Tag Archives: hobbies

Monday Musings: What Matters? Part I

When I was a kid, I always had an Etch A Sketch. Honestly, I’m not sure why. I sucked at it. I didn’t have the patience or the dexterity to create anything of quality on that silver-gray screen. I tried often enough, but I couldn’t manage to draw much more than squiggles and odd shapes. Still, what I always loved about Etch A Sketch was the ease of starting over. Lift the screen, give it a hearty shake, and the slate was blank again, ready for my next attempt.

As it happens, that is also what I love about New Year’s. I have always seen the turn of the calendar as an opportunity to give my routine, my goals, my emotional approach to life a hearty shake, and build them again from scratch. Yes, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it does capture the spirit of how I approach the holiday. Last year’s achievements and disappointments are done — I don’t want them to be either a source of discouragement or cause for complacency. I start each year with a blank screen. That’s the goal at least.

In the past, I made resolutions, an exercise I eventually decided was rather useless. Better, I decided, to set out goals and aspirations, to keep practices and habits that were working for me, and at least attempt to jettison those that weren’t. This may sound like semantics — what’s the difference between “resolutions” on the one hand and “goals and aspirations” on the other? To me, I guess, it’s the difference between attempting to draw something on paper with pen and ink, and making the attempt on an ever-erasable plastic screen.

With all this in mind, I begin today a series of posts that will span the next few weeks. The general idea of the posts is to answer a question that is deceptive in its simplicity: What matters to me?

Over the course of a year, or ten, or fifty, we pick up . . . stuff. I’m not speaking just of physical things — indeed, that sort of stuff is really the least of it. I’m referring to tasks; habits; pastimes and hobbies; ambitions and fears; passions, loves, and things we find repellent; professional goals and responsibilities; personal relationships; chores and obligations; etc. In short, anything and everything that consumes our time, feeds or saps our energy and our emotional strength, informs our decision-making at home or at work or in between. Everything.

As I say, this is going to take a few weeks to get through. But I think the exercise will be worthwhile for me and, I hope, informative and perhaps even inspiring for you.

Today, I begin with a big picture approach — the 10,000 foot view, as it were. And I do so by focusing on two examples of stuff.

As I take stock of 2022 and look forward to 2023, I see things in my life that I have neglected and others that I have focused on with too much intensity. I am a musician and a photographer. I take much joy in playing my guitars and taking my camera out into the field to capture images. That is, I usually do. As I reflect on the past year, which has been an emotionally challenging one, I find that I have neglected these hobbies. Too often over the past twelve months, I have gone days at a time without playing any music at all. I have gone weeks at a time without taking photos. And this is about more than leaving expensive equipment to gather dust. These pursuits feed my soul, allowing me to create in ways that are entirely separate from my profession. I need to do these things. I know I do. They keep me centered, happy; they bring me peace. My emotional health depends in part on my commitment to doing these things. Just as I wouldn’t go weeks without eating fresh fruits and vegetables, I also shouldn’t ignore my creative passions.

At the same time, I have allowed anger to creep into my everyday life. I harbor resentments — some personal, some professional, some related to circumstances that I’m really not at liberty to discuss publicly. And really, the roots of my anger are beside the point. Too often, as I take my morning walks, I find myself fixating on wrongs and the righteous anger I feel in response. I imagine finding and taking the opportunity to speak my mind to those who have hurt me or those I love. (That really is as far as my imaginings go. I’m not a violent person, but I know the power of words. And I know that I’m quite capable of cutting someone to the bone with a well-turned phrase.) The point, though, is that this anger, and these imagined conversations do me no good. They keep my focus on my grudges; they allow me to wallow in my bitterness.

Music and photography have been fundamental elements of my happiness for decades. Wouldn’t I be better off if I again found time to make those activities central to my daily existence? Of course I would.

Hostility toward those who have angered me matters far less to me than love for my family and my friends. Wouldn’t I be calmer, more content, if I focused my emotional energy on the latter? Of course I would.

What matters to me? What matters to you?

These are, I believe foundational questions. The things we care about — the things we love, the things from which we draw strength and joy — these are what define who we are and how we live. At least they ought to. As I navigate the coming year, I wish to be guided by those things that bring me happiness rather than those that take me to dark places.

Deceptively simple, right? And yet, it takes work and careful thought.

More in posts to come. For now, have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: “Write What You Know,” part II

Put another way, I was driven . . . not merely by the fact that I “know” these things, but rather by the fascination and passion that drove me to learn about them in the first place.

With last week’s Professional Wednesday post, I began what I expect will be a multi-week conversation about the age-old writing advice, “Write what you know.” In that entry, I pointed out that “Write what you know” can be overly limiting, or, if thought of in the right way, can speak to exactly the sort of mining of our emotional experience that will enrich our narratives and character work.

