Adaptability in Creative Pursuits

Recently I experienced mounting frustration not because I was blocked and accomplishing nothing, but rather that I was focusing on one aspect of my work and neglecting others. I had determined that I would write at least five hundred original words a day, six days a week, no matter what else was going on. And for the most part I accomplished this, turning out short stories, novels, memoirs, and so on at a fairly consistent pace. I published a few books a year and had twenty to thirty short stories consistently out to magazine and anthology markets. However, as the COVID pandemic decimated business-as-usual, my income dropped; I found that I had to devote more hours to ghostwriting blog posts and articles for quick cash, which left me less time for my creative work. I managed to keep up my five hundred to seven hundred words a day, but often I had no time to do anything with the books and stories after I had completed them. I would finish them and put them aside and immediately start on the next project. Eventually I realized that I had four full books completed in first draft but that I was making no further progress in getting them out there in front of readers.

I was faced with a choice. I could continue to produce new material, or I could spend some time compiling, proofreading, and finalizing the material that I had already finished. I paused my five hundred words a day habit and worked on my backlog, but it was not an easy decision. I felt as if I was failing in some way, but I simply didn’t have time to do both. In a perfect world, I imagined, I would write my quota of original words in the morning (and not just five hundred words – one thousand, or even fifteen hundred) and would proofread and prepare material for publication and do all the other business aspects of writing in the afternoon. Alas, my world is far from perfect, especially financially. My writing does not yet support me well enough to allow such a schedule (albeit I have not given up hope that it someday will) and so I have to adapt. My only options were to focus on one or the other.

The situation is not without precedent. In Greece when my kids were young I taught English as a second language for so many hours (both in schools and privately) that there was no time left for literary pursuits. Since my wife worked too (she in the morning and me in the afternoon) when I wasn’t teaching I was taking care of children, shopping, cooking, and so on. As a result, all of my writing (or at least most of it) was concentrated in the summer when schools were out and I was free from my job. Early on summer mornings I would write my thousand to fifteen hundred words a day, completing full novels, story collections, or memoirs in each three-month stretch. It wasn’t that I didn’t think about my writing even when I was too busy to work on it; I thought about it constantly. I prepared by writing voluminous notes whenever I had the chance. To get the work accomplished, though, I had to adapt to circumstances.

As I have to do now. I have just published one of those backlogged books (Silent Interviews and Other Tales of the Telepathic Guild), and I will complete and publish at least two of the others in the near future as well. (The fourth I am saving for a future time, but I will still finalize it so it is ready for publication.)

The point of all this? Adaptability is essential when pursuing the creative arts. If you wait until circumstances are ideal you will never accomplish anything. You have to forge ahead and be willing to adapt to the situations in which you find yourself if you want to see your ideas through to fruition.

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Book Review:  The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz

This entertaining exercise in world building is set almost fifty-seven thousand years in the future. It is not so much a novel as a linked series of stories, each with its own main characters and objectives, although some of the longer-lived minor characters, mainly those that have mostly robotic parts, appear in more than one section. It is set on a world called Sask-E, which is owned by a company called Verdance. Most of the characters were created by Verdance to assist in terraforming Sask-E so that it can be sold in parcels to wealthy investors. The terraformers are legally slaves of Verdance, and although the non-human entities are sentient, Verdance uses a type of intelligence inhibitor to keep them in line.

The most fascinating aspect of The Terraformers is the characters, both human and non-human. They have been incubated and brought to life under laboratory conditions to serve particular functions in the terraforming process, and as a result there is great variety in their appearances, materials, sizes, and abilities. There are bipedal humanoids, robots, part-humans and part-robots, animals, part-animals and part-robots, and so on. Verdance considers them all chattel, but in fact among the terraformers themselves they are all considered persons, whether they are humanoid, robotic, animal, or a combination of these. Newitz liberally ascribes personhood to an array of non-human beings, including flying moose, flying cows, cats, dogs, naked mole rats, and even worms. This universal personhood serves as a pointed metaphor to compare with the present sad state of humankind, in which people are judged, labeled, and assigned positions according to background, location, race, color, gender, age, intelligence, and other considerations.

The variety of person-types in this far future scenario reminded me of some of the early works of Samuel Delaney such as Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection. In these works he introduces body modifications and mutations that make the appearances and abilities of the characters radically different from those to which we are accustomed.

