Expectations

They shape us, sometimes sculpting with care, but often chipping away at who we could be. For expectations are born both from within and from without. Left unfettered, expectations will crush a soul, reduce an artist to rubble, and smash the joy we should feel every day.

Our parents start the process… “You go to a good school, get a good job, marry well, have children, and work hard. Go to church on Sundays. We absorb these ideas until they seem to be our own.

Then our peer group kicks in, and they can either help or hinder the process of personal growth. In my case, my friends from school and early adulthood tended to be unconventional. I tried to have it all, marrying a lawyer and writing songs in Nashville and never quite fitting in. Like many writers and artists, I strived for conformity, yearning for acceptance. But as an unknown writer, I was always just on the other side of an invisible door.  I could see the people, smell the food, and hear the music, but I was more spectator than participant. So close,  yet infinitely far.

Artists and creatives who surrender early on my find happiness if they can kill that part of themselves which longs for artistic success. It’s tough to achieve a balance.

We believe, deep in the secret places of our heart, that we are living a certain kind of lie, that there is something else out there in the universe whispering, then shouting, exhorting us to yearn for more. We chaffe against the bonds of the past and the expectations which threaten to confine us. Some of us are lucky enough to shed those shackles, and that is a glorious thing, an awakening of the spirit.

Yet, when we look beyond the borders we have been confined to and set our eyes upon the distant mountaintop, we begin another journey in which our own great expectations do us harm. It’s inevitable.

We dream great dreams and imagine a future of rainbows and unicorns where our art is heard, seen, read, and important. We visualize how things could be and convince ourselves that they not only should be, but that they will be thus because it is our destiny. Ahh, the arrogance of an artist. We must possess some of it, for we dare to believe that someday, somewhere, we will make a difference and that our work will matter. This drive can propel us to great heights, but it can just as easily destroy us.

I write because I must.  My pen touches the page and I and mix color and emotion because I need to pull the swirling tempest of light and darkness out of me and share it with the world.

When I remember this truth, I enjoy the journey toward that lofty peak, savouring the scents and vistas along the way. I am free of expectations and can live, love and laugh in the moment, and the moment is what matters.

I strive to remember, because the moments will only keep slipping away.

The Art of Hypocrisy

FOLIO VOICES
story by SEAN T. SMITH

The Carl Vinson carrier strike group is poised to unleash hell. President Trump has promised that if China cannot reign in North Korea, the United States will handle the “problem.” In past weeks, the U.S. sent 59 cruise missiles into a Syrian airbase, closing it down for about six hours. Our forces also dropped the MOAB, aka the “mother of all bombs,” on a mountainside in Afghanistan. Cable news media fawned over the “beauty” of our firepower. In recent years, our military has conducted drone strikes throughout the Middle East, and has waged prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet as a nation, we cling to the belief that we have the moral high ground and the United States is a shining paragon of virtue and morality.
In short, we have refined hypocrisy to an art form. Our nationalism blinds us to history, our ignorance compels us to blind faith, and our faith binds us to destruction. Our leaders reflect these beliefs, and our commander-in-chief exemplifies the nation’s staggering propensity for self-righteousness. We reap the consequences of our collective hypocrisy globally and nationally every day, and as the world hurtles toward the abyss of nuclear war, it is worth examining our faith.
MORAL HIGH GROUND?

In April, the Iraq Body Count project (IBC) reported civilian deaths from violence are 173,686–193,965 from the second Iraq war. A National Geographic article published in October 2016 puts the number of deaths considerably higher, at almost a half-million.
Airwars reports that this March alone, 1,200 civilian casualties occurred in Syria as a result of coalition air strikes.
The U.S. is the only nation in the world to deploy nuclear weapons in war. Conservative estimates place the cumulative death toll in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at 225,000. The narrative is that these bombs were necessary to end World War II, and save American lives. This may be true, but the fact remains that those bombs resulted in nearly a quarter-million civilian deaths.
The U.S. also boasts more people in prison, by far, than any other nation on the planet.
According to the CIA, 56 countries have lower infant mortality rates than the U.S. Some of these countries include Bosnia, Cuba and Latvia.
Today, 46 million Americans live in poverty; the poverty rate in the United States is the highest in the developed world.
Do these statistics sound like a nation that has the moral high ground?
NUCLEAR STANDOFF

President Trump has discovered that his ratings go up when bombs fall, a fact that gives Americans a good reason to pack a bug-out bag and stockpile seeds and dried food. North Korea has nuclear weapons, and its fearless leader seems almost as anxious to play with his toys as ours does. Unlike Jack Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, who took the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis and who were each careful and calculating, we now have Donald Trump and Kim-Jong-Un, two man-babies playing a game of chicken with nuclear warheads.
Whether it’s Iran, Syria or North Korea, what gives the United States the right to make a preemptive strike, including a nuclear one? The argument can be made that it’s in our national best interest. That is not a moral argument, however, and selling such an action to the American people always involves moral superiority. The enemy is “evil.”
If war breaks out in North Korea, hundreds of thousands of civilians will die. North Korean artillery will shell Seoul, and there is no way for coalition forces to stop the ensuing slaughter.
If we start wars that result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of women and children, how can we still claim to be virtuous?
GOD MUST BE AN AMERICAN

