Derek Johnson Muses

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I Force It

I’ll admit it-there are a lot of times I sit down at this computer and post something simply for the sake of posting something, or for the sake of sharing a photograph. I wish I had done something earlier in the week worth sharing like cleaning off my coach or purchasing new furniture. Actually, I did just get new furniture.

The truth is, I don’t tell everything on this blog. There are things I want to say, but I don’t feel like it’s for the best. Okay, sometimes my courage is wanting, but otherwise there are plenty of things that will stay inside me own word processor. I am sorting through major decisions about my future. When the time is right, I’ll share them.

So, why do I keep throwing up posts without a second thought? Maybe because it takes so much energy to keep what needs to stay private private. Or because I just don’t know how else to express myself. Or more likely, because I’m an attention hog.

Right now today, I have a story inside me. I feel today that I will write it, but it will take a lot of struggle until it sees the light of day. Until then, here’s another calming photo to tide you over.


Aforementioned Picture



The Invisible Mound

Pile up at the bottom.

Pile up at the bottom.

I’ve written over 300 blog posts over the past two and a half years, not counting the post I’ve written for other sites. Over the past six to eight months, I’ve thought some about compiling these posts for a book or something, and a few weeks ago, I started dumping them into random files on my computer before I realized that this wasn’t the purpose of why I starting writing this blog to begin with.

I write first and foremost to get out the evil voices in my head that drive me crazy. When I started blogging on WordPress, my head was overflowing with thoughts I hadn’t expressed. I still can’t believe I would post something every day when I started writing, but it eventually slowed down. Eventually, I just ran out of things to say, which I was fine with. But given how many hours I’ve put into this, there is that sense that I should do something with all the words lying around here.

I recognize the pattern I’m in because I’ve been here before. I start on a project and I feel this rush of energy from the new challenge and experience. But after a while, the energy burns off and I give up and let it go. That’s part of who I am, and some of those project weren’t supposed to work out. But I also recognize that at some point, I may need to take a writing class or read a book on writing, so that I don’t keep churning out material and letting the thoughts wash away in my mind.

I’m back where I started. When I began writing this blog (and taking photos of my time on the road), I felt desperate to have a sense of accomplishment from the miles I spent barreling around the Midwest, nothing to show for it. Now, I want something to show for it again.

Corner in Black River Falls, Wisconsin

Corner in Black River Falls, Wisconsin

August Daze and Winds of Change


Seward Square…

The turning of the calendar to August marked the three month anniversary of my move into my new home. Three months is a season, so a new chapter has been written and something has changed in my head. I can’t wait to find out what that is.

Walking around my new neighborhood is different because of the heat and the trails don’t feel as wide open. Instead, I walk down to the square and sit read or just watch for people. I’m surprised more people aren’t around the square in the evening, but I suppose if there were more people there, I wouldn’t feel like sitting there and reading.

I always enjoy seeing children and young people hanging out and playing around the square, or on the street outside my house. I wonder if the teenagers are dying to get out of this cracker-jack town like I was when I was their age. (Hope their plans for that go better than mine did.) Sitting out there watching the kids from a bench I wonder to myself if I would have been better off leaving this place.

I had grand plans for leaving this place in high school. I didn’t talk about them with most people but simply went on thinking that I would find a new place to call home, because I knew in my heart this wasn’t my home. I still don’t feel like Seward is my home, even if all visual evidence speaks to the contrary.

Even recently, I still feel inside that God is calling me to leave Seward. I’ve seen evidence to that in the last year, but no path has come together, and given my history, I feel I shouldn’t leave this town without certain things in place. But God is still telling me that He has plans for me elsewhere in this world. Maybe I’m just coming up with this stuff as a way to blame my problems on circumstances. Even if I leave this town, I’m still the same person with the same problems, and I can’t expect everything to magically change. But maybe if I don’t expect everything to change, I will make the most of a move…, oh forget it, I’m reasoning this all out.

Road Downtown...

