Words to Live By – Sex, Love, Warfare, and Death

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The first Wednesday of every month, writer Jeff Bowles muses on life, creativity, and our collective destinies as makers of cool stuff. You’re a writer, but have you ever thought about how or why? Here are some words to live by.

Sex, Love, Warfare, and Death

People will fool you if you let them. Consumers especially. Consider the old marketing adage coined by Steve Jobs, “A lot of the time, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Every single morning, especially with the elections coming up, I turn on the news to get a glimpse of my world. The media skews reality so badly it sometimes seems pathological, but hey, let’s face it, if I really wanted raw unbiased information, I wouldn’t get it from CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC.

Coronavirus is about to go pandemic. That’s scary, which means the news will deliver it to me at accelerated intervals. Donald Trump tweeted something nasty again—big surprise there—and I’ll hear about it at the top of the hour, every hour. A new celebrity sex scandal? I eat those up, because, well, I’m a human being and gossip about sex somehow makes me feel like an active participant. It really isn’t the media’s fault, of course. They only sell what I’m willing to buy. Whatever else it may have become in the modern era, the news business has always understood our psychology far better than we do.

No matter how old we get, how wizened, educated, experienced, or jaded, there are but a few key elements we demand like clockwork from our stories: sex, love, warfare, and death. The news is a storytelling racket, after all, no different from books, movies, or anything else worth binging till our eyes bleed. Broadcasting the truth (or something designed to look like a reasonable facsimile thereof) is supposed to carry with it an added degree of responsibility, but if you find yourself screaming at the anchorman for his disastrous manipulation of the facts, don’t blame his boss or parent company. We are who we are. Humans possess a higher mind, higher aspirations and beliefs, altruism, compassion, faith, family unity, a virtuous sense of community. But we have a lower mind, too, a famously inconvenient and uncompromising wilderness of dim subconscious junk, and any storyteller worth her salt knows to engage us there first and foremost.

Think about your favorite stories. Every single one of them, I’ll bet, contains some degree of sex, love, warfare, or death. Now, your all-time top ten may not include all four at once, and maybe one or two of those elements, more or less to the point, is dressed up to resemble something else entirely. But they are there. 50 Shades of Grey wasn’t a pop culture phenomenon because it was a good book, and War and Peace would’ve sold far fewer copies historically if Tolstoy had simply called it Peace. I know what you’re thinking. This is all pretty cynical, Jeff. Surely people aren’t so basic as that. Why yes we are, and don’t call me Shirley. Anyway, it’s not cynicism. It just might be helpful to know what you’re up against before you decide to tell your next story.

Here’s what you’re up against. You are a human being attempting to entertain, enlighten, provoke, or otherwise affect on an emotional level other human beings, a species of meat-bodied, highly intelligent yet conflicted primates with a long, glorious history of blood for blood, sex for pleasure, and a penchant for looking for love in all the wrong places. Just so you know I’m not biased, I also believe each of us has a soul and a sovereign and divine spiritual destiny. To my mind, we’re a perfectly perfected, haphazard merger of things both high and low. It’s just that sometimes higher things can seem lowly and lower things can get us really, really, really, awesomely freaking high. There’s no shame in it, at least there shouldn’t be. You’re a warm body and an isolate personality. You get lonely sometimes, have to eat, sleep, and contend with day-to-day living. I also happen to believe in God and the unified consciousness of all things. Good thing, too. It helps to remember my mantras while I’m stuck in traffic, barely suppressing the urge to hop out and punch the guy sexting his girlfriend in the Hyundai next to me.

Have you ever read a really boring novel and thought, there needs to be more conflict, more romance, just a touch more daring and danger? I have, I do, all the time, especially when I’m reading something written by a beginner. Novice writers often confuse circumstance for story. These things aren’t mathematical, you aren’t working an equation, and outlining your latest plot to within an inch of its life will only render the storytelling equivalent of procedural asphyxiation. If artificial intelligence ever takes over the world, it won’t be writing stories. Not good ones, anyway.

Because we’re not synthetic lifeforms, you may every so often encounter people with beating hearts, barely controlled primal urges, a whole host of neuroses (both subtle and extravagant), and oh yeah, a crippling sense of self-doubt and self-limitation, stemming from one very basic fact: we’re all going to die, and there’s not a single thing any of us can do about it.

