behavior, consistent rules and discipline offer hope for the damage child. How many of us can recall a teacher or two who changed their life? There is a national movement to reach younger children through pre-kindergarten, head start, and the like. Although the teacher’s plate is full, I would like to see citizenship, character building classes, and logic to taught as children move through elementary and secondary education.
For adult victims who self-medicate through drugs and alcohol, there is hope. Community and county mental health organizations, private therapists and psychiatrists offer therapy and medication that, in time, can alter the wiring in our damaged minds. My favorite organization, The Women’s Center, located in Carbondale, Illinois, and established in 1972, continues to offer food, shelter, and counseling for children, women, and men whose lives have been shattered by violence. Through my years as a member of the Board of Directors, I have witnessed the work that goes on at ground zero. Since their beginning, the Center, has saved thousands of abuse victims.
In the Heart of Darkness, the place where victims reside, light is as rare as the eye of a tornado. But doors are there waiting to be opened. A better tomorrow is there for the taking.
Please checkout The Women’s Center. If you are so moved, we welcome financial support and those who choose to donate their time.



Come dance with me.

7301_100437136820483_587807534_nIt’s always there to some degree, mocking my every move.  A jig, a waltz, maybe Chubby Checker’s famous twist, or a seductive embrace as we move across the floor — my dancing partner, my pain.  Maybe it’s sharp, a get your attention pain; a boxer’s jab; possibly an unrelenting tooth acne; or a sustained, never-ending pain.  

Pain can be physical, psychological, or both, and when latched onto an individual, becomes unique.  Physical pain can be tested and more easily diagnosed than the illusive psychological pain that sometimes plays hide-and-seek with the mental health specialist.  Treatments for back pain are many — injections, physical therapy, spinal adjustments, medication, meditation, acupuncture, and when all fail, the surgeon sharpens his scalpel.

Two weeks ago I had a bone fusion performed in my lower back.  A herniated disk and the movement of two vertebra called for a bone fusion to eliminate the pain.  A back brace for support and oxycodone for pain are being used during the healing process.  I have become friends with oxycodone and refer to her affectionately as “oxy.”  When in my medicated buzz, I sometimes call her “foxy.”

As a survivor of childhood physical and sexual abuse, I have experienced psychological pain as well.  Memories of the abuse left me wrapped around a porcelain stool while I vomited poison into the mucus-colored water.  It was an emotional pain like I had never felt before.  Scared, lost, and without direction I turned to a therapist and have been treated with medication and talk therapy.  Life is good.  I have moved beyond surface emotions, and now experience the depth of feelings that life has to offer.

Whether physical or psychological pain, we must always be aware of the monster in the closet, better known as depression.  Pain breeds depression.  While my depression pales in comparison to someone with a severe mental illness, it can be debilitating.  Depression is waking up in the middle of the night covered with leeches that suck the spirit from my soul.  But now, after years of therapy, I can spot them from a distance as they slither over a hilltop and crawl my way.  I refuse to allow a single leech to take residence in my soul.

While a “bring-you-to-your knees” pain has many negative side effects, it can be a blessing, and serve as a reminder of how good life can be.  Imagine a musical phrase of dissonance and intensity that drives towards the final cadence and then, with true beauty, resolves into a morning spring.  Tension followed by release brings joy to one’s life.  I will dance a jig without pain as my partner.



On Thursday I met with my surgeon — yada, yada, yada

7301_100437136820483_587807534_nYou might recall that I’ve written about my back problems before:  two herniated disks in my lower back, successful surgery, months later I have pain in another location of my back, yada, yada, yada.  (In case you don’t know, yada is code for “more bullshit”) After having an MRI on my back, I met with my surgeon to discuss the findings.  It was a 7:40 a.m. appointment.  He must be working me in, I thought.  The man loves my back — a guaranteed annuity for a surgeon.  My spine looks a bit like a shiska-bob, chunks of meat and bone ready to place on a hot grill.  Ten minutes on each side, a heavy coat of bar-b-q sauce, and you have some mighty fine eating.  I know, you prefer ribs and I’m getting a little weird, yada, yada, yada.