In the first part of The Terraformers, an environmentalist named Destry discovers an entire civilization of archaic terraformers hiding beneath a volcano on Sask-E. Verdance would like nothing better than to murder them all and obliterate any traces of their habitations, so Destry must find a way to save this hitherto-hidden populace but at the same time fulfill her obligations as a slave of Verdance. In the second part, a team of surveyors travel the length of the main continent on Sask-E, assessing the landscape and the cultures in the newly-formed cities so that Verdance can build a transportation system. The surveying trip is an excuse to further explore the complex world and social systems that Newitz has created.

The amazing thing about this land of flying moose, naked mole rat scientists, intelligent devices that bore through lava in the planet’s mantle, and sentient worms, is that Newitz manages to explain it all so well that it is easy to suspend disbelief and come along for the ride. That’s what good futuristic science fiction does. No matter how unlikely the scenario, a good writer can take us by the hand and adroitly lead us through it so that we forget, temporarily, our previous parameters and even measure the world we have left behind in the context of the world in which we have become immersed.

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Book Review:  A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

Step aside, James Bond, with your wild, fantastical, gadget-laden, good-guy-always-wins superhero stories of unrealistic espionage. This is the tale of a true spy, a real hero named Virginia Hall. What makes it even more amazing is that before the war started she lost her left leg just below the knee in a hunting accident and thenceforth went about with a strapped-on wooden leg, and that she was a woman operating in a system that was heavily biased concerning the toughness and superiority of men in dangerous situations.

Hall first sought employment with the State Department, but was stymied by its prejudiced attitude towards women, an attitude that would follow her through most of her career. She was assigned secretarial deskwork, and though she performed admirably, far beyond the parameters of her job, she was refused time after time when she sought promotions. She finally quit the State Department in frustration. At the outset of World War II, despite her wooden leg, which often gave her pain, she became an ambulance driver in France, speeding into intensely dangerous areas where other drivers refused to go.

The rapid German invasion of France forced her to flee to Spain, and from there to England, where she joined the fledgling Special Operations Executive, or SOE, a top secret organization set up to conduct reconnaissance, espionage, and sabotage. Taking the cover of a reporter for the New York Post, she went into Vichy France, eventually basing in Lyon. From there she worked on setting up resistance networks and sending information on Nazi movements. She was in constant danger of getting captured by the Gestapo or the collaborative French police; it was a certainty that if they apprehended her she would be horrifically tortured and then killed. In fact, as her underground network spread she became a hated target of the Nazis but somehow managed to evade them.

Despite her obvious talent, she faced continual criticism by men who felt that she should be subordinate to them. She had to deal with this jealousy and prejudice as well as circumvent the enemy’s efforts to capture her. One of her greatest accomplishments during this period was the planning of an escape of twelve agents from the notorious Mauzac Prison. When the breakout succeeded, the Germans were furious and stepped up their efforts to find her.

After the Allies invaded North Africa, the Germans moved into Vichy France, forcing Hall to flee. She endured a difficult climb over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain and a stretch in a Spanish prison before returning to England.

You would think that after all the danger and trauma she had endured that Hall would be content to wait out the rest of the war at an office job, but no. As soon as she arrived in England she was petitioning to be allowed to go back to France. However, the SOE refused to send her, knowing that the Gestapo was prioritizing its hunt for her. As a result of the SOE’s reluctance to use her, Hall approached the newly-formed American Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, which later evolved into the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA. Desperate for experienced agents, the OSS sent Hall back into France after a period of training as a radio operator. To evade capture by the Nazis, she disguised herself as an elderly peasant woman. She soon ditched her partner, who was holding her back, and in the areas of Cosne and then Haute-Loire went about organizing networks of resistance fighters and planning and executing acts of sabotage. She continued these efforts until France was liberated by the Allies. She later joined the CIA.

Virginia Hall was awarded several honors for her work, including the American Distinguished Service Cross, membership in the Order of the British Empire, and the French Croix de Guerre, but during her lifetime she avoided publicity because she wanted to remain more effective as an active agent. Her story is truly extraordinary and belies the bullshit secret agent movies that we all enjoy so much. This is the story of a real spy and a true hero, and I highly recommend it.

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Silent Interviews Is Now Available!

