Monday, November 30, 2015

My Four Favorite Holiday Songs.. What are yours? (Please post link to song and reasons why it's a favorite)

(List typed up a few years ago but timely each year)

I was listening today to the Pogues classic "Fairy Tale of New York" and decided it was definitely one of my five favorite holiday-related songs ever.

In no particular order:
1) – Pogues and Kirsty MacColl - "Fairy Tale of New York" – There are three things that make this song great: 1) The contrasting, overlapping voices as if to demonstrate lyrically and musically their chracters dysfunctional relationship: 2) The late great Kirsty McCall is always a delight; 3) The dark language and deep lyrics provide a good contrast to the usual happy banter of holiday songs and strike closer to home than most of those suggesting everyone is happy during the holidays.
2) The Waitresses –"Christmas Wrapping" – Where I grew up in Southern California KROQ played this song to death every Christmas season but I never got sick of it and actually looked forward to it. The same can't be said for most Christmas songs, many of which are cringe-worthy. I could also relate to being a single – but always looking for a partner - during the holidays.
3) Band Aid – "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Unlike We Are The World, this song actually has a beat and lyrics that are not insipid. Ok, so the idea beyond the song and the gesture – famine relief – was somewhat simplistic and failed to wipe out the famine (probably an impossibility). Bob Geldof, former leader of the Boomtown Rats, was one of my musical heroes for this effort. This song is also a staple on rock stations during the holiday seasons but one I don't mind hearing multiple times.
The story of the song is well explained at Wikipedia The project eventually led to Live Aid, of which there is a great oral history here.

4) David Bowie and Bing Crosby – Little Drummer Boy – Contrary to the thinking of many people I grew up with, just because something (be it music or technical gadgets) is newer doesn't make it better. Take this song, for example. It's a classic and has been song many times by many different artists. But this duet is great both as cultural symbolism (a passing of the baton from one generation to another with Crosby dying a month after the tv special in which they sang it), as a fun story (Bowie was said to have hated the song but saihe did it because his mom liked Crosby) was and, best of all, this stands up a great cover all on its own.

I'm sure I've forgotten a few so if I left out ones you think should be included leave me a note and I'll consider it.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Month Of Books With Unreliable Narrators (Warning: Spoilers)

(warning: herein spoilers of a sort) I read and enjoyed Girl on A Train today I consumed the whole thing in 24 hours. Which is saying something since I'm usually reading four books at once so this means I set the others aside for a day.:)

Without intending it this last month has become the month of Books With Unreliable Narrators.

It began with a book club book selection called A Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes. I won't say a lot about how it has an unreliable narrator beyond that because I hate spoilers except to say it's one of those books which, when you finish it, you need to read again to fully understand it. Which can be cool or frustrating... and depends if you really want to read it again. 

 Meanwhile, another book club picked Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, which is famous/infamous for being the first detective novel with an unreliable narrator, which some hated, calling it a "trick" by this lady you may have heard of called Agatha Christie. 

Unfortunately I knew more about this and was waiting for this "trick" which made the book a bit less surprising but it was still a fun twist. That brings us to Girl On A Train complete with its favorable comparisons to Gone Girl. While I tried to avoid the hype I knew going in that there was going to be unreliable narrator. 

 Sometimes I wish I could read book in an age without the Internet so I wouldnt have ideas of what to expect. But I do. This doesn't mean I predicted all the plot twists, some were great surprises in fact, but it meant I knew I couldn't trust what I was reading which made reading it at times, well, frustrating knowing part of whatever you are reading will turn out to be true.

 All of the books were enjoyable but in addition to sharing the fact had unreliable narrators they also had something else in common, something I heard from those who just couldn't get into Gone Girl or A Girl On a Train, namely none of the main characters are appealing.

With the exception of Hercule Poirot in the Ackroyd book I can't say I really liked any of the main characters in any of these books. Of course this then can spark the debate about the appeal of anti-heros and while I've enjoyed some anti-hero books let's just say I see both sides of this debate but I think, for a while, I'll try some books with characters I can trust and like for a while.