Okay, back to the meeting with my surgeon.  For privacy purposes, we’ll call him Dr. Belly Button.  Dressed in his hospital blue scrubs and uncombed hair, Belly Button greets me and my wife as I shake his hand.  He is a reasonably handsome young man with a bounce in his step and a smile on his face; all traits that I once held but have come and gone.  You see, I’m a 71 year old man with uncombed gray hair, and shuffle my feet because the pain in my back hurts like hell.  It feels like, oh you know, yada, yada, yada.  Belly Button had a smile on his face, much like the last time he diagnosed my back problems when he recommended surgery.  There’s that smile again.  “I know what the problem is,” he said.  “And I can fix it.  You have another herniated disk in your lower back,” he said with a slight chuckle.  “We don’t know how it happened, but it’s there.”

I was relieved that all of the pain was not in my imagination, and that he located the problem.  But OMG, I have to go through more surgery?  Belly Button fires up the computer and the three of us hover around the computer screen.  He begins pointing out all of the bones and disks in my spin.  Oh look at this disk.  It looks pretty good, but now look at this one, all flattened out with goo seeping out.  Looked like a stepped-on jelly donut to me.  You have bone on bone.  And look where the nerve is located.  Just looking at it made my back hurt.

We could do the same procedure as last time when I cleaned the area, removed some bone fragments.  You know the routine, yada, yada, yada.  But this time the situation demands another technique,  I would insert some metal hardware.  You know — plates, rods, and screws.  That’s the most secure way of fixing your problem.  The recovery time will double but you can be back to normal — my mind began to drift, pain free, rough housing with my dog, messing around with my wife, yada, yada, yada.  We can use either procedure, Belly Button said, the simple but uncertain one with a shorter recovery, or the more complicated one with a longer recovery which provides for a better outcome.  We can schedule the operation in a few weeks.  Let me know which technique you would like to use.

Belly Button told me that he understood how debilitating nerve pain can be.  “It can cause depression,”  he said.  Oh really, I thought.  That’s quite an understatement. Your fucking A it causes depression.  It’s a “can’t move” depression.  Lets open my back up right now, I thought.  Here, hand me the knife and I’ll do the slicing myself.  Look, there’s that stepped-on jelly roll.  Hand me a stapler and a couple of rubber bands.  There, it feels better already.  Ooops, I’m losing a ton of blood.  Looks like I’m a quart low.  Give me a can of 10-40.  That takes care of anything.  Pains gone.  Time to go home.  Thank you God for my imagination.  It always makes me feel better.



Mother’s Day meal created by Larry, the man with a crack in his back who happens to like green eggs and ham.

7301_100437136820483_587807534_nThis is the big time — Mother’s Day — when I step forward and prepare the meal.  My wife, daughter, her two daughters, husband, and a dog named Bailey, will be joining hands around the table, anxiously waiting to see what I have prepared.  Our other daughter, husband, and two daughters live in Madison, WI and will have their own meal.  I can only imagine their Mother’s Day meal.  Since they are into the Green Bay Packers and the University of Wisconsin sports, I imagine that they will have cheese, grilled badger meat, and lots of wine.  Well the girls will drink something a bit lighter.

My menu:

Grilled Chicken Kabobs, properly seasoned
Grilled green, red, and yellow peppers,
onions, and zucchini.
(for a bit of color, melted butter and kitchen bouquet)
Baked Beans — the granddaughters can make a meal out of beans
Baked Potato & Sweet Potato — Potato of your choice
French Bread
Dessert — store bought Velvet Creme cake with Mother’s Day written on top.
I also have some mini cones with sprinkles if the girls don’t like the cake.

The activities before the meal are very important — crucial.  Always serve plenty of dry & semi-sweet wine, beer should be available, non-alcoholic drink for  the girls.  The purpose of the wine is three fold — mellow everybody out so we will like each other, makes the food taste better, and is used for toasting the mothers.  The toast must be prepared — no slurring the words or mental gaps.  Something like — “I would like to make a toast to the most important people sitting at our table.  The mothers.  In truth, we should celebrate Mother’s Day every day of the year.  That’s how important they are.”  Not only does it make the mothers feel good, it teaches a lesson to the young daughters that men can be cool on one day of the year. And if everything is successful, and I mean everything, the men might get lucky.

