The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, November 30, 2012

Morning Zen

This morning, looking at a book on my shelf, Jason asked me what "Zen" was. Oh boy oh boy oh boy. Have I ever been waiting for THAT one.

I started with a basic thought:

"where your mind goes when the words disappear, but you're still thinking about something. A perfect throw. A perfect kick."

"Can kids do that?" He asked.

 "Kids are born knowing this. It's adults who have to learn it again."

You can study Zen academically, but that's like taking a cooking class without ever eating the food. Better to find that delicate balance of "Focus and Flow" in any activity in which you have achieved excellence, or wish to. Zen mind is an odd, non-linguistic combination of "Beginner's Mind" and "Expert's Mind". It is both the end state of the continuum between "Unconscious Incompetence" and "Unconscious Competence" and process of that journey. Both noun and verb.

In meditation, seek moments of calm centeredness, and then ask where you have achieved similar moments during times of excellent action, especially under stress. I promise you: you have had them. Collecting them, examining without attachment, is a route to automatic duplication of such glorious moments. They are your legacy. Claim them!


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Brain Freeze and Easter Eggs

Brain Freeze and Easter Eggs

Had a fantastic meeting with my film producer the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. He invited me to his lovely home in Beverly Hills, we talked life and politics and personal history before telling me that, aside from typos, he had no more notes for me. No. More. Notes.

So today I'll speak with him briefly to clarify some things, and then make those adjustments and send it off. And then...the fun begins.

Look, I've published over three million words of fiction and non-fiction, and written about two dozen television scripts. I'm still so excited I can barely control myself. To be honest, early in my career I developed a pattern of writing a dynamite first draft, and then freezing when it came to rewrite time. Freezing. By brain just locked up. Why?

Well...hard to say. It could have been emotional stuff (oh my Gawd! What if I fail!) or mental stuff (how do I integrate these notes!) or even spiritual stuff (if I succeed, I will change my life. My self-image. That is ego death, of a kind.)

But in time, I learned to ease into it. To integrate notes without really noticing I was doing it. Here's the pattern, so far as I can figure.
1) Take all notes given by the producer.
2) Wait a day, and then copy them into a central file.
3) Re-read the project, noting locations where the notes might be addressed.
4) Think through the notes, finding those that seem most reasonable and logical and easiest to do.
5) Consider that "low hanging fruit" and see which ones could reinforce my theme and strengthen the story. Unless I have a STRONG objection to them, try to integrate, making notes in the manuscript.
6) Keep remembering my closing images. Every action, line of dialog and plot turn has to reinforce those images. They are the "meaning" of the work.
7) If at all possible, find some little thing to tweak, adding a line or image somewhere. I've found that it's fun to give the producer or story editor something new to read, something to keep it fresh, a little "Easter Egg" to reward careful reading.

That last one is just something that I've learned over the years, and every time I've done that, things have worked out well. is another threshold. Can't wait!


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

It's Not That I Don't Love You...

Yeah, I haven't been in touch as much. November has been pure travel, teaching, vacation and intense business. Quite scrambled. Just flew in from Phoenix and Los Angeles last night. But what I want you to know is:

1) Today we're doing a book signing today with Blair Underwood at Spelman College. Juggling hats!

2) Had possibly the best business meeting of my life last Wednesday with the producer of my new screenplay. I've had a ton of success writing for television, and novels...but movies not so much. Oh, I was creative consultant on "The Secret of NIMH" and created the "bible" for the "Sakura Ninja" series of Swedish ninja movies starring Chuck Conners (The Rifleman! No kidding) but that's not enough, if you know what I mean. I can't wait to share more about what this project is...hopefully soon! What I'll say is that it is more personal to me than anything I've ever written, and has an autobiographical aspect that has never existed in my work before. It is sexy, funny, PACKED with action, and deals with issues so close to my heart that I don't dare let myself get too caught up in the possibilitites.

Two days ago I drove from L.A. to Phoenix and collapsed into my hotel bed. The next morning, I had a breakfast meeting with Amara Charles prior to hitting the airport. We discussed the upcoming "Erotic Intelligence" course, and how excited we were to be editing the transcript and making this available. The most fabulous thing about it is how boggled each of us were by what the other presented. My attitude toward the two-hour presentation we made earlier this month (to a VERY enthusiastic audience!) was that I didn't care about coming to "total agreement" on every aspect prior to the presentation. In fact, I considered that the "rough patches" simply represented the different ways we thought about the same issue--sex, power, beauty, male and female energies and attitudes. The lovely thing is that I agreed with everything she said...but about 50% of what she said I would never have thought of saying. Even more, as I went through hte transcript, I kept thinking: "gee, I don't remember her saying that...I don't remember her saying THAT..."

