I’ve been working my way through Creativity, Inc. Written by the president of Pixar, Ed Catmull, the book chronicles the rise of the animation giant. Pixar is known for top quality films and an unrelenting passion for high-quality art. Catmull is central to Pixar’s story, of course.

He has a lot to say about the concept of ego, but most of it can be boiled down to the statement above.

A big part of Pixar’s culture is rooted in candid feedback, regardless of rank, department or involvement in the specific project. Basically, everyone there is committed to making the best films possible. Constructive criticism is a necessary part of that process.

As he tells Pixar’s story, it’s hard not to think, “Well, yeah. Obviously.” And then someone reads something I wrote and points out a potential weak spot, and I immediately think, “Hmph. Clearly you don’t get it.”

But in those moments, I’m the one who doesn’t get it.

Do you want your art to be great? Do you want to produce the best stuff you can possibly produce? Then you have to be okay with candid feedback. In fact, you need to seek it out.

Don’t just ask for feedback from people who will tell you your work is amazing because, of course it’s amazing. You did it. Don’t seek out consistent nay-sayers, either. Seek out people who aren’t shy about giving you frank reactions.

What do they like? What don’t they like? What feels right? What feels wrong?

And whatever they say, put your ego on the shelf. Listen and then, from a non-defensive place, consider their input.

Candid feedback is the only kind of feedback that helps artists grow. If your ego can’t handle that, it won’t invalidate your talent, but it may keep your talent from developing further.

Flash Fiction

This week, another redo. I promise to bring you something fresh next week.

But first, I’d like to revisit one of my favorite short stories. It’s simple and quick, with a nice little reveal at the end. I like the punchiness of it.

I made only minor edits to the original. Enjoy.

tender embrace

“You’re mucking it all up,” he said.

“That’s a point of view,” she replied.

“No, that’s a fact.”

She sighed. “I forget how difficult it is for your kind to distinguish perception from reality.”

“Perception is reality,” he said.

“Thank you for making my point.”

He opened his mouth to speak and then thought better of it. After a moment’s reflection, he wagged his index finger and said, “None of that. None of your riddling. I’ll not allow you to turn this into a war of words.”

She smiled benevolently at him. “What sort of war would you prefer, sir?”

He blustered, his hands forming fists and his cheeks turning red. Along the left side of his forehead, just above the eyebrow, the thick thread of a single vein could be seen. It looked ready to burst.

He held a book in his right hand. Reflexively, he lifted it and began to sift through its pages.

“That trinket will do you no good here, sir,” she said casually.

“Trinket? Why, this is–”

“I know full well what it is. I don’t come to your home and insult your intelligence. I’ll thank you to show me the same courtesy.”

“No,” he said. “You merely come to my home and kill people.”

It can be so difficult to explain to a human, she thought. “I don’t kill.”

He hefted the book before his face with two hands as though its weight required a double grip. “I said in the cutting off of my days,” he read, “I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years.”

She made a small gesture and the book lifted out of his hands. He stared at it, awed and terrified. She made a second gesture and the book closed on its own and floated to her.

“What makes you think I’m the one who deprives you?” she asked.

His eyes remained transfixed on the book.

“This,” she said looking down at it. Her fingertips ran along the leather spine. “Yes, this is sacred. This is truth. This is so much more and so much less than your kind understands. What it says about me most of all. Sir, answer me, why do you blame me? Why seek me out? Why try to stop me from performing my duty?”

“You are the enemy of man,” he said. “You must be stopped.”

She smiled at him again, not unkindly. “Let me ask you a question. You say you sought me out?”

“Yes.”

“To stop me?”

“Yes.”

“Under what circumstances would I meet with a man, face-to-face?”

He recoiled in shock. “No . . .”

She moved forward and placed a hand on his shoulder. Looking gently into his eyes, she said, “Yes, my dear, sweet, noble man. Yes. It is already done, else you would not be here.”

And then Death wrapped her arms around him and held him tight in her tender embrace.

Flash Fiction

I’m sorry for the fiction hiatus. It’s been a long month, full of ups and downs. Most weeks I’ve just been too drained. I’ve started a few stories, but finished none.

