Was the Russian Revolution a Break with the Past…Or a Continuation of It?

You can walk through Red Square, down all the grand avenues of Moscow, through its empty, gray backstreets and you will never find it. You can do the same in St. Petersburg: walk down Nevsky Prospect, past Kazan Cathedral all the way to the Winter Palace. Or follow the winding paths Raskolnikov took through the back streets, but you won’t find it there either. You can go to Nizhny Novgorod or Ulyanovsk or Samara or Volgograd or further south and east and do the same thing: walk down the main avenues, through the grandest squares or the quietest backstreets and you won’t find it there either…

Russ Peasant

So, what is it? It is a memorial to the Russian soldiers of World War I. You can find plenty of monuments to Russia’s involvement in World War II, of course. And you will find a number of monuments to plenty other wars Russia got involved in: the Napoleonic wars are easy to find, and other smaller conflicts have monuments here and there. But despite the size of World War I and the sacrifice of the average Russian solider (over two million of them died), you’ll find little to suggest it ever happened. Sometimes, walking around Russia—which usually does a good job of commemorating history—it feels as if it never happened.

But that’s not exactly true, is it? And I’m not being quite straightforward either. Because one day, I did find a monument to the Russian soldiers of World War I. On a gray, wet, cold day I came across a small, well-kept monument tucked away on a small side street. It was a little smaller than the height of a man and it was in memory of the high sacrifice so many of those men made. I was struck that it was the first time I had EVER seen a monument, of any size, to the Russian soldiers of World War I. I had a solemn moment next to the monument and was on my way.

So, why was this war almost forgotten there? How did it happen? Well, it’s easy. The Russian Revolution. The Great War was viewed as a struggle between capitalistic powers by the victors of the Russian Revolutions, the Bolsheviks. As such, it was hardly worth commemorating or celebrating. And so, a hundred years after Russian famously “left the war,” there is hardly any trace of the conflict left. Which leads me to this week’s big question…

Was the Revolution a Break with the Past or a Continuation of It?
I have come to believe that the Russian Revolution was a continuation of older patterns in Russian culture and history…It was not, and should not, be viewed as a millennial disruption with the past. Here’s why I think this way:

Russia is vast, but mostly defenseless. OK, that’s a gross oversimplification. But think about it: It’s mostly a vast open plain or forest. There are not natural barriers to an invasion on pretty much any side, except the north. Sure, there are the Urals, but they’re pretty small. They certainly were not obstacles to the Mongols who invaded on horseback. Of course, there is the one Killer natural obstacle: the winters. And yes, General January and General February have done amazing jobs of stopping invading armies in their tracks. But overall Russia is a vast, thinly-populated resource-heavy prize waiting to be taken. And the Russians themselves are keenly aware of this. It’s written into their history.

And one more thing on geography which many of America’s Founding Fathers noted in The Federalist Papers: democracy seemed to develop and flourish first in islands or isolated environments. That usually meant Britain or Venice in their thinking. But there are other examples like Switzerland that come to mind. This is not a rock solid theory, but if you don’t think this applies today, look at a map of East Asia and consider what kind of political system the islands have (Japan, Philippines, Taiwan, and we’ll throw in South Korea) and what kind of political system mainland nations have (China, Vietnam, North Korea, etc.). Coincidence or the influence of geography? I’ll let you decide.

History—In Three Easy Pieces
So, building on geography…What sort of history did Russia have as a result? Was it calm and bloodless? Or a bit more turbulent? I think you know. But let’s explore some of the big themes.

1. Collapse I—From Without: The Mongol Invasion
It’s hard to overemphasize the effect of the Mongol Invasion on the Russian psyche to this day. I remember seeing children’s cartoons (cartoons!) which replayed (less violently) the story of the debacle of the Mongol invasion of Russia. It went something like this: a Russian village is quietly minding its own business when the Mongols appear on the horizon, blotting out the sun with their arrows. They swoop in and devastate the land and almost nothing is left. And this was for the kids!