Without the evangelical vote, Donald J. Trump could not have won the Electoral College. Christian fundamentalists, who profess to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, largely supported him because he stated that he’s pro-life. Many were single-issue voters who ignored his statements on other issues, and who also decided to overlook his public statements and lifestyle choices.
Many of the same people who voted for Trump because he claims to be anti-abortion don’t seem to mind rushing to war and killing innocents. They also overlook the bodies of immigrant children washing up on shores both foreign and domestic.
The pro-war, pro-gun, anti-safety-net group defines itself as “pro-life.” Yet they voted for a narcissist billionaire who wants to cut programs for the poor. How is this possible? After all, Jesus said, “If you wish to be complete, sell all of your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasures in heaven; then come follow me.”
The same folks who howl about government intrusion are perfectly willing to insert the government into our bedrooms and women’s wombs. Protestors carrying signs and bibles shout that All Lives Matter, yet somehow the Black Lives Matter movement is wrong.
We have collectively become so inured to hypocrisy that we no longer even recognize it. Unless we take the time to examine our beliefs and our actions as a nation, we can no longer call America the leader of the free world.
We must lead by example. We must show, rather than tell; act rather than pontificate.

____________________

America That Was 


After the bombs rained down, the world entire was an open wound; it was in those bleeding years that I became a man. I was twelve on November 8, 2016, the day America lost its collective mind, a day which now lives in infamy for those of us who remain, the few that survived The Fall.

I recall that my father never believed the country would elect The Donald; we used to laugh at the news shows as a family, shaking our heads in disbelief at the words spewing out of the man’s mouth, and marveling at the way so many decent people were willing to overlook the threats he made. It was all there, nothing concealed. The racism, the misogyny,the blatant lack of human decency was on full display on television and on the internet twenty-four hours a day during the months leading up to the last election. The other candidate had some issues with emails. No one remembers what those were anymore.

That was back when we had email and televisions and cell phones. Kids go blank now when we try to explain those devices, because that technology is so far outside the realm of reality, children don’t believe it ever existed. The old-timers who were there are viewed with great skepticism and a certain disdain, as though we are woefully ignorant of U.S. history.

Back when there was a United States, we used to learn history. Most of our history now comes from legend and lore, and history is no longer written, but spoken and sung.

But I remember.

The dollar collapsed. (This was when currency existed, before the time of barter). After that, the entire global economy imploded. Civil unrest spread like wildfire throug the city streets across the United States and western Europe. Nationalism surged, and interment camps sprouted up on both contingents, where refugees and dissidents were rounded up and never heard from again.

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Russia invaded the Balkans, and the west cowered in fear. NATO no longer existed, weakened by the U.S. pullout, and the EU itself was ripping itself apart. There was no way to stop the horde of armor rumbling across eastern Europe. The United States stood idly by, vowing to act on behalf of England and Germany, but staying out of the fray. “There will be peace in our time,” the President promised. Another lie in a long line of them.

I don’t know who launched first. Maybe it was the U.S. Maybe it was Russia, or Iran or Israel. It escalated too quickly from several tactical launches to full-scale global nuclear war to be sure. ICBMs streaked past one another through space and pounded major population centers. Submarines stationed off coastlines unleashed payloads onto military installations and vaporized navies.

We were on our way to the family farm in Tennessee when the Emergency Broadcast System blared in the middle of the night. I asked my father what the glow in the sky was, far off to the south, where the horizon looked like the sun was about to rise, the darkness cut with orange streaks.

“That’s the world dying,” my father said.

Later, when skeletal families showed up at the farm dying from radiation sickness, dysentery, starvation, or plague, I remembered what Dad said. He was right. The world was dying, and I watched the death throes every day for years. After the initial die off, there were more years of anarchy, when we were attacked by roving bands of people that didn’t seem like people anymore. They were animals, bent on death and destruction, murdering for fun and food, raping for pleasure, enslaving others because they could. The law of the jungle was the law of the land.

I’m lucky to be alive, I know. I lost my family during the years following the Fall. Now, when my kids ask me about it, they wonder why America didn’t do something to stop it. I tell them that most people are kind and decent, but that the really bad ones have a way of convincing everyone else to overlook the truth. I tell my children that because there’s nothing else I can think of that makes sense, and the words leave me with a hollow feeling.

Maybe there is hope, though. Maybe my kids will get it right, and the next generations will be better than the ones that came before.

The Writer… Free short story

The Writer
He flowed onto the bar, elbows perched upon the hard edge with his shoulders slumped, a cigarette in one hand while the other aimlessly caressed a shot of whiskey, neat. The smell of stale beer and smoke mingled with decades of accumulated broken dreams and lingering hope. He regarded his reflection in the bar room mirror, and his face, gray-bearded and worn, stared back at him, half obscured behind rows of liquor in the dimly lit dive.

