What happens when you want to be more than one thing? What happens when your mind wanders and your heart leads you down two separate paths?

That’s what I’ve been dealing with for the last few months and it took me a while to figure things out. Now, before I go any further, no, this is not about my marriage, my family or even my day job. This is about writing.

I grew up writing non-fiction. I love writing memoir and self-improvement books, books that involve history and adventure. It calls to my better angels and draws upon my experiences as a journalist. But last year, I published my first book for middle readers and, apart from being exciting, it confused me a little.

Not only did I not go through a publisher (I went the Kindle Direct route) which allowed me to own the process and the proceeds, I wrote fiction from my son’s perspective. It was exciting. And since then, I’ve completed four more manuscripts for similar books, which is great… if it weren’t for the nagging feeling that I have more things to write for adults and every minute spent typing for kiddos is a precious moment lost toward that big, long list of other projects I want to do.

The grass is always greener, right?

I know this sounds like a lucky guy who gets to write for part of his living complaining about having too many ideas and creative energy for his capacity, but it’s not. Instead, I think what’s bothered me about the seeming conflict between my writing interests is that it goes against so much of what I see, hear and read about 21st century branding and success.

Everywhere I go, I hear people talking about being singular and identifiable. I read blogs and listen to talks about focus and purpose. I feel inundated with the idea of mastery. And it all feels a little misleading. It makes it seem like success can only be found by focusing on one thing, which is true to a point. But as a person in the audience, a person who sometimes struggles with direction and a sense of purpose, all the talk about singularity creates inner turmoil.

Or, at least, it did.

I came the realization a few weeks ago, that I was parsing the needlessly parsed. True, I don’t have a ton of time to pursue every single interest (not with work, family, a baby on the way, a dog in need of walking and all the youth sports), but that doesn’t mean I have to be monolithic. Writing can be my one thing, but it doesn’t have to be only one thing.

As a writer, I’m supposed to be worried about my craft, but in reality, I spend more time worrying about my audience. Publishers want reach from their writers before they buy books – which is very chicken and egg to me. And if you go the self-publishing route, you need an engaged audience to try and get yourself off the ground. Writing about more than one kind of thing for more than one kind of audience means worrying about that times at least two. This was what was behind my crisis in confidence these last few months. I thought, in order to be successful, I needed to pick a path and stay on it. But how could I do that with so many projects outlined and ideas bursting out from every corner? How could I kill half the things I wanted to do for the sake brand clarity?

In the end, I decided not to. I decided to focus on my craft and be honest about where I was going and what I wanted and hope that there is an audience out there that might be as interested in reading about Creative Productivity as they are about the adventures of Harrison James, Monster Hunter; who might be as interested in reading about History as they are about Thaddeus & Chuck, junior high detectives; who might want to read about my tiny adventures as they are about my Adventure Books series.

I had an identity crisis there for a while, but in the end, I’ve realized it wasn’t my identity that was fuzzy, it was yours and that the only thing I could do is pursue work that feels honest and true to me, stories that I want to tell and do my best to bring you along for the ride, which is focused enough for me.

This week, I took a leap.

I’d been thinking about it, talking about it and obsessing over it for a while, but two days ago – in a moment of bravery – I went for it.

I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in my parents’ basement at an old typewriter, writing a story about becoming the youngest person in history to step foot onto the Wimbledon Centre Court only to be destroyed by my (then) hero Stefan Edberg. I wrote my way through high school and college, through newspapers, magazines and websites, tv and radio commercials, even scripts for sitcoms and movies. I wrote books for me and for others. I’ve worked with publishers big and small and I’ve had some amazing experiences along the way.

But something was always kind of missing. Writing for editors, agents and clients has always meant at least some compromise. I’ve been given leeway, but never had the confidence to pursue freedom. Then, a year ago, it hit me – I can own my own success and write the stories that I want to write. I can take responsibility for the stories I ache to tell and put my faith in others to help make my dreams of writing a reality.

So that’s what I did and what I’m doing.