So much for the historical accuracy of cartoons. But the Mongol invasion was astonishingly successful AND long-lived. (By the way, they invaded Russia in the WINTER, so note to future would-be conquerors!). They ruled the heartland of Russia for about 200 years, leaving a major impact on many institutions—for bad and good. They kept hold of various parts of Russia for some time: Catherine the Great finally swept away the last of the legacy Mongol states in the late 1700s!

The bottom line: Russia would make it a priority from the 1200s on that it would always be prepared for a major foreign invasion at any time—and would have an army to make good on it.

2. Collapse II—From Within: The Time of Troubles
Problem is…It’s not always “them foreigners” who bring down a country. Sometimes, it’s the citizens themselves. (Imagine that!) And sometimes they find foreigners to help them.

In the early 1600s Russia was exhausted after wars and unrest unleashed at the end  of Ivan the Terrible’s reign. A famine and other catastrophes followed, further weakening the state and the economy. Soon, the entire country descended into full-blown anarchy and chaos: the Time of Troubles. It was a turn of events that its neighbors—especially Poland—could not pass up, and they duly invaded. Usurpers and con artists took over the position of tsar. Eventually, a coalition of Russian citizens rose up, united and kicked out the invaders and placed the first of the Romanovs on the throne.

But again, the psychic damage was done. Few countries have experienced full-blown anarchy on such a scale. This too, was something that must NEVER be repeated. But the threat had come (mostly) from within. So, perhaps the citizens should be watched just as vigilantly as the foreigners…

3. A Messianic Nation
And historically, there’s one more thing. As many have noted, for a very long time, Russia has thought of itself as a special nation, a place apart. Ivan the Terrible has been credited with introducing or emphasizing this concept. It was Ivan who named himself tsar (The Russian word for Caesar) to emphasize the country’s link to the Byzantine empire. Accordingly, Russia at times viewed itself as the 3rd Rome, taking on the mantle of all that numinous history.

You can also find this concept that Russia will redeem the world in art, literature and music. Dostoyevsky, especially, was a big proponent of this idea, but he wasn’t alone. There was a feeling among the intelligentsia and many others in the aristocracy and working classes that Russia had a special mission, a special role to play in the destiny of all mankind.

This feeling can be a good and powerful thing, but in retrospect it can also be twisted to serve other ends that are not as wholesome.

…And a Theory of History and Power
So where does all this leave us? A fear of foreign invasion and of domestic anarchy? And a messianic vision?

One of the first historians to attempt a holistic vision of Russian history, and still one of the best, came to a startling conclusion. His name was Nicolai Karamazin.


He decided that the system Russia really needed was the one it already had: autocracy. In his famous History of the Russian State, he argued that history and geography were inescapable realities. Russia was no small, insular mountainous country or remote island. It was a vast realm in the heart of Eurasia. And it had a history of foreign invasions coming thick and fast and the ever-present  threat of rebellion and anarchy from within. It was naturally suited to autocracy. And, in fact, autocracy had saved Russia. Without autocracy and the tsar, Russia   would succumb to its natural centrifugal forces—flying off into a thousands different ethnicities, religions and groups all at one another’s throats—just like during the Time of Troubles. Only the tsar could save and preserve the Russian state. Needless to say, the tsar liked his book! Over time this concept morphed into the tsarist formula of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality”—a new formula known as Official Nationality under Nicolas I.

Interestingly, Karamazin was ethnically a Tatar, one of the Mongol groups which had accompanied (and suffered from) Genghis khan and his general and sons’ original conquests. Perhaps he believed only a khan could master the steppe. Oops! I mean “only a tsar could rule Russia.”

