With my hand on the wheel and my brain in neutral . . .

A Great Opening Line

“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

This was written by John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars (36,000 reviews on Amazon, and made in to a movie, too. Ya, it’s pretty good.) This is not the book’s opening line, but it could have been. It would function well for any of several genres: romance, coming of age, even vampires or a murder mystery! Regardless of your favorite genre, from this line alone, don’t you want to read more of the author’s writing?

I came across this line, this quote, somewhere on the internet – Pinterest, Instagram,   Facebook, wherever – and I made a note of it because it did its job: it pulled me in gently but firmly. It is credible, relatable, has a touch of poetic vision, and implicitly carries the promise of a story that matters, a story that is important, maybe even pivotal, even if only to the fictional characters and the author. All of this, contained in just 15 words . . . oh ya, this book has got to be worth reading!

An opening that is at least good is essential; a good opening line makes what follows all the more inviting; a great opening line is irresistible.


Ya, I did that teak!

Lately I’ve been working on the teak cap and hand rails on a 104-foot power yacht, and I’ve been having a hard time keeping up with my workmates, an 86-year-old man and a 74-year-old-man. I’m not kidding: every day, long after I’d be ready for a break, long after I’d ask them if they’d like me to fetch drinking water “for them”, they’d shoot me a quick glance and say, “Less talk, more work.” Sweat would be dripping off our faces, sweat would soak our shirts not damp but downright wet, and as we walked we would trail a cloud of teak dust. Eventually, finally, we’d break for lunch. These old doogans were working machines!

Once, going to lunch, I told them every night I went home and cried myself to sleep because they were Men of Iron and in comparison I was just a Boy Made of Polish Sausage and French Crepes. Telling them that opened the door, or should I say, opened their mouths.  After lunch, and for days, they ran with the joke:

“Hey, Sausage! You got the box of paper?”

“Hey, Scrapple! . . . ”

“Hey, Hamburger! . . . ”

“Hey, Ground Beef . . .”

“Hey, Chopped Liver. . .”

“Hey, Peanut Butter and Jelly . . .” followed quickly by “No, no Peanut Butter – just Jelly.”

“Hey, Soup . . .” and “No, not Soup – just Broth!” and “What’s that Mexican cold soup? Gar-bage-bo?”

“Hey, Puddin’ . . .”

“Hey, Jello . . . ”

(Note: I’m not using their names or photos ’cause they both hate the internet and love their privacy.)

On writing websites and author forums I sometimes come across lists of writing prompts and other exercises for practicing writing skills, and though they might be helpful (especially in a classroom setting), above them all there is one thing, one project any writer can do to improve his writing. The King Daddy or Queen Mama of all writing exercises is simply this: write your life story.

It’s your life, so you know the story. You know the drama, the comedy, the sub-plots, the character development, and the major and minor characters. You know many of the characters’ back-stories, you know their deep desires and motivations and fears and heartaches and regrets, you know their various levels of emotional and social skills. You even have slivers of their dialogue burnt into your heart! You already have the parts of a great story, so why not use them for something?

Now, don’t just describe a chronological list of events: doing that will bore even yourself!   Write your life story as if it were a novel. (It’s your story, so you get to be the hero!) Write your life story for your great-grandchildren to read: make it so they will get to know you and your world and so they can get more from it than just the facts of family history. Make it so they can use your story to live their lives more fully and happily. In other words, write a good book.

(By the way, if you believe your life doesn’t provide enough material for a good story, you might want to (a) adjust your attitude or (b) get away from the keyboard for awhile and go get busy.)

Even if you never get to pass it on to a great-grandchild, there are many practical benefits to writing your life story. Here are the most obvious; I’ll let you discover the more subtle.

First, it allows you to work on expressing your experience, on your writing itself, instead of being distracted, hampered, and even bogged down with imagining plot twists and life-like characters. You can focus on the how and not waste many brain cells on the what.   That’s the biggie.

Second, when you look back on your life so far, and when you try to show what is needed for a reader to make sense of it all and understand your life as well as you do, you have to portray all the people fairly. This will do amazing things for giving your future fictional characters a multi-dimensional reality, and it will force you to practice shifting from one point of view to another. (Incidentally, it will also help you more deeply understand and accept your family, friends, and other players in your real life!)

Third, it will get you to write about a million words. Somewhere I read, perhaps from a famous author, that a writer doesn’t really get comfortable with his writing and settle into his “voice” until he’s written about a million words. (By the way, I’ve tried copying and pasting big blocks of words, but this shortcut is proving rather fruitless . . .) The actual number doesn’t matter, but the sentiment sure seems to ring true. The more you write, the better at it you become . . . (And if you’re no good at all after a million words, uhmm, maybe you should try something else . . . )

Fourth, you can use this to get un-stuck on your “real” projects. Writer’s block? Bullshit.   Just put your work to the side, open a file from your life story, and just start writing. It’s like getting out of bed in the morning: you don’t always want to do it at all, and when you start you’re a bit stiff and maybe even sore, but if you just start moving you loosen up and you get your heart pumping and before you know it, you’re being some kind of productive and you’re enjoying yourself again. So, since for your life story there is always something new to add or old to refine, just open the file and resume writing. Then, once you’re loosened up, you close your life story file and re-open your work file . . .