We care about sex because the survival of our species depends on it. We care about love and tragedy because they tend to define our most guarded, significant moments. And when it comes to warfare, we’ve all gotten a taste. What’s the difference between arguing with your neighbor for playing his music too loud and desiring to invade a foreign country because you don’t like the way they’ve been eying your stuff? A matter of degree is no matter at all, as it turns out. The trouble with reality as we know it is that we as individuals are just so damn, well, individualized. Relating to others in empathetic and wholly loving terms sometimes requires feats of superhuman strength, especially because I’m so terribly separate from you, and you’re so terribly separate from me, and I have my own needs, desires, limitations, and personal wounds to contend with.

But that doesn’t mean we’re alone. We aren’t, not one of us. It also doesn’t mean the stories we tell, the stories we love, have to be manufactured to meet primal criteria and primal criteria alone. The warmth and splendor of our experience is only equal to the depths of despair and loneliness we may encounter. That’s just the way it is. Life is a roller-coaster ride, and truth be told, we wouldn’t have it any other way. As The Beatles put it, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. How much love have you made recently? Was it worth writing about? If so, why the hell are you reading some stupid blog post? Jot it down. Hurry! Hurry! Before it disowns you and moves to upstate Antarctica!

Sometimes fiction writers neglect their own experience in favor of concocting synthetic lives, synthetic characters, synthetic prose. I imagine to some the old chestnut, write what you know, seems like a bad idea. It isn’t. You’ll have to trust me on this. Your experience is equally significant as mine, as hers, as his, which is to say, both significant and insignificant as dirt. But that’s okay. In fact, it’s the way things are supposed to be. In the course of any given lifetime, fortunes will change hands, lovers will dispose us or face our disposal, babies will cry, enemies and friends will be made, laughs will be had, tragedies endured, and at the end of it all, we’ll have to give the whole shebang back and pretend it was some kind of season finale to a sleeper hit show the network neglected to renew. It seems unfair, but immortality is reserved for vampires, Highlanders, homogenous national virtues, and other mythical beasts. It is precisely our temporal nature that enables the existence of storytelling in the first place. The people who remind us of our limits, who console us, make us feel understood, the ones who tempt us or frighten us or leave us hanging, we call them storytellers, and we honor their place in our lives.

Every single day is story unfolding, and every individual you encounter is a supreme co-author of yours. It is entirely possible to acknowledge these things about ourselves, these dark and dirty, foible-filled things, and to still enjoy the hell out of each waking moment. More than possible. Perhaps mandatory, because hating your life is just a way of saying you love it with all your heart. The real miracle, the fact that any of us are here at all, necessitates our uncompromising need to build the biggest, most luxurious sandcastles, and then to watch helplessly as the tide swallows them whole. This is the essence of storytelling. It’s the essence of life. All things must pass. All things must pass away. Just remember that the next time you sit down to write. You’d better entertain me, wow me, seduce me, or otherwise completely jack up my mood, because if you don’t, I’m putting your book down and turning on the news.

Oh look, Trump just tweeted about Coronavirus, Joe Biden, the Chinese economy, Russian election meddling, Nancy Pelosi, Roger Stone, his persecution at the hands of our political system, and he managed to use the term fake news a total of seven times. That’s got to be some kind of record. What a storyteller! Guess I’m watching CNN all morning again.

It’s in the bloodstream, you see, always was and always will be. And thank goodness for that. No need to make America great again, Mr. President. Or the rest of the human race, for that matter. We’re all pretty great already. I mean, we invented War and Peace and 50 Shades of Grey, and we haven’t even learned to conquer death yet. Bet there’s a good story in there somewhere. You should totally write it, dude, before someone else beats you to it.

Talk at you next month, everybody! Have a good one. 🙂


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, Nashville Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, is available on Amazon now!

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Words to Live By: The Kid in the Machine

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The first Wednesday of every month, writer Jeff Bowles muses on life, creativity, and our collective destinies as makers of cool stuff. You’re a writer, but have you ever thought about how or why? Here are some words to live by.

The Kid in the Machine

When I was a kid, science fiction was everything to me. Partially because my family instilled a deep love of the classics (you know, Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, basically anything with the word Star in it), I watched movies and read comic books, collected toys and built model spaceships. At some point I decided I’d like to tell my own sci-fi stories, and at a relatively young age, I began writing my first novel. I didn’t finish it, of course, didn’t even get past page twenty, but you know, intergalactic star port descriptions are real tricky.