The Dynamo of Russian History: Lost Wars Result in Reform
Karamazin’s theory fits pretty well and it’s a neat, tidy analysis. I think Karamazin had a point, but was not entirely right. Geography and history, though compelling, are not fate. Humans can choose their destiny, rightly or wrongly. If Russia had not entered World War I and stayed aloof, czarism might have prevailed. Or Russian could have transitioned—probably still bloodily and chaotically—into a constitutional monarchy (consider modern Spanish history)—or even become a democracy at some point. But the fact is, it didn’t. Russia followed an older pattern. In 1914, Russia like most countries, it optimistically entered the war. But the war became a deadlocked bloodbath. Gross incompetence led to losses and the economy suffered as inflation soared. The tsar fell and the Bolsheviks, taking a bold risk and with plenty of help from Germany—pulled off a coup and seized power in the name of the people and began the world’s first Communist state. But was it such a break with history as the Bolsheviks claimed?

I believe this pattern fits with Karamazin, but I will add one more thing: The Dynamo of Russian History. It’s essentially this: every major reform or revolution in Russia has come about as a result of military defeat. So, let’s take a look:

Year Military Defeat Reform/Revolution
1200s-1400s Mongol Invasion Crushing of Novgorod, Pskov Republics. Primacy of Grand Prince of Moscow.
1598-1613 The Time of Troubles/Polish invasion Foundation of Romanov dynasty
1700 Defeat at Battle of Narva Western reforms of Peter
1856 Defeat in Crimean War Emancipation of the serfs
1905 Defeat in Russo-Japanese War 1905 Russia revolution, foundation of the Duma
1917 Inept participation in  World War I Bolshevik Revolution
1989-1991 Defeat in Afghanistan Collapse of the USSR, free market “shock therapy” reforms under Yeltsin
??? ??? ???

I guess you could say, the Russians pride themselves on being good in a fight. (And they are!) But when they lose, and especially when they lose big, they cast about for someone to blame and it’s usually the current leadership.

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of complex history. And it fits some data points nicely and others not so much. The best matchup is the Crimean War and the emancipation of the serfs. In 1856 it became clear that Russia could no longer militarily, economically and technologically compete with the other Great Powers. Something was holding back the country and needed to change. One glaring difference was that serfdom was still alive and well in Russia and it became the main culprit. So, a new czar came to the throne and freed the serfs almost overnight. Others events don’t fit as well. For example, Russia won the Napoleonic War, but still faced a massive revolution known as the Decembrists Uprising a few years later. So this idea doesn’t always fit.

It may also simple be a trait of human (not just Russian) nature: during times of war we’re more liable to be outward thinking. When peace is declared and the armies come home, we start thinking about the people closer to us we and the problems at home that have been festering while the troops were abroad. Suddenly, all that outward facing energy is facing inward and upheaval can result.

And also importantly: I don’t want this to minimize the bloody badness of the Russian Revolution and subsequent related atrocities and—let’s be honest—crimes. The Russian Revolution wasn’t simply a “reform” it was also an elemental upheaval that destroyed millions of lives and still has a negative effect on the country today.

What Might this Mean for Russia’s Future?
So, what might this mean for the future? This is where the fun comes in. And someday, we’ll see if this model has any predictive power. The chief thing is to watch and wait and see if Russia is involved in any wars and starts losing them. Recently, there were the two Chechen wars which Russia was able to extricate itself from, if not win. Then, there were a few wars with Russia’s neighbors, most notably its intervention in the Ukraine in which it won back the Crimea—fair to say not a loss either. The Russian intervention in Syria is perhaps the most notable one they are involved in currently. But, so far, the war seems to be breaking Russia’s way. So, it seems we’ll have to wait a bit more to see if Russia starts losing a war—and it might mean tumult is on the way.

Of course, economic dislocation, resulting in shelves in the capitals of Moscow and St. Pete becoming empty so that the middle class is forced to eat just bread, butter and potatoes might also result in upheaval. It certainly did as recently at the late 80s. Putin appears to be pretty cognizant of both military and economic threats, so it might be quite some time before we see these two strains intertwining and causing chaos again. Bet he (or his advisors) have read their Karamazin!