And realized what had happened. Simply put, every time she said something that hit hard, that seemed to represent a deep and important truth, my mind began to consider the implications, and in that consideration, missed the next thing she was saying. Wow.

More on that thought later. But at one point we discussed the film project, and she remarked that she knew I was deliberately preventing myself from getting too excited. That is the truth. The implications for my life and career are simply too large for me to take it too seriously. "People who get excited get depressed," I said. "And I can't allow that." That doesn't mean I don't enjoy the positive events in my life. Anyone who knows me knows that would be nonsense. It is that I try to maintain perspective, and not get too caught up in it all.

November has been great, just spectacular. I've been to Oregon, Washington, California, Arizona and Florida. The Orycon SF convention the Tantric Meetup in Phoenix, the Miami Book Fair, and Loscon. Saw my daughter kick butt in "Avenue Q" (she plays...Gary Coleman! If you don't know the play, that won't make sense. But yep, THAT Gary Coleman), created a new project, set up to make my original Tai Chi video available (stay tuned!) and much more. It will take me days to sort through it all, and I'll share as soon as I can.

 But meantime, here are three tips for you:

1) In rewriting, keep in mind the last major image in your writing. This is the "meaning" of your piece, and everything else you do has to support this image. Every word and action has to increase this emotional charge, or else it is pointless.

2) Plan on a slow, steady "uptick" in your day to day emotional responses. Keep a sense of humor about news, either positive or negative. Don't let the external world control your mood. A steady positive evolution is vastly superior to swings between depression and exultation. The "Five Minute Miracle" approach to maintaining calm (five sixty second "breathing breaks" during the day) is perfect for this.

3) The most important element of your physical training program is joint mobility. Five minutes of "joint rotation" exercise, slowly and carefully warming up your body in the following order: neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingers, trunk, hips, knees, and ankles--is a fabulous beginning or close to any day. This was a life-saver on the road!

I'll be back at it tomorrow. Tons to talk about, and sorry I haven't been in touch.

Can't wait!


Friday, November 16, 2012

Take a deep breath (five times a day!)

So I'm finally beginning to edit the transcript for the Erotic Intelligence workshop with Amara from last weekend, with an eye toward creating our new product. There will be many many things to talk about in connection with it, but the first to pop up was the following quote, dealing with one of the "third rails" of the human body-mind: the survival instinct.

"And you can get in touch with your survival simply by slowing down your breathing to the point that carbon dioxide builds up in your blood and the panic button in the back of your head goes off. It’s great because the disciplines that slow your breathing down like that are teaching you to relax through stress. It’s beautiful. These things are not just esoteric. They’re also extraordinarily practical."

So much that could be said here. But one of the most important ones is just the question of clarity. There are so many different aspects of life that attract our attention, so much complication and so many petty, tangled motivations. You can worry about your mortgage, your receding hairline, your crabgrass and/or who your co-workers are giggling at behind your back. It can be difficult to apportion our limited human energy, and one of the first things to do is clarify your priorities. There are two basic ways that work:

1) Survival first.
2) Love first

Slowing your breathing down until you are below about three respirations per minute will, as said, increase the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood. Cardio-respiratory distress is a fear response, and if you continue you will begin to feel the alarms going off in your head. Relaxing decreases muscle tension, which burns less oxygen (thereby easing the stress) but also teaches you to relax under emotional stress.

Relaxing under emotional stress is a very positive habit, allowing one to maintain a balanced perspective, from which you can see the available options more clearly. Stress/strain creates tunnel vision, as well as rigidity of thought. PRECISELY the wrong responses in a life-and death situation, or running a business, or writing a term paper, or negotiating a family argument.

The law of requisite variety basically says: If a system is to be stable the number of states of its control mechanism must be greater than or equal to the number of states in the system being controlled" or to put this in more human terms, in any situation, more potential options tend to be better for problem solving than fewer.

(There are exceptions, of course. A famous story about a fox with a thousand ways to escape the hound pack, and a cat who had but one comes to mind. When the hounds arrived, the fox couldn't decide which of his thousand to use, and the cat ran up the tree. Oh, well...)