FYI — Thank God Mother’s Day is one day of the year, and Father’s Day is 364 days, except for leap year and then it is 365.


How to write a “kick-ass” sentence

The Newest Book from Larry L. Franklin
Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory

It’s interesting how skills acquired during one occupation are applied to a future endeavor.  I’m thinking about the connection between music and writing: how to perform or write the perfect phrase.  I have my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music, played first trumpet in the US Navy Band in Washington, D.C., and taught trumpet at Southern Illinois University for five years before moving to a different profession.  My trumpet performances and teachings were focused on the classical genre where perfection is the key.  The great musicians perform a near, and sometimes perfect phrase, while the lesser musician’s efforts are sprinkled with flaws.  A tone as pure and clear as a freshly fallen snow, meticulous mechanics, and your musicianship lead to perfection.

Musicians have different ways of achieving perfection.  I used a technique common to both musical performance and writing that originated in my 6 x 10 foot cell-like, smoke-filled studio:  two filing cabinets leaned against one wall, a couple of chairs and a black music stand stood in the center, a tile floor partially covered with cigarette ashes, a desk marked by cigarette burns and coffee spills, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder waiting to record the perfect phrase.  Smoking cigarettes was a large part of the process, but that’s when smoking was cool.  Each recording was viewed through my internal microscope as I examined the cell structure of each musical phrase.  It had to be perfect.

In 2003 I received my MFA in creative nonfiction writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, which served as an incubator for my growth as a writer.  I read book after book, and secretly hoped that each author’s creativity would magically slip through the pores of my skin.  Eventually I returned to the techniques that I had learned as a musician:  how to perform the perfect phrase.

Oh, what makes a perfect phrase/sentence, the one that makes goose bumps appear on your skin, curls your toes until they begin to cramp, gives you the illusion that you are a great writer, and allows your emotions to drift to a higher, more spiritual place?  A certain amount of the perfection is in the eyes of the beholder. That makes sense.  But you can study the works of the authors who have grabbed a critics praise, impressed academia, and yes, are worthy of your time.  What is it about that particularly sentence that stirs your interest, and causes you to sit with the author and imagine what he/she did to produce such a masterpiece?  Thank God for my internal microscope, or “shit detector” that has given me the ability to determine what makes a sentence work.  (I wrote an earlier blog about the value of a shit detector.)  The process did not happen in that same smoke-filled, cell-like studio that I had used decades earlier.  I moved from one coffee shop to another, sometimes a McDonalds, my home office which my wife calls my “man cave,” and in the confines of my head.  Writers constantly think about their work.

I remember reading “On a Hill Far Away,” a short story by Annie Dillard, and being so taken by a particularly sentence.  “In Virginia, late one January afternoon while I had a leg of lamb in the oven, I took a short walk.”  Dillard provided the unexpected punch that caused me to read and reread the simple sentence.  Oh, if I could write like that, I thought.  I tried duplicating the structure and strength of Dillard’s sentence.  Sometimes I almost succeeded, but most efforts ended up as waded, crunched up pages lying in and around my trash can.  I chewed on each word of that sentence, swallowed it, and now have it as a part of my DNA.  While reading the entire story was important, I learned more from dissecting that single sentence.

What about “The Bell Jar,” by Sylvia Plath?  She could put together a strain of words that would rip the heart from your chest.  “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.  I’m stupid about executions.  The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers — google-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.”  Oh my God that was so good.  Get the idea? I tasted the flavor of each word and even memorized one sentence at a time.  This is what makes a great writer.

Another example of some remarkable writing is drawn from “Seabiscuit:  An American Legend,” by Laura Hillenbrand.  I was particularly taken by a her description of Tom Smith, the manager of the race horse, Seabiscuit.  He was fifty-six but he looked much older.  His jaw had a recalcitrant jut to it that implied a run-in with something — an errant hoof or an ill-placed fence post — but maybe it was the only shape in which it could have been drawn.  He had a colorless translucence about him that made him seem as if he were in the earliest stages of progressive invisibility.” 

With each example, notice the rhythms, the punctuations, the tension and release, the vocabulary and the use of action verbs.  It’s how the authors use the tools of their trade that creates interest, excites your emotions, and can even stir your hormones.  If you can’t get this excited about writing, then you should consider doing something else.  Life is too short.

