BWG member, Christopher D. Ochs is our From a Cabin in the Wood’s author. We’re sure you will enjoy his post “Jack of All Trades?”
Christopher D. Ochs’ foray into writing began with his epic fantasy Pindlebryth of Lenland: The Five Artifacts, recommended by US Review of Books. Several of his short stories have been published in the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group and Bethlehem Writers Group anthologies and websites. His latest work is a collection of mirthful macabre short stories If I Can’t Sleep, You Can’t Sleep.
His current literary projects include: short stories in Firebringer Press’ next entry in their Eternity anthology series, an e-book prequel novella for Pindlebryth of Lenland, a YA speculative fiction novel My Friend Jackson, and of course, the second novel of the Pindlebryth saga.
Chris has too many interests outside of writing for his own good. With previous careers in physics, mathematics, electrical engineering and software, and his incessant dabblings as a CGI animator, classical organist, voice talent on radio, DVD and anime conventions, it’s a wonder he can remember to pay the dog and feed his bills. Wait, what?
Jack of All Trades?
I recently reflected over all the jobs in my lifetime from which I have received a paycheck. To the best of my recollection, they were:
During one particularly unsuccessful discussion with an HR individual, she commented, “Wow, you really are unfocused!” However, I look at it differently. I can truthfully say that I have been blessed, in that every job (after I completed college) has been a profession that I chose to work, and loved doing. That is not to say that some positions had their share of difficulties. There have been occasional instances of professional backstabbing and other malfeasance, plentiful examples of managerial incompetence, and so on. The Peter Principle is alive and well, let me assure you! Despite these workaday frustrations, my work involved in one facet or another one or more intellectual discipline I loved: physics, math, music, computers, and language.
Late in my hopscotch of professions, I began to despair. I felt that I had become the proverbial “Jack of All Trades, and Master of None.” A friend and co-worker made an observation that helped me out of my doldrums immensely. He said, “Your first degree was in physics, right? That means you have the discipline to figure out how anything works.” I’ve found that holds true, but only to a point. It does not help much in my latest choice of vocations, namely writing. Mathematical maxims and the comfort of the immutable laws of physics are notoriously absent.
Somerset Maugham’s (in)famous maxim states, “There are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” How true! To further my confusion, several writing authorities have posited, “Once you know the rules, you know when you may break them.” To borrow a metaphor from “Dungeons & Dragons,” I often feel like a Lawful Good paladin living in a Chaotic Neutral world.
However, I’ve discovered my professional wanderlust has still managed to come to my rescue. My wide experience of work has afforded me the chance to rub elbows with people from all walks of life: from blue collar to white collar, from ditch digger to Nobel prize winner, from unrepentant sinner to bishop. My choices have allowed me to make friends with citizens of all six populated continents.
As a writer, this “Jack-of-All-Trades” life path has afforded me a rich smorgasbord of characters, experiences and observation that I may draw on.
More often than not, we writers are a solitary bunch. I’m guilty as charged as well, as I am not as gregarious as everything above might imply. We huddle in our writing rooms, happy with our keyboard and coffee (or tea). It can become isolating, and that has its own dangers, when we spend too much time in our own head. We are often told to “write what you know,” but if you limit your experiences to your writing shed, it can limit one’s scope. And of course, if you can’t get out and about as much as you’d like, just read the memoirs of other people’s experiences.
So get out. Leap into that new job you’ve been dreaming about. The unemployment rate has never been better, after all. Try a new experience. Learn a new language or craft at your local high school adult program, learn a musical instrument, join a new group, be it a painting klatch or mountaineering club. Volunteer at a food bank or museum. Broaden your experience, and if you remain open and observant, I guarantee you’ll never run out of ideas to inspire your writing.
I hear it’s good for staving off Alzheimer’s as well…
Rebecca is swamped today, so we’re featuring one of her more popular posts from our archives.
The day I stood in the choir loft surrounded by my fourth grade peers I had no idea that I was about to learn a lesson in suspense, terror, fear, retribution and resolution that would lead me to a career as a thriller author.
The day was hot, air-conditioning was unheard of, and we wore our itchy, ugly, brown wool Catholic school uniforms year ‘round to save our parents money. I was a very good girl. I never drew attention to myself, folded my hands with fingers pointing heavenward when I prayed, picked up trash on the playground and helped pass out papers in class. But that day, I made a blunder that put me in Sister Carmelita’s crosshairs. As she raised her arms and positioned her baton in anticipation of another rousing chorus of a hymn I have long forgotten, I rolled my eyes. Yep, I rolled them to the back of my little ten-year-old head in frustration and exhaustion.