Like, say, Lisabeth in the latest Girl Who book (The Girl in The Spiders Web)... wait, don't tell me, I haven't read that one yet. Happy reading, folks.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Ink and toothpaste

Ink and toothpaste, two words you rarely hear together. Both had interesting effects in the last three days.

Monday night while playing backgammon I kept noticing my fingers were dark. First I thought I'd was newspaper ink but seemed like as soon as I washed my hands they d turn dark again. It was the oddest thing. I put it out of my head until it started happening again Tuesday and I googled "my fingers are turning blue and black" and saw what I feared namely that it's a system of blood circulation problems.

But it was cold at work and they were not using the heater and sure enough cold fingers could mean discolored fingers. So I opted for frostbite rather than blood circulation and was soon wearing a hat and jacket indoors. I know if I dwell on the uncertain and unexplained I can get anxious so I do I can do well, compartmentalize.

That night I resumed an annual tradition of getting from the library more dvds than I had time to watch so I had a plethora of options. The librarian noted my fingers in the flash and asked if I work around ink and I said no. She said her mom is a nurse and she's worried this meant insufficient circulation and flow to my fingers. I was now worrying and vowing if I wash my hands and they turn dark again I'm going to have consider medical attention.

I go home and wash my hands and this time hooray they stay white and I'm happy but confused. I check my steps and note that I took off my new blue jeans and put on sweats and the problem stopped. I looked suspiciously at my jeans, one of two pair which I bought on sale at the gap.... and haven't washed them yet. I know some say to wash new jeans because they may shrink but I surmised, staring at the jeans, now I wonder if the new jeans still had ink or c color on them. And today I'm not wearing jeans and my fingers have been fine and I feel silly.

I felt less silly when my teenage charge told me what he and his brother used to stop a lense from popping out of his frames... toothpaste! They are proud of themselves for finding an alternative to tape or glue and asked me not to tell their mom. I said ok on one condition.

The condition? They let me watch next time he washes his glasses.

Never a dull day

Trotting On Thanksgiving

I participated in my first Turkey Trot, an event put on annually by local sandwich show ThunderCloud Subs with all money going to Caritas, which drew more than 20,000 runners. Wow.
I decided on a whim last night to participate and briefly considered doing the run but it's 5 miles (not a 5k) and since I haven't been training I thought that might be too much... and my decision was made when it stated in the event FAQ that its an event for runners not those doing what i'd do namely walk some and run some.
Instead I did the one mile walk though I ran about half of it.
I think I have the racing fever now. I'd always wondered why my dad did so many races and triathalons. Maybe i'm starting to understand.
My goal is to run the 5 mile next year and in between make good on a vow to run a 5K one of these days (now sooner rather than later)
I am thankful for my health so I can do these things.
The rain began soon before the events.
I made some key mistakes - since it's been colder in Austin I wore sweats... which had a faulty draw string. And I made the rookie move of having my wallet with me. So there were times when I was running with my wallet in one hand so it wouldnt weigh down the sweats and there were times when I'd be running while holding up my sweats with one hand.
Working in the schools we'd have to watch for those with drooping pants and tell them to pull them up or put on zip ties to keep them up. Now suddenly I was one of those guys... but trying to run.
Next year - im wearing shorts and will keep the wallet in the car.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Life From the Perspective of A Thanksgiving Carving Knife

(I wrote this in 2010 as part of one of my writing challenges, in which I challenge people how to write from different perspectives. I also wrote from the perspective of a Christmas Tree. This current month I’m challenging people to write from the perspective of Christmas Decorations. Details here. )
I thought for this one, "what would it be like to be a carving knife."

Happy Thanksgiving, for those who celebrate it, and have a good day, for those who don't.

I used to lead all types of writing exercises online. One of them involved writing from the perspective of part of a thanksgiving meal.

Seemed appropriate to share one of those POV exercises this morning and one tonight. For those who have not read my fiction prepare for bad puns, jokes, silliness and satire. So, you know, my goal is to spark smiles and laughs and an occasional "You are something else!"