I wrote “The Red-Eyed Monster Bass” for my kids, but also for myself and my own childhood. The first book I remember reading on purpose was “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen. I loved it. I loved the adventure. I loved the sense of proximity you can only get from reading. Paulsen lead to Jack London who lead to Hemingway who lead to Kerouac, who has lead to Bill Bryson, Tony Horwitz, Hampton Sides, J. Maarten Troost, the Hardy Boys, Goosebumps, Harry Potter and many, many others. I always admired these writers, though I never imagined having the bravery to put something I truly love into the world.

It was my kids who convinced me. Jack, the oldest, has always been a reader. He devours books and tells me I should write more. He stood at my side during my first book signing six years ago, beaming with pride and inking his name next to mine. It was Dylan, who loves stories and adventure, sitting in a canoe with me in Northern Michigan, asking me to tell him a story. When he caught a small red-eyed bass, the character was born. It’s Molly, my curious, vivacious little girl, who tells me to write things down, to read her stories, to teach her to read.

So I went for it. I started writing a genre I’ve never written and it flowed like magic. Suddenly my brain couldn’t stop. Not just this book, but outlines for a dozen others. My fingers can’t keep up with my mind. For the first time in my writing life, I feel like I’ve found a calling.

I tried the usual channels – my agent (who is awesome), editors, friends – but the response was kind of the same: no magic, no doomsday, no Hunger Games, no sale. The writing is great. The story is great. But there’s no room for adventure unless its wrapped in a super hero cape. Ordinarily, I would have been crestfallen and defeated. But not this time. This time, I felt motivated. I decided to do it myself. Amazon has provided the means and I provide the vigor.

I asked my editor and close friend Adam Korn to join me. He agreed. I asked my friend and coworker Troy Hitch if he would lend his visual talents to cover design. He blew me away.

And now I’m asking you to join me.

I have no illusion that this little book will lead to an early retirement, but I have set a goal of selling 5,000 downloads. It’s a big number for an independent, but who goes after a dream sheepishly and succeeds? I’m asking you to buy the book – of course – for your children on Kindle or the Kindle app, but I’m also asking you to spread the word.

I’ve been blown away by the power of social media lately – a bit ironic given how much of my professional life is in the field. I’ve been astounded by its ability to connect people, to divide people, to unite and overcome. And I’m hoping to harness some of that power to help make this dream come true.

I can’t offer kickbacks or giveaways (not yet anyway, but I’ve got a plan for that so stay tuned). I’m not asking for money, apart from $3 for the download.  I’m not begging. Instead, I’m forwarding my gratitude. I’m opening a vein and putting my trust in you, my friends, readers, coworkers, people I’ve never met, to help this dream come true. I promise you my gratitude. I promise you my devotion to the next book in the series (I’ve already got one drafted and two more in the works). I promise to pay it back when you need support.

But mostly, I promise you this: I believe in this project. I believe that reading “Hatchet” in the fifth grade was a lifelong gift. I believe that reading and adventure are vital to the development of personalities and minds and I believe there is room in this screen-centric world of video games and blockbusters for adventure in young readers’ minds.

I believe you will help prove me correct.

So check out the book – which has already sold 10 copies, is in the top 100 of its category and has a five-star review from an eighth grader I’ve never met. And if you like it, tell your friends with kids, their friends, teachers.

From one lifelong writer and dreamer to the lifelong dreamers, writers and readers of tomorrow, I thank you in advance.

I didn’t move for the entire second half. I chewed on my finger the whole time, leaving a raw patch, and didn’t move despite the pain in my shoulder until there was 10.3 seconds left and the hope was too much to handle.

I grew up in Cleveland. I was rooting for the Browns during The Drive and The Fumble. I was a Cavs fan every day they weren’t playing against Michael Jordan, but felt The Shot deeply. I cried every time the Indians let me down until my hope scabbed over and scarred like a wound.

In Cleveland losing in a spectacular fashion was so common, you always expected it and never were disappointed – crushed, yes, but not disappointed. Disappointment comes from expectations being dashed. But you become jaded. You hope for the best, but expect the crushing. It’s a coded language in Cleveland, an understood nod. We know it to be true and can talk about it among ourselves, but when someone from outside Cleveland brings it up, it hurts all over again.

The Cavs winning the NBA Championship was huge, not just because it was an incredible accomplishment in the face of staggering odds, but because it will force Clevelanders to find a new language, a new nod, a different outlook. Not a different outlook for our sports – though that will certainly be an outcome – but a different outlook for ourselves.

