Wired for Story

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Brain

I don’t know about you, but I’m always writing stories in my head. A snippet of interesting conversation, an observation on the street, a song on the radio — my brain will wheel off on a creative tangent. I hear dialogue in restaurants. I imagine plot twists on my drive to and from the office. I don’t know what causes it, but I have always been wired for story.

I’ve heard that sculptors can see the finished piece in a hunk of raw marble and that composers can hear melodies that don’t yet exist. I think a writer’s brain must work the same way, because whether I have time to address the thought or not (more often not), these stories ricochet around in the echo chamber of my mind all day, every day. I can’t help it and even if I could turn it off, I wouldn’t want to.

It’s like having second sight. For everything that crosses my path, I can invent a backstory, a character or an entire fictional world from out of nowhere. I carry around a  notebook in a vain attempt to capture it, but 99% of the stories that flicker, unbidden, into existence escape me a moment later. Those that I do manage to hold onto for any length of time are often difficult to transcribe without losing some of their organic sheen. When I’m lucky, a story that I thought I’d lost will return and stay long enough to become tangible words on a page. Those are the ones worth waiting for.

I don’t tell you this to make myself seem like I have a special ability. I don’t. I might pay more attention to it, but I think we’re all wired this way. It’s what sets humanity apart — our imagination. We all have the power to see or hear things that never were and make them real. But you do have to slow down to give it time to work. What are the moments that cause you to ask, “What if?” What would happen if you allowed yourself room to answer that question? That’s all that writers do differently. Anyone can do it.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker in Tacoma, WA who has more stories whirling around his head than he knows what to do with. Follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his monthly newsletter for exclusive content and recommended reads.

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Permission to Write Something That Sucks

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Screenshot-2017-10-25 Bethany ( heartforhugs) • Instagram photos and videos

Photo by Bethany Popkes. She’s a good friend and an excellent portrait photographer. Find her on Instagram.

It’s been one month since I’ve looked at my novel draft. Despite setting myself a lofty goal of completing a first draft by the end of the year, I stalled out. As much as I would like (and have tried) to blame my characters or my word count goals or the ergonomics of my keyboard, I can’t.

I’ve been purposely avoiding it, worried that I’ll mess it up if I write another word. Several times this year, I considered throwing it all out and starting over. Starting is easy. But soon after those well thought-out, well-polished early chapters, the novel started to morph into something else and it wasn’t pretty. It was clunky.

This is hard for me. I’m a perfectionist. I don’t want to commit to paper words that I may have to scrap later. My instinct is to edit as I go — and it’s killing my novel. I can’t go on expecting amazing words to flow from my brain to my fingers. That expectation is suffocating my inspiration and strangling my productivity. Perfection requires iteration; it doesn’t happen on the first try and anyone who thinks so isn’t likely to be a success at writing novels.

So, I’m giving myself permission to write something that sucks.

I’m giving myself the go-ahead to write cheesy dialogue when necessary and sloppy exposition for the sake of continuing the story. Now is not the time to fuss over the language or to worry about continuity. Now is the time to write wildly. I’m going to completely alter my protagonist’s backstory and motivation mid-draft, and that’s okay. Logic is for second drafts.

For the next nine weeks, I’m giving myself carte blanche to do what it takes to finish this draft of my novel, because the alternative is not writing at all and that’s just not who I am. If you’re like me and stuck in perfectionism paralysis, I give you permission to write something that sucks, too.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker who is trying to be better about taking Anne Lamott’s tried and true advice. Follow me on the Twitter machine and subscribe to my monthly newsletter for exclusive content and recommended reads.

Lies, Damn Lies and Fiction

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Based on a True Story 10_01_17

Photo adapted from original by docentjoyce. Used under Creative Common license.

Two years ago, I read a short story I had written called “The Cannibals of Kitsap.” The story follows a boy who develops an eating disorder after his father loses his job. After the reading, a woman walked up to ask me how the story ended. “Did your father find another job after that,” she asked. I was thrown off. She thought the plot was autobiographical, that this had actually happened to me. I had to admit that everything was fabricated, based on an idea I’d had rather than reality.

As writers, one of the first pieces of advice many of us receives is to “write what you know.” Some people take that advice literally and only write about their own experience. Many readers have caught on and expect that the all fiction is thinly veiled personal recollection. That may work for some writers, but my life isn’t all that interesting. Fiction should be grounded in reality, but I don’t like limiting myself to my own life. My imagination is not that small, nor are those of most writers I know.