Life From the Perspective of A Thanksgiving Carving Knife

Life as a carving knife is a tough life especially when you're a knife who is witty and punny and so in this sentence alone has already thought about three jokes (1 "life may be tough but if the meat is tough I can still cut because i'm a carving knife" -hey,I didn't say they were GOOD jokes, and, trust me, you dont want to hear the other two

The hardest part about Cutty's job was that he spent most of his existence in a drawer. He'd heard talk of people coming out of the closet and he wasn't clear what that was all about but he sure wanted to come out of this drawer. It wasn't just that he was not a fan of confined places and didnt like the dark and was just glad he was not as claustrophobic as his uncle earl but that he liked an audience. The silverwear in the drawer with him, well, they were worn out by his tired jokes (see, right there he would have punned off the wear-wore comment) and him thinking he was just so much funnier than he was.

He lived for those few days when he was able to go to work and do some carving and get some use. And when they washed him boy did that feel good. But most of the time he just lay there trying to figure out what day it was and how long it would be until he was put to use. What he didnt know was the other objects in the drawer were also looking forward to that day but mostly because they can finally get some peace and quiet for a few hours.


Cutty refused to tell me about one aspect of his life but an anonymous source whose name rhymes with poothtick agreed to talk to this reporter on the condition we scrambled his name.

From the outside the carving knife - born Charles the Cutter the 3rd but shortened over time to Cutty - looks tough, strong and without worry. But what Poothtick told this correspondent for Weakly World News was that inside that sharp utensil was one conflicted individual.

Cutty had two major issues he was struggling through during his weekly therapy sessions. (Ideally, the therapy would be daily but it's hard for toothpick, er, poothtick, to arrive with such frequency since he had to travel into the silverwear drawer by hitchhiking on the back of the other utensils.)

Cutty, you see, had performance envy issues. He was jealous of how often the other utensils were used - some were used daily, some weekly but he was only used on Thanksgiving and Christmas. It could be worse, he knew, he'd heard horrific tales of families who didnt even make their own holiday meals thus ensuring that poor carving knife was never used. Oy! It was enough to make one truly question the reason for ones own existence.

In his case he tried to tell himself that it's not how often he's used but the quality of the job. I'll let him you tomorrow about that. But still he hated to see the others used so often. When the drawer was opened he practically shouted, "Put me in? Let me out! Is it November?" but no, they were just grabbing spoons for cereal.

The therapist told him to meditate and he did. He would try to focus on the things he can control and not fret about those he could not. He had memorized the Serenity Prayer. But still Cutty had his doubts and worries.

Oh, how he would wish some days that he was born a fork or spoon - then he could be used regularly. But he was not born that way and we're not even going to go here into those who believe one can choose what type of silverwear one is.

So that was one of his main issues in silverwear therapy (s.t. for short). His therapist wants him to join group therapy to admit these things to his colleagues who are also in the drawer but he's not ready to take that big step yet. It's a recurring New Year's Resolution he makes but doesn't follow through on.

His other issue is the enormous performance anxiety. Sure, as he'll tell you, he does a hell of a job, but during the days leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas boy does he worry. He's lucky if he gets 18 hours of sleep a day on those days and nights (everyone knows a piece of silverwear functions best when he/she gets 20 hours of sleep.

He's tried all kinds of mental preparation - closing his eyes and walking (whatever that is, he's not totally sure) through the cutting procedure, saying "I am one with the meat i am cutting," etc but nothing so far had stopped the worries

Thursday, is the big day. As if he hadn't been agonizing or worrying about that day for weeks, there was the annual pep talk held by Coach. (Coach is a pair of salad tongs which, due to his size and dexterity, bosses around the others.) He held the usual ceremony complete with inspirational speeches and reminders of everyone to "take their places, cut what needs to be cut, spoon what needs to be spooned... mistakes will not be tolerated." It was also left unsaid what would happen if someone messed up but it's well known that one spoon which did a sub-par job was "accidently" dropped behind