Change is hard. It’s very hard for Clevelanders like me. The moment you begin to see progress, you fall prey to hope. Hope is wonderful, but when you’re used to disappointment, it becomes a false signal. You sabotage that hope. You cut it off at the knees. Winning the championship means we have reason to hope, we have reason to cast aside our instincts to doubt and free ourselves to the notion of change.

I realize I’m making a big statement about something that is, in the grand scheme, pretty small, but it’s coming from a real place. I feel different today than I did 72 hours ago. I feel lighter, more positive. I’ve been reexamining my goals and what seemed impossible now seems not only possible, but achievable. I feel like I can do the work, like I want to in a way I haven’t wanted to over the last couple of months.

For an illogical and purely emotional reason, the Cavs victory is inspiring me to rewrite my script, to all hope to shape focus and focus to drown out doubt. And I don’t think I’m alone. I’ve spoken to several friends from Cleveland this week and they all say something similar – that the lack of being crushed feels strange and almost uncomfortable. The challenge will be to not settle back into old habits and to embrace the possibility for change.

 

Image Source: http://www.nba.com/cavaliers/news/releases/celebration-160619

The last few weeks have been crazy. I’ve been in the midst of a big project for work. My son had his First Communion – which meant 80 people in an out of the house on a rainy day. Mother’s Day. A little travel. Lots of sports. Writing, meetings, commitments. The usual flotsam and jetsam of suburban dad life.

But last week was particularly crazy – like, country song crazy.

It began with Penny. For the last couple of weeks, she’s been sick. She had a fever, was very lethargic. We’d boarded her for the First Communion weekend and she picked up a bug. Trips to the vet for fluids and antibiotics, long days laying in the sun near the front door – no energy. But last week, it got worse. She’d whine every time I touched her. She could hardly walk. Her legs were shaking. She had a hard time going from lying down to standing up and needed to be lifted into the car, up the stairs, onto the bed.

I had a trip and needed to leave Monday night. My wife, God love her, took care of Penny. Another trip to the vet, then to a specialist for a very expensive set of x-rays and a possible diagnosis of meningitis.

Crap.

The trip was fine, but it’s always hard to be gone. I was particularly homesick this trip. We’d had a couple busy weekends – my in-laws in town – and I felt like I hadn’t had a lot of quality time with my family. I also had a book deadline come and go and the pressure was hanging over my head.

So, my dog was possibly dying, I was far from home, work was killing me and money was running dry. What else?

Well, I got home Wednesday night and had to leave again Friday morning because my dad was having heart surgery. It was a lot to worry about. I wanted nothing more than to drown my sorrows in cheap beer, lay in the back of a pick-up truck and stare up at the stars.

Country songs rarely end well. But, thankfully, last week did. Dad’s heart surgery went incredibly well, thanks to the amazing staff at the Cleveland Clinic and his own pluck. Penny was given medicine and, while she’s not out of the woods and still needs tests (including a spinal tap!), her energy is back and she’s the wiggling, jumping, licking puppy she was a month ago. I finished the book and made it home safe. And, yesterday, Dylan pitched two great innings and hit a double that broke his hitting slump. Molly, my beautiful daughter, nailed her tap dancing routine at her annual dance recital and I managed to sleep through my alarm, waking up refreshed for the first time in months.

Life, sometimes, is a country song. It can be overwhelming and there will be moments when you feel like you’re under water. But life can also be a broadway musical, a contemplative Bon Iver song and “Walking on Sunshine.” Sometimes you get to choose the track, but other times you can’t.

The challenge we all face is to try and enjoy the music while it plays.

I first met them on a dimly lit Facetime call last summer, hours after they had met each other. It was late for me, well past one in the morning, and I was already in bed when my phone rang. They were in the studio with a musician friend of mine. He had found them. Or the universe had led him to them.

A shy but funny trumpet player from San Francisco who was busking on the street. Three Canadians who had ended up roommates thanks to Craigslist. A quiet, contemplative, wickedly talented singer who had been playing a showcase in New York and had no idea my friend was in the audience. It was circumstance, happenstance and perhaps a little bit of fate that brought them to him. It was he who brought them together.

