birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Discoveries about clients, desires, and writing habits


A key way to tell how pretentious someone is who reads the Bible, is to call the book of Revelation "Revelations" and see if they say anything. It never fails, and for me, can be quite a good litmus test of if I want to continue a conversation with a person. And yes, before you ask, I tend to converse with a lot of people who are in a position to have strong opinions on something like this. I might need some new friends...

That book, if you have ever read it, is WILD. The imagery is very symbolic and needs a lot of primary cultural contextualization for someone to even attempt to decode it accurately. So it's given rise to a lot of wackiness--my favorite piece of which is the interpretation that some of the visions the author, John of Patmos, saw were actually helicopters and missile launchers--thus "proving" that we are currently in the End Times. Speaking of which, I heard today that the world is supposed to end again on Saturday. I hope it happens after I get my free entree at this new restaurant in Alhambra.

Believe it or not, we are singing a setting of some text from Revelation in a choir I am in--a nice positive portion talking about a New Heaven and a New Earth, and how there will be no more pain and no more tears there. But, then our director drew our attention to the next paragraph, which the composer had not chosen to set. I wonder why...

"But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death."

After this, I hear a voice behind me quip: "this whole book is just one massive drug trip, isn't it?"

Insights and revelations can be so meaningful, but also so subjective. One person's horseman of the apocalypse is another person's rocket launcher. At what point is it ok for perceptions to differ, at what point do we know what is real , and at what point does it really matter?

My primary revelation over the past 40 days has been that I've seen my writing get less frantic and more smooth, as I got marginally out of my head and allowed myself to start an entry without really knowing what point I wanted to make or how the piece was going to end. And as I got out of my head, my writing actually cohered and hung together in a deeper way, and I would have these little insights at the moment the words flowed out of my fingers and into the keyboard--but not a moment before. It didn't happen a lot, but it happened a few times. And I caught a glimpse of what great writing and writers actually could be, and the massive volume of work it takes to do it: you just write and write and write, saving the little insights and strokes of genius and junking most of what's left over. Eventually, you end up with enough good parts to string together into a story.

(Of course, this could be completely wrong and the writers who are reading this are now laughing at me. I'm ok with that possibility).

Those insights are enough to get me hooked on trying to write more as a regular practice and see what other things I think that I didn't know I thought. I guess it's like what EM Forster (or Joan Didion, or Flannery O'Connor--again, the internet people disagree) said: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"



Sleep on it

I mentally process during sleep. We all do, I suppose. That's what dreams are about. But I have known and consciously used the sleeping process as a way to figure things out for all of my adult life.

For instance, while other college students were pulling all-nighters to write papers due the next day, I would go to sleep. Granted, I am incapable of staying awake once my internal melatonin floodgates have opened. But I also *could* sleep knowing that when I woke up that I would know what I needed to say in this unfinished comparative literature paper, or whatever. (Addendum: This process worked well for academic work, but not at all for creative work. My unconscious mind could sort through known information, but it rarely spat out a screenplay idea worth a damn.)

This must not be a rare thing, or "sleep on it" wouldn't be a phrase.

An aside (and why not, I have 25 minutes): I was just trying to determine whether "sleep on it" qualified as an aphorism or an idiom. I decided neither, really. But I found that there is a Russian saying, "Morning is wiser than evening," which gets at the revelations that one has overnight. Likewise the French say, "La nuit porte conseil." The night brings advice.

So there's nothing particularly unusual about sorting things through in slumber. Which is why I don't find it that odd that I figured out I was gay during a dream. But other people -- notably my wife -- thinks its funny. Here's what she says: "It seems unlikely... It is just the most hilarious ... It's like it's obvious to everybody but you... Your mind has to tell you in a dream."

I'm hesitant to tell people for different reasons. It comes up less often now that so many people are out and living more gender-fluid lives younger and younger, but there was a time when a person you were getting to know might say, "So when did you know you were gay?"