“Hey, John, you want another one?” Mickey said. Like he didn’t know. 
“Yeah. Thanks.” 
John fell back into the foggy trance he’d wandered in for the last hour, meeting his own gaze, a certain kind of defiance in it. He remembered the first time he came in here, how he sat in front of this same dammed mirror, perhaps even on the same padded stool, back when he was shiny and new and his eyes burned with that fire which comes with youth and certainty. It was empty that first afternoon, just him and Diane, who still owned the place, and old Billy, who was sitting at a battered piano playing a hit song he’d written back in the seventies, three chords and the truth. It was magical; John was hooked.
That was why he’d moved to Music City, to be around people like that, places like this. To write songs and play music until all hours of the night and grasp the thrum of creative energy that hummed in the air all around this place and inside him. He yearned to find a way to unleash it, to tap into a force greater than he, to channel those ideas and create something great.
In those early years, ideas danced all around him in the way of magic, swirling threads of many colors, each one a line, a melody, an emotion, a truth. He figured that all he had to do was reach out and grasp those threads, weave them together, and sit down with his guitar, and something beautiful would eventually emerge, a song never heard before. Nashville, and then the world, would recognize this rare talent, of course, and reward him with the praise and cash commensurate with his ability.
It had only taken John a few weeks to figure out that he’d overestimated his unique skill set, which proved far less rare than he’d initially believed. There were folks writing poetry and lyrics that would have made Kirstofferson proud, singing their asses off in front of empty bars and tip-jars. Yet, he kept believing, working to get better, honing his craft. His fingertips were calloused from long hours playing his guitar, and his skin grew thick with rejection. Sometimes he wanted to quit, but he didn’t because he believed. Really, he didn’t have a choice, for writing was in him.
The years slid by while John wrote and played songs and networked and drank on Music Row. He lost his wife, who grew to despise him in spite of her kind nature, and he lost himself, too, somewhere right in the vicinity of where he now sat. She couldn’t forgive the wasted potential, and neither could he. She had a great job, while he was a mere “aspiring writer.” That’s how she introduced him at cocktail parties, and it made him grind his teeth then. Ten years of marriage down the drain. He wanted to think he was better than he was, and that label was something he chaffed at. Either you were a writer or you weren’t. 
“John, do you want another one?”
“What do you think?”
“You’re too ugly to be an ass, and not old enough to get away with it,” Mickey quipped, sliding another one across the bar.
“Thanks,” John said.
“Written any songs lately?” Mickey said.
“A few. You know how it is.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Mickey used to write songs, too. But last night he sang the same four songs he’d played relentlessly ten and twenty years ago, though now his voice was shot to hell. Back when John first heard the man sing, he sounded like Garth Brooks. Now it was like Garth on gravel with bad pitch. Back then, writers would pass around a beat-up guitar at the bar until five in the morning, after the bar was supposed to be closed, and Mikey would play harmonica while Billy made the piano sing and someone was always there on the fiddle, and there’d be mandolins and upright base-guitars, and girls singing harmony. All the while, the beer flowed and people laughed and wrote and played and created. It was joyous. That’s how he remembered it, anyway.
“What happened to this place, man?” John said.
“Progress. We’re busier than we’ve ever been. Nightly live shows, tourists come in and out every day. Business has never been better.”
“It’s dead, though.”
“The hell it is! Look at that table over there, a tour bus from Tampa. They just tipped me a hundred bucks. This place is hopping now. You’ve been gone a while.”
“The whole Row has changed. It makes me sad. Don’t you wonder what the hell happened? The publishers all moving away, high-rises taking over. There’s no heart here anymore. It used to be…intimate. Now it’s all corporate, impersonal, worse than I remember it.”
“You sound just like the Doctor Doom I remember,” Mickey laughed. “I never liked you then. You were arrogant, always bitching about “politics.” Guess what? You don’t have what it takes. Never did. And this place is still here, while you’re just passing through.”
“Screw you, Mickey.”
“You deserve it.”
“Maybe. But I’m just trying to sit here and have a drink in my old watering-hole.”
“It’s not your watering hole any more. So, you don’t get to talk bad about it now. I saw your ex in the paper last week, by the way. She looks great. A real peach.”
“Good for her,” John said, meaning it. 
“So why’d you get divorced, anyway? I remember her coming in here to meet you, her all dolled up and professional in her business suit and you in your cut-up jeans and long hair. We all wondered when she’d leave your ass.”
John picked up his glass and gripped it tighter than he usually did, a slight nod of his head as he had a conversation with himself, the one where he reminded himself that he had much to lose and nothing to gain by coming across the bar.
“That’s not how it was. But you can go ahead and check yourself now, Mickey. Cause’ I never liked you either.”
“Just messing with you, Doctor Doom.” Mickey snickered and stuffed his rag down into the back of his jeans and turned away.
The juke-box which once wailed Haggard, Jones, and Cash now blasted pop-country-rap while a group of starry-eyed kids set up on stage with nervous energy and fervent belief, like this was their moment. They wore hats and cowboy boots, and John smiled. They launched into a predictable set of songs about trucks and beer and girls in cut-off jeans and the tourists from Oklahoma cheered.
A kid sat down next to John, after he’d left the guitar on his back next to the stack of them lining the stage. He grinned, his eyes full of wonder and glory, scruffy and earnest.
“Hey, man,” he said, “are you gonna get up on stage?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“You new in town? I’m Lance, by the way.”
“John. Nice to meet ya. I’m just passing through.”
“Ah. Well, this place has a way of getting in your blood. Watch out, or you might just stay.” He laughed. “There’s a cool vibe here, you know? An energy in the air. It’s like nowhere I’ve ever been. What are you doing here, if you aren’t here to pick some songs?”
“Reconnecting. Remembering. I don’t know. I love this place. Or at least, I used to.”
Lance got a far away look in his eyes, something akin to pity and perhaps a bit of fear.
“Ah,” he said, “you’re a writer. Moved away. That’s a hard thing.”
“Not really,” John lied.
“If you didn’t miss it, you wouldn’t be here, though, would you?”
“I guess.”
“I worry about that, you know. Swinging for the fences and striking out. Failing in a spectacular way, because there are so many people more talented than me here trying to get through the same little door. And one day you wake up and you’re forty and wonder where your life went. No offense.”
“None taken. Trust me, I had that conversation with myself, right here, many times. Wondering why I what the hell I was doing. I moved away when I was thirty-five, no regrets.”
“So, what happened?”
“Life happened. And that’s a good thing, not something to be ashamed of. I used to think that there was nothing more important in the world than my music and my writing. I was a fool. By the time I figured that out, it was too late.”
Lance nodded his head, silent for a few minutes while the kids on stage wrapped up their set with an original song, a ballad about the death of a loved one. I noticed that the bar quieted down, and folks were listening, feeling it. 
“I think the same way,” Lance said, peeling the label on the longneck in front of him. “Maybe it’s the only way to make it, to be willing to give everything up. Art demands sacrifice. Somebody said that. I’m willing to go the distance, but I worry how I’ll feel in ten years if I still haven’t gotten a cut.”
“It’s different for everyone,” John said.
“I’m up,” Lance said, brightening. “Wish me luck.”
He marched up to the stage, unzipping his gig bag and removing a battered Martin. John grinned. The kid had taste in guitars, anyway. He played finger style, a unique arpeggio, and sang a song about whiskey and loss, and damn it if John didn’t find some rain in his eyes. Lance was good, really good.
The crowd clapped after the song, though not with the same enthusiasm they’d displayed for the trucks and girls in Daisy-Duke’s. He spoke into the microphone, his voice a deep baritone, and said “I’d like to get my new friend John up on the stage. What do y’all think?” More tepid applause.
What the hell, John thought. That’s why I came here, maybe. He stepped up to the stage, and one of the other writers offered him a nice Taylor to play. Lance grinned at him, one hand shielding the mike, and said “I hope you don’t mind me puttin’ you on the spot. Let’s see what you got.”
“It’ll be fun,” John said. “Back me up.”
“Right on.”
John played “Rainy Night in Nashville,” a song he’d written just before he left town, a sad song about broken dreams, and Lance sang harmony and laid down some cool licks. John lost himself in the melody, embracing the moment, weaving the threads dancing in the air around him.
After they left the stage, the two sat back down at the bar, and Lance slapped John on the back. “You’re pretty good, man.”
“Thanks. You’ve got it, Lance. That rare thing. You’re gonna make it, so don’t listen to old fools like me.”
“That song you played is still on the juke box here,” Lance said. “I dig it.”
John felt a warm hand on his neck, and he turned. His wife smiled at him, appearing from nowhere, long dark hair tumbling over her shoulders, her dress cut low enough for a hint of cleavage. She smelled like flowers and hope and sunshine. She kissed him on the lips and squeezed his thigh.
“How’s memory lane?” She said.
“Good. This is Lance, by the way. Really talented writer.”
“Hi, Lance, I’m Kelli. Did John invite you to the book signing?”
“Hi, uh, no.”
“Well, you should come. We’re going for drinks afterwards with some friends. You should join us. Always fun to hang out with a bunch of songwriters.”
“What signing?”
“He didn’t tell you? A book signing at the Vanderbilt Barnes & Noble for his new novel.”
Lance arched his eyebrows, an almost relieved smile spreading across his face. “You write books? My faith is restored. You had me worried, there, for a minute.”
“Writers write,” John said, with a laugh.
Mickey sidled up to us, leering at Kelli. “So,” Mickey said. “It’s starting to make sense now.”
“Yep,” Lance said. “When you said life happened, I didn’t quite understand. But I do now.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kelli said. 
“Well, you’re beautiful.”
“Isn’t she, though?” John said, running his hand over her backside, savoring the curves in all the right places. “Gave me two boys and thirteen years. Now we’re getting to the really good part, I think.”
“It’s hell being married to a writer sometimes,” she said. “We had to learn to quit worrying about what might happen, and live in those times between the folds. Once we did that, it got easier. You writer-types spend so much time pining away for a dream, you miss the good stuff happening all around you every day. Do that enough, and it all starts going to hell in a hand basket.”
John and Kelli said goodbye to their new friend, and strode into the pale afternoon light hand in hand and the old homes cast friendly shadows down Sixteenth Avenue, while the new offices and condos looked on with disdain and music from the last bar on the row poured out onto the street and life was good.