I’m limited by contract and conscience how much I can write about him, my friend and client. But I woke up this morning needing to write about Crystal Garden, the band brought together in a way that Hollywood would reject and who, for the last few months, have been finding their sound.

The next time I saw them was a month later, the end of August in Central Washington. I’d been flown in to meet them and while I slept in a cushy yurt, they emerged from tents and sleeping bags at a campground. They were tired, dirty, having slept in the same clothes they’d been wearing for the last couple of days. They were happy, excited, full of hope.

Joel, a percussionist, with his electric smile and faux-hawk. He would leave the band in a few weeks, but I didn’t know that then. He’s got a music school to run back in Toronto and, having kept in loose touch, I’m sure he’s going to be a success.

James, the trumpet player with the family crest tattoos and patchy beard. He wore a Giants hat low as he told me about growing up in Vegas, about his parents passing away, about how long he’d lived homeless, busking on the street to provide his living.

Matt, a quiet tactician of a drummer and devoted music student from just outside Toronto. His blond hair would glow later that night when they would play an impromptu show at the campsite – banging away on a bucket with a bunch of glow sticks I taped together.

Charlie is the bass player. Funny, effervescent, the energy of the group, constantly bouncing around, charming everyone he meets. He’s got the deep soul of an artists, but the perspective of his 24 years.

Mycle, whose voice leaves people speechless when he steps to the mic and sings one of his songs. He’s the former Army Chaplain’s Assistant, the contractor from Seattle who has a career of his own, but who can’t help but make music every chance he gets.

Boyd-Tinsley-Crystal-Garden-1024x682

We spend a couple days together, on and off the tour bus, standing in the wings. Every quiet moment is filled with music. Charlie beat boxing. James blowing something smooth on the trumpet. Matt, like a kid off his meds, beating on any surface he can. Mycle scatting, belting out lyrics to old R&B.

They have the excitement of freshmen unleashed on campus for the very first time. They know – beyond their years – how incredible this opportunity is, how surreal.

A few months pass and my phone dings again in the middle of the night. It’s a track off their album, just mastered and not ready to be shared. I listen and am confused. It’s great, but I’ve never heard anything quite like it – a mix of mid-90s Morphine and Al Greene soul. I can’t wait for more.

They follow my friend on tour. They move in together in Seattle. They play and play and play – honing their sound, honing those silent communications that bands have: the head not, the bass riff, the drum line, the scat. They finish the album – Let the Rocks Cry Out – and you’ll be able to get it soon. I listen once then walk away. I listen again, then again, then again.

Three weeks ago, I get an email at 10 pm on a Monday night. Can I be in Virginia the next day for their first show? I thought this might be coming. The ticket is attached and I’m on my way to the airport at 4 am. At noon, I’m helping them load their gear onto the bus that will take us all to the venue for sound check and a whole lot of waiting around. Sound check in a beautiful old theater starts off a little nervy – it’s the first show and hundreds of people are expected to come. Most are probably coming because my friend is going to sit in, but others, true enthusiasts, are coming to hear something new.

They settle down, kill their sound check and then it’s back to the bus – to drink water, to talk, to do whatever they have to do in order to pretend they’re not nervous. They are nervous. I can see it on their faces. I can see it in their eyes. I talk to them individually. I tell them they sound great. I tell them to relax and enjoy the moment. It won’t always be pomp and circumstance. They will have to pay their dues. This is just the beginning.

“I can’t wait for that part,” says Matt. “I can’t wait to be in a crappy van, going from county fair to crappy bar. That part excites me.”

There’s time for that. There’s still time, lots of time.

They come out on stage to polite applause. Their first couple of songs sound good, but the nerves are still there. By the middle of the set, there are people dancing in the aisles, while others sit and watch. By the time they do their encore – my favorite track from the album called “Devil Woman” – Mycle has them eating out of his hand. Charlie has worked up a sweat bouncing around on stage. James has found his solos. Matt is playing with his eyes closed.

They finish and the applause breaks out. It’s no longer polite. It’s enthusiastic. It’s the same mix of confused “what was that?” and “how do I get more?” that I had when I heard the album.