For me, that answer is very clear: one night in my junior year in college. I had a dream, some detail of which were hazy even upon my awakening, but this part was clear: there was a girl, and she was saying something generally to the effect of, "Don't you want me?" And I was saying No, no.

And I woke up. With a yes on my lips.

And that was it.

Of course it wasn't that simple, all that followed. I had to detangle myself from a boyfriend, who I really did think the world of. I had to essentially start over, to reconsider all the gender-flirting-dating lessons I'd learned since puberty. It was like being set down in a foreign country; I suspected there might be expats who spoke my language, but I wasn't sure how to find them, and if I would even like them once I did. I had to figure out how to talk to girls, how to figure out if I was even dating a girl without realizing it. I literally said to a woman one, "I'm not sure if we're dating or what."

There's a old joke about lesbians that goes, "What does a lesbian bring to a second date? A U-Haul." But what that joke doesn't elucidate is that two lesbians might have gone out 42 times as friends before they discovered that apparently, they have in fact been dating for months.

Because this life-changing revelation came to me in sleep, I still trust slumber to unveil the truth.



The Epic Day

My friend Tom has a theory. He calls it The Epic Day Theory. For most people, Epic Days occur extremely rarely. He defines it in a lot of ways, but in essence, an Epic Day is a day in which you wake up in one mental place and go to sleep in another. Tom and his wife were living a successful, contented life in Los Angeles, and one September day, they get a notice from the city that the expansion they had planned for their home couldn’t be approved for some code/ordinance reason.

They were demoralized and sitting at their kitchen table strategizing about how to fight city hall or if they should just sell their house, when it dawned on them that they no longer wanted to live in L.A. They were trying to build out their house to proportions that the land couldn’t accommodate, and the problem wasn’t the house, it was the land. There wasn’t and could never be enough space for them in such a dense city.

Lauren, Tom’s wife, knew that the headquarters for her company were up in Washington state, and they had always encouraged her to make the move to the Seattle area. They Googled real estate prices in the surrounding areas, and realized that they could have everything they wanted if they just picked up and left. They woke up one morning in one place, and one random letter from the city later, they went to sleep with a whole new life plan.

I’ve had this happen to me a few times in my life as well. I woke up with one doctrinal belief in what my life had to be, and went to sleep convinced that that belief that I had held probably for years and years, wasn’t true anymore (if it ever was).

Big decisions take time. You can’t force an Epic Day to come if it’s not ready, but when it is time, huge life decisions can be made really suddenly. In fact, the noun “revelation” is based on the past participle of the verb “reveal.” It’s not that something new is occurring to you, it’s that something that had long been true is suddenly made clear.

Very often the inciting event for an Epic Day is something random. Without getting too far into the “Sliding Doors” cliché, there are huge chapters in my life that started because of random chance. I had an awkward New Year’s Eve in 2007, that made me realize I wanted to leave California. I ended a four-year relationship, because of one reaction in one moment that revealed so much of who someone was, even though we had know each other for many years. I also once ended a relationship because of a Magic Eight Ball. I know that sounds callous, but in the moment it was a true revelation.

I have trouble making decisions, large and small. It’s why I’ve tended to surround myself with decisive people. I like to just go with the flow and am generally easy to please, so it’s nice for me to be around people who know what they want. But occasionally in life, I do have to take the plunge and make a big call, and I’m always looking for some type of revelation to help me.

I have a few friends whose opinions I trust implicitly. I go to different friends with different questions of course. Sometimes I’m trying to rig the system by assuming I know what someone is going to advise, but more often than not I’m proven wrong. I had a huge career decision to make about three years ago – and I went to my most adventurous, throw-caution-to-the-wind friend and explained all the details, and he advised me to take the safe choice. Knowing that even he wouldn’t take the chance sent a really clear message.

Another way in which I try to make big decision is by flipping a coin. Though it sounds absurd, it’s an incredibly effective technique. I say to myself: “if it lands on heads, I’m going to do X,” and then if it lands on tails and I’m relieved, then I know that X probably isn’t the right thing to do. If it lands on tails and I’m disappointed though, then I know it probably is.