Road Downtown…

Writing has not come as easily this summer. Maybe I have not been putting as many good things into my head, maybe I need more meaningful interactions and clear some things off my schedule. I do spend more time into editing, to see that the hours invested writing projects don’t go to waste. but I can see things in my past that I left unresolved. At the time, it was the easiest thing in the world not to do anything about certain things, but they have caught up to me now. It’s time to take action.

Writing Road Notes

Open Road West of Flint

Out There…

Last year, my main method of writing while I traveled was to type notes on my iPod touch during lunches and driving breaks, but this year I haven’t done that as much, for two reason. One, as I have gone back through old posts, I have found that this writing style leaves me with an incoherent narrative, a problem similar to the problem of tweeting-thoughts are broken into too many pieces. If I sit down the day I get back from a trip, I can write a more focused, direct first draft while it’s still fresh.

Two, I just feel more hurried when I’m away from home. I have a house now and wanting to spend time there, given what I’m paying for it and how much I have to do to maintain it. Either way, whenever I’m on the road, I think more and more about how long it will be until I’m back, although Tom staying at my place now relieves my nerves.

The road can be such a lonely place at times. Maybe it’s no more lonely than the rest of my life, but I still feel so isolated when I’m out there, passing miles of other truckers and minivans packed with kids on summer vacations. The gas stations, the hotels, and the restaurants are all same, which is a very comforting thing. But as the wear of the temporal adds up, I have to accept the confidence to let certain details melt away and remain on the asphalt, trusting that if that colorful mural on the side of an aging brick building in central Wisconsin is really significant, I’ll remember it when I get home and write it down.  All part of using the judgment of a good writer.

Whenever I would stop at a rest stop in central Michigan to write about how the shops in Small Town X were, I was doing so out of an insecurity of a novice who was sure he’d forget. Not that I’ve mastered the craft, but I’m more confident in letting the narrative form in my mind. Now I’m ready to face the silence of the road between my destination and home.



Introspection: Write Well, Not Just Often

When I started writing this blog, I was overflowing with thoughts. For the first few months, I gutted posts out without forethought, and somehow, managed to put up a post or two a day during the mild winter of 2012 (don’t ask me how). Gradually, I saw how it was self-defeating to push my work into the archives so quickly and pulled back, going closer to a post every two to four days. Since May of 2012, I’ve averaged about 10 to 11 a month, which seems about right.

But through all this, I’ve wondered what my long term goals should be. Yes, I love to write and I’m sharing about topics that I care about, but it’s weighed on me as to how many productive hours to sink into this venture. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about life, it’s that you can stay at the beginner to average level for a long time if you don’t do anything to improve.

That’s why I don’t write about sports or TV as much as I used, only when it comes out easily, and I don’t take the time to polish it as I would a piece about travel that I might republish. But still, the more I write, the more I ask myself: am I getting better at this, or do I make the same mistakes in every post? Can I use what I’m putting up here in a book down the line? Will a publication read this stuff and want to hire me?

Last week, I went back to the travel posts I wrote last summer and pasted all of them into a single word document. It covered twenty single-spaced pages. I have read part of it and have tweaked two pages of it. I’m grateful that I wrote all of this stuff down, and when I reread it, I can flesh out the details and improve the flow. Here’s to making it the best it can be.

Random shot of downtown Lincoln

Random shot of downtown Lincoln

Writing Starts on the Trail, and Other Techniques

A few weeks ago, I shared a writing technique that I use to jump start myself when I’m down. Today, here’s some more strategies that I use to write.

When I go for an hour walk, I start with a cluttered head and let that head sort itself out. Some people listen to music to get a clear ahead, but that usually does not help me. When I walk, I make mental notes of my most passionate thoughts, and what other thoughts are in association with that main thought. The raw form of a post usually comes out without a specific category. Sometimes it’s an obvious container, like a Nebraska football game or a trip I was on, but when it’s something like a personal update or assessing a book, then it can be tricky to find the starting point. And in this process, the starting point may not be the main point.