Today, I would like to focus on “write what you know” as a tool in world building and plotting.

Let me start this way:

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)As many of you know, my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, had as its narrative core, a magic system in which mages formed psychic, magical bonds with birds of prey: hawks, owls, eagles. To this day, fans of the series mention those relationships between mages and their avian familiars, as the element of the books they enjoyed most.

What you may not know is that I have been an avid bird watcher for more than fifty years (yes, you read that right: 50 years), since I was a small boy.

Nearly all my readers are familiar with my Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical fantasy series set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Some of you may not know that I not only love history, I also studied it extensively and have a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford.

I’m not the only one who does this. I am a huge fan of the work of Guy Gavriel Kay, and perhaps you are as well. Maybe, you have read enough of his books to notice how many of his significant characters are physicians. As it happens, so was Kay’s father. He grew up in a household in which the study and practice of medicine were paramount.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. But I want to be equally clear about where I am NOT going. I didn’t come to the LonTobyn books, my first fiction venture, thinking “I have to ‘write what I know,’ and therefore I am going to create a world with a bird-based magic system.” Rather, I came up with the idea for the books organically. I love birds. I have always been fascinated by raptors. And at some point, it simply occurred to me that a magic system built around hawks and owls would be incredibly cool.

My choice with respect to the Thieftaker books was somewhat more deliberate. I originally conceived them as alternate-world fantasies. My editor at the time urged me to think about a historical approach instead, citing my history background. He suggested I set the books in London. And at that point I thought, “if I’m going to draw on my history background, why not do it right and set the books in the New World, whose history I know so well?”

Put another way, I was driven to write my books about hawks and about history not merely by the fact that I “know” these things, but rather by the fascination and passion that drove me to learn about them in the first place.

Again, I am far from unique in this regard. I know writers who love music and who have used it as the basis for their magic systems. I have a friend, whose family history is tied intimately to the devastation of Europe’s Jewish population by Nazism, who has written an incredibly powerful fantasy series set in Nazi-ravaged Europe. Another friend, who is a brilliant writer and editor, based her magic system literally on the written word, on the commitment of spells to vellum. And yet another friend, who is dyslexic, imparted that same trait to his lead character.

I don’t believe any of them “wrote what they know” to satisfy some arcane requirement of our profession. Rather, they came up with fiction ideas that reflected their loves and interests, their emotional pasts or that of their families, their very reality in all its complexity.

And there is no reason you can’t do the same. “Write what you know” doesn’t have to constrain us, nor does it necessarily force us in certain directions. It offers us opportunities. “Where do your ideas come from?” I’m asked this all the time, and always I respond the same way: Ideas are everywhere. We encounter them daily, though at the time we don’t always recognize the encounters for what they are. Robert Frost once said “An idea is a feat of association.” Our hobbies, our professions, our loves (and perhaps even our hates), our educational backgrounds, our family backgrounds, our emotional and physical battles and achievements — any and all of these can point us in the direction of a new story, a new character, a new world.

My point being that we don’t have to struggle to come up with ideas. Often they’re sitting right in front of us, waiting for that “feat of association,” that magical (pun intended) moment when “Where do your ideas come from?” meets “Write what you know.”

Keep writing!!

The South Australia Coast — Photo Friday

Good morning and welcome to the first installment of Photography Fridays, my new 2020 blogging feature. The point of this is to share with you my passion for photography, which is nearly as strong as my passion for writing. I also hope the feature will encourage me to get out and use my camera even more than I already do.

Today, though, I begin with a few photos I took during my family’s recent trip to Australia. We lived Down Under for a full year back in 2005-06, and returned there late this fall to see our younger daughter, who was completing a semester abroad in the Brisbane area. After joining up with her, we traveled to Adelaide in the state of South Australia, and drove out to Innes National Park, at the very end of the Yorke Peninsula (our route altered by fire-related road closures).

Innes is an amazing place. It includes some of the most dramatic coastal terrain I’ve ever seen. It’s a haven for kangaroos as well as emus and scores of other bird species. It has also been, over the past century and a half, the scene of dozens of shipwrecks, the remains of which still lie on beaches and reefs around the park. The surf was stunning while we were there – huge waves crashing down on rocky shores and sending plumes of foam and spray thirty-plus feet into the air. The water was deep blue and amazingly clear, the cliffs a palette of warm earth tones. And yet, I found that my favorite images worked best in black in white – stunning contrasts of light and dark, of patterns and textures and shapes. Here are three. I hope you enjoy them.

"View From Cape Spencer" by David B. Coe "Water and Sky -- Innes Coast" by David B. Coe "Innes Coast Breaker" by David B. Coe