I’ve made many, many Pro/Con lists in my life, and I’ve never found them to be particularly useful. Big decisions can’t really be quantified, but if I want to put pen to paper, I start writing free-form about the problem, and the various different scenarios that could play out if I do Plan A versus Plan B. Regardless of what technique I’m using though, I’m always in search of revelation.



Mr. Clean Cut

David Rucker is about 35 years old and is the most clean-cut guy I’ve ever met. His close shave, perfectly combed and parted brown hair, pressed khakis, solid tie with button down shirt, and plain sport coat are perfectly simple and exactly plain. Though his face has some pock marks, he is otherwise good looking. At first I think he might be a scout-master.

He wants to rent an office in our suite where my partner and I have our law firm in Washington, D.C. He wants to start a business and he asks us to help him. He is a baggage handler for American Airlines and his business idea involves books and computers. He doesn’t’ reveal the details then.

One day I stay late at the office to accommodate his schedule and meet with him after he’s done working at the airport. He’s not well schooled in business so it takes time to explain the basics. But he is always attentive and amiable. That evening he offers me a ride home after the meeting. Like his dress, David’s clean car is so plain I have to ask him to reveal the make and year.

About a week later, he explains his business idea and it seems sketchy to me, but we try not to shoot down client ideas too quickly. What he wants to do is write and sell books about how to make money writing and selling books. The computer will keep track of everything. He insists this is not a scam, but a good way to get started, and he shows me a manuscript. Meanwhile, he’s having trouble getting the computer to work.

About a week later, I am awakened at dawn by a call from an FBI agent. He tells me they found my business card in David’s wallet. Then all is revealed; David is an armed robber, wanted by the FBI for robbery and murder, who has held up an armored car in Pennsylvania and killed one of the guards. Escaping, he is followed by the police and flees into a wooded area where he shoots himself. He positioned the gun under his jaw and shot up, but the bullet has merely lobotomized him and he is still alive. The FBI wants me to consent to surgery, and I do.

That morning, our suite is flooded with FBI agents who take everything out of David’s office and question us. The full revelation involves David robbing an armored car at a Pennsylvania mall the past Christmas Eve and killing two guards. I never see him again.




I feel like after this exercise I should have had some lightbulb moments, and perhaps I have. They may be 4watt bulbs tho, and not the floodlights most people seem to have. I have enjoyed the discipline, even if it has been challenging to find the time in my day now that school has begun. I wish I had been able to get all 40 days in but perfect I am not, and that has to be okay.

I have learned that I can be disciplined with my writing, and I wonder if I can be as structured and disciplined with my creative pieces as I have been here. The short essays lend themselves well to this format, but I do not know how fiction will translate. I have participated in NaNoWriMo a few times, and have completed it twice. Maybe one day those pieces will see the light of day.

I have also noticed that as I am writing, I think my words are on point and my points make sense. I have discovered that I am not always correct in that assumption. Going back and reading my unedited pieces is a little cringy, to borrow a word from the boys. What sounds good in my head and what flies before my eyes on the screen do not translate well a few days later. I have discovered that my work may have decent bones but the aesthetics are not as good as the could be during the first pass.

I need accountability. I have discovered that about myself. I also need the competition. Seeing the standings inspired me to spend the time to do the writing if only so that I do not fall out of the top three. Why this is important to me is less clear than my desire to be on top. I wish I had been able to come away with the highest word count per entry or something like that. And this surprises me because I do not consider myself competitive. And yet...

I have tried to write things before - to structure myself and create space for it - but it has never really worked out. I wonder if I were working with an editor or a publisher who gave me deadlines, and then left me with someone to answer to if I screwed it up would be motivating. I really want to finish the pieces I am working on and get them published. I have had this dream for a while. I want to see my words, my ideas, in print. On a bookshelf. I like to think they are good enough. I think this exercise has inspired me to seek out someone to look things over and point me in the right direction. I hope that direction isn't "Don't quit your day job."