For your information, I found “Literary Nonfiction,” by Patsy Sims to be quite helpful in examining the author’s craft.  Sims takes a close, analytical look at outstanding contemporary essays by fifteen accomplished writers.  Examine powerful writing, that’s what Sims does.

Truth? You have to work at it.

city museum 2006085Lies, lies, there are so many lies.  As a society, we’ve become very good at spinning tales which are presented as the truth.  And the biggest lies of all are broadcast over the airwaves; nonstop, twenty-four hours a day.  It’s so bad that each political slant has it’s own network hell-bent on promoting their own political agenda by, you guessed it, lies.  At first, it was more subtle; photoshop, cut and paste, and the distorted truth became a lie.  Now, the truth is as difficult to find as fireflies on a sunny day.

I’m reminded of the 1881 fairy tale about Pinocchio, the wooden marionette carved by Geppetto, a bachelor who yearned for a real boy of his own.   Eventually, through a lot of hoping, praying, and imagination, the good fairy changed Pinocchio into a real boy.  But wait, the good fairy would not tolerant lies.  She told Pinocchio that if he told a lie his nose would grow.  Well, you guessed it, Pinocchio told a string of lies and surprise — Pinocchio’s nose grew so long that he couldn’t get out of his house.  (Imagine our House of Representatives with noses so long that they would fill the chamber.  And those nose hairs.  Yuck.)  To save Pinocchio, woodpeckers flew into the house and pecked at his nose until it became the normal size.  Moral of the story — don’t lie or your nose will grow.

In the days when I was a boy, parents handed out advice that was designed to keep you from lying or doing “bad” things.  If you make a bad face your face will freeze in that position for the rest of your life.  Make your eyes go cross and they will remain cross.    I heard this one at the church  — If you masturbate  you will go blind.  That one scared the hell out of me.  Well, I didn’t go blind but I am a bit near-sighted and have worn glasses since I was five years old.  Go figure.  My mother’s favorite — Rich people aren’t happy.  You’re lucky that we’re poor.  Another of her favorites — If you stay out past midnight, you can’t be doing anything good.  Well, I’ll have to give her that one.  About telling the truth:  if you don’t tell the truth something bad will happen to you, and yes, you will go to hell.

Our reality, the truth as we see it, is based on a combination of our genetic makeup and our life experiences; nuture and nature, that’s what they call it.  If we follow this line of thought, each person will have a unique opinion of the truth.  Some people might say that the Bible holds the truth.  Well, that might be true, but as soon as you read it the words become mixed with your concept of reality.  The truth becomes less clear.

I’m reminded of something that a buddhist monk once said, When you think that you have all of the answers, you’ve lost your way.  Now we don’t have a treasury map for finding the truth.  We do what we have to do — read, listen, think, look within.  Truth brings peace.

Cowboys & Indians, to Gangsters, to War Games, to Stand your Ground.

The Newest Book from Larry L. Franklin
Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory

Oh my, where have the years gone?  I’m 71 years old and have seen lots of stuff:  good, bad, and some that I can’t talk about.  But with the help of a good therapist, and a load of self exploration, I believe that I have grown both spiritually and intellectually.  Too bad I can’t  say that about our society.  I’m reminded of Richard Semon, a 19th century scientist and one of the characters in my latest book, “Mnemosyne:  A Love Affair with Memory,” who believed that while 19th century science had advanced by leaps and bounds, society’s spiritual growth remained dormant.  Centuries later, I’m thinking the same. As a child, I played cowboys and Indians.  I was the cowboy who shot the Indian.  Boy, did I fuck that one up.  Eventually I learned that the Indians were the good guys.  Then came the detectives against the gangsters.  Except for Bonnie and Clyde, I always shot the gangster.  As time passed, I moved into war games where I was an American soldier who shot anyone who didn’t look like me.  In all of these adventures it was understood that they were games, consisting of toy guns and make-believe deaths, and a good versus evil theme throughout.  It wasn’t real.  It was “child’s play.”  But for Jordan Davis and Travyon Martin, it was not “child’s play.”  It was murder. When did we decide that it was okay to carry a handgun and ignore the need to step back from a perceived danger?  Illinois, the place I call home, has become the final state to approve “concealed carry,” and many other states have approved the “stand your ground” law.  “Concealed carry” is when your handgun is hidden from plain site.  The “stand your ground” law states that you can use deadly force and that you do not have a duty to retreat if  you reasonably believe that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to yourself.  Now I’m not against hand guns.  I completed two eight-week classes at a local community college on the defensive use of handguns.  Both were excellent classes which stressed safety, shooting technique, and defensive plans to protect my family against home intruders.  In fact, I enjoy shooting my handgun and do so to maintain my skills.  I’m all for the 2nd amendment but things have gone crazy.  I don’t feel like I should always carry a gun and grow an extra set of balls.  Hey, that’s not me.  I’m a writer and one set of balls is fine with me. When did “child’s play” become real life?  When did we decide that it was okay for George Zimmerman to stalk Trayvon Martin, get into a confrontation, kill him, and then say that he was just defending himself.  Oh, I forgot.  Trayvon was a black teenager who wore a hoodie in the dark of night.  OMG, he wore a hoodie.  And I almost forgot that Trayvon had been to the store, bought a bad of skittles, and was walking home.  Now it makes sense — black teenager, hoodie, bag of skittles.  We all know that Trayvon’s death could have been avoided.  Zimmerman was found not guilty. What about Jordon Davis, the latest tragedy which caused me to write this blog?  Jordon was another black teenager who was shot to death by a white man.  Jordon and three other black teenagers were in a black SUV socializing as most teenagers do.  Their car was sitting at a gas station while they chilled out listening to loud, bass thumping rap music.  We’ve all heard it, and yes, it can be annoying.  Michael Dunn parked his car next to Jordon’s while Dunn’s finance walked into the station to make a purchase.  Now the story is beginning to make sense — black teenagers, black SUV, loud bass thumping rap music.  Now that would scare the hell out of any white dude.  Dunn rolls down his window and politely asks the occupants of the SUV to turn down the music.  Well, that’s what Dunn said.  The black teenagers turned down the music, but after some discussion they increased the volume of that loud, bass thumping rap music.  Now we had a pissed-off white man and a car full of loud black teenagers.  Dunn said that he was disrespected and that Jordon was beginning to step out of the SUV, and appeared to have what looked like a shotgun.  Dunn retrieved his handgun from the glove compartment, and quickly fired several rounds into the SUV.  And as the SUV sped away, Dunn fired the remainder of his 10 round clip into the SUV.  Jordon Davis died from gunshot wounds.  Dunn said that he feared for his life and no son-of-a-bitch was going to kill him.  No gun was ever found in the black teenager’s car.  Let’s see, how does this work — concealed carry, stand your ground, an extra set of balls, and no one is going to fuck with me.  The jury was unable to decide whether Dunn’s killing of Jordon was self defense or murder.  We ended with a hung jury. Where does all of this leave me?  I like most people, in fact, I love several of them.  I have more than one handgun to protect my family, and would shoot someone if it was absolutely necessary.  But I consider myself a tolerant person and don’t feel threatened when I see a black teenager wear a hoodie, or a car load of black teenagers play loud, bass thumping rap music.  I sometimes wear hoodies and sometimes have my car radio turned up, and yes, my wife says that I play the music too loud.  I believe that it’s okay to sometimes step back and walk the other way.  Killing someone is a heavy load to carry.  But hey, that’s just me.  I’m a writer and I only have one set of balls.

Philip Seymour Hoffman — tell me your secrets.

The Newest Book from Larry L. Franklin
Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory

The recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman brings admirers to their knees, and gives reason to reflect on his magic.  Hoffman was possibly the greatest actor of our generation.  Each time I’ve viewed one of his performances, I came away with a clearer vision of life.   His creativity was never in question, and the mastery of his craft was always on display.  Now, we are left with his work to examine, enjoy, and yes, even taste the power and sweetness of its nectar.