When I get home from my walk, I (try to) go to my computer or to a pad, turn on some music, and begin writing. This stage is more about getting all the points out, not putting them in order (that’s rewriting). Once I get going, it usually takes an hour and 500-700 words to get a solid post out, and I almost always go one or two points more than I should. I never outline, although sometimes I just write down one thought to see if anything follows it. If not, I move on.

The rewriting can be the most frustrating. My minimum rewriting requirements is that I get all of the spelling grammar errors out and get the flow working. If it’s a post about TV or movies or something else I don’t see as part of a larger market I’m putting forward, I don’t labor over it like I do my travel posts or my posts on Husker Max. There is a point where the extra labor is not being used productively, although more often than not I could have done more.

The one thing I have learn as a writer is that I will always have more ideas than I will know what to do with. If I type a sentence and nothing else comes, I tear myself away. Some of these I have come back to, others I’ve forgotten. Ideas want to get out, but if nothing follows the initial thought, it’s always good to let be as it is.

And there’s never any shame in sitting on ideas, if nothing coherently comes  The World War Z article was one that I waited to write until the movie came out. I knew back in January it was something that I wanted to write about because of how much the story of Jesika tore at me, but I needed to figure out how. (Frankly, I’m still not happy with the way that post turned out, but that’s the way it goes. At least I got it out.)

Site of most of meditation, on a bright fall night at sunset...

Site of most of meditation, on a bright fall night at sunset…

Writing Tips: Every Day Writing

I suppose given how much I blog, I owe it to my readers to share some tips on how to write and how to break out of writer’s block. It said that the best writing advice is, write every single day, and a lot. But what?

The easiest idea I can tell you, dear readers, is to write down everything you did for the last week or twenty-four hours, even if you just make a list of actions and attitudes. Here’s an example I did earlier this week.

(My Road Notes posts also reflect this strategy.)

Last night, I was trying to get my sleep schedule back on track. I came in around 8:30 from mowing the lawn and showered. I then watched Terminator 3, a movie I can’t believe is 10 years old already. I can remember when I saw it in the Rivoli back in 2003, and the film had the biggest greenlit budget at time. It doesn’t feel as dated; actually, the CGI in it seems restrained compared to how much is in current movies. I started the movie at nine when I was eating dinner and finished the movie at 11. I had such a plan-I would skip my afternoon nap, and then I would go bed early and get my sleep schedule back on track. Of course, I still needlessly read on my kindle for thirty minutes or so before I managed to turn my light out at 11:36

Then my alarm went off at midnight. I had accidentally turned it to on when I shut off the radio yesterday. This time around, I set the alarm to 8 to avoid any future upsets. The disturbance in my sleep costs me forty-five minutes.

So this morning, I became conscious for the first time around five, and after fifteen minutes, I got up to start a load of lights. Then I went back to bed, and drifted between sleep and waking for a little while longer. Around seven, I forced myself up and began reading on my kindle.

That’s pretty simple, and it’s mostly actions, but it needs work. Usually, I find you have to write a certain number of actions to get a judgment or an assessment. Take the first paragraph. The judgment or assessment is I was trying to get my sleep schedule back on track in the evening. Under the that mindset, I worked outside, watched TV, and I read. There was a bad habit in that paragraph, namely the tangent I go on with my memories of Terminator 3. That is one thing that I do often in my drafts that I try to get out in my final versions as much as I can, spending too much time talking about a sub-point which has nothing to do with the main article. Usually, when I get to the judgment, I have an idea of what I need to build the post around. All of the rest of the writing needs to be taking out points that don’t support it and refining the ones that do.

Here’s another example of this strategy.



Days Gone By

Ever since I got past the initial burst of buying the house, I hit a personal slump with less to do. I even found out today that the loan is on schedule and I don’t need to do anything for that for a while. With great relief, I’m doing my taxes; this year, the money is more important than it normally is, given what I will have to invest in the house.