Sister Carmelita cut her own my way. I realize now that she had mastered the art of eye cutting because she couldn’t move her head given her the box-like wimple. Everyone stopped breathing. No one knew what I had done, only that I had done something very, very bad.
“Miss Forster.” Sister Carmelita’s voice was modulated appropriately for God’s house. “Wait after choir.”
My stomach lurched. I felt light headed. I was doomed.
Sister Carmelita is long gone. During her time on earth she faced changes in her church and her life, but I doubt she ever knew how that day changed me. So, if you’re listening, Sister, I want you to know that, 30 years later, that moment sealed my fate. I spend my days writing thrillers, trying to recapture the exquisite sense of suspense I experienced that day. Here is what you taught me:
1) Less is More: Your understated notice of me, the glitter in your eye, the sound of your voice was more intriguing, more compelling, more enthralling than screaming, railing or ranting.
2) Timing is Everything: All 29 of my classmates knew I was in trouble. I knew I was in trouble. I even knew why I was in trouble (disrespecting you, God, choir practice, country, family and all living creatures with a roll of my eyes), yet you didn’t nip things in the bud with a mere instantaneous admonition. My comeuppance was exquisitely timed. You threw in an extra hymn to extend practice, studiously ignored me, meticulously folded your sheet music as my classmates silently went down the stairs. You waited until the door of the church closed, clicked and locked us together in that big, shadowy church before you turned.
3) The Devil’s in the Details: You were taller than me (back then almost everyone was taller than me), but that wasn’t why I was afraid. It was your whole package, the details of your awesome being that were so formidable. Covered head to toe in black, your face framed by your wimple (which, by the way, looked like the vice used during the Spanish Inquisition), your hands buried beneath the scapular that fell in a perfect column to the tips of your shoes, made for quite a package. But there was more: The scent of nun-perfume (I think it was soap, but it smelled like nun-perfume to me), the clack of those huge rosary beads attached to your wide belt, the squish of your rubber soled shoes. I saw all this, I heard all this, I smelled all this and each sense was heightened because of the hush surrounding us.
I remember your methodical advance into my personal space. I remember you lowering your eyes as I raised mine. The suspense was heart-stopping, the anticipation of my penance almost unbearable. Quite frankly, you were terrifying.
But here’s the funny thing: I don’t remember how it ended. Did you scold me, sister? Did you show mercy and forgiveness? I only remember being terrified. Like the brain of the seven year old Stephen King swears gives him inspiration for his horror books, you, Sister Carmelita, inspire every sentence I write in every thriller novel I pen. For that, I can’t thank you enough.
I also want you to know, I have never rolled my eyes at anything since that day in the choir loft.
This morning I read an article entitled Mister Waters’s Cardigan. It seems that Mr. John Waters, the campy, iconic American film director, screenwriter, author, actor, stand up comedian and all-around-impressive guy wears a ‘writing’ cardigan with mother-of-pearl buttons to spark his imagination. It is an Our Legacy cardigan. Our Legacy is a line of clothing designed for “down-to-earth, embarrassed-to-be-affluent fashionistas who never want to look silly” (this according to Mr. Waters). I looked up Our Legacy. The man’s cardigan I saw would set you back $458. It was very nice and very understated. Indeed, this cardigan would fool anyone into thinking the darn thing was made for a regular Joe.
I read the half-page article about Mr. Waters’s cardigan and lusted over the column inches dedicated to his sweater and his work. But the sweater? I’ll pass. You see, I have writing wear too and I think mine beats his hands down. Instead of a sweater, I wear a fleece jacket. It is made of recycled tires. My husband keeps trying to wash the darn thing because the cuffs are turning black and he thinks it’s dirty. I explain this is just the fleece wearing out and the black rubber of the recycled tires peeking through, but he will have none of it. I am constantly rescuing my writing jacket from the laundry.
Instead of an understated heather grey, my jacket is screaming-mimi yellow. I make no excuses for this. I know I am not at my most attractive in this jacket. I actually look like a cross between Tweety Bird and an egg yolk. On a good day I can pass for Sponge Bob Squarepants.
My jacket has no fashionista sensibilities with its big collar, giant cuffs and boxy cut. My jacket has three plastic buttons. My writing jacket set me back $10. Yes, that is ten buck-a-roos which is $448 less than Mr. Waters’s cardigan.