Bottom Line
Bottom line: The Russian revolution and Bolshevik coup of 1917 should not be seen as total break in Russian history. Revolution and anarchy certainly are nothing new in Russian history. Nor is autocracy. (Maybe they are different sides of the same coin?) In fact, you could argue that the autocracy quickly reasserted itself with the advent of Stalinism, fifteen years after the start of the Revolution (around 1932) as a new, more powerful tsar solidified his grasp on the Kremlin. (Incidentally, that’s almost as long as the Time of Troubles lasted.) And now, though the economic model of the USSR has been smashed, the new Russian leadership has discovered a new capitalist model in which they retain control of “the commanding heights” of the economy while allowing for some capitalist characteristics. The central kernel of Russian autocracy through all sorts of pressures (wars, anarchy, economic collapse) has evolved, adapted and survived. Karamazin would be amazed. But he wouldn’t be surprised.

Phew! That was a long one! Next time, we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled programming and return to talking about writing. Russia has been an obsession of mine and I just couldn’t let the 100th anniversary go by without doing something.

See you next time!


PS…And just as I was about to post, this article came up on whether the U.S. has forgotten about its role in World War I! It’s true that it’s not very easy to find WWI monuments in America, either.


Writing On

Hey guys,

Really busy over here with work, writing and Thanksgiving next week. So…Not much of a post this time. I was going to do a big, long hairy post about the Russian Revolution—marking 100 years and all—but that ain’t going to happen this time. Hopefully, next time. And then it will be back to the writing theme.

Fink 3

But on the creativity front: I am writing fiction and sticking with it. So, that’s good. I have fallen down a bit on submitting new stories and following up on them. I’m hoping to take the long Thanksgiving break and finally get to that. So, all in all, not too shabby.

OK. I will see you guys next time with a much bigger post. Until next time,

Keep Reading, Keep Writing,


PS…This post from Daniel Davis’ blog featuring Jack Kerouac with Steve Allen on piano really was pretty cool. And somehow, Kerouac’s writing does go down quite well with jazz. You know, like they were made for one another or something…

Swing, Baby, Swing.

Report from New Orleans

Well, I’m back from New Orleans…And it was quite a trip. Last time, I wrote about what I intended to do down there. So, I’m going to break this back down…In fact, the best approach here is to do just one night—one night!—in New Orleans. So, that’s what I’m going to do: the story of one late afternoon and night in New Orleans.

Mardi Gras Clean and Sober


Theater—‘On and On Down Burgundy’
I always wanted to cruise down Burgundy just like in that Tom Waits song (see below). And this time, I kinda did. At least, I saw a play down on Burgundy by a local troupe during the afternoon. It was called “Pirates, Prostitutes and Cockroaches!” by the La Fete Theatre Company and was a loving satire on the history of New Orleans with different actors popping up in all three roles. It was cool to get out of the French Quarter, off the tourist track and see some of the entertainment made and consumed by NOLA locals. 

Food—A Shrimp Bisque to Die For
Like I said before coffee, food and music are the cornerstones of civilization. New Orleans has plenty of quality helpings of all three. And here’s the thing, I was trying to figure out this time: What is Creole food? And what is Cajun food?

I can’t say I figured it all out, but I got closer.

I guess where I started figuring it out was at Arnaud’s, which is supposed to be “quality Creole cuisine.” So, it’s Creole or a sort of mixed cuisine (coming from Creole culture), but with a distinct French influence. As opposed to Cajun which is supposed to be more gamey, robust, country food. So, I ordered some shrimp bisque with sherry and trout meuniere with a sauce. My thought there: Creole is French and French food is about butter and sauces. So, gotta order something with sauces…right?

Fine. The shrimp bisque comes and it’s amazing. Perhaps the best soup I’ve ever had—no joke. And yet very simple. But then I notice my friend Matthew, across from me, has alligator sausage. So, I basically beg him for a taste and it’s fantastically good. But why is a Creole place serving a Cajun ingredient (gator)? But in the process, making it Creole?