Even now, I still love a good space opera. I never stopped being a fan, never stopped dreaming of distant galaxies and intergalactic wars. In fact, my appreciation for all things speculative and nerdy only deepened, especially once it became clear sports and girls were out, but Lord of the Rings marathons were in. I love that epic fantasy stuff, that twisted horror, that magical realism and those far flung futures, and don’t tell anyone I went to high school with, but I’d rather read a good comic than indulge in any kind of respectable adult activity. Bill paying, for instance. Never did get the hang of that one.

That’s me, I suppose, but I know for a fact on some level it’s you, too. In many ways, the things we’re fans of help define us. I know you’re still a dorky kid on the inside. I bet the inner you still wears braces and drinks juice from a box. What really does it for you? What gets you excited as a fan? Classical literature? Hard-boiled detective stories? The biggest mistake I see many established authors make as they transition from nobody to “somebody” status is that they stop being fans. It’s almost like the red curtain to the whole show gets ripped away from them, and they’re left staring into the cold, mechanical under-croft of the modern storytelling machine. Jaded, I think is the word. You must make me a promise, guys. If you ever get to that place, have yourself a good movie marathon or read a book series that has always been your favorite. A storyteller who no longer likes stories? Criminal.

Ancient sages and modern neuroscientists agree, our personalities are not exactly what we think they are. More of a patchwork, really, a cobble of external influences, internal pressures, beliefs, both valid and invalid, mixed with a healthy dose of daily psychological wear and tear and deeply recessed emotional ideation we’ve tried hard to suppress or which has simply faded into our subconscious minds during the natural course of things. In some lesser known systems of mysticism (since we’re clearly on the subject), our conscious minds are more or less counterfeit anyway, are in fact the byproducts of heretofore unseen spiritual forces that influence our thoughts, our actions, even what kinds of truths we cling to, as essential and impressively ordered as they seem. In concrete terms, you are a body, you are a mind, but you are so much more. You’re the hidden watcher, the presence behind the eyes, the witness and willing participant of the little dramas and tragicomedies happening all around you. If you’re a storyteller, you exist in even stranger terms, because you’re both the creator and the created, and the work you produce is not really yours, but rather is divinely inspired and orchestrated to flow through you.

I mean, all well and good, right? Philosophy and practicality are poor bedfellows. Because while you’re sitting in your cramped home office in the dead of night, staring with hollow eyes at your ten-year-old computer monitor—you know, the one with the cracked screen you can’t afford to repair because you chose to be a “divinely inspired” writer—the work is never as easy as you’d like it to be. I gotta tell you, for people who literally conjure something from nothing on a regular basis, writers can be a grumpy and sour bunch. Sometimes all the passion and love and internal lexiconic fandom in the universe isn’t enough to kill that 2:00 AM headache you acquired from yet another impossible deadline. Life is life, reality is staggeringly persistent, and even the most grounded and stable amongst us can have epic bare-knuckle freak-outs. That’s an industry term, by the way.

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To wit, I recently stumbled across a long and uncharacteristically honest social media thread that got my wheels turning. I’m Facebook friends with a lot of people in the writing business, and though I don’t personally know the vast majority of them, I’ve always felt a certain kinship with like minded individuals who’ve chosen paths very similar to my own. The original post asked the question, Have you ever quit writing long-term? Did you regret it? Now people in our culture are often inclined to save face and amass a front when it comes to their careers. Somehow, we’ve gotten it into our heads that the way we make money says more about us than our emotional or mental states, our long-term habits and behavioral matrices, or even our unerring innate natures, who we were before we became. After all, nobody asked you when you were five years old, Who is the essential you? They asked, What do you want to be? Like, can’t I just be the kid with a juice box who likes Saturday morning cartoons? No, teacher says, you’re an astronaut, Cindy. Next!

The responses to that Facebook post surprised me. I expected a lot of business about I’m a writer this, it’s what I do that, and there were some comments to that effect, but by and large, most respondents had to admit that if they hadn’t actually quit, they’d sure thought about it once or twice. One older gentleman actually said he gave up his very lucrative writing career years before and hadn’t looked back since. Good riddance, that was the gist. Now why would that be? Is this the norm? Isn’t writing supposed to be a joyful act?