This week, I’ll be playing with the idea of truth and lies in fiction as part of the third annual Creative Colloquy Crawl. I’ll be hosting a reading at on Tuesday, October 3 at 8pm at Doyle’s Public House called “Lies, Damn Lies and Fiction.” Local writers Jenni Prange Boran, Sam Snoek-Brown and Jonah Barrett will share stories and then we’ll have a Q&A style discussion about what in their work is based on true events and what is made-up. The Creative Colloquy Crawl is a literary pub crawl in downtown Tacoma that brings together lovers of the written word together for an evening of great storytelling. I hope to see you there!

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker in Tacoma, WA. His fiction has appeared in Creative Colloquy.

Follow him on Twitter or subscribe to the monthly email newsletter to receive exclusive content.

New Short Story: “How to Steal Copper Wire”

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A few years ago, a news article caught my attention. An epidemic was sweeping the nation — copper wire theft. People were stealing wire from streetlights and utilities and many of them were getting killed by electrocution in the process. I remember thinking it was a strange kind of crime. Not long after, I saw another article. Copper thieves were popping up in Tacoma and were ripping wire from streetlights all over the city, causing 56 outages and raking in a few thousand dollars. The problem was so widespread, that the city was undertaking a huge effort to replace the copper in its streetlights with less valuable aluminum. There was a story there, so I wrote it down in the my notebook.

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Four years later, as I thought about writing a crime story from a criminal’s perspective, I remembered this curious bit of news. And I thought it might be interesting to frame is as a second-person how-to article, like one of the millions of lists all over the Internet, but a guide for criminals just starting out. “How to Steal Copper Wire” was born.

Now, despite the title, I’m not actually going to tell you how to commit this crime. That would be wrong and probably get me into trouble. I’m also not going to spoil it by telling you what it’s actually about. For that, you’ll just have to check it out for yourself:

Read “How to Steal Copper Wire” on Creative Colloquy

Let me know what you think!

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, and fictional criminal mastermind in Tacoma, WA. His fiction has appeared in Creative Colloquy.

Follow him on Twitter or subscribe to the monthly email newsletter to receive exclusive content.

Wiseguys with Fedoras in the Shadows: Why I Love Telling Noir Stories

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I’ve always loved a good crime drama. When I was in high school, I was obsessed with the film noir classics — Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, D.O.A., Dark Passage. There is something about the tense atmosphere and moral ambiguity of the genre that fascinates me. A sense of doom permeated those films, especially the ones made during the years of the Hays Code, when the studios would not allow depictions of murderers and thieves getting away with their crimes. You knew that eventually, the protagonist was going to run out of time and be caught or killed, but didn’t know when or how they would meet their end.

I was so enamored with the genre that during my freshman year of college, I set out to make a film noir movie of my own. I never quite managed to finish the script (sadly, I cannot even remember what the story was supposed to be about), but I was in love with playing with the tropes of film noir; the black and white; the shadows; and fedoras. Obscure Studios wound up only making a 52-second trailer for The Third Degree. It’s amateurish and embarrassing to the point of causing me pain to rewatch, but it also captures some of the dark mood, gritty style, over-the-top drinking, and corny dialogue of my favorite crime thrillers of the 1940s. Maybe someday, I’ll come back to it and give it a face-lift.

It’s been a while since I’ve ventured into the seedy underbelly of the city in my storytelling and as summer gives way to fall, my thoughts have turned to heists, foul play, and the desperate acts of self preservation that push a person to commit crime.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who starts thinking about whodunits when September rolls around. This month’s Creative Colloquy is themed around crime fiction, so if you’re in the mood for mystery, you can come hear me read my latest short story at our next gathering. In “How to Steal Copper Wire,” I put a modern twist on classic noir staples and do a little digging into what motivates people to turn to illegal acts.

If you’re in Tacoma, you should stop by to hear it. The reading is at Black Kettle Bites and Brew this Monday, September 18 at 7pm. I’ll be spinning my yarn alongside awesome local writers Jack Cameron, Leah Mueller, and James A. Gilletti. Hope to see you there for a night of murder, mayhem, and intrigue.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, filmmaker (though mostly of poorly lit trailers for unmade movies) in the City of Destiny.

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The Magic of Deadlines

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 Racers cross finish line in 5K run. U.S. Navy photo by Candice Villarreal.

I have heard rumors in my travels of creative people who are entirely self-motivated. They get up early, awakened by an innate drive to create, go to their computers, ignore Facebook and Google, and complete their work in a timely manner with no exterior motivator. I am not one of those people. I’m not even sure they exist.

Don’t get me wrong — I love to write. I’m bursting with stories to tell and would happily write all the time if given the chance. But after a long day at work, there’s dinner to make, chores to conquer, Netflix to be watched, and it’s hard to give up that precious downtime to the task of writing. While I’m passionate about writing, it requires a lot of energy, which is one thing I do not generally have in abundance. And so, weeks will go by without putting words to the page.

Unless, of course, there’s a deadline to meet.