You can do it. If you truly are a writer, you can do it.   You’ll want to revise and refine and re-do and revise some more, and every year you’ll want to add another chapter or two, or add a more mature perspective to earlier chapters . . . and you’ll always have material to work with.

Do you want to know at what point people who don’t know you will want to read your work? Well, imagine standing in the sand at the edge of a lake, a lake big enough to make you be serious if you’re contemplating swimming across it. Imagine thinking, It’s going to take work, but I can do this. I can swim well enough to make it. I can’t do it all freestyle, I can’t do it like an Olympic champion, but I can do this. Now imagine that the middle of the lake is way, way over the swimmer’s head, so he knows that he can not afford to overestimate his ability to make it across.   It’s going to take work, but I can do this. Imagine the swimmer strongly wading into and through the shallows, then at waist-depth diving in and striking out for the far-away other side of the lake. It’s going to take work, but I can do this. When you can approach writing a book with the same well-found confidence of that swimmer, you’ll produce something that strangers will want to read.

So, go ahead and look for tips on how to choose the right kind of names for your characters, and how to make dialogue feel real, and all kinds of other techniques, but for a sandbox to play with all these tools? You have it already: your life story. Just wade right in . . . and start knocking out those million words!

PS – Hey, under the right circumstances, at the right time, your written life story might come in handy when dating. DO NOT attach it to your first online-dating-service email!!!! DON’T do it; don’t even think of doing it! Bad, embarrassing things will likely happen. But if you’re several months into a solid dating relationship, you’ve already been sharing your life story in bits and pieces through conversation, so why not share it as a whole? Or even just the most important chapters . . . The other person’s reaction to your reaction to life (in your most accurately-chosen written words) will either make you two closer or clear the playing field: one way or the other, in the long run, you’ll win.

Today I Killed a Piano

Piano kill b

It seemed like a good idea at the time: when my friend and I were moving his old and unwanted piano to the curb and happened to break it open on the way down the driveway, I spied the “harp” inside and thought it would make a great coffee table. It would, too: later I Googled “piano harp table” and found plenty of images that matched or exceeded my imaginary project results. I wanted to make it, but not for myself: I live on a not-big sailboat, so even if I did have space for a coffee table – especially one that takes at least two men to lift – on a sailboat it would be ridiculous and dangerous. No, I figured it would be great for either of my nephews in their college apartments.

I called my nephews to see if they were interested in making strong legs and mounting a glass or plexiglass top, and then I claimed it from my friend’s curb. I deconstructed the piano at his house and trucked the harp to my marina, where I tucked it away in a shed.

Weekend after weekend passed, and before I knew it, the piano harp had been sitting there for months, still attached to its backboard and not looking the least bit closer to becoming a coffee table. With my nephews’ busy term breaks, part-time job schedules, and the 100 miles between us, we accepted that it just wasn’t going to happen, and about that time the marina owner asked me to get rid of it.

To take it to the recycler, the harp had to be separated from the wood backing, and that turned out to be more work than deconstructing the rest of the entire piano. The fine-threaded tuning screws had to be loosened one by one before the strings could be cut (a piano-tuning friend of mine warned me about the danger of an unequally stressed harp!), and the wood parts were strongly glued and screwed together. It took a couple of hours over three afternoons to get it ready to throw away!

The reason for writing about this? As I was turning the small wrench on those 88 finely-threaded and very tight piano wire adjustment screws, I started thinking about the day I conceived this project. It would have been cool, but both of my nephews and I were a bit too busy to start something none of us really needed. Ya, it was a cool project, but it was also much more of a want than a need. That’s what I learned (again, dammit!) from this: sometimes you have to say no to things you want to do, no matter how cool it might be, so that you have time to do things more useful to the rest of your life. The thought might have jelled in my head because I heard something about Steve Jobs saying no to a lot of good projects so Apple could focus on the best projects. Focus is not about only keeping your eye on the target; it’s also about narrowing your field of peripheral vision. “Wants” have a seductive way of distracting you from your more important goals.

So, I killed a piano, and from it I harvested not a coffee table but a reminder to use what I already knew . . .

BE a lake . . . Yes, a lake

This is an old, old Zen story . . .

Be a lake

An aging master grew tired of his apprentice’s complaints. One morning, he sent him to get some salt. When the apprentice returned, the master told him to mix a handful of salt in a glass of water and then drink it.

“How does it taste?” the master asked.

“Bitter,” said the apprentice.

The master chuckled and then asked the young man to take the same handful of salt and put it in the lake. The two walked in silence to the nearby lake and once the apprentice swirled his handful of salt in the water, the old man said, “Now drink from the lake.”

As the water dripped down the young man’s chin, the master asked, “How does it taste?”

“Fresh,” remarked the apprentice.

“Do you taste the salt?” asked the master.

“No,” said the young man. At this the master sat beside this serious young man, and explained softly,

“The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain in life remains exactly the same. However, the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container we put the pain in. So when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things. Stop being a glass. Become a lake.”

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