I’m in a bit of a writing funk, pretty typical for this time of year. If I’m going to write, I need a lot of walk-outside, free-headspace time on the trail, and the current weather has restricted this this. It hardly feels like I’m two months away from hitting the road to go and see little corn plants popping out of Wisconsin and Michigan soil, ground that is probably now covered with snow. I still try to wear shorts every day that I can, as a way of protesting the snow that still insists on falling.

I’ve stalled on the fiction piece I was working on earlier this year. I have a large chunk of it down, and I have written notes to finish it, but it doesn’t feel as fresh as it did. Of course, all writing goes through phases, and it probably needs a polish. But I worry a lot that it has stalled out after a major revelation, at a point where some of the main characters will need to be very confrontational. Confrontation isn’t always my specialty.

I have followed through on my commitment to listen to more Issues, Etc, and other religious/educational podcasts and regulate out some ESPN radio. It works most of the time, although Issues, Etc, is pretty heavy, and probably does contribute to my need to walk more and process stuff.

But the real affect of listening to theology and reading Christian blogs, it’s realizing all the crappy television and cheap lit I read is full of secularist garbage that keeps me from sharing and living in my faith. Most of this particular revelation comes from a book by Ben Shapiro, Primetime Propaganda, a book about how far left the television is, including breakdowns of specific shows from the last forty years. I knew everything on TV was liberal, but what I didn’t know was that Hollywood treats conservatives with a blind hatred, refusing to hire moderate conservatives who grow up around liberal and keep their politics “in the closet”. Of course, I still watch TV (it’s crack, what can I say), but I do it with understanding that it won’t provide me with any affirmation I need.

And at the center of it all, I think I’m just lonely. My thoughts have turned toward dating again, or at least connecting with people. Perhaps it’s just the natural progression of things, of doing something like buying a home that people usually wait to do until they get married. Certainly, getting married would make all the work I have to do around the house a lot less taxing.

It’s times like this I’m actually happy to go to the office and plant samples, empty the trash, move trays, and mop the floor. I love writing and doing this blog, but I think to myself a lot that I’d be just as happy if I was working with samples every day. Did I just write that?

The Loup River, just off Highway 81

Washed up? Hopefully not yet

At least Holy Week is early this year. I’ll miss midweek dinners at church and seeing my church family on Wednesdays, but I don’t like having to wait until the end of April for Easter. Lent hasn’t felt like the downer it has in the past, because I’ve come to realize that repentance is something to be done in joy, as we are coming before a merciful God, knowing he will forgive us. I’m looking forward to the musical festivities of Easter, and moving forward with the church year. Thanks be to God.

Writing Lessons

Since I finished writing an embarrasing manuscript almost four years ago, I’ve been trying to kick start writing another work of fiction. I have numerous attempts and failures at starting a new narrative, but in the last month, I’m happy to report that I have sustained a fiction story for 25,000 words now (38 single spaced word document pages). I learned a lot from that first failed attempt of a novel.

First of all, I know better than to put things into it that I won’t be too proud to show others later. Second, I have taken to write what I know well: Huskers and college football, travel, and a case of boy meets girl. Early in the process, I did feel that what I was doing than stuff I’ve read, so I’m happy on that front. I also have a defined structure that my narrative will take place in, so that keeps me on track.

Writing turns me into a miserable person. I don’t want to go out or talk to anyone else when I write. I take a schneid attitude toward my work. I can’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything until I’ve written. I download lots of music I’ll eventually hate. I’m this close to discontinuing showering, and if I had a girlfriend right now, I’m pretty sure she’d dump me.