My 33rd book, Silent Interviews and Other Tales of the Telepathic Guild is now available in paperback and as an ebook at various online outlets. Links to these are below.

Long have the clandestine members of the Telepathic Guild assisted individuals, corporations, and governments by means of their unique skills. Guild Home functions as a headquarters and a refuge, and its strict regulations foster unity and discipline.

In this linked series of stories, a guild member falls in love with an outsider and is faced with a life-changing decision; a group of young people rebel against the guild’s stringent rules; a famous sports star discovers he is telepathic and must choose between his wealth and celebrity status and a chance to change the world; a renegade telepath establishes affinity with a wolf pack in the arctic wastes; a talented telepathic detective attempts to solve a brutal murder at a chaotic science fiction convention. These and other tales explore the fascinating, enigmatic, and often dangerous lives of those who have sacrificed everything to join the guild and use their extraordinary abilities for the betterment of humankind.

Trade Paperback

Amazon Kindle

Barnes & Noble


Apple iBooks

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Book Review:  The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu is a science fiction novel first written in Chinese and then translated into English by the award-winning writer Ken Liu. The Three-Body Problem has also won its share of awards, including the Chinese Galaxy Award for best science fiction novel and The Hugo Award given annually by the World Science Fiction Convention. It truly is an extraordinary and singular work full of awesome majesty, thrills, terror, a sense of wonder, and amazingly original viewpoints on major science fictional themes.

One of the things that impressed me about this unique novel is its eastern perspective. It is set mainly in China and its main characters are Chinese. It begins, in fact, during the brutal Cultural Revolution of the 1960s when scientists and other intellectuals were being killed or banished to remote wilderness work camps. In the midst of all this chaos, an astronomical facility called Red Coast has been set up to cripple enemy spy satellites. While working at Red Coast, an astrophysicist named Ye Wenjie receives a message from another world, called Trisolaris because it is in a system with three suns. Embittered by the murder of her father and the treatment she has received as an intellectual, she responds to the message, knowing that this will result in an alien invasion that will destroy humankind. These are merely the rudiments of the plot, though; it also includes a dark and complex video game meant to persuade players to ally with Trisolaris, an elaborate organization set up to welcome the invaders and help them succeed, and sabotage of Earth’s scientific progress.

The three-body problem of the title is the motivation for the abandonment of Trisolaris and the invasion of Earth. Nobody can figure out an algorithm to predict the movements of the three suns; as a result, civilizations are continually collapsing when confronted with extreme weather events and have to be rebuilt from scratch.

There are a lot of plot-threads in this story, but Liu deftly weaves them into a complex and compelling narrative. I don’t understand enough astrophysics or history to know if everything that Liu proposes has a basis in hard science, but it has verisimilitude, and that’s good enough for me. The important thing from my perspective as a reader and a writer is that it all works well as a novel brimming with adventure, excitement, emotional depth, and a wealth of coherent and cohesive ideas. It is one of the best science fiction novels I have read in recent years. It encourages me to look abroad for more literary perspectives. Most of the science fiction I read is from American and British writers; part of the reason, I suppose, is the difficulty of getting good translations. Ken Liu, a master wordsmith of his own material and familiar with both American and Chinese language and culture, is the perfect person to bring this novel to an English-speaking audience.

By the way, The Three-Body Problem is actually the first volume in a trilogy called Remembrance of Earth’s Past (alternatively known simply as Three-Body) – so this is just the beginning.

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My Story “Exorcism and Other Requests” Has Just Been Published in the Anthology Tales of Fear, Superstition, and Doom

The anthology Tales of Fear, Superstition, and Doom edited by Ann Wycoff has just been published by Redwood Press. It contains my story “Exorcism and Other Requests” and 26 others. Digital copies are available now on Amazon, and a print copy will be forthcoming. If you have a Prime subscription you can read it for free because it is enrolled in the Kindle Unlimited program. I love the dark, sinister cover. Here is the publisher’s description:

Twenty-seven tales of horror and darkness by a diverse group of writers who conjure up demons, cults, denizens of the deep, sorcery and magic, insanity, lost technology, ghosts, ancient gods, monsters both supernatural and all too human as well as other terrors against which the only weapons are often poorly laid plans, vain hopes, and even the power of love or hate.

A river of superstition flows through this book. Many stories run deep through its waters while others only lightly skim the surface. If you like variety in your dark fiction then you’ll enjoy this book.