The next day, I’m worried I’m going to miss my flight. Charlie and Matt volunteer to drive me to the airport and we talk the entire way – about music, about the world, about the kinds of things twenty-somethings talk about and I miss in my life. I take my window seat next to the propeller and can’t help but wonder what’s in store for these guys, this Crystal Garden.

I text Charlie and thank him for the ride.

“Absolutely,” he tells me. “You’re part of this too.”

I don’t know what comes next for a band like this. I don’t know what the future holds for a group brought together by fate and my friend. But I know one thing for sure – this is just the beginning of the journey and it will take them places they haven’t considered before, places they have yet to imagine. But as long there’s music, I’m sure they’ll find their way.

I’ve been pretty far off track on this blog lately. Over the last five weeks, I’ve written four posts – a far cry from the five times per week goal I set for myself. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. I have. A lot, actually. It’s just that I’ve been writing books and I thought I’d take today to give an update on that and to ask for help from you.

By the end of this month, I will have complete two ghostwriting projects this year. The first, which is due tomorrow, is a project with an architecture firm that specializes in designing and constructing schools. It’s a cool project about changing the way we think of education from being a specific activity reserved for a limited and specific time in our lives to a life-long pursuit. This firm has been building schools for more than a century and is changing its business model to facilitate life-long, individualized learning, effectively changing the way we think about education from the macro (percentages of students who pass standardized tests) to the micro, finding ways to make individualized learning a whole life pursuit. It’s been a lot of work, but the project has opened my eyes to a lot of aspects of education I had never before considered. I look forward to sharing the book once it is available. If you have kids or an inkling of interest, I think you’ll find it fascinating.

The second ghostwriting project is one I’ve been working on – off and on – for the last three years. It’s a book I’m writing with Boyd Tinsley, the violinist for the Dave Matthews Band. I met Boyd through a convoluted and improbable set of circumstances that I’ll explain at a later time, but suffice it to say that working with a guy who has sold millions of albums and done more than 20 world tours has been eye-opening to say the least. I’m really excited about this project because, unlike other books by famous musicians, Boyd is not the hero of this story. It’s not a self-serving autobiographical list of accomplishments, but rather a non-fiction look at creativity and love, two forces that have influenced his life more than others and, quite literally, saved him from the cynicism and evil that often follow people of his stature. It’s called “We Come From the Heart: a journey of creativity and love in a mad, crazy world” and we’re hoping to have it released in early fall.

I’ve also completed a young reader book, “The Red-Eyed Monster Bass,” the first chapter of which I published on this blog a month ago, and a young adult novel, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” My plan with both of these is to publish via Amazon – Monster Bass on the 16th of this month and Wouldn’t It Be Nice on the 16th of next month.

I’ve also begun working on two adult series that I’m looking forward to sharing. The first follows Luke “Lucky” Bauer, a former Army helicopter pilot who earns a reputation as a man who can find things in civilian life. Think Clive Cussler meets Indiana Jones. The first book, “Diamond Rough,” takes the hero across continents in his 1947 Grumman Goose in search of a family heirloom with its own checkered past.

The second series follows Det. Jenn Houston, a rookie homicide cop who, in the first book “The Muirfield Incident,” finds herself immersed in a world of sex, social politics and murder in the quiet suburbs. This was the book I cooked up for the James Patterson co-author contest, which I did not win, but I liked the story so much that I’m going to write it anyway.

I have plans for three more books this year – another young reader, another novel and a non-fiction book – which means I’ve got a lot of writing to do.

Which, brings me to my request. As I’ve been writing, I’ve been getting occasional feedback from family members and that feedback has been extremely useful. Writing may be a solitary endeavor, but creating and telling stories is a group activity. So, I’m looking for readers, people willing to take unedited Word documents, read them and provide feedback. I can’t offer compensation, but I can tell you that I will consider all feedback earnestly and appreciate your effort beyond measure.

There are no qualifications necessary. You just have to be willing to read something, give me some notes and promise not to pass the document on. Ideally, I would have at least a couple of readers for every book and those who do will get a special gift from me when the book is published.

If you’re interested, please send me an email at letterstocraig(at)gmail(dot)com and put the word “reader” in the subject line. If you have a preference of genre – YR/YA/AF/ANF, please let me know in the body of the e-mail.

Thank you in advance for your help. I look forward to hearing from you.