But at any rate, learning to control the breathing is a powerful, generative activity with near-infinite depth. But just on the surface, problems lead to stress lead to panic, leads to a narrowing of perceived options, leading to more problems.

And conversely, if one adds controlled breathing to the equation, then stress leads to an adaptive breathing response, which triggers both energy AND relaxation, which leads to sharper more flexible thinking, which leads to solutions, leading to growth.

All from a little conscious breathing. I can't wait until ├ůmara and I can conduct our full workshop, and actually teach and integrate all of the different basic aspects of human existence from the dozens of different world traditions that have explored this.

And for my half, it will happen from survival "up" and from the heart "out." And never, ever, ever from the head down.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

Young, hot, and dead

Young Adult Zombies

Tomorrow, I leave for the Miami Book fair, where Tananarive and I will be sitting on a YA book panel, talking about our zombie series DEVIL'S WAKE. She just finished her final read-through on the book, which will be out next February, and of which we are very proud.
But we've been asked: why is this book "young adult"? Why create a "horror" novel and suggest it is appropriate or even valuable for teenagers?

 Well, first of all, it isn't a "kids book." It is a book in which the lead characters are kids, and we decided that it would be smartest on all counts to set the level of sexuality and violence at a PG-13 level. That if we cared about these characters, and believed in this situation, we didnt need buckets of guts to create genuine fear and excitement.

 The interesting thing about zombies (of whatever variety) is that they have no individual personalities. We can't romanticize them, or save them, or reason with them. They are simply death and disease and corruption, come to bring flesh to our fears.

 The enduring value of such stories, from my POV, is the examination of human response. Remember that all we have to write about (from one valuable perspective) is "what is true?" and "who am I?"

 In writing terms, this is "what are human beings?" (as expressed in characterization of individuals and society) and "what is the world?" (as revealed in the way physical and biological structures and forces respond to effort, as well as the "ethical structure of the universe" in terms of how fate responds to human effort. The writer's philosophy is revealed by the way these two things interact.

 A human being's maturity and awareness is revealed by the way they navigate these two. Someone with a totally accurate map of external and internal reality would never set a goal they didn't meet. 

Someone aligned between conscious and unconscious drives would never act contrary to their own interests. A person aligned more deeply would be satisfied by life as it is...but still blossom and evolve as a being.

 If you know yourself, you aren't surprised by the behaviors of others. The more honest with yourself you are, the easier it is to detect the "gaps" between what people want you to believe, and what they actually are.

 The young characters in DEVIL'S WAKE and its sequel, DOMINO FALLS, are thrust into a living nightmare, in which they must trust themselves, and each other, and decide very very gingerly who they will trust in addition to that core family.

 And they must also test every group, situation, and culture they encounter, constantly adjusting expectations and ideas about what human beings are, who they are, "what is true" and how to best test one's ideas.

 Isn't this what growing up is about? Learning who we are, and what the world is, and how to refine and strengthen the connection between our dreams and our reality? How control our emotions and refine our reality maps?

 Once upon a time I defined an important line between childhood and adulthood as the point where you can focus your attention, energy, emotions and intellect to create goods and services you can trade legally to produce the resources necessary to put food on your table and a roof over your head.

 In other words, hunt, gather, and shelter. Maslow's most basic level. The beginning of Self awareness.

 Zombies just make it more fun.

 So...what exactly happens in the next installment of the Devil's Wake saga?

 I could tell you, but then I'd have to bite you.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why the Hero's Journey?

Why the Hero's Journey?

In the Lifewriting Year Long course, I dive deeply into the concept of story structure, offering several different models of this thing called "story" while making it clear that none of these models are "the thing itself" but rather approaches, perspectives, tools to manage the different thematic and incidental aspects of their work.

I like the Hero's Journey for a variety of reasons:

1) It is universal. You cannot find a story recognized as "story" by any significant number of people (in other words, any television episode ever shown, any movie ever generally released, any novel that achieved even moderate success or longevity, any story that has lasted more than a generation) that cannot be explored through the HJ.

2) It not only diagrams story itself, it diagrams the PROCESS of writing a story.

3) Not only does it diagram a story, but it also diagrams the process of life. Every life. Everything you've ever attempted to accomplish in your entire life.