Free short story: Sand

kelli at the end

Sand

1

The ocean this morning is that special blue, deeper than any color can be alone, truer than the sun playing golden on easy waves, warm and inviting. The sweet breeze and the singing feeling in my chest and the taste of salt and life and the way light and shadows dance against a vast horizon are all part of one color.

I am an artist, feeling what I see, seeing what I feel, and right now in this moment I have discovered a new color. Hope.

Standing in the surf, hard packed sand beneath painted toes and wind tossing my long hair, hope embraces me, a brilliant color and emotion I have yearned to find. There is freedom and forgiveness and exhilaration in it, but it is more than those things, for it is akin to explaining the sunrise to a blind woman or the joy and pain of childbirth to a man. There are some things that only make sense with color and context.
Henry launches himself into a wave, laughing and carefree and seven, bursting with light and potential, and I am filled with joy and gratitude as I gaze upon my son, and for a moment a cloud passes overhead and there is regret mingled with wonder at his resilience and my own.

“Momma, did you see that? That wave almost got me. It didn’t though.”

“I saw, honey. You beat that wave.”
“Look out,” he shouts, grinning with his hands in the air. “Here comes a big one. Get ready.”

Yeah. I know about that.

Behind us, the castle surrenders to the water, walls sliding into the sea, a work of art doomed to memory from its inception because it was built in the only place it could have been with the materials at hand: Hope and love and sand.
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I saw something in him when I first laid eyes on him, and part of me still wonders about that. Doubts my sanity. That’s a man, I thought. Tall and handsome and cocky, a guitar on his back and a searching kind of loneliness in his eyes at the same time. A road trip with some girlfriends to Panama city with a detour to Nashville cast ripples I never could have imagined. Probably we should have gone to the beach.