Mr. Hoffman, tell me your secrets, from where does your magic come?  Creativity and technique determine one’s artistry.  Of the two, creativity can seem elusive, leaving us to lurch for fire flies in the dark black night.  Other times, creativity seems to swallow us whole; oh, such a glorious feeling, as if we are falling in love.  Where did Hoffman find his magic?  Were they random thoughts, these bits of creativity, ideas that blossomed at will; possibly rare like a whip-poor-will’s call at morning’s first light?  Or were they biological, originating from a handful of neurons located in his brain?  Was his creativity there for the taking or did it sometimes appear in private moments or in the black of night when the soul longs to be fed.  And who can deny that Philip Seymour Hoffman was a hungry man.

Viewed from above, the human brain appears as the two halves of a walnut — two similar, convoluted, rounded halves connected in the center by a thick nerve cable composed of millions of fibers that cross-connect the two halves, which are called the left and the right hemispheres.  The left half of the brain controls the right side of the body, the right hemisphere controls the left  It could be said that we have two brains in one, each able to operate independently or together as one.

Charles J. Limb, twenty-first-century hearing specialist and surgeon at John Hopkins Medical Center, performs cochlear implants in patients to restore hearing and enable the deaf to appreciate music.  It was Limb’s profound interest in jazz that led him to explore where creativity originates in the human brain.  He longed to know how jazz saxophonist John Coltrane created such strong and striking streams of improvisation.  Secretly, Limb might have imagined himself, saxophone in hand, playing phrases that packed the beauty and power of Coltrane.  Maybe he was in a jazz club where couples huddled around a table for two; others came in groups just to hear some jazz; maybe a down-and-out man sat at the bar, drinking shots as the sultry sounds carried him away; and then there were the lesser musicians who came to examine the intricacies of each melodic line that erupted from the golden horn that night.

Limb and National Institutes of Health neurologist Allen R. Braun developed a method for studying the brains of highly skilled jazz musicians.  Musicians performed on a nonmagnetic keyboard that stretched out in a functional magnetic resonance imaging(MRI) machine that took pictures of their brains.  Limb and Braun then compared the neural activity during improvisation with what happened when playing a memorized piece.  The differences were stunning.

Creativity is a whole brain activity, engaging all aspects of your brain.  During improvisation, the prefrontal cortex of the brain undergoes an interesting shift in activity, in which a broad area called the lateral prefrontal region shuts down.  These areas are involved in conscious self-monitoring, self-inhibition, and evaluation of the rightness and wrongness of the actions you’re about to implement; all are impediments to creativity.  In the meantime, another area of the prefrontal cortex, the medial presorted, turns on  This is  the nest of creativity that’s involved in self-expression and autobiographical narrative.

Kay Redfield Jamison, author of “Touched With Fire:  Manic-Depression Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” writes about the connection between mental illness and the artistic mind.  While some might doubt whether a serious mental illness has creative advantages, Jamison makes a strong case through the study of numerous artist — poets, musicians, writers, painters — who suffered from depression.  Ancient Greeks believed in the link between creativity and madness.  The Renaissance thinkers held a slightly different view.  They believed that total madness prevented the artist from using his abilities, but that the sane melancholic could find a path for artistic achievement.  By the eighteenth century, balance and rational thought trumped the previously held beliefs that inspiration and emotions were the primary entrance to genius.  The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected a moderation of earlier views due in part to the influence of academic psychology and psychiatry.  Extreme madness lacked the sustained discipline and balance needed to reach great heights.  Still, melancholy associated with mental illness, combined with one’s talents, could produce extraordinary works.

As writers, we must find the gems of creativity that reside somewhere in the grayness of our brain, and then we must mine them.  Philip Seymour Hoffman did. Our of desperation, perhaps, or just plain curiosity, artists sometimes turn to drugs to find that special place that legend describes; a place without emotional boundaries where we seemingly float as if we experience ecstasy.  No inhibitions, no restrictions.  But we all know of the problems with prolonged drug use.  We might die.  Or we might exceed the “recommend” dosage and simply lose control of the mechanics needed to perform.

Is there another way to reach our creativity?  I believe there is; better or worst, you must decide.  But I promise, you won’t die.  Watch a young child’s reaction to music.  They dance around, bend and twist, laugh and giggle, and soak up the magic in the air.  They are creative.  Now fast forward to a later time when the aging process brings the restrictions, inhibitions, stiffness, and a concern for what others might say about our behavior.  Find the child within.