Deadlines are magical things. As a writer and serial procrastinator, I honestly don’t know how I would complete anything without the pressure of a firm deadline to keep me going. It’s easy to put a story off to the next day or the next when I’m on my own timeline, but when I have to submit something for publication by a certain date, something clicks.

I have always thrived under a deadline. Some of my best work gets done with only minutes to spare. There’s no time for scrolling through Facebook, debating the exact phrasing of a passage, or starting all over again when you’re under the gun. There’s a clarity and an insanity in rushing to finish. It may not make for the most lyrical prose, but I’ve found that the immediacy of my work is heightened and the tempo of the action rises when I’m a little bit rushed.

I’m trying to teach myself to write on a set schedule, but I’ve never been that kind of person. I create in flashes and then go silent until the next unexpected strike of inspiration and inclination.

This week, I realized that I was in danger of missing the deadline for a local print anthology that I’ve appeared in twice. I didn’t want to miss out, so I dusted off a story that had been languishing in rewrite hell for years. I wrote the rough draft of this story way back in 2012 and tinkered with it off and on for five years. But it was only in the last week that I got serious about getting it ready for public view. The pressure of the deadline approaching gave me the energy to make drastic cuts and bold changes to the plot, characters, and setting. The looming deadline was perfect for a suspenseful tale that needed an infusion of new life. I’m proud of the way it turned out and thankful for the countdown that forced me to rethink a stale narrative.

Now, if only I could figure out how to get the same effect with self-imposed deadlines.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker in Tacoma, WA. Be careful what you say around him, because it’s all going in his novel.

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Photographing a Very Nearly Almost Total Eclipse

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Eclipse high in the sky. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.Even 200 miles from the path of totality, the solar eclipse was all anyone could talk about this week in Washington. In the mad scramble for special viewing glasses and the endless debates over whether it was worth it to brave the slog of traffic heading south, I found myself in my office’s parking lot at 10:00am on the auspicious date of August 21, 2017.

For the first time since 1918, a total solar eclipse would be visible across the entire lower 48. In Tacoma, it was calculated that we would see 94% of a total eclipse. The moment had arrived.

I’m not the kind of person who can not take a photo of a major celestial event, so I had my trusty Canon with me. Even with 6% of the Sun visible behind the disk of the Moon, pointing a camera straight into the sky for any length of time is a sure way to melt your sensor. Sunlight carries a lot of energy and camera lenses are designed to focus light into a tiny area — exactly the way a magnifying glass cooks ants. I wasn’t taking any chances.

Eclipse camera setup. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle. A few weeks before the event, I ordered a 4-inch-by-4-inch sheet of mylar solar viewing film and built a homemade lens adapter using the ring from a mason jar lid (my wife’s brilliant idea) and cardboard from the envelope the film came in. We were also lucky to snag a few pairs of what felt like the last remaining eclipse glasses on earth.

That morning, as I stepped outside, nothing felt abnormal, although a quick peek through my glasses showed that the Moon was already starting to cross in front of the Sun. I my tripod setup. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, autofocus doesn’t work on an object 93 million miles away, so I had to focus manually. I couldn’t look through the viewfinder at the Sun, even with the filter on the front of the lens, so instead I set my focus on some wispy clouds on the horizon — as close to infinity as I could get without burning my retinas.

I found some base exposure settings online and started from there, bracketing a bit (but not enough, in hindsight) for more exposed and less exposed shots as the eclipse progressed:

First Contact:

  • ISO 100, f/4, 1/1,000-1/4,000 second
  • ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/1,000-1/4,000 second
  • ISO 400, f/8, 1/1,000-1/4,000 second

Thin Crescent:

  • 1/500-1/2,000 second

Eclipse in black and white. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.

Then, it was just a matter of aiming the camera up and clicking the shutter. At this point, my coworkers started filtering out to see the spectacle. We chatted and passed around a handful of glasses so everyone could see the Sun disappearing behind the Moon and watched the leaves cast tiny crescents onto the pavement.

Eclipse through the leaves. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.As the Sun was consumed, the light changed. The sky took on an early shade of grey-blue, like the color just before dawn. The temperature dropped by at least five degrees. A steady breeze picked up, as if a storm were approaching — but without a cloud in the sky.

I looked up through my viewing glasses. At maximum, the partial eclipse so so close to totality that I almost lost the sun in the vast, inky blackness above me. In a moment, the massive star at the center of our solar system was nearly invisible. An optical illusion left nothing behind except a thin, blood red sliver. I felt so small in that moment. For two minutes and forty seconds, I was a microscopic being on a tiny rock orbiting a small star in an unremarkable corner of an average galaxy in a sea of galaxies. Our triumphs and failures, our progress, our regress, our wars; they’re fleeting and inconsequential in that vastness. The size and scope of the universe hit me harder than I had expected and it was stupendous.