And this week, I’m cheating. Sort of. I’m dusting off an old story originally published on my site all the way back in 2012. I’d forgotten about it, but I like it. Quite a lot, actually. It’s got a nice sense of balance.

So, with a few edits, here it is. Enjoy it, and forgive the repeat. It’s not like you’ve read the original, anyway.

leaving the fold

“Ester, you must go to The Binding. You must. Jedidiah will be sorely vexed if you do not.”

Ester looked into Rahab’s eyes. She’d known Rehab all her life. Until three weeks ago, she’d never spent more than a few hours outside her company. That was before she wander away from the group in town. They were buying supplies.

That’s where she met Eddie.

“You were named for a whore,” Ester told Rahab. “Have you ever thought to ask your Pa why he named you that?”

Rahab recoiled from the words. “She’s in the geneology of Matthew,” she whispered. “She saved God’s people.”

“And she was a whore.”

Rahab’s lip quivered, her eyes filling with tears.

“The Binding . . .” Rahab said, still reeling.

“I’m not going.”

“But you’re promised to Jedidiah. You’re to be his wife.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

“But the elders have decided it. It is God’s will. It is God’s way. It is –”

“Not my choice. I’m not going.” Ester looked into Rahab’s eyes. Her friend was badly shaken. She sighed.

That first day, meeting Eddie, it had been the same way for her.

“What the fuck you dressed that way for?” he asked.

Her cheeks turned red at the use of the devil’s tongue, but she talked to him anyway. Perhaps her heart was already gone, even before her feet were willing to follow. It certainly hadn’t taken Eddie long to convince her.

She only wanted a few things – a necklace that had been her mother’s, a couple of dresses, just until she could get some normal clothes, and her dowry. It was, after all, more than ten grand. Enough to buy freedom and a new life.

“You can come with me, Rahab. If you want.”

“What? Leave home? Leave the fold?”

“It’s all shit anyway,” Ester said.

“Such profanity!”

“They’re just words. Come with me. Please.”

“I can’t.” Rahab’s tears dried at the idea of betrayal.

“You can and you should. All of this is bullshit.”

“Why do you keep saying things like that?”

“Because they’re true. Rahab, you don’t have to be Bound to Seth. You could make your own choices. Think about it. Isn’t that what you think God really wants? For you to choose? This life – the way we’re forced to live – this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.”

“You’ve become an abomination!” Rahab declared.

Ester closed her bag and shook her head, defeated. She moved toward the door, preparing to slip out into the night.

“You’ll burn,” Rahab said, her voice flat with judgment and finality. “You’ll burn in hell if you leave the fold, and I’ll not weep for you.”

Ester closed her eyes. She wanted to hug Rahab, but she did not. Instead she simply said, “I’ll weep for you,” and left.

Creative CoachingThere’s only so much you can do. I’ll give you a prime example.

I’m in school right now. And working a full-time job. And trying to maintain some freelance work. And, frankly, that’s a lot. So there are times when I miss posts here.

I hate missing them. It’s my goal to post twice a week, hitting both fiction and nonfiction. In the last six years, I’ve met that goal the vast majority of the time. In the last six months, I’ve missed it a lot.

Just last Friday, I was down to post some fiction, but my site wasn’t responsive. (My host provider, who is amazing, was switching servers. My site was down all weekend to facilitate the move, which is ultimately a good thing.) Point is, the option of posting just wasn’t there. I couldn’t. Literally, could not.

And that’s okay.

It’s good to push yourself in your art – to a point. But there are times when you can’t push yourself further. When life pops up and stops you, when you’re too exhausted to even think about being creative, when you simply need a break, take one.

Don’t use that as an excuse to be lazy. Don’t complain about what you wish you were accomplishing in your craft if you’re just sitting around. That’s dumb.

But when you don’t have the time or energy, it’s okay to pause for a breath. Two breaths, even.

I promise, your art will still be there when you’ve recovered.

I posted the above sentence on my personal Facebook wall a couple of weeks ago. It’s not original. I heard the idea expressed on a podcast on the drive to work, and it stuck with me.