The Cavs are in the playoffs. The Republican Convention is coming to town. Over the next couple of months, Cleveland is going to be getting a lot of press. There will be stories about the ever-disappointing sports franchises, the attempts at rebirth, the depressed economy, the deranged man who kept three women locked in his house for more than a decade. Reporters will speak lovingly, condescendingly, disgustedly about the city. They will talk about its former heyday. They will talk about the industry disappearing, the people becoming depressed and hardened. They will most assuredly talk about the Cuyahoga River lighting on fire and maybe throw in a mention or two about the Flats, the Drew Carey Show, Great Lakes Brewing and Johnny Manziel.

But they’ll never talk about the things that make Cleveland great. Really great. The MetroParks, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the people who are loyal and tough as only a community assaulted and often on the butt end of jokes can be. They won’t talk about the strange mix of pride and hope, the feeling of being us against the world.

They never do.

I grew up in Cleveland. I wasn’t born there. I was born in Wisconsin and lived in California and back in Wisconsin before my family settled down in Cleveland. It’s the place I consider home, the place I return to on holidays and special occasions. Sometimes, just because. It’s also the place where my mind returns when the weather finally breaks in Cincinnati and we get that one perfect week of spring.

A week like this one.

Cleveland is a place of extremes. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Extreme optimism and extreme pessimism (sometimes within the same person in the same day). The weather is freezing in the winter and boiling in the summer.

But for a few weeks every year, it is idyllic. When the snow has thawed, the leaves have begun to sprout and the flowers bloom. Lake Erie is still too cold to swim in or boat on, but you can’t help but be outside. A light layer to buffet the cool breeze off the water. Sun coming down in gentle rays, you want to explore. You are compelled to wander – along the lake, downtown, through Little Italy. You look forward to the summer season at Blossom. You check out that new restaurant on West Sixth or East Ninth, you able down the paths of the Rocky River Reserve.

Spring means baseball and the return of the Tribe, but also the little leaguers taking over the parks. It means excitement for the NBA playoffs, which you’ll more than likely watch with friends, your hearts on your sleeves, a Commodore Perry IPA in your glass. It means the return of color to a place dominated by gray through the winter months. You walk through Lakewood or Tremont or Cleveland Heights and you hear music coming from the bars and restaurants. You meander downtown, you sit at Huntington Beach in Bay Village and dream across the water.

It will get hot, you know that. Once Lake Erie has warmed up, the humidity will be intense, the summer storms frightening. But all of that is ahead of you, just as the lake effect snow is behind. Your teams are more than likely to disappoint, but you hold out hope – for the Tribe, for the Cavs, even for the beleaguered Browns. Last season’s wounds have scarred over and you still have wishes left in you.

Sure, the construction on I90 is causing delays. But you don’t mind being in your car for a little extra time. You’ve got the sunroof open, the top down, the windows lowered. You’ve got music playing and you smile – you’ve survived another winter. You’ve made it through to these few special weeks that, along with the chilly late October when the leaves turn and the world smells like grass and high school football games, seem to make it all worth while.

You can’t understand what it means to be from Cleveland from a headline. You can’t understand why people love the place so much when you only know whats in the news. To know Cleveland, to love Cleveland, is to understand and embrace the extremes – the cold and the heat, the rich and the poor, the optimism and disappointment – and to appreciate the in-betweens.

I’m proud to be from Cleveland. I’m proud to know the truth. It’s far from a perfect city, but that, in and of itself, is where its perfection lies. Cleveland is your favorite old pair of boots that have seen much better days but you can’t bring yourself to throw away. It is your mom’s meatloaf – you’ve had better, but never experienced anything that compares. It is your first car, your first love, your first heartbreak and all those things that come to define you later on in life.

A lot of people are going to be talking about Cleveland over the next couple of months, but I know they won’t have much to say. And the things they do talk about might be factual, but they have little to do with the truth of the place. To know the truth of Cleveland is to be from there, to experience the highs and lows, to suffer the outside world’s slings and arrows and love the place anyway. Because you know they can say anything they want, but they can’t take away those few perfect weeks, those in-between moments where everyone who has lived there remembers and those that still do look forward to.

Cleveland is not what you think.

image from: https://www.csuohio.edu/international-admissions/international-admissions