I’m from a little shithole southern town where everybody knows everybody, even though they never really do. They think they do, and make up lies to fill in the blanks. Don’t get me started. That’s a whole separate ball of wax. It’s part of it, though. Part of why I stayed when I should have left after things went like they did. There is hope now, and for me back then in those hard years between the folds, I saw hope in that guy with a guitar and wounded eyes and silver words.

You work with what you’ve got, and sometimes it’s sand. You build where you can, and if it’s the damn beach, then that’s better for the moment than anywhere else if that’s the only place you think you can build.

Worse, if that’s where you want to make something lasting even though you know better, because there is that thing that you can’t explain to anyone with a brain, including yourself. That love and passion and color and self-delusion wrapping around each other in a heady mix of blue sky and Cinderella and faith and kisses.

There are hotel rooms where people to this day cannot go because of us. We fucked like wild animals and it was glorious, mattresses askew and cushions on the floor and people calling the front desk. It was like that; that was the good part, the beginning, that thing that was real in its own way but painfully elusive in the life I eventually lived. The life we lived for a damn decade.

I wasn’t happy where I was when I met him, raging against the small town and small minds and big egos, and there was this huge man with song and gentle touch. A caress and a look around the eyes that unlocked parts of me I didn’t want to face, but which ignited a tingle and desire and a longing for something I’d almost given up on believing could be real. I wanted to believe. I truly did. I was divorced, he was divorced. I had a boyfriend, he had a girlfriend. We lived 550 miles apart…here we go.

I should go back and slap myself upside the head, but it’s a little late for that. I try to tell my daughters not to make the same mistakes I did, and I pray they hear my plea. They likely haven’t learned the things I wished they would, the right lessons that could have been lived and not said, and it makes me sad still.

That son of a bitch. The man I loved destroyed me and he hurt everyone I loved. There was darkness in me and surrender because I didn’t see anything else.

I am better than that. I remain undefeated, and with the sky true and the ocean sweet, I feel it. He was my enemy, implacable in the way of the tide claiming a castle built upon the sand. He did what he did, hurting and acting and reacting. Hurting me. Harming our family. The tide has no choice, serving the moon, but he made choices the ocean never has. Later, I made choices too. I don’t have many regrets. He can keep those.

The bitterness in my heart devoured me, and that I lay at his feet. That he fell in love with me for a second time when I wasn’t in love with him doesn’t matter anymore. I’d already moved on before I moved on, he just didn’t see it. Truth is often painful but always worth the price, even when it’s paid in heartache.divorce-2

I am a woman, a mother, and an artist, and my past does not define me. I fought like hell to get here to this moment and feel these colors. I earned this ocean and this light. I paid the price with tears and years and parts of me I should never have surrendered.sand3

I hear a laugh behind me, a joyous hearty thing, and I spin, my toes digging in the sand and the sun on my face and smile at the man I love and want to spend the rest of my life with.
He is not the same man I built castles in the sand with.

And that makes all the difference.
2

Dawn comes slow and warm, the surf an easy whisper on the beach. Lying on my back beneath a sand dune, the sky is turning from black to gunmetal gray, becoming something new, painted with swirls of pink and orange until the sun breaks on the horizon. I’ve always loved to watch the sun rise; it’s a wondrous transformation, as darkness surrenders to light. A kind of rebirth which only comes through time.sand2

Endings are really beginnings; I often forget that. I remember it now.

The fresh sea breeze soothes my soul and there is the taste of salt and the coming sun on my lips mingled with peace. The kind of peace you don’t know you need until you find it again and see how much you’ve been missing it.

I am a writer, and I’ve sacrificed much at the altar of love. The love of words, and the love of a woman.

Maybe that’s how it had to be.
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Sometimes when you meet the love of your life you know it right away; that’s how it goes in the movies. It wasn’t like that for me.I didn’t know it until it was too late.

I met her in Nashville years ago, rebounding and hurting and she helped heal me. Made me feel loved and safe. There was a whirlwind romance with this unlikely woman from the deep south with wild hair and blue eyes and a hunger in her I found intensely desirable. Within six months of divorcing my previous wife of many years, I found myself married again, an expectant father and stepfather of two girls, living far from home in a new town.
I wanted to be that guy. I really did. I wanted to believe.

I wasn’t ready to meet her, but it happened the way it did and went to hell from there. I hung on through kids and demons and heart break, inflicting my own upon the way. Resentment grew in that void and bitterness festered. There were actions and reactions until it was impossible to know what was true and what was false. It’s not an uncommon story, and I wish I’d written a better one for my life, mine and her’s.

We hung onto eachother and our children through years of quiet desperation. Clinging to the hope that one day things would change, that light would break through the looming clouds and we would feel that shine on our hearts again. That God would bring purpose and healing to us together, not individually. To our family. That our faith would sustain us.
It happened for me, but it never did for her. I only thought it did.hourglass

On a perfect day right before the blue sky fell, the sun was gold dust glittering on the water and in the air and we were a family. I recall the sense of wonder and glory, savoring that moment with my children in the waves, holding hands with my wife, a deep gratitude and awe in me that things were good. I can wrap those memories around me now and hold them tight

Just because we wish a thing to be true does not make it so.