So, later I make it to a well-known Cajun place, K-Paul’s Kitchen. And I read the menu outside which has beef tenders with a “rich debris gravy” slowly cooked over two days. So, here’s a Cajun place using a “sauce,” one that is rustic and gamey, but it’s still a French-style sauce…And at the Creole place up the street, they’re serving gator!

And then it hit me…There is no pure Creole cuisine, there is no pure Cajun food.

There’s only a continuum. Creole has been taking and mixing and matching Cajun ingredients and using French techniques for years. And Cajun has been borrowing sauces, techniques and ideas from Creole. And inside both of them you can read the history of the peoples and places of Louisiana from colonial times to the present. So, let it be.

Music—A Stroll down Frenchman
So, here’s how this works. You listen to locals, ask them questions and you find a place to go. You walk down there and check the street out. And listen, just listen, as you pass club after club, its music spilling out onto the darkened sidewalks. You walk down the street from end to the other, taking little mental notes the whole while.

Here’s blues…Here’s jazz…Here’s R&B…Here’s rock…Here’s…wait a minute…Something totally different. Hmmm.

You pay your money and you walk in, buy a drink. 

And that’s what we did. That particular night we found this band: Bon Bon Vivant. And they blew us away. In fact, we all bought their CD.

Amazing talent…Live!

And so it went, well and late. And finally we walked out, but there was one last surprise from this old town. The youngest (and perhaps most enthusiastic) crowd of the night was just out on the street listening to a band. And that band was just a bunch of guys and gals without a club to play in and just a bucket out front to put donations in. It was some sort of electronica fusion with a great beat behind it. And you know what? It didn’t sound like anything else on that street. But it was great and the kids, they couldn’t get enough of it. And one day, that band and those kids will be booking the top club on that block and an agent or A&R man will walk in and sign them to a big record deal. And new kids—with a wholly new and strange sound that turns off the grown-ups—will take their place out on the street with nothing but a bucket for tips and some big dreams.

So it goes. And, hopefully, so shall  it remain…

Of course, there was more to New Orleans, there always is. I got to watch the Halloween parade put on by the Boo Krewe, so I finally got to see a real New Orleans parade. The winners were “The Dead Elvises” a group of very pale and dead Elvises on scooters wearing jumpsuits. Oddly, the whole parade had a sort of neighborhood and community-oriented feel, which I wasn’t exactly expecting. Weird. I also made it to Faulkner House Bookstore and perused the books. They had a a good selection with lots of Latin American stuff which was nice to see. And I rode an actual street car every day from the Quarter to MidCity where we stayed.

I also recall tourists in a French Quarter café with a poor, spooked bulldog with its legs tucked between its legs. It was so freaked out that it ran away which they said it had “never done before.” I’m not saying I believe in ghosts, but that poor dog sat through the whole breakfast, its tail straight down between its legs.

I could go on and on here…but I’ll leave that to Tom Waits who wrote a song about New Orleans. Have you heard it? It’s goes something like this. And 1…and 2…and 3…

On and on down Burgundy
A bottle and my friends and me…

“On and on down Bur-gun-dee…”

The Greatest Medium

Well, some say the “medium is the message.” This time it’s true. (Or at least the message of this post is about a medium).

bobcreeksouth _OR

I was out on the Oregon coast this summer, as you know. And I had a great time. Deep-sea fishing, crabbing, going to beer festivals. One small scene unrelated to all of them, really struck me though. It was just a simple moment in the local seaside hotel we were staying in. To one side of the coffee table, I noticed a few used books on the shelf.

It was a cold and misty day, with alterations of sunshine and cloud. With wind at about 50 degrees, you wouldn’t want to stay outside too long (well, we did anyway). It was very tempting to grab one of those books—novels actually—and curl up beside the fire and start reading. But of course, I didn’t. There was too much to do and too much fun to be had.

But it got me thinking…Is there really any other medium like the novel? One in which you can grab a tea or coffee, curl up and be transported to a wholly different world for days on end? Where you can come into another person’s—another soul’s—mind and thoughts and live in their world for such an extended period of time?