So the revelations have not been huge, but they are meaningful. I am learning about myself as a writer, and through this exercise consider myself a writer. I have said it for a while ... "Yeah, I write," but it has been like an aside. After these 40 days, I know I am a writer. I may be only a mediocre one, but I am a writer nonetheless.

I like to think what I have to say of interest to others. I may simply like hearing my own voice in my head. I may simply like watching words appear on the page and typing at speeds that amaze my students. But I feel like what I write is decent. I feel like the message I have to share through my fictional stories is a strong one and one of value to young adults and late teenagers. So if anything, this experiment has shown me that I can write under pressure, that I still enjoy it, that I can make time for it. Who knows - perhaps this will lead me to my work being published and what a wonderful day that would be.

— SJ


What I Did on My Summer Vacation

As it turns out, I’m not as bad as I sometimes think I am.

These forty exercises have taught me some things about myself, and other things about the other people I’ve been going through this exercise with based on their published pieces. But let’s talk about me.

I wasn’t feeling any fear going into this, but I was a tiny bit nervous. I’d done some (poor) fiction writing before, but it had been awhile since I felt I had anything to say. One thing this has revealed to me is that, yes, I can write about all kinds of things, although I’m not sure how much of a surprise that was.

Anyone my age has been through enough that they should have something to say about nearly any subject you can name. We humans are good like that.

What surprised me the most was how much of my immediate vocabulary I’ve been able to recover. Before starting these exercises, any writing I did was mostly an exercise in frustration as I’d spend nearly as much time stopped, trying to remember a word, as I did writing. Now, that’s no longer the case.

I’m not sure the words I’ve recovered or had revealed are the right ones, or even the ones I want, but at least I’m not spending quite as much time starting at a blank piece of virtual paper.

So, I have learned that physically at least, I can still sit down and write for awhile and produce something that I could later go back and rewrite and edit. Yes, I’d somehow managed to lose confidence that I could even do that any more.

Which kind of defeated one of the purposes of me moving up here to the high desert. In addition to the night skies, the daytime blue ones, and the ever-changing shadows across the mountains, one thing I’d hoped is that I could get back to writing with fewer distractions and with life in a more contemplative environment. One of the nearby towns (which isn’t technically a town but only another census designated place, like where I live), Joshua Tree, is not only the gateway to Joshua Tree National Park, but is also filled to the back teeth with artists of every stripe. Painters, sculptors, musicians, creative folk of all types can be found there, and some well-known people have summer or weekend homes up here and occasionally show up at the local nightspots or festivals.

All of which is a long way of saying many people find this part of the world inspiring, and I hoped it would do the same for me once I settled in.

It never did, not fully. One thing or another got in my way and I’d forgotten the pleasure I get from putting words on a page, even if no one but me ever sees them or has any interest in them. Writing is a fairly selfish pastime, anyway, and while I still don’t have anything profound to impart, at least this exercise has revealed to me that I can still come up with something.

I’d like to say that it’s changed my life, but I’m not sure it has, not any more than the way everything else always changes my life. I’d love to think that it’s given me a new, worthwhile habit, and I guess I’ll see if that is true tomorrow, when I won’t have any assigned writing to do.

It may not be much for many of you, but I also got a certain sense of satisfaction in completing something. No, not because I managed to ramble on each day and write something only tangentially related to the topic, but for me it was as much a test of my discipline as anything else. I question anyone but me would have been disappointed if I didn’t write, but I was able to unearth and polish that little gem of self-satisfaction.

A revelation is that I could accomplish something I set out to do.

I still don’t think much of my writing, which means in addition to not having anything to say, what I do say I do poorly most of the time, but writing is something I need to practice and persevere at if I ever hope to please myself.

It’s not the big things in life, or even the glow of receiving trophies (even participant ones!) that matters to me, but this is just a simple, little victory in a life that hasn’t had very many lately for me to celebrate.

The biggest revelation, of course, is how much I enjoyed the opportunity to share this with strangers, to see what they did while adding my own voice to the choir of canaries.


Four across or three in the attic

Latin, law and lessons