It is, purely so, but only when a person is free to pursue it without constant worry and stress. That thing about writers tending to become alcoholics? It’s a tad overblown, but it has a ring of truth. And that gentleman, he wasn’t the only one to chime in with similar enthusiasm. Now I am not what you’d call a seasoned professional, not really. I’ve published, I’ve faltered and thought I’d quit (several times, actually), and I’ve gotten back on the horse, back to the business at hand. Not because I had deadlines. There was no external pressure for me. Because I had something to say, new experiences I wanted to share, truths I wanted to communicate. And you know what gave me the courage to do it?

Star Wars. Star Trek. Battlestar Galactica. I hadn’t written in several years, long enough I found I was ready to be a fan again instead of a base, lowly, underdog creator. And being a fan, just like when I was eight years old, I found once more the desire to tell my own stories. I don’t begrudge a professional who is sick to death of the business and wants out for good. Truth be told, I’ve never been in that position. But I am intimately familiar with the love of these things, the passion, the unabashed joy. I’ve stoked those fires within myself my whole life, and I can’t imagine a day at least some part of me won’t thrill whenever I see Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star. Sure, it’s nerdy as hell, but it’s home, it’s the place I do my dreaming.

My advice to those who want out before they’ve said everything they want to say: go home. Go and be the dreamer awhile. Maybe even a long while. Dreams can manifest as surely as dawn follows dusk, Spock follows Kirk, Jimmy Olsen is Superman’s best pal. If you as a very impressive, very professional adult can’t touch base with the kid in the machine, apart from having my pity, you have my condolences. Rest in Peace, the guy or gal you really are. Consider the possibility the world is the lie, and that you were always the truth. Drive and the creative impulse are not inexhaustible. This is very true. It’s also true they can be recharged and brought back to tip-top fighting shape as certainly as Green Lantern charges his power ring.

Plus, you don’t have to lug around an alien lantern and swear an oath every time you do it. Unless you’re into cosplay, and in that case, why waste time reading some dumb article? You’re clearly needed elsewhere, space cop. Hi, my name is Jeff Bowles. I’m old enough for beer, but today of all days, I’d like a juice box, please.


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, Nashville Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, is available on Amazon now!

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Words to Live By: The Creator in the Creative

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The first Wednesday of every month, writer Jeff Bowles muses on life, creativity, and our collective destinies as makers of cool stuff. You’re a writer, but have you ever thought about how or why? Here are some words to live by.

The Creator in the Creative

Creativity is a hard thing to nail down. I should know. I’ve tried many times. It’s universal, yet it can also be inconsistent. It’s one of the most primal urges we have, but many people stifle the creative impulse within themselves, which must suit them, but which is really a damn shame, if you ask me.

Sometimes, our creativity is like a good friend. At other times, it abandons us completely. In the face of tragedy, trauma, or just a really nasty string of bad luck, who the hell feels like writing anything? It’s hard to make cool stuff when you’re feeling low. But our creativity is never really gone for good.

In some spiritual traditions, the creative drive is an extension of the same lifeforce with which we make babies and raise families. I kind of like that sentiment, because in many ways, the projects we take on, the stories we tell, the art we make, it’s not unlike our very own precious yet finicky offspring. If there is a central intelligence in the universe, a oneness to all things, then certainly creativity is the most primary law residing therein. After all, most people’s concept of God is God, The Creator, not God, That Lazy Dude.

I’ve been creating things my whole life. I like to write songs, like to tell stories, I paint sometimes, and the fact of the matter is I never feel more at peace and connected than when I’m knee-deep in my work. It’s a buzz, really. It keeps me feeling good all day long. It’s also kind of frustrating sometimes, as I’m sure you’ll agree. To write a novel, for instance, requires intense focus and a terrible long-term memory, because if I actually thought about how often I’ve failed, I probably wouldn’t want to write at all.

If not for the unsettled nature of these things, I could live my life inside my art and never leave. Never even peek my head out to see what’s happening in the world. I also don’t have any children, which simplifies things, I suppose. My wife and I had no luck conceiving. As much as 15% of couples have fertility issues, and it makes you wonder about the connection between that essential lifeforce inside us and our ability to propagate on any level. I know that during the worst of our disappointment, I wrote more than I ever had before. Story after story after story. Mostly sad, sometimes nightmarish. It’s funny how your mental and emotional states can seep into your writing.