But I’m happy doing this. I’m happy to be back to pursuing my long-term goal of being a novelist. I’m doing this to silence my own self-doubt. The manuscript I wrote four years ago, while good, was ultimately a work I wasn’t proud of and had to put in a drawer. This time around, I’ve told myself not to invest the time in writing it unless I’ve got a plan for releasing it. I’ll submit it to agents, but if no publisher takes it, I’ll self-publish it to e-books, perhaps with a few hard copies as well

I have two go-to staples in this project: I know I’m good at writing dialogue, so when all else fails, I turn to two characters speaking to each other. Like a lot of guys, whenever I get into trouble and don’t know what to write, I just write dialogue. While I haven’t plotted everything out, I do write guidelines before I jump into write scenes. I have arcs that I want my characters to go on. In my concordance, I have written down what each character’s relationship is to the other characters in the work. From watching a lot of spy shows, I’ve devised a principal: good conflict is created when Character A has loyalty split between Character B and Character C (or Characters D and E, if you’re really ambitious). I also keep in my mind that Character A not only process his/her relationship with Character B, but when Character C enters, Characters A must simultaneously process his relationships with both Characters B and C, but also the relationship between Characters B and C. (Got that insight in The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.)

As far as the plot of this novel, it is set around a Nebraska football game in recent memory. That’s all I’m saying for now.

But as of right now, my goal is to have a full draft done by February 28. I am selling out to this, and I will be proud to make it my future, thanks be to God.



Why Last Resort Doesn’t Work and Revolution Does: Not Rocket Science

(Warning: The folowing posts contains spoilers from the shows Revolution and Last Resort. Proceed at your own risk.)

Last fall, The Walking Dead took a lot of flack for its slow, farm-centric episodes which screamed “We’re a show on a tight budget!” While I wasn’t in love with them myself, I felt that the episodes built up the tension and created greater moments late in the season. As Robert Kirkman noted, the viewer becomes numb to the zombies if they are front and center in every episode.

I wish Shawn Ryan would understand that.

Back in September, I compared the pilots of Last Resort and Revolution, the two new serial dramas this fall. At the time, I found Last Resort to be a more compelling hour of TV than Revolution. While it wasn’t a horrible thing that Revolution started slow (laying the groundwork, if you will), Last Resort seemed so full of potential stories and interesting characters (seriously, Robert Patrick was the fifth or sixth story option), I thought it would have a better chance. Unfortunately, Ryan and ABC didn’t realize how much potential they had and felt they had to manufacture more.

While some of the episodes have been pretty good (the second and the third had good plot devices), Last Resort just doesn’t know when to take a breath. Instead of focusing on Grace, the third episode spent a lot of time exploring Dichen Lachman’s character, who, while interesting, didn’t need to be looked at with any kind of urgency. When a show mis-vaules its cast like that, it makes characters like Christine and Kylie even more annoying then they already were. (Both seem a little perfect and too one-note for this show.) Every episode seems intent on inventing crisis and not exploring simple things like how are the soldiers finding food and water. The pilot was good enough they could devote time to those things and set up bigger events down the line.  The most recent episode, the one with the chemical attacked, opened with a scene that looked like it was adapted from bad Lost script.

Not that Revolution is perfect by comparison, but it has an objective and knows what it is. When I speculated about Elizabeth Mitchell’s place on the show, I worried that they would reveal she was alive in episode 9 and play it as if it were this huge surprise. Instead, they did so at the end of the second episode and didn’t pretend it was a shock, and have given her a little more to do each week. It takes its time, but each week, finds a new and interesting part of the work to explore. I’m still not high on Charlie, but she isn’t screwing up the show. I wasn’t in love with (Spoiler Alert) the decision to kill of Maggie, but it worked within the context of that world. It’s corny at times, but the big reveals are good.

And the one thing that Revolution has going for it is the thing that is sinking Last Resort: it has simple, overarching plots of the search to get Danny back and of Monroe trying to turn the power back on. Last Resort had that when it got the suspicious fire order, but since the pilot, there has been almost no pursuit of who set the Colorado up. Nobody is calling friends in Washington questioning the order, nothing. Even failed serial dramas, like Vanished and Flash Forward ended their pilot with a sense of where their shows were going. Last Resort‘s pilot ended with a vague proclamation of “Maybe this is home now.” And it only will be home for a couple more weeks, a shame given what was invested creatively and talent-wise in the show.

Know where you’re going?


Life as I know it.

I’m sorry dear readers, I’ve got nothing for you.