My path to creativity was not predetermined.  It came from my struggles as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.  I was in a bad state of mind and turned to a therapist who literally saved my life.  Through her help, meditation, and self exploration, I began what I later believed to be a spiritual path.  My life changed, not instantaneously, but slow and steady. I learned to feel, to trust, and ultimately, to love; accompanied by an openness to see the previously unseen, and an ability to be nonjudgemental.  I found the “sweet part of the bat,” where I hit home runs whenever I choose.  Creativity is there for the taking.  Ask and you shall receive.

Now, the second part of the equation, technique, is simple but difficult.  The better command of our medium, the more success in communicating our creativity.  That’s why we write everyday, practice our instruments, and continually paint colors on our canvas. It”s such a marvelous rush when it all comes together; maybe a sentence or two, a phrase, chapter, or a longer work.  Take what you get and savor the taste.  Remember the process and how it felt.  Next time will be easier.

I’m certain that Philip Seymour Hoffman has other secrets to share.  Please feel free to comment.
Some of this was taken from my latest book, “Mnemosyne:  A Love Affair with Memory.”   In my defense, several pages, even a book, is needed to discuss such an important subject. But in a blog, we do what we can.

Fiction or Nonfiction, characters need depth.

IMG_0088I was in a small room waiting to see my pain management doctor.  There, taped to the wall, was a series of bright yellow faces staring at me, ten of them as I recall, each with a particular facial expression, indicating the level of pain that I was experiencing. At the time, the pain in my lower back was at a level six with surges reaching number ten.  Being a writer, my mind began to wonder.  Could I produce a chart showing the ten levels of emotional depth for the characters in my stories.  Fiction or nonfiction, characters need depth.  Number one would indicate the most depressing feelings possible, like my dog had bled out on me, vomited, empty her bowels, and died in my arms.  Number ten would represent the happiest of all feelings:  I went home for a quick lunch and ended up getting lucky.  Each number, from one to ten, would represent a particular depth of feelings.

I’ve had people ask me how to write a memoir if they haven’t suffered through hard times, how to write about war when you’ve never been in combat, or how to produce a fictional character with depth.  Now I’m not an expert on such matters, whether it’s about me or a make believe person.  Years ago, I would have registered a two,  maybe three on the depth chart.  Now, things are different.  

When I had been diagnosed as having PTSD brought on by horrific memories of childhood sexual abuse, I began what became longterm psychotherapy.  I’ll never forget the first time my therapist made a particular statement followed by, “How do you feel about that?”    “What do you mean, how do I feel?”  I asked.  “Just what I said,” she answered, “tell me what you are feeling.”  “Well, you either feel good or bad,” I said.  “Now I’m feeling bad.”  “Can you be more specific?” she asked.  “Do you feel sad, happy?”

It took several sessions before I could even answer the question:  “How to you feel about that?”  I was so lacking in feelings that I sometimes imagined that my two daughters had died, and then I would measure the depth of my feelings.  Empty feelings, that’s what I had.  I asked my therapist why I wasn’t able to feel like other people.  She assured me that I was a loving, compassionate man and that, in time, I would experience a whole range of feelings.  The journey was not easy.  It required a lot of hard work, emotional suffering, and a willingness to keep an open mind.  Well, it turned out that my therapist was right.  In time I became a different person, and I should say, a different writer.  I was able to connect with my feelings as never before.  I am now a level eight with surges to ten.

I remember the main character in my first book, “The Rita Nitz Story:  A life without parole.”  After several interviews Rita became upset with the directness of my questions, and accused me of being just like the prosecutor in her case.  “You’re all  the same,” she said.  Six months passed before she granted me another interview.  I had completed enough interviews that I could have finished her story, but that was not what I wanted.  I though about her background of sexual and physical abuse, the men in her life, dysfunctional family, etc… and realized that given her background, her behavior was quite normal.  Without realizing it, I was showing empathy, a characteristic that I had learned in therapy.  You can’t get into a character’s head without empathy.  Otherwise, you, as the author, become too much of an outsider.  And compassion, let’s not forget about having feelings for your character, and an open mind.  Empathy, compassion, and an open mind, all things I learned in therapy, opened the door to a deeper relationship between Rita and myself.