Therefore, if you will chose subjects for your writing that actually affect your own life and express your own values, EVERYTHING YOU LEARN MAKES YOU A BETTER WRITER, AND EVERYTHING YOU WRITE MAKES YOU A BETTER PERSON. And that's pretty cool.

In philosophical terms, there are basically two questions in life worth asking: "Who am I?" and "What is true?" In writing terms, these two questions manifest as "what is the world?" and "what are the human beings who experience it?" A spiritual version: "what is Man that Thou art mindful of him?" And it goes on and on.

Human beings. The world. You. Your perspective. The more you see the connection, the more you seek to explore your sense of human psychology, philosophy, science, politics, interpersonal dynamics and so forth...

The more you seek to find a spark of truth in every work, seek to trigger the "ah! Life is just like that!" response that automatically raises your work above the level of "pulp" and gives you the opportunity to create art...

In other words, the less you try to be "clever" and the more you simply attempt to find truth...

The better your writing will be. There are certainly other story patterns, but I know of none with this specific strength. You may well choose to go another way.

1) Do you think you can name a non-experimental film that doesn't follow this pattern (there are "art house" films that specifically seek to subvert this pattern. But by being in reaction to standard story, they remain bound by it)

2) If you don't like some version of the HJ--what pattern DO you utilize?

3) If you avoid pattern altogether, how DO you organize your work?

Important questions. Answers, anyone?


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Cubic Inch of Opportunity

A Cubic Inch of Opportunity

"From time to time, life gives you a cubic inch of opportunity. Either grab it at that moment, or it is gone forever."

I can think of numerous major events in my life that were now-or-nothing propositions. Moments of unusual clarity when an idea, a problem solution, or an opportunity for action occurs. Like dreams, ideas often melt away if they aren't swiftly seized. Among the very best ideas that seemed to arise in such a fashion:

1) The notion for my novel "Lion's Blood"
2) The title "Streetlethal."
3) The idea of writing out your life goals and challenges as if they are a story you are creating, already knowing the end point.
(the core of the entire Lifewriting process)
4) The recognition that Tananarive was my Soul Mate
5) The Five Minute Miracle concept combining "Perpetual Exercise" with "Synaptic facilitation."
6) The "Mind Reading" concept demanding that you deeply examine your own agency in creating your body, career, and relationships...and then using that information to "read" other people's lives in turn.
7) The "Soul Mate" process that lead to one of my most vital breakthroughs integrating work in perhaps five different disciplines.

 Each of these transformed my life, and each was in the category of a notion that was time-dependent.
 What was common about my success with each?
 1) I trust my instincts. Have calibrated my little "Tingly" sensations so that I know when my unconscious is sending a message.
 2) I recorded the thought. Audio, notebook, doesn't matter, but write it down.
 3) I took action. Whether "merely" writing it down, discussing and testing it with a friend, mentor or student, or in the case of Tananarive, devised a (damned sneaky) way to grab her attention, I DID SOMETHING. Tested the notion to determine if there was validity to it. Moved it out of the realm of the purely theoretical.

 In some ways this last step...TAKING ACTION...may be the most important. It is certainly the one most neglected by people who fail to achieve their life desires.


Monday, November 12, 2012


All right, so SKYFALL delivered. No Bond movie (or any movie, for that matter) is perfect. But it definitely takes its place with FRWL, Goldfinger, OHMSS, Spy Who Loved Me and Casino Royale as the best of a remarkable series. The Bond movies have ranged from action-comedy to near tragedy, like episodes of some mega-million dollar television series. The Bond actors have ranged from pretty faces to thuggish killing machines with broken hearts...and I've enjoyed them all. Just want to pause to acknowledge that the Broccolis have done something quite remarkable in keeping this going for 50 years. Pundits and disgruntled fans have been predicting the death, and bemoaning the "obsolescence" of 007 for forty of 'em. I've lost count of the number of conversations I've had where I tried to get someone to explain exactly how Bond is a misogynist. I always thought he was a misanthrope, a barely leashed semi-sociopath who channels his rage into being Her Majesty's biggest fist (and most explicitly in SKYFALL, the teeth of the British Bulldog. Lovely.) He has no real friends, no future, and has lost everything he ever loved--except England herself. And that is where he takes his stand. All the chatty cocktail party conversation, the insane courage, the fast cars, the easy sex and gambling--these are the things guys cling to as wish fulfillment, but no healthy person would actually want to BE Bond. You would never want your own son to experience the pressures that make such a human being. By dialing back the derring-do to a more human scale (it actually took me almost a half hour to realize I was looking at Ian Fleming tempered with Len Deighton, or John Le Carre) we finally grounded the icon in something resembling understandable human emotion. By moving the dial just a tick closer to 3-Dimensionality it was possible to glimpse the tragedy of a man who cannot live for his own future, or any thoughts of home and hearth. Not for him the sunshine. He was born, and will die, in the shadows.