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Book Review:  Like a Rolling Stone by Jann Wenner; Part Three: Surreal Lifestyles

When I wrote part two of this review, I was about two-thirds of the way through the book. After moving from west to east and forsaking cocaine, Wenner went through further changes. One of the most monumental occurred when he met a man named Matt, fell in love, left his wife Jane, and married Matt. He and Matt eventually adopted and raised three babies; he and Jane reconciled and the families from his first and second marriages bonded. Wenner bought other magazines such as US Weekly and Men’s Journal, creating a substantial publishing empire. He continued to fly all over the globe partying with the rich and famous, but to his credit in Rolling Stone magazine he also continued to provide topnotch journalism about important issues facing the country.

All of this makes for fascinating reading, although it becomes somewhat surreal as he goes on and on about jetting to exotic locations to stay as house guests with celebrities and buying one home after the other, usually mansions in high-ticket areas, whenever the urge strikes. It is a close-up look into a world that most of us only glimpse from afar. One of the strangest aspects of this memoir is the way that Wenner describes his privileged adventures in a casual, almost blasé manner, as if it is a normal sort of existence for most people. Of course, he was the founder and publisher of one of the most important magazines in the world, and as such, he had access for interviews not only to musicians and movie stars, but also to presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and other politicians such as George McGovern, Al Gore, and John Kerry.

Don’t get me wrong, though; the uniqueness of Wenner’s perspective did not detract from my enjoyment of the memoir. When I learned of it and I started reading, I expected something countercultural and raw, which was the same expectation I had when I began, for instance, the Stewart Brand biography I mentioned earlier. That the history of Rolling Stone and Wenner took a different direction than I had anticipated was a surprise, sure, but in a way I should have seen it coming. After all, the magazine wielded enormous power in pop culture; getting on its cover was a huge splash of publicity for aspiring rock groups and singers and also those who were intent on remaining on top. And if you read about the lifestyles of the musicians who break through into fame and riches (an example is the memoir Life by Keith Richards) you discover that money buys them a lifestyle of globetrotting profligacy, for the most part. That’s not to detract from the sincere efforts at the betterment of humankind that some of them attempt (I’m thinking here about accounts in the memoir concerning Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Wenner himself, and others), but for most of us it’s another world, a world as alien as a science fictional universe. Still, I recommend this book. It is well-written and interesting; I merely caution you not to expect a countercultural viewpoint.

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Book Review:  Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir by Jann S. Wenner; Part Two: Life in the Fast Lane

As I read on in this memoir, my impression of Rolling Stone magazine changed. I was never a regular reader because I didn’t have easy access, but I read it occasionally back in the seventies and eighties when I was on the road in Europe and Asia. I envisioned it as a sincere voice of the counterculture, an attempt to counter the conservative rants of the mainstream east coast magazines. Wenner disillusions me somewhat on that score by clarifying that to him Rolling Stone was never about making a difference in the world; it was always about the money. When he wasn’t working on the magazine, he was partying with the rich and famous. Among his close friends were Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Michael Douglas, and Jackie Kennedy, the wife of the former president. He does a lot of name-dropping of powerful people whose mansions he stayed in and whose jets he traveled in. He partied in exclusive restaurants and on semi-private islands in the Caribbean. He even, eventually, bought his own jet so he could zap from one place to the next more expediently. Alcohol and drugs were ubiquitous, especially cocaine, the preferred drug of rock and roll bands and their entourages. Wenner describes how there was always hard liquor and cocaine available in his office; in fact, most of the Rolling Stone staff members were fueled by cocaine, and the office had regular dealers who would keep users steadily supplied.

Somehow, though, despite the drugs, drink, distractions, and dysfunction, the magazine got some good journalistic work done. Much of this was accomplished by Wenner’s skill in recognizing talented writers who would go after big stories that other publications were afraid to touch.

The bulk of the memoir is told in the form of short vignettes about various people Wenner met and interacted with, events he attended, major national or international news stories he and his staff covered, and descriptions of decadent partying with famous and wealthy people. It comprises a fascinating glimpse into the lifestyles of the one percent, the world’s privileged people, who can remain wasted a lot of the time and hop into their jets or yachts and go wherever they please whenever they want.