I defined myself as a father and a husband and an author, and it’s been a process to remake my life and my existence. I will always be a dad, and being away from my boys for any time has wounded both me and them. I’ll always be a writer, too and I embrace that part of me. Words don’t keep you warm at night, though, don’t hold you when you are crushed.

She was my muse and best friend, inspiring me, making me a better man and better author. It’s an anguished thing to loose, knowing that that has faded away. I hope forgiveness finds me. For the moment, there is peace. There is hope in the growing light.

The tide eats the beach and blue waves claim the sand as they have forever, and when the wind blows right and the ocean calms, the sand blows up onto the rolling dunes and the beach is born again.

The sky is bright now and I turn away with a certain wistful sadness; I’ve got pages to write. Later, I’ll come back with my boys and we’ll build a sand castle. The memories will remain long after my footprints are gone, and they will be true and good.

The End

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http://www.amazon.com/Objects-Wrath-Book-1-ebook/dp/B00IK7MH9M/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

A Few Good Sentences

Readers often ask me about my creative process, so here’s a general snapshot of how I write.

I’m a slow writer compared to most of my peers. I’m not sure I could crank out a book in three months, and if I did that it would be unreadable. I know authors who crank out four good books a year. I’ll never have that sort of output.

It all begins with an idea

I tend to marinate on several ideas at once, before deciding what I’m going to write. I’ll make notes on legal pads, bar napkins, and the back of company notebooks. Once I’ve got a general idea of the topic, then I move onto characters. With Objects of Wrath,
I began with the idea of a family struggling to survive the next world war.

I sketch the main character first, and then surround him with the surrounding cast. Often at this point, I don’t know enough about the story to fill in the details, but I like to have a general idea.

Next comes the broad outline. This is only a few pages long, with enough space in there to add things. I use a legal pad, and I draw a diagram of a suspension bridge. The high points are the big scenes in the middle and the climax, and the lines in between are the rising action, the building tension. Sometimes I’ll actually use one full page for this diagram, and divide the rising action into specific chapter ideas. The point of this diagram is that I want to have a general idea of what I’m writing towards. It sounds simplistic because it is. But it is very helpful to me in terms of pacing.

The next thing I do is write a first chapter, just to get a feel for the characters. So far, a surprisingly big chunk of my first chapters have made it to the final manuscript. I go back later on and move things around, and work especially hard on the first fifty pages, but the bones are there.

Storytelling

I tend to plot out a few chapters ahead of time as I’m writing. For me this is the best part of writing books. I have notebooks crammed with ideas, where I just let things rip. “What if…” and then I’ll try that idea out, often in paragraph form.  One idea leads to another, and I’ll end up with various branching plot lines.

When I’m in this mode, I can write unfettered, and it is where I probably do my best work. It’s here that characters start to misbehave in good ways. A minor character becomes important, while a character that I’d planned on keeping alive has to die. I’ll stumble upon an idea that lights me up, and spend a few hours writing one paragraph working to get it right.

I alternate back and forth when I’m writing a novel, between storytelling mode, and the actual pounding out the words at the keyboard.

Here are a few random examples of paragraphs or sentences I worked very hard on.

From Objects of Wrath: http://www.amazon.com/Objects-Wrath-Volume-Sean-Smith/dp/1618682245

“I had seen Gunny in action, had been trained by him, and knew how quick and deadly he was, but Chilli was an artist in his prime form, painting death with deft strokes. With perfect economy of motion he dispatched a seemingly unending supply of enemies in an unrivaled masterpiece of destruction. I hacked and shot behind him through the smoke, and despite the chaos, I marveled at Chilli’s artwork. His canvas was the battlefield, and he was the Rembrandt of the knife, painting darkness, not light. He was the Picasso of the blade, leaving twisted corpses in his wake, his hands and feet brushes that flicked out almost delicately, precisely, colorfully”

From Children of Wrath http://www.amazon.com/Children-Wrath-Book-Volume/dp/1618683411/ref=pd_bxgy_14_img_y

“Most of us are blessed with a moment when sunlight is gold dust, warm and glittering, and the air is clean and tastes like hope. Sometimes we pay attention, savor the sweetness and are glad of it. Too often, we realize the rareness of it too late to revel in the glory of it. Looking back, though, we know the moment. That’s the yearning and the hurt later, because the memory is not the time, it is an echo. There is no way to feel exactly that way again, you can only recall the wholeness of it, remember the preciousness. My moment was long and my soul sings with the echoes I hear, but by the time we began our assault on Dugway, my moment had already passed.”

From Tears of Abraham, coming in March 2016

abraham cover final

“Stand up for yourself,” his father had said when Henry walked home with a bloody nose again. Henry’s old man, Tim Wilkins peered down at Henry. A tall, rangy man with a straight back, pale blue eyes, and a face worn out by life, Tim Wilkins was not prone to overt displays of affection or sympathy. But he was the center of Henry’s universe.
In Henry’s eyes then, his father was granite, solid rock, unbreakable, unchangeable, and strong in the way of a proud mountain. The lens of hope and faith filtered out the cracks and fissures, the broken blood vessels on Papa’s wind burned face, and the hurting eyes of a man eroded, but not yet completely worn smooth. Blasted by hard years, bad luck, and the love for the wrong woman, Papa remained undefeated.”

From Fate of the Fallen, my work in progress:

“Religion, Malak reasoned, would be at the heart of it. Money and power led to war between men. Religion could destroy mankind. Sometimes money and power were the religion, the worship of those things, by men who held armies on a leash. The worst of it was when money, power, and religion all combined. At the end of the day, it was always some kind of religion.”