A killing machine who cons bad guys--and apparently, fans around the world--into thinking he is a playboy in a tailored tux. A "fop who can fight." No. He is the world's deadliest commando. Roger Moore was the ideal "outer" Bond. Danial Craig is the perfect "inner" Bond. Moore recently declared straight-up that Craig was the best Bond ever, and the man who played 007 more than anyone else has the right to an opinion. My thought: Craig shows us the actual man. Connery was the actor they hired to play him in the movie. I can imagine Craig's Bond slipping into a theater to watch "Goldfinger" and smiling at Connery's sleek predator, then slipping out before the lights come up. And being grimly amused as he sits in a posh bar later, alone, deciding whether to pick up a blond for the night, or gamble, or just go home and eat some more pain pills. I seriously appreciate that the Broccolis created these three Craig films (although QofS was pretty painful to watch). I'd love to be a fly on the wall during family discussions on their bread and butter over the years. But lacking that, I'm happy that this part of my childhood continues to amuse, entertain and...occasionally...move me. All this time later. Wow.

Happy 50th, 007. Nobody has ever, ever, done it better.  An "A".  For Bond fans like me, an A+.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012


The eight steps on Buddhism's Eightfold path are: Right view, right thought, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. They all interact and interrelate, and are generally not considered to be some kind of linear list. Scholars such as John Snelling have subdivided the list into three main elements: wisdom, morality, and meditation.

My personal preference in life and teaching is to concentrate on the "householder" aspects, plus heart, with the belief and observation that the rest takes care of itself.

Right view--without an accurate perspective, one cannot set balanced goals, let alone achieve them. If someone says "I'm driving from New York to Los Angeles" and gets there, it is reasonable to assume their GPS was accurate.

Right Thought--without managing our thoughts, it is impossible to maintain constant action over time.

Right Speech--without the ability to communicate honestly but compassionately, it is impossible to build mastermind groups, or attract and hold lovers or customers.

Right Conduct--again, critical to nurture relationships either intimate, social, or financial

Right Livelihood--work should be in alignment with laws, ethics, passion, and the concept of "mutual benefit and welfare."

Right Effort--without constant action, all goals remain fantasies. The ego attempt to discount what discipline and simple sweat contribute to fitness, success, and loving relationships is absolute poison.

Right Mindfulness--awareness of self and environment will teach you what is necessary to understand others.

Right Concentration--really, I like the concept of "coherence" more than the usual "focus." To have body, mind, and heart all functioning in the same rhythm, flowing in the same direction. The result is uncommon efficiency.

God knows I struggle with these. My own practice has been a search for the tools necessary to deepen and grow. A few years ago I stopped searching, realizing I had everything I needed--including the chisel necessary to chip away the b.s. that still slows me down, or pulls me into illusion. The only tools I offer are those I use myself.


Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Back from Oregon

My planeride back Orycon, I sat next to a guy who seemed restless and trying to rest, but unable to. A half hour before we landed, he turned to me and told me that that morning, he'd learned his girlfriend had been cheating on him. I basically held his hand for the rest of the trip, telling him that the pain was real, the anger and grief were real, but at the core of it is a fear that the event

s mean that he cannot and will not find love, that he cannot trust his own judgement, that there is something horribly wrong with him. Among other things, I told him of pains in my own life, and that it is possible to move beyond them, if we can learn the lessons they teach. "Don't trust people. Rely on them to do what they see as being in their own self interest. You have to learn to see what that is. And you do that by being scathingly honest with yourself." So...he must start by owning his emotions. Giving himself at least 30 days to begin to get his head on straight. Surround himself with friends who love him and will give him support and touch. And find ways to love himself, without question or reservation, in this time of pain. And to remember: she was doing the best she could, with the resources she has.

That's all any of us can do, or have ever done. Forgive himself, protect himself, and learn the lesson. When the lesson is learned, you can release the pain...and not before.

I used to wonder why I got into such conversations with people. Now I expect it. Just my karma. And dharma. And I'm content for that to be so.