Scarlet crescent. Partial solar eclipse at maximum. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.

Somehow, in all of that, I managed to keep clicking the shutter button. Gradually, the sun returned. The shadows softened, the sky went back to blue, and I felt warm light on my skin again. One by one, my coworkers went back inside. I lingered. For a while, I didn’t even take any pictures. I just looked up and watched the slow, predictable movement of the Sun and Moon above and tried to grasp the intensely surreal feeling of standing under an (almost) total eclipse of the sun for as long as I could.

I’m still a little sad I didn’t pick up and head to Oregon to view totality, but I’m grateful I had the chance to view it at all (the weather in the Pacific Northwest, the cloudiest place in the United States, was perfect). A partial eclipse is amazing, but from what I’ve heard and seen online, totality is on a completely different level. Photographic the moment was a fun challenge, too, and something I’d like to try again.

So, I find myself addicted to eclipses and researching where the next ones will pop up and wondering if I might be there to experience them. July 2, 2019 in Argentina? December 4, 2021 amidst the penguins in Antarctica? April 8, 2024 in Pennsylvania? Who knows?

Sun disappearing behind the Moon. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle. — 30 —

Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker in Tacoma, WA and a bit of an eclipse junkie. He usually forgets to bracket and ends up with a whole bunch of identically exposed photos as a result. Remember to bracket, kids.

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Hell on Earth: Dachau

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Barbed wire fence at Dachau Concentration Camp. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.

When I was in high school, we read Night by Elie Wiesel, a semi-autobiographical account of the Wiesel’s experience in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. In one scene, a child is hanged and someone asks where God is amid the horror. Someone else responds, “Where He is? This is where–hanging here from this gallows…” I remember putting the book down for a few minutes before continuing. In that moment, I thought I understood the Holocaust.

But I did not truly understand the scale of the genocide that was committed by the Nazis until I visited Dachau.

The first thing you notice when you arrive at the concentration camp at Dachau is how close it is to everything. Less than half an hour away from the center of Munich’s bustling metropolis by train, the infamous Nazi concentration camp sits on the edge of the small town of Dachau. I had expected a site of mass incarceration and slaughter to be somewhere remote, not in the heart of an idyllic Bavarian village. This thought — of how easy it is for atrocities to be committed when people are willing to look the other way — felt like a weight on my shoulders as the bus navigated the winding residential streets to the entrance of KZ Dachau.

Stepping through the infamous wrought iron gate emblazoned with the words Arbeit Macht Frei (Work makes you free), the crowd of tourists dispersed. In a moment, we were virtually alone on the camp’s roll call grounds, where prisoners were made to stand for hours on end each day in every kind of weather.

Arbeit Macht Frei Gate at Dachau. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.

Dachau was built in 1933 to house 6,000 political prisoners. Over time, more and more prisoners were crammed in — including Jews, Roma and LGBTQ prisoners. By 1945, it held 31,000 people in inhuman conditions. Tens of thousands were killed here, as evidenced by accounts from survivors as well as the cold, meticulous records kept by the Nazis. Here, at Dachau, systematic dehumanization and mass murder was perfected and exported to camps across the Third Reich.

For a few years in school, it seemed that every book that was assigned in English class was about the Holocaust. I remember thinking it was excessive to keep forcing us to read about a tragedy that unfolded decades before I was born. What was the point of rehashing the past?

Concentration Camp Sink. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.

Years later, as I stood in a reconstructed barrack and looked at two sinks that were once shared by 2,000 malnourished, I felt, tangibly, the humanity of the people who suffered here and understood why we must never forget what happened here, why we have to keep learning about it and why we have to remain vigilant to prevent such an atrocity from happening again in our lifetime.

Near the entrance of the camp, there is a large monument affirming — along with the Christian and Jewish sites dedicated to the memory of those who died — a commitment to learn the lessons of the Holocaust and pass them on. Like a modern-day Rosetta Stone, it’s written in four languages (French, English, German, and Russian) and reads: May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933-1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men.” It’s a reminder that is as important today as it was the day this camp was liberated and I hope it will always serve as a potent reminder of the dangers of demonizing those who are different than us.

Dachau Memorial. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.

  • Where: Dachau Concentration Camp
  • How to Get There: 25 minutes by S-Bahn from Munich, then about 10 minutes by bus from the train station to the entrance of the camp.
  • What To See: The museum housed in the camp’s maintenance building, the reconstructed barracks, and the Jewish and Christian memorials. Give yourself plenty of time.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, and global traveler based in Tacoma, WA. This is the third in a three-part travel series about a recent trip he and his wife took to Europe. Previously: Munich and the Isle of Iona.

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