Savoring the process

I love writing, whether it’s a song or a novel. I relish the entire process, and enjoy lingering over a passage, turning the words over, shifting things around to find a cadence and melody to the words. Some readers find this aspect of my writing a hinderence, and I understand that many folks want to read an adrenaline-driven book that’s primarily plot-driven. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I enjoy books like that  sometimes. The older I get, though, the more I want some real substance to the things I read and the things I write. I love Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dickens, McCarthy, Irving and O’brien. I’ve got a long way to go before I can attain that level, but that’s what I shoot for when I sit down to tell a story.

That’s my process, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

TEARS OF ABRAHAM, cover reveal and signing announcement!

abraham cover final

The first Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in American history. The second war is worse.

While the nation tears itself apart, a soldier with a deadly secret fights his way home to his family.

Freedom is worth dying for, and love is a reason to live…but a house divided cannot stand.

Can Henry, Suzanne and the United States survive? Often the things we love we hurt the most.

Bestselling author Steve Konkoly says:

Tears of Abraham delivers a frightening look at a nation torn apart by a not so distant civil war. In classic Smith style, the conflict unfolds on a deeply personal level, delivering a guy punch of authentic military style action, sleek conspiracy undertones, and gripping family drama. I was hooked from the start by this uniquely dystopian military thriller.”

This is a deeply patriotic novel, my love letter to America. Should our differences lead to open war, the results will be beyond anything we can imagine, yet even now people clamor for secession without understanding what that would mean. While politics forms a backdrop to this book, it is essentially apolitical, a look at a conflict more than a hundred years in the making through the eyes of heroes, villains, and the innocent.

TEARS OF ABRAHAM will be released in March 2016, published by Post Hill Press and distributed by Simon & Schuster.

http://www.amazon.com/Sean-T.-Smith/e/B00IKHPGEK

So you want to be a writer…

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If you want to be a writer, my advice is: don’t want to be a writer.

Seriously.

The overwhelming majority of us are destitute, conflicted, outcast, and inhabit a general state of unhappiness because dreams and reality aren’t the same thing. The idea of being a writer looks nothing like the reality. Only for an anointed few is this not the case.

I’m not going to bore you with sad  number-crunching; suffice it to say that there are about three million people trying to enter gates that will only allow a few hundred to enter at any given time. If you’ve ever been in a big city, then the idea of a traffic jam of these proportions should make you think twice, and then ten more times, about wanting to be a writer. Because we’re all trying to enter the same gate, and there’s not enough room for everyone. There’s bickering and thirst and sometimes murder in the long hot wait.

If you want to be a writer, then write poems and love songs for your partner, write short stories and epic novels that take decades to compose, infused with joy and hope and thousands of hours of research and plotting and honing. Rewrite everything as many times as you can until you have stomped the love out of each line and eroded the originality and voice which made them true in the first place.

Chase trends and listen to talking heads and bow down to the powers that seem to be, attend seminars and workshops while other people who want to be writers, and people who thought they wanted to be authors but who decided that being a critic is a better path, destroy your dream.

That’s the wanting to be a writer part. Don’t do it.

If you are a writer, though, then you have no choice. I applaud your belief and audacity and will cheer you on when things are glorious and your work is praised by the wise and mocked by fools. Writers write because they must; the money is the grand prize, but the reward for a writer comes also in the joy of the writing itself.  Mostly, that’s likely not going to happen, and at some point, writers must come to grips with that. Cold, hard, truth. Many iconic writers died in obscurity and poverty.

If you are a writer, then this truth doesn’t matter; you remain undaunted.  You will put your butt in a chair and crank out stories. You will research and you will write. You will rewrite. And rewrite again and again.. You cut the things that you were certain were brilliant. Slash pages and paragraphs. Of course, you have to write them before you can cut them.

I’m a writer, and I wouldn’t recommend being one. For those who can’t help themselves, take heed. It’s a long, brutal road.

There’s glory though, in being a writer, an artist, and that’s what keeps us writing and painting and playing music, in the face of the odds and in spite of the facts. That sensation of creating something which is true and makes another human being smile or laugh or cry or throw something at the wall… that’s writing. And for writers, that’s a beautiful reward.

That reward may not be what we yearned for, yet it is beautiful in its own right. Writers know that, and people who want to be writers learn by doing.

http://www.amazon.com/Children-Wrath-Book-2-ebook/dp/B00MW8AZHG/ref=sr_1_sc_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1435638461&sr=8-2-spell&keywords=objets+of+wrath

A Christian Writer’s Journey

Journey

I’ve always been a dreamer, something that my father instilled in me from a very young age because he would say things like, “son if you work hard, you can be anything you want to be. Follow your dreams.”  I saw my old man write books, toil as a carpenter, and then go to law school. He practiced what he preached, rising from abject poverty to success through discipline and years of burning the candle at both ends. When I left the University of Florida to pursue a songwriting career, my dreams were vast and my ability limited. I had no idea how hard my road would be.

It occurs to me that I’ve had a lifelong problem managing my expectations, and this character trait has tarnished my relationships, my career, and my soul. When you shoot for the stars, mostly you don’t wind up where you thought you were going. The heart of the matter is pride. Leaning much upon my own understanding rather than upon God. So here’s my story, and perhaps some other folks can avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made, and perhaps with the telling of it, maybe I’ll finally wrap my head around the truth.