As the story progresses, Wenner does describe some major changes that he and the magazine go through. For one thing, he moves the entire operation from the San Francisco Bay Area where it began amidst the countercultural movement to New York, where he hoped to ensconce it amidst more established, traditional, and respected journalistic endeavors. In moving from west to east, the magazine shed its pretensions of being a voice of the hippie movement and took its place in the mainstream. On a brighter note, after Wenner and his wife Jane decided they wanted children, they adopted a son and then Jane got pregnant. As a result of contemplating his position as a family man, Wenner decided to give up the cocaine that he had been snorting for decades. He cleaned up and attempted to fulfill his role as a father.

(To be continued.)

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Book Review:  Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir by Jann S. Wenner; Part One: The Era

I have recently read several histories and memoirs of the 1960s and 1970s, some of which are newly published. For instance, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand by John Markoff tells of the entrepreneurial creator of the influential Whole Earth Catalog in the sixties; Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller by Alec Nevala-Lee concerns an architect and author widely respected by the sixties counterculture; A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead by Dennis McNally is about the acid rock band most closely associated with Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, and the Acid Tests; and Rock Me on the Water: 1974: The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics by Ronald Brownstein studies a brief period in media history when the ideals of the 1960s sprouted forth into the mainstream in the form of provocative films, TV, and music. The era of the late sixties and early seventies fascinates me because it was so influential in the evolution of my own thoughts, impressions, and life direction.

And now we have another fascinating tome written by a germinal figure from that time. Like a Rolling Stone is the memoir of Jann S. Wenner, the man who founded Rolling Stone magazine in 1967 and continued to publish and edit it until recently. I’m less than a hundred pages in so far and I can already tell that it is my cup of tea. I haven’t even got to the creation of the magazine yet but Wenner has already plunged readers into the political and cultural heart of the 1960s. He was there at precisely the right moment in time to be immersed in the prevalent usage of marijuana and LSD and other drugs, the rise of now-famous Bay Area rock bands, the Acid Tests, Ken Kesey’s psychedelic and anarchistic hangout at La Honda, and the Free Speech Movement and other protests at the Berkeley campus of the University of California. When he was still an adolescent Wenner decided to be a journalist, so he was able to see all these changes around him not only from the perspective of a hippie heavily into psychedelics and other drugs (which he was), but also from the viewpoint of a writer chronicling the events of a certain significant historical era.

As I said, I haven’t even reached the part where he starts up the magazine yet, but already the story has swept me back to a time that was intensely formative for so many Baby Boomers. It reminds me of the relaxing vibes of hippie enclaves, abortive attempts to practice free love, confusing over-usage of hallucinogenic substances, the dark threat of getting drafted and sent off to Vietnam, and the ultimate assimilation of the trappings of hippie culture into the mainstream. Personally, in the mid-seventies I left the United States to find my voice as a writer and discover what the rest of the world was like, and I didn’t return for thirty-five years. In the meantime, Wenner created one of the most influential and iconic magazines ever published.

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Another Look:  America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad by John Walters

Update February 25th, 2023: The U.S. political and social landscape continues to quake, and this book retains its relevance.

Update February 15th, 2020: For some reason I had a strong urge to repost this description of the memoir I wrote upon returning to the United States after spending thirty-five years overseas. Perhaps it’s due to the sense of displacement and culture shock that I still go through from time to time; perhaps, however, it’s also due to the political and social upheaval currently erupting across the U.S. landscape, a displacement and loss of identity that is causing everyone to question their core values and beliefs.

A memoir of my culture shock after living for many years overseas. Here’s the back cover copy:

In 1976 John Walters left the United States in search of adventure and literary inspiration. He lived for many years in India, Bangladesh, Italy, and Greece. He married and had five sons. Finally, faced with the economic catastrophe in Greece and the lack of opportunities for his sons, he returned to the land of his birth. Without home, without job, without resources, he confronted his own country as if for the first time.

This is a memoir of someone who, late in life, was forced to leave everything behind and start fresh in what for him had become a new land. It will appeal to those who are confronted with major life changes in these troubled economic times; to those who, though they may desire rest and retirement, must continue toiling to make ends meet; for those who desire insight into the vast, multifaceted culture of the United States from a fresh perspective, unencumbered by familiarity.

Click to buy from these distributors:

Trade paperback

Amazon Kindle

Barnes and Noble


Apple iBooks


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