I thought about it and I don’t think there is…With the possible exception of video games where you do live in a world for hours or days on end and where you live a sort of first-person existence. But even then, it’s not quite the same. And besides that’s not the point of this post…

The point of this post is that I have always loved the form of the novel. Not for me are short stories with their quick, clever plotting and their swift resolutions. Or even plays which are grand in their immediacy—but too short-lived.

No, best give me a samovar full of tea; a wet, dreary day; and a thick novel. And let me fall into a distant world and learn and grow and develop…and suffer, revel and laugh…along with a character in some far-off realm of imagination. And lit me LIVE there for hours or days until I finally finish the last chapter. That!!! That’s art in its highest form…What could be more sublime? 

Just a thought!

See you next time,


A Little Night Reading

Ever get that feeling? That you’re tired, but you just can’t get to sleep? I know I do. There are a lots of different things you can do to try to remedy it. Just stay up. Think. Get up and watch some TV…or read. Brasileira_1911

I choose the later or more accurately, I’m in the habit of reading before I go to bed. But you have to be careful, you need to select the right things to read. For me, thrillers or horror stories are out. Too exciting. And they have the potential to be too gripping. Long novels or anything to dense is out too. Lately, I’ve settled into short snippets of works with self-contained ideas or plots. And it helps if they’re dreamy. Here’s what’s on my bedside table right now.

The Book of Disquiet
This is my go-to book for the late evening. It’s a great for this. It’s dreamy, comes in small chunks and is a HUGE book. You can just pick out a random chapter and start reading, there’s no narrative. This “factless autobiography” by the imagined assistant bookkeeper from Lisbon is a strange masterpiece. By terms poetic and nostalgic, dreamy and realistic, it’s full of yearning for a future the narrator knows he will never grasp. Its gloomy atmospherics of early 20th century Lisbon are also stirring and memorable. I can only recommend it in the strongest possible terms. Especially, if you need some reading before bed time.

The Discourses
Epictetus is one of my favorites. I love his key message: what is in your power is the key to happiness, you must let everything else go. These are really (let’s stretch things a bit here) ancient recordings of his lectures given to his students in Athens. They didn’t have the Internet or iPhones back then, apparently, so they just had to write as quickly as they could using papyrus and pen. And one of his students, Arrian, did just that. You can hear Epictetus speaking in these lectures, sometimes arguing with himself. Sometimes with his own students, minor politicians or random sycophants who drop in on his lectures. And each chapter is a self-contained snippet that reflects Stoic morals and their worldview in very short bursts. It’s another thing you can dip into at will and then set aside. Again, highly recommended.

That’s it. All for now. Hope you consider these for your nightly readings. See you next time,


Vacation Time

Hey Everybody, it’s summer and I’m trying to take it easy. With family vacation, more vacation coming, writing, working and house work…I don’t have much to time to blog. So, just stopping by to say “Hey!”Beach

My latest vacation was intense. It involved deep-sea fishing (with a side  of crabbing), beer festivals (bourbon-aged beer…mmmm) and dredging a lake which, as a co-worker pointed out, all sounds like “manly stuff.” I guess it was, I guess it was…

Anyway, I’m back home now and researching (which means reading), writing and thinking about my next fiction piece. I’ve got to focus on that for now and I will be back next time with something a bit more involved for you to chew on.

In the meantime, get out there and enjoy life—it’s way too short! August is a great time to mix it up and have some fun. Who knows? We might even run into one another.

See you soon,


Changing the Name of This Blog

Phew! So many things going on right now. Anyway, as you know this blog just passed its fifth anniversary. And there are a lot of great things to look back upon and celebrate. But now, it’s time to look forward…And  that begins with changing the name of this blog.


Right now, the official title of this blog (with tagline) is:

A Writer Begins by Darius Jones

A new writer shares his triumphs and trials.