A character, whether yourself or fictional, doesn’t have to have a load of experiences or accomplishments to have depth.  Every person has a story, has depth.  What about a person that is superficial, seemingly empty, devoid of feelings, without material accomplishments, etc….?  I would argue that the person who holds all of these characteristics and seems to have no meaningful life, is a character with depth and has the potential for a great story.  And don’t sell yourself short.  With empathy, compassion, and an open mind you will find that you could be the character in a great story.

Go to the movies:  a great place to study characters.  Go see Blue Jasime written by Woody Allen.  Cate Blanchett does a magnificent job of playing a a New York socialite.  Although this is a great movie, I have to admit that Cate Blanchett’s character made me deeply depressed.  I found myself so sad that a person could be like her character, and not know how to correct her shortcomings.  She didn’t have to be like that, I thought.   But all of the character’s shortcomings is what made this into a great movie, in my opinion.  Now, apply that to our writing.

Fiction or Nonfiction, characters need depth.  Depth is not measured by a resume. Writers need to have empathy, compassion, and an open mind.  Then, and only then, will we see the depth in every character.  Yes, even when writing about yourself.  If you find this a bit weird, or unattainable, I suggest looking into meditation, therapy, and soul searching as a means for finding the empathy, compassion, and the open mind that all writers need.

To the mentally ill who have no voice. Please listen.

cherryblossom_cover_smAfter visiting family in Wisconsin, a place where cold people have warm hearts, it is good to return to our home in Southern Illinois.  I have been thinking about what my next blog would be.  The answer became clear while I was surfing over the internet and discovered a blog that grabbed my attention.  Because of time restraints, I do not follow a large number of blogs.  But this one caused me to quickly click the “follow” button.  The blog, “Weathering the Storm: Overcoming Bipolar Disorder,” is truly remarkable, and is written by Kait Leigh, a young lady who has bipolar disorder.  Kait’s life is one of overcoming the struggles brought on by mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder.  Even if you or a family member do not suffer from bipolar disorder, you should check out her blog, http://weatheringthestormbp.com/contact/  Where her story is filled with the blackness of night, she has become a truly compassionate and caring person. Please check it out.
I became very interested in bipolar disorder when I wrote my second book, “Cherry Blossoms & Barren Plains:  A woman’s journey from mental illness to a prison cell.”  Rebecca Bivens was found “guilty but mentally ill” for killing her five-year-old step-daugther.  Becca had been diagnosed as being bipolar but was not taking her medications.  Add to that the fact that she was being physical and sexually abused by various men.  Combine the two and you have a formula for a trip into madness.  Now that Becca is in prison and taking her medications, I find it difficult to believe that this woman committed such a violent crime.  Becca, the woman that I know, is a loving and caring person.
Through my research on mental illness, I have discovered that if someone suffers from a severe mental illness, he/she is not necessarily violent.  If untreated, they can be.  But with proper counseling and medication that can become valuable members of our society.  With all of the shootings that make headlines, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the mentally ill are violent.  We usually find out that each one suffered from a severe mental illness but was not receiving treatment.  Yes, the mental health treatment in the USA is lacking.  The gov’t does not care to spend the money on people who have no voice.  You will learn more about mental illness if you click onto Kait Leigh’s website & blog at weatheringthestormbp.com
When I wrote my book about Becca, I used different metaphors to describe what a person suffering from bipolar disorder might experience.  Here is one of my metaphors.
“It was as if someone or something, possibly alien, took over her mind.  I can see how an imaginary octopus-like creature might have controlled her thoughts.  Living in the lowest part of her brain and hidden by darkness, this creature, the one I imagined, reached outward with its eight tentacles, each lined with two rows of suction cups, and latched onto her hard.  No one escapes its grip.  When threatened it released an inky-black liquid that allowed it to slip away.  Even if one of it’s tentacles was severed, one quickly regrew, making it impossible to kill.
This octopus-like creature, the one that I imagined, the one that invaded Becca’s mind, is called bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness.  More than 2.5 million American adults, or roughly one percent of the population, struggle with bipolar disorder…..”