It has been the most relaxing week in my life in quite sometime. My travel season over, I’ve been home since Sunday. No appointments, no working at the gallery, no samples in yet, nothing major until my artist’s reception next Saturday. I’ve done mostly cleaning and organizing this week, moving my bed and dresser over to my new apartment. While my output has stayed consistent, I have been concerned about my mindset

It started over the summer. I knew I was kind of running on fumes writing-wise, as I could only do after I took major trips that allowed my several days to sit behind the wheel, think, and enjoy some quality listening material. I’d read and write notes when I’d stopped, and publish them. I found some new directions and enjoyed sharing my thoughts as I always did. But I could tell something was wrong. An even great surprise was that I wasn’t reading books that much, which is what i usually do when I have writer’s block and need to recharge.

A week or two ago, when I had an hour in the calm of the storm, when I took a walk and realized that I didn’t have a passion for anything I was doing right now. While I was surprised by reflection, it did explain why I was disciplining myself to write so much and why every project felt blah to some degree.

Passion of course is a dangerous thing and has lead many a man astray. But as a creative person, passion is the lifeblood of what I do, and there’s no easy way to work without it. There are only two times in my life where I know I took to something with genuine passion, and I cared about them. One was Greek class my freshmen year at CSP; the other was when I wrote my manuscript three years ago. The former was because I was a natural at a subject many people struggled at; the latter was because I was telling the story of someone I loved dearly.

When I finished writing that novel, I was completely on fumes. I wished I could keep writing those characters forever, but now I know two things: one, you need to have a plan when you write, and two, that kind of passion is a special thing. You only get so many projects that you have great passion for, but in spite of that, you have the rest of your life to fill. Every writing project is important because it will take you to your next writing project. I just hope I don’t screw the great ones up.

I don’t know how I’ll get that passion back. I have my new apartment, and per Jonathan Franzen’s advice, I’m not having internet put in. I’m going to start working on real stuff and pieces that I know I can place with publications. I’m going to try to wean myself off of video games, and if I feel like gaming, I’m just going to go for a walk. That’s the most I can do.

Hope that was something.

Fight a War

When I first graduated college seven years ago, I never wanted to do anything. I played a lot of video games, baked cookies and cooked dinner, watched shows and DVD’s over and over again.Three and a half years ago, I still didn’t want to do anything, other than the work my dad told me to do. I knowingly lived the lie; I pretended to be busy to people’s faces. But the truth of the matter was, I didn’t want to go out.

Then, as the winter of 2009 turned to spring, I found something. Or rather, something found me as a situation came together. I had just purchased my first iPod and had music at the ready to write to; it wouldn’t have happened without the music to fall into. Then there was a conflict that I came into, between me and a TV show I was watching. The story that came across the screen was one that I hadn’t held to be true in my heart. Thus, I put in my headphones, sat with my computer on my lap, and pounded the keyboard, putting the story in my heart into my computer for the day when I couldn’t recognize it from the story on the screen.

That day came sooner than I expected, and when it happened, I was hit with more bricks than I ever thought I could be. Even to this day, I can’t admit everything that happened to me that night.

It’s been over three years since that incident, and the story I’ve written remains in the drawer. It was a story that was written with the idealized passion of a young man who hid from conflict on the page, only wanting to prove the sincerity of his desire. Like a lot of single people, I wrote a relationship that was mostly infatuation and free of the conflict that normal relationships face. Perhaps this is why I don’t return to the story, because I have written it to be this great perfect world, and by opening it up, I will subjugate myself to changing that world in my head.

At the time I was writing that manuscript, I thought it would be the beginning of a writing career where I would write a novel every year or every other year, something like that. I didn’t care what I made, just as long as it paid bills that had to be paid. But afterward, I just kept rewriting the first half of the book for a year or so, never really getting anywhere. Eventually, I quit working on it, and moved on. Part of me is starting to regret that, if only because that was something I cared about passionately, and I rarely have passion.

I’m starting to write down ideas for that work again. I don’t know if it will get anywhere, but I know I love that project.


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