Not bad, but definitely outdated. I started this blog because I had just self-published something on Amazon Kindle. In these past five years, as I recounted last time, I have seen a number of my stories published in magazines. I have written more stories, a novella and a play. If you count by time or stories completed, I hardly could be considered a “beginner” at this point. So, it’s time for a change of that title. I’ve thought about it quite a bit and after a good amount of deliberation, this is the new title of this blog:

Inside the Writer’s Mind

One Writer’s Take on the Craft of Writing

I may change this at any time, of course, but it seems good for now. It all really comes from an earlier post where I wrote this:

I promise to keep posting and keep getting you inside the head of this fiction writer.

“…Inside the head of this fiction writer…” That’s what this blog is really all about, isn’t it? Take today, for example. I was walking here, to the café, to write. And all the while I was thinking about this post…AND…about how to plot a novel…AND…about how you have to know and love something to write well about it. And the whole idea is to take that internal monologue out of the brain (scoop, scoop) and—Pfffwat!!—fling it onto the page. Getting you guys into my mind through sharing my thoughts via the written word, the art of writing itself. So, there it is: the new title of this blog.

That’s any evergreen topic and one that won’t change. Kinda feels like coming home. I can’t wait to share those ideas about plotting a novel with you—and many other topics—but that’s coming down the road…Maybe next time in fact…Until then…

Keep Reading, Keep Writing,


Thank You


Looks like 2017 is going to be a good year here on the blog. Already the blog has surpassed the readership total (visitors) for 2016. And in only 6 months. So, thank you to everybody that keeps coming back for more…and to our new visitors. I promise to keep posting and keep getting you inside the head of this fiction writer.


More Soon,


Where to Gather Stories: Weddings

Gone are the days of Jan Potocki, when one could simply pull up to a roadside inn on a stormy autumn evening, dismount and spend the night eating, drinking and exchanging stories with your fellow travelers. I think that’s one aspect of pre-modern life I would have enjoyed immensely. A world of no phones, no TV and no radio. A world in which the only way to relieve your boredom would be your own thoughts, reading books and your fellow humans. Uighyur Storyteller

In such a world, a budding writer—or anyone for that matter—could go undercover and listen for the next great story. It’s something that Potocki likely did. I imagine him stopping at inns throughout Spain to just listen to stories from locals and fellow travelers alike. I imagine him filing them away for later use, embellishing and tweaking them. And finally putting them down on paper.

Nowadays, it’s much harder to connect with people in your travels and everyday life. Even if others aren’t checking their phones or just staying in to watch TV, there are these subtle cultural taboos about bothering other people or even striking up a conversation in many public spaces. There are exceptions to this rule…Some obvious ones come to mind: bars and some cafes for example. But I think there are other obvious places for you to go undercover and gather up some great stories.

Today, I want to share one of these non-obvious Taverns of the Mind: the wedding. I’ve been to two weddings so far this year and I have one more to go, so they’re top of mind.

Weddings seem to have those key ingredients you look for in an atmosphere conducive to good storytelling, places where people feel free to open up a bit and share. These venues seem to have these things in common:

  • People are forced to spend time together (without the intermediary of media and devices).
  • Those people are not likely to meet one another again (or not likely to meet one another for a very long time).
  • Cheap alcoholic beverages are plentiful and at hand.

Weddings, somewhat surprisingly, check all three of these boxes. You won’t likely see most of these people again and there is usually a good amount of time between toasts and other activities to kill. Of course, many of these stories can be reminisces about the bride and groom, sure. And hey, I know they’re what you came to see. But there is also just catching up with people and hearing some of the experiences they’ve had.

Why, just in these past two weddings I have heard tales…And I mean real tales told to me by other humans IN THE FLESH…about bus travel in Central America, the latest scams in Marrakesh, fishing bodies out of the Hudson river (they become full of eels quite quickly, apparently), breaking into safes to retrieve wedding rings you placed there—I could go on and on. These stories vary in length and quality, just like those in any fiction magazine. But they are from real people in professions and walks of life very different from my own. I always find something in them to tuck away, remember and let stew in my subconscious for a bit. If done right, a wedding (like many other venues) is a top place to shut up, listen and start gathering story ideas. All you need to do is go undercover and listen.