I had to learn to get good at creation, because for a very long time, it felt like there was nothing else for me. One can almost imagine the cosmos having one or two sloppy first drafts. There were many days I opted to spend time alone, probably because it was painful for me to see my wife in such misery. We were both hurting. We both needed to feel our pain, and then hopefully one day, to heal from it. She really wanted to be a mom, and as it slowly became clear she wouldn’t get that chance, I pursued her in ways I hoped would get through to her, despite her depression and angst. I wrote a lot about fertility. I wrote about miscarriages and frustration and having a life you’re not sure you want anymore. And I have to wonder if I had become a father, would I have worked even half as hard? I needed that energy out of me, needed to express it in some constructive way.

And I guess that’s the point, isn’t it? One little act of creation has the power to shape the world. Some people even believe we have the ability to create our own realities through sheer willpower. In New Age spirituality, they call it the Law of Attraction or the Law of Resonance. The spiritual self-help book The Secret cracked that whole thing open for mass consumption, though the basic metaphysical presumptions behind it are reportedly eons old. What is consciousness? Can you feel it? Manipulate it? Is consciousness conscious in the sense that it walks and talks and blinks and cracks a joke now and then? Or is it patient and observant within us, sleeping yet not asleep, wistful and dreaming while we strut around, the emperors of our little empires?

Many people perceive malleable seams in the fabric of reality. In practical application, sitting down to write a story is not unlike constructing a whole universe from thin air. Making gold from lead, that’s sort of the joy of being alive. At least it is for me. The fires that forge whatever I want, they burn brightly. It’s not such a stretch to imagine an unconscious connection between what I dream and how I live. And some forms of creativity are born in even hotter fires still.

Love, I’m certain, has spurred more creative endeavors than any other human experience. Unrequited love, for sure. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt the sting for someone unavailable or uninterested, but honestly, it makes for fantastic art. Hallelujah, at least it’s good for something, right? There is a kind of sacred triumvirate between the heart, the head, and the drive to create. I love my wife dearly. I love that I am afforded the joy of loving her. I write for her as much as for anything else. It’s a privilege and a wonder.

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We can drive ourselves crazy stewing in our own unexpressed romantic juices. And it’s not like artists aren’t known for craziness, right? Take a van Gogh, lop off the tip of one ear for a woman, and they’ll never let you hear the end of it (pun not intended). It’s a matter of pride for some, carrying that torch. I prefer to carry nothing at all, or at least a slice of pizza or something, but that’s just me.

It begs the question, do we have to be in pain to make good art? Or perhaps in some kind of rapture? Religious art is made in the latter, pop songs and pop books the former. Peak experience is universal, though not in any form universally understood. The creative mind is often also the jealous and overly dramatic mind. Love makes you feel that way. I suppose pain does, too. All the tragedies of the world couldn’t fit into a million books, but don’t think people haven’t tried.

Essentially, creativity is a salve. It’s soothing. It boosts your brain chemistry, all those wonderful joy hormones, and it produces an effect like falling in love. Surely, if there is something of a higher nature in us, our creativity is its first mile marker. If you’re a particularly creative individual—and if you’re reading this article, I figure you must be—then wear it proudly, and don’t forget it’s one of the things that makes you who you are. I wouldn’t even know myself as Jeff Bowles if I couldn’t put the right words down on the page or strike just the right notes on a guitar.

High-mindedness is all well and good, but the truth is you’re human, you’re mortal, and at some point you will not exist in the form you enjoy now. Which makes it even more crucial for you to follow your star and use your talents and your natural spark and intelligence to turn lead into gold. Never underestimate the power of a good mystery. Perhaps it doesn’t matter where our creativity comes from, how it manifests. Maybe it’s enough that we perform the work of our kind, which is to say, the work of the universe itself.

Have you created something great recently? Something you’re really proud of? Share it in the comments section below. And meet me back here same time next month. We’ll have another chat. 😊


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, Nashville Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, is available on Amazon now!

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Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!



Want to be sure not to miss any of Jeff’s “Words to Live By” segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress. If you found this useful or just entertaining, please share.