As different as Mr. Waters and I are – he writes camp, I write thrillers, he is affluent, I am what I am – we are the same in that we draw inspiration from something we don before we write. Our writing clothes keep us warm, help us think, signals to the world that we are working and are not to be disturbed. Our jacket/sweaters give us confidence and stick with us as we create worlds far away from the world we’re in. So the bottom line is this: find your writing sweater/jacket. No matter what it looks like, no matter how much you spend on it, if it’s the right one the benefits you will gain as an author are priceless.
The other day I was musing about muses. This was a rather convoluted process that went something like this:
I want to write but I don’t have an idea. I should write, but I’m bummed because I don’t have an idea. I could write if I had a great idea. I need to get one and until I do, I’ll watch TV. There’s a movie on TV called The Muse. I’ll watch The Muse and get inspired.
This is how the musing went after the movie.
The Muse is awful. She’s demanding, self-centered, and doesn’t care about the writer’s work. Still, the he sees something in her. What does he see in her? I want a muse. I just don’t want a muse like that.
I turned off the TV, obsessed with the idea of getting a muse. I just had to figure out where to get one. Since I’d never actually seen a muse, I decided I better find out exactly what I was looking for.
In the dictionary, the first definition of muse is to be thrown into a deep state of dreamy abstraction. The second is a noun, naming any of the nine sister goddesses in Greek mythology that preside over song, poetry, the arts and sciences. The third definition is the one we think of most often, a human source of inspiration or a guiding genius.
With this information in hand, I analyzed my career and realized that a muse has guided me every step of the way. I have often found myself lost in a dream state inspired by another writer. Their work has more often than not sparked an idea for a book of my own or a shown me a new way of laying a story foundation or become a point of reference for an essential building block.
The second definition – the naming of the goddesses – is a matter of inspirational faith. I have always believed that there is ‘something’ hovering over artists that not only encourages the creative soul, but also gives it the courage needed to present its work to a critical public.
That brings us back to the movie and the third definition of muse: the source of inspiration that we can touch and talk to. For some people this is one person, for me it has been many. I don’t call them muses; I call them friends, lovers, family and colleagues. Each step of my career was inspired and moved forward by the muse of the moment, the one person I needed just then.
There was the high school teacher who told me I wrote well, my husband who rescued by early attempts from the trashcan, my children who proudly said their mom was a writer. As the years went on and the books piled up, there were editors who trained me and readers who cheered me on, inspiring me to be better at my craft. All these people were – as definition three would have us believe – guiding geniuses.
It doesn’t matter if they knew the roll they played in my writing. What matters is that I wrote because of them and never in spite of them. The truth is, all you have to do to find a muse is open your eyes, your mind, and your heart. That muse is there – sometimes where you least expect it.
Over the last many months I have been helping my mother prepare to relocate. We have spent hours choosing the furniture she will take and trying to determine how many dishes, glasses, and cookie sheets she’ll really need.
Dusty and dirty after spending the day cleaning the garage, we found ourselves in the dining room at the end of the day. I looked at the huge breakfront overflowing with crystal, silver, and china. I opened the glass door and took out a piece of bisque colored china.
“Do you want to take it with you?” I asked.
“That’s Limoges,” she said. “One of dad’s patients gave it to him after he delivered her baby.”
“And these?” I held up two tall crystal vases. Certainly one would do in a smaller place.
“Keep them both,” she said.
“Because I like them,” she answered.
On we went sorting through soup tureens, more vases, statues of ballerinas, and teacups. It was the teacups that enthralled me and the work slowed as I set them on the dining room table, one after another. Some had fluted edges and others were like little pot-bellied stoves. My favorite cup was sleek and modern with a shallow bowl. It was made of porcelain so white and delicate that I could see through it. The sweep of the golden handle made the cup look like a swan. The cups were miss-matched because that was the style in another elegant era.
My mother and I touched the teacups, nudged their saucers, and ran our fingers over tiny raised paintings of roses and lilies. We looked for the china markings and grouped them: Wedgewood, Meissen, Limoges. There were stories about my grandparents, and of my mother growing up in Germany, and of guests coming for lunch.
When we were done, when she had chosen the teacups to take with her, we went to bed to rest up for the next day’s work. As I drifted off, I realized that in the course of getting ready to close the door on a house we had opened the door to memories that could inspire a hundred novels. I had heard tales of hardship, of gratitude, of uncertainty – even danger – but mostly I had heard tales of graciousness, hard work and above all love.
Someday I will write one of these stories. Until then, I will drink my tea from one of her cups and remind myself that the best stories are those that are rich in flavor and best served with style.
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