Something, my fellow storytellers, to remember next time you get a wedding invite in the mail.

See you next time,


How to Write in a World of Distraction

Distracted from distraction by distraction…” –T.S. Eliot

Feeling a bit distracted lately?sIIwU



Lucky you. I admire your self-discipline. What with the constant news, smart phones, websites and more and more media choices, the human beings of this world are being distracted half to death. It’s also shortening attention spans, among other things, but I’m not here to talk about the larger ramifications of this trend. Instead, I’m here to share a bit about how I tune those voices out when it gets time to write.

Here is what I do every weekend when I go to write and I need all those voices to STOP:

Head to a Public Place
It doesn’t matter if it’s a café, library or rented cube farm. Get to a public place where the cultural expectation is that people are coming there to work. And  then settle in and get going…

Why go out to write? First off: peer pressure. If it’s a place where everybody is expected to do mental work you’ll feel the pressure to do the same. It’s one of the situations where you can use peer pressure, the desire to conform, to your benefit. (It’s on the page where you need to stand out and go your own way!)

Second, home has all those distractions, doesn’t it? Internet, TV, books, reading the mail, doing that project, mowing the lawn. Well, if you’re at a café, you can’t do any of that stuff…But there are other things which can distract, which brings us to.

Put Your Phone on Airplane Mode
I always bring my phone with me to write. But as soon as I get to the café, I put it in flight mode. I understand if all of you out there can’t do this (families, kids, etc.), but I highly recommend it. There is NOTHING that ruins a great writing groove like a call from a friend you haven’t heard from in awhile, or someone trying to sell you something. Believe me, because it’s happened to this writer. And once that groove is gone, you ain’t  getting it back, at least not that day.

At first flight mode silence was difficult for my close friends to accept, but now they know this is what I’m doing on Sundays and they anticipate it. The few times I have accidentally left the phone on during my writing sessions, I have not gotten calls. People have adjusted and learned to work around it—and I’m very, very grateful for that.

Kill the Wi-Fi on Your PC
Most cafes these days offer Wi-Fi which is great—unless it’s a distraction. I usually have the Internet handy as I write in case I need to do some research. I have also found it useful to read a little news before I dive into writing to loosen up the brain. But it can also become a distraction. When I find myself reading too much and writing too little, I press the F2 key and turn off the Wi-Fi. Suddenly, all the distractions are gone.

Any I’m sitting there in a world without cell phones, the Internet or  TV. There’s nothing to distract me…almost.

Put in Your Headphones
It’s only other people or the ambient, piped-in music that will distract me at this point. Usually, the music is ok, but some days there are people (or their children) who dial up the volume a bit. Or, like last week, there was that woman with the high-pitched, squeaky voice. In that case, I bring out my final, secret weapon: ear buds.

I plug in my headphones, access my music library (or Pandora, if I still have Wi-Fi) and crank up the tunes. It has to be something I’ve heard many times or which doesn’t have English lyrics (Brazilian pop and instrumentals work) and I’m back in business. Bring the screaming kids, I don’t care! Just as long as they don’t knock over my coffee, cause then, it’s on!

Now, this doesn’t guarantee you’ll actually get down to the writing. There have been writing sessions in my past where I just stared at blank screen for four or five hours and didn’t produce a thing. But that’s very, very rare for me now—I haven’t done that in over 10 years. I think I just naturally grew out of that and will eventually force myself to write/edit even if I’m feeling out of it. Usually I write between 800-2,000 words per day, with any day over 1,000 words usually considered “good.”

So what’s my point? Even in this world—the modern world of smart phones, 24-hours news cycles and all sorts of content engineered to hook you—you can still turn it all off, quiet your mind and settle down to do hard, mental work. You just have to have the will, time and energy to do it. I hope those tips above will help you have a productive writing day next time you sit down to write.

See you next time,