There is a villain in my second novel, With Arms Unbound, with the unfortunate name of Festus Mulgrew. He’s a meth cook from central Florida with a pet spider named Junior and a problem making eye contact. Like any decent villain on the page or the screen, Festus wasn’t born bad. There are reasons why he is the way he is. But that doesn’t make him any less dangerous. If anything, his humanity makes him even scarier, or at least more believable.
I can’t do the mustache twirling bad guy any more than I can do the square jawed puppy saving hero. I’ve never met anyone like that. My heroes are flawed and my villains have at least a couple of redeeming qualities. Just like in real life.
When sketching the character of Festus “Methlab” Mulgrew, in addition to giving him a backstory rife with abuse and abandonment, I gave him a personal philosophy for survival under harsh conditions. That philosophy is also my own. The difference is that while Festus used it in a negative way, it has helped me to quit drugs, adhere to a strict workout regimen, manage money, develop discipline, be assertive, and focus long enough to write a few books.
If anyone within the sound of this pen is struggling with self-mastery, this may help: Think of yourself as a nation. I am the United Federation of Malcolm Ivey and like any other sovereign country, I am composed of the following:
~ Borders – these are my boundaries, thou shalt not cross
~ Allies – my homeboys, every nation has alliances
~ Enemies – other hostile nations, in my world there are many
~ Military – my defense system: keep strong and confident through regular exercise and stand ready to protect my borders and allies against any threat
~ National Debt – the money I owe
~ GDP – the money I earn
You can even give yourself a national bird and your own anthem if you want. The point is to take a hard look at all the various agencies that make up your nation and ask yourself if they’re being run efficiently. We ultimately have the power to mold ourselves into nations with robust economies, plentiful natural resources, and solid foreign relations. We can eliminate our deficits, strengthen our alliances and win our wars. Whether we choose to be super powers or third world countries is entirely up to us.
I just finished reading an amazing book, 10% Happier by Dan Harris. Mr. Harris is the ABC news correspondent who had a nationally televised panic attack on Good Morning America in 2004. 10% Happier is the hilarious account of his journey as both skeptic and seeker. It centers largely on the benefits of meditation (I can almost see the five people reading this page rolling their eyes simultaneously). While there is a definite unearned stigma attached to meditation, I’ll leave that for the holy men and gurus to sort out. No sermon here. Promise. I just want to touch on the parallel between meditation and writing.
If there’s such a thing as Attention Deficit Disorder, I’ve got it. I have the attention span of a butterfly which makes the discipline of writing a daily battle. I’ll be one or two sentences into a scene when something hooks my attention – a bird on a window, a voice in the hall, the smell of food – and I’m off “chasing the wishes from dandelions” as my friend Sheena says.
As one distraction leads to the next, it’s sometimes hours before I remember the project only to find it right where I left it, suspended in mid-sentence – sometimes mid-word – so I grab my pen, search for the mental thread of the story and begin again. It’s the coming back that’s the thing.
Meditation is similar in that you focus on the breath flowing in and out of your nostrils, the expansion and contraction of your lungs. When thoughts arise and you notice yourself being swept away on that tidal wave of mental chatter, you return to your breath. Every time. Notice and return, over and over.
I’ve mentioned before that the discipline of writing saved me. Up until the year that I began Consider the Dragonfly, life was all about drugs, gambling, and adrenaline. The tendency to drift toward the extremes is scribbled in the helix of my DNA. But the written word is my anchor. It centers me. The words on the page are the meditative breath that I keep returning to. My om.
I’m not claiming enlightenment or even rehabilitation. The distractions still come like Craig Kimbrel fastballs. All it takes is a Sophia Vergara commercial, a Black Crowes song or Miami Dolphins breaking news and I hit the ground running. But once I regain awareness and realize that yet again I’ve been lured down the hallways of always, I shake my head and return to my work, to the open notebook that awaits me.
It’s the coming back that’s the thing.
“If your life were a book, would you like your character?”
These words have been nibbling at my conscience for years, surfacing at the most inopportune times – while cheating on a girlfriend, stealing from a family member, cooking cocaine in a spoon … The answer was always the same: “No, I would not like my character. I would HATE my character.”
There are few things in this world as unsustainable and soul-sucking as drug abuse. This is far from breaking news. The hard math states that someone in your orbit is suffering right now, be it your child, sibling, significant other, friend, neighbor, co-worker or yourself. For most, the needle and the crack pipe are a life sentence of enslavement; however, there are exceptions … some find Jesus, others escape through a 12-step program, and I would never underestimate the healing properties in the love of a woman. But for me, the way out was through the written word.
When I first began Consider the Dragonfly I did so in desperation. It was a Hail Mary, a half-court buzzer beater, my last shot to escape the quicksand of my old patterns and do something honorable. The universe gave me the bonus plan. Barely a few pages into the first chapter, the characters shimmered to life. Protagonists and antagonists whispered backstory into my heart, explaining why they were the way they were, confiding secrets and fears and dreams, drawing me deeper into the world of story … and while I was busy being a conduit, head down, scribbling furiously, a sort of alchemy was taking place in my own world. Impulsivity was converted to discipline. Recklessness was exchanged for structure. I was suddenly protective of my remaining brain cells and mournful of those I have squandered. The craft was changing me.
There is something empowering about writing a novel, something spiritual about plugging into the collective consciousness and transcribing the flow of words from the ether, something transformative. I’ve been clean for a few years now. My second book, With Arms Unbound, will be out this summer and I’m presently knee-deep in a new project. Some will say that I’ve merely swapped addictions. Maybe so. I’m cool with that. Because today, when that old question pops into my head – “If your life were a book, would you like your character?” – The answer is a resounding HELL, YEAH!