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I moved to Nashville way back in 1992 with a heart full of dreams and a cheap guitar. Those first years were heady, back when I knew I would  “make it,” and I figured that within a few years, I’d be living the dream. I played the Bluebird, penned hundreds of songs with fellow songwriters,  and wrote every single day. I saw, quickly, that I had much to learn. I’d been in town for about a month when I saw a writers round with Bob DePiro and Mike Reid… they slayed me with their talent. Every song was perfection, their vocals were mind-blowing, and their musical ability was so far beyond me that I saw there was an entire mountain yet to climb. I embraced it, and I learned, worked on my craft, mentored by some great writers. I had songs on hold for major artists, went to number one parties, and rubbed elbows with the movers and shakers of Music Row. Then I started doing a dangerous thing.

I began spending too much time gazing at where I wanted to be rather than what I needed to do to get there, and worse, whether that was where I should go. Enter the bitterness, the, sense of betrayal and the resentment. The great Harlan Howard, whom I had the great pleasure of spending time with, once said to a disgruntled songwriter, “well, nobody called and asked you to move to Nashville.” Right.He didn’t say that to me, but it would have bee spot on. Nobody told me to decide to become a writer..that was my choice. But the desire to succeed was eating my soul, clouding my vision and ultimately hurting my music. Some of my fellow writers nicknamed me “Doctor Doom.”

guitar

I moved back to Florida following a divorce and the feeling of being let down in my songwriting career (or lack thereof,) thinking that I could leave writing in my rear-view mirror. I was wrong, and I started writing fiction, which didn’t require the same sort of schmoozing and glad-handing that songwriting seems to. When I got my first publishing deal, I was ecstatic. I’d signed a contract for a trilogy, and I hadn’t even written two of the books yet. I decided I would be a wildly successful author within perhaps a year or two. I’m hard headed, obviously, though my wife uses more colorful words to describe my frequent and woeful lack of understanding.

It takes years of hard work, multiple books, and networking, and talent to make it as an author. Like any other artistic endeavor, it’s a subjective thing, and people will buy what people buy. I find the writing in Fifty Shades of Grey to be awful, but tens of millions of people strongly disagree; E.L. James reached the stars by connecting with her readers, and more power to her. I could undoubtedly learn a thing or two from her. So, I’m writing, working, knowing it takes time, and trying not to chafe against that knowledge. Trying to enjoy the journey, and not focus on the destination.

During these decades of writing, I burned down one marriage and almost destroyed another. One of the central reasons this happened is because I expect things to go my way, and when they don’t, I get rankled. My essential impatience, my propensity to reach beyond my means to grasp. Marriage is hard work, and when things go south, which they will in any marriage at some point, I’ve had the feeling that things should be right again quickly. Wounds should heal, others should change, I should change…if not overnight, then within a time frame that I deem acceptable. Utter nonsense. It’s destructive. Because, once again, that resentment sets in and things only get worse. You end up feeling like you’re wasting your time, and when a sense of futility becomes pervasive, it’s already almost too late. It takes discipline and hard work to make it back from that.

Against this backdrop, I’ve experienced the same sort of impatience with God. It sounds as dumb as it is, yet when I’m in the midst of it, I can’t see it, missing the forest for the trees. I cry out to God, asking for help with more selfishness than humility: Help me make it as a writer, help my marriage, please send a briefcase full of money from the sky!  When I don’t get the quick results I desire, I feel betrayed. Like no one is really listening. Like the songs on the radio are full of false promises, and that the Word itself has misled me. But I have misled myself by choosing to focus on the wrong things, by hearing what I want to hear instead of the truth.

The truth is, life can be terrible, hard, and mean. And there is no assurance of a good outcome for any of us on this earth simply because we choose to follow God. The whole idea of abundance theory preached in many mega-churches is dangerous drivel.  It’s connected to Calvinism and the idea that success is predestined, a concept which helped to form the Protestant Work Ethic and build a nation, but which in many ways undermines the deeper message of the gospel. This Calvinistic attitude spawns the belief that poor are poor because God has decided it, and conversely that the wealthy are wealthy because they have earned favor in the eyes of the Lord. This belief system is insidious. Ask the Paul, Peter and Timothy about that.

Because the assurance and peace Jesus and the Apostles talk about is the eternal kind, not the earthly kind, and the our peace on this rock is found in knowing this and feeling fulfilled and joyous despite our circumstances. Salvation, peace, and joy are not things we have earned, but which come, ultimately, through the grace of God. Apart from God, I can do nothing. I am worth nothing. And this, perhaps, is the central truth I’ve missed over and over again.

The story isn’t mine. It never was. Paul extolls us in Hebrews 12:2 “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our fate…”  I’m an author, yet I’m not THE author. I focus on the things which I want, the tangible trappings of success, and I fix my gaze upon that which I cannot obtain alone. I cling to my pride like a talisman and wonder why I become disillusioned. I truly want to reach people, to touch lives and be a force of light, but I’ve been going about it all wrong, putting my own story ahead of the most important story.

It will take hard work and discipline, and faith, but when I look back twenty years from now, I pray I will be able to say that I was living and writing for the right reasons, not the wrong ones, and that I released my foolish pride, my selfish expectations, and human arrogance. By emptying myself, I pray that God will fill me with His spirit and that the kind of peace which matters is the peace I will have found.

I still have a mountain to climb, and my way is unclear. I have much to learn, and am certain I will falter. I am not alone, and in this knowledge I will rest assured, striving to fix my eyes on Jesus, my sole destination.

http://www.amazon.com/Wrath-Redemption-Sean-T-Smith-ebook/dp/B00SXOLOEQ/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8