It’s still sticking. Why is it, I wonder, that we so often assume bad intentions in others?

I think it’s because it’s easier than assuming good. Easier and, weirdly, safer. We see some kind of protective value in suspicion. If we give others the benefit of the doubt and they really are trying to hurt us, we’re at greater risk.

But if we assume rotten motives, our guard goes up. The defenses stay intact. We’re secure.

Except, of course, we’re not. It’s all smoke and mirrors, and that’s true either way. The only thing assuming bad intentions wins you is more angst and fewer friends.

I’m not saying you should be careless about who you trust. But I don’t think it serves you or your interests to perceive evil in the thoughts and actions of others on a regular basis. That just makes you miserable.

Instead, I think it’s better to assume good in others. Better for your overall sense of peace, and better for your art.

Look, the world is full of cynics. Bitter, angry, seething cynics. They have high cholesterol and low self-esteem. Is that what you want? Is that the place you want your art to flow out of?

You can try to dodge the truth all day, but ultimately your philosophy of life is the birthplace of every artistic effort you make. If you bath yourself in pessimism, your art will show it.

Can I invite you to consider a better course? Assume good intentions in others.

Don’t let anger be your guide. Lose the skepticism and embrace a sense of hope. Your relationships will be benefit, you’ll feel better, and your art will give something to the world, even when you feel pulled to wrestle with difficult topics.

Creative Coaching

It’s not inspiring or beautiful, at least not in a conventional way. It’s not what anyone wants art to be about. It ultimately serves a greater purpose, but in a way that feels as draining as it feels empowering.

What is the obligation of the artist to speak to real issues, especially where suffering, injustice and oppression are concerned?

Speaking candidly, I don’t know that artists are obligated, per se. If you don’t feel pulled toward an issue, I see no reason to force yourself to address it. Conversely, if you do feel pulled toward an issue but recognize that it’ll be tough to tackle, that’s not a great reason to avoid it.

In my own writing, I sometimes gravitate toward what I know is controversial ground. Maybe not to the world at large, but to some of the people in my own life, at the very least. In those cases, I’d rather be hated for telling the truth than loved for lying.

And, yeah. I know. Not everyone perceives failure to tell the whole truth as deception. I’m too honest for my own good.

I’m also reminded of this quote, which I’ve adapted to better suit the times:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.”

– Edmund Burke

I can’t deal with every evil in the world. My art can’t address every injustice. I don’t have the time or energy or (frankly) arrogance to even try.

But when an injustice pulls at me, and when it feels like it fits something I’m working on, I run with it. I assume that’s Vye tugging on my sleeve, urging me to use my gift, feeble though it may be, to attempt something good.

That’s what I do.

What about you? Do you think artists should take a stand? If so, to what degree? And when?

Flash Fiction

I heard someone reference the game “Fuck, Marry, Kill” this past week, and it immediately struck me as the basis of a story. After all, there’s a name in there. If you tease it out.

When I started this, that’s all I had. A name. But it flowed right into The Assassin Diaries beautifully, even though the unnamed assassin isn’t the primary character. I couldn’t resist. He’s my favorite hitman, after all.

And Mary. I’m definitely going to have to write more about her.

fuck mary kill

It was a joke. A lame-ass joke, and it stuck.

It was my first job. I needed an alias, and 19 year-old me thought “Mary Kill” would be funny. You know, like people would hear I was coming and say, “Fuck! Mary Kill!”

Here’s the thing about hitmen. Hit-people. Whatever. They’re not the most jovial individuals. I didn’t even get a snicker.

Instead, they just started calling me Mary. I wasn’t about to tell them my real name, and that first job actually went really well. It was a two-and-two – double marks, double frames. The deaths didn’t even appear to be related.

I was suddenly the goddess of death. With a stupid fucking name.

But the contracts came pouring in. Contrary to what you might see in movies, attractive female assassins are rare. Most assassins are former military. They’re a rugged and resourceful crew. I’ve met a few lookers, but most of them are downright homely. And honestly, that helps. You don’t stand out.

I came into a killing career a little differently. You know that myth about the med student who strips on the side to pay her way through college? That’s me. Only I don’t strip. I kill. And it’s not for college.

I know I’m supposed to feel bad about it. The killing part. I don’t. The lion doesn’t mourn the gazelle.

My shrink tells me that makes me a psychopath. I flash my gun, he looks unimpressed, and then we get back to talking about my mom.

The point is, my personality doesn’t fit the profile. Like, at all. I’m young, I’m easy on the eyes, and when I’m not plotting a lucrative death, I’m doing pretty normal shit.

I go to dance clubs. I hang out at bars. I even date. Sometimes. Guys are morons.

Oh, but I know what you’re wondering. How does a girl like me get into a career like this? I have a connection.

My mentor would likely cringe at that title. He’s all business, most of the time, at least. Very proper. He was supposed to kill me, but I talked him out of it.

Okay. That’s a stretch. I just showed him my ID. He doesn’t do minors.

But I was an epic loose end, and I wasn’t really digging on the parental units, so I made a deal. I wouldn’t say a word if he’d take me in and teach me the craft. I have ambitions. I need a bit of cash to bankroll my dreams.

How very The Professional of me.

He was understandably hesitant. But he’s a softy at heart, even if he doesn’t want anyone to know. And he’s really guarded. I don’t even know his name.

He told me to just call him “Simon.” He said it with an absolutely wicked grin.

I did my first mark a week after I turned 18. Simon got paid, but that was my kill. It was more than a year before he put me in touch with his handler and I got a proper job. Since then, it’s been faster kill, pussycat.

And everyone calls me Mary. Fucking Mary Kill.

Laugh it up, asshole. It doesn’t phase me. Just pray no one asks me to pay you a visit. I’m one helluva first date.

Flash Fiction

This is the first draft of my first attempt to write a fable. It’s largely inspired by a series of books I’m reading, The Fairyland Series.

They’re fantastic. Better than what follows, frankly, though I’m pleased with how this came out, especially for something I haven’t yet revised or refined.

It’s long for my typical flash fiction, but still short enough to qualify. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Don’t be shy. The comment box is right there, inviting your feedback.

the restless spirit

Before there were Wi-Fi connections or vacuum cleaners, before there were big cities or sedans, even before there were nations or rulers, there were people. They lived in a single village, and their days were spent hunting and gathering.

They hunted small animals and big animals, but mostly small animals because they didn’t yet have an intricate system of tools or weapons, and the big animals could bite rather hard. They gathered whatever they could find – fruit, vegetables, even sticks and mud and rocks – because there wasn’t much else to gather, and they weren’t particularly picky.

All they cared about was food and shelter. And really, that’s two of the three things you and I care about. The third is connection. We want to love and be loved. But the first people didn’t feel this final need because the first people didn’t yet know how to talk.

They lived in the village, not to bond, but for purely pragmatic reasons. They could gather more. Hunt bigger things. It was safer in the deep dark of the night to huddle with other human beings than to hide away in a cave by yourself.

The first village wasn’t a fun place.

During that time, there were many spirits that roamed the world. Most of them are still here today, but their wandering ways have changed. In that day, they explored freely, doing as they pleased, never bothering to hide.

Who would they hide from? All the people in the world were in one place, and the spirits didn’t really care if they were seen, anyway.

The spirits were of all sorts. There were joyful spirits and angry spirits. Spirits of spite and spirits of compassion. And there was one extremely restless spirit.

The restless spirit sensed change on the horizon. How long would people be content in their mud huts with wild berries and unseasoned rabbit stew? Probably not long.

Something, the restless spirit thought, should be done about the potential rise of these hairless would-be upstarts.

And so the restless spirit, who was quite cunning in its own right, manifested itself in the form of a great, wild bear. Bears are strong and large and more than a little scary, even when they’re not hungry or upset.

The restless spirit attacked the village, rending stick shacks and slashing at the inhabitants. A few of the people were killed, but they scattered and hid like roaches when the lights come on. (Like today’s roaches, that is. The roaches of antiquity were as big as small dogs and they hid from no one. Be glad they moved on to wherever giant insects retire.)

The restless spirit left the village in ruins, not a single building still standing, but there was far too little blood to wipe from its paws. In a matter of days the people rebuilt the village, silently working until every hunt was restored. This frustrated the restless spirit, who determined to strike again.

This time it took on the form of a pack of wolves. Wolves are many and harder to hide from. They run quickly and can corner whole groups of people, their rabid jaws snatching and biting.

They came at night, howling and rushing back and forth along the dirt walkways of the village. They flung themselves against the walls of the new hunts, and the hunts came tumbling down. (The first people weren’t exactly master craftsmen.)

Again, the people scattered. The wolves cornered a few, ripping into flesh and ending the lives of a handful. But the second attempt was much like the first. There were only a few casualties. Not enough to put a true dent in their numbers. The restless spirit grew more restless and decided to consider its next move more carefully.

For its third attack, the restless spirit chose snakes and spiders. Both are frightening to look at, and both are armed with poison. Rather than storming in and making a commotion, the restless spirit slithered and crept in at twilight, making use of shadow and stealth. When the people lied down to sleep, it hissed and scampered and bit, bit, bit.

It bit with the long, sharp fangs of the cobra and the tiny, needle-thin fangs of the black widow. It pierced skin and left sickness and death in its wake. The people were much afraid, and more of their numbers died. But the snakes and spiders did not go unseen, and rather than running, the surviving people gathered together in the middle of the village where they built a large fire. The snakes were afraid, and the spiders too darkly colored to hide from the light of the flames. The people trampled any spider that drew near and waved flaming sticks at the snakes.

The restless spirit was defeated once again. It retreated a third time, taking even longer to devise another scheme. Weeks passed before it conceived of its fourth plan. Rats.

Contrary to what you may think you know about rats, they are not aggressive animals. In fact, they get along swimmingly with people and even make wonderful pets. Rats aren’t especially dirty animals, either. However, they tend to carry diseases that can easily be passed along to humans, and this was the core of the restless spirit’s plan.

It found a few sick rats and spread that sickness to many more, and then sent the rats into the village to live among the people, who eventually got sick, too.

This time even more died, wasting away before the people knew what was happening. But they caught on. They removed the bodies of the dead from the village and burned the hunts of those who died. In doing so, they rid themselves of both the germs (which, of course, they knew nothing about) and the rats, who had taken up residence in the empty homes.

The restless spirit cursed, calling out to the earth and sky. What would it take to undo humanity? How could it defeat the people and ensure they never seize upon the full extent of their potential? What sort of attack would that take?

It pondered this, not for days or weeks, but for months leading into years. And then one day while wandering along the shore of the only sea, talking to itself in search of an answer, it came up with its fifth and final plan.

The restless spirit took on the shape of a person and made its way to the village. The other people were skeptical of the new-comer, but ultimately accepting. After a time, the restless spirit began to grunt to get their attention, or hum as it gathered, or cry out as it hunted. One day it pointed to a rock and said, slowly, “Rock.”

And the people listened.

It took an agonizingly long time, but over the course of years the restless spirit taught the first village to talk. And two things happened.

The people of the first village discovered friendship and love. They could put words to their thoughts. They hunted better, gathered more, built more impressive homes, and grew to care about each other.

Except when they didn’t. For sometimes one person wouldn’t like another. And that’s when the second thing happened.

Gossip. Lies. Horribly mean verbal attacks that torn apart friendships and cut at the first people’s hearts.

And smiling to itself, the restless spirit left the village.

It knew the people would continue to build bigger, greater things. That they would one day dominate the planet and all her other residents. But they would never be as great as they could be, and that’s really all the restless spirit wanted.

For the tongue can sooth and comfort. It can heal and create. It can make wrong things right, and restore even the most broken relationships.

But it can hurt and destroy and kill, too.

Words are stronger than a wild bear, more cunning and quick than a pack of wolves, more threatening and poisonous than snakes or spiders, and more insidious and crippling than diseased rats.

Words, the restless spirit realized, can divide. And divided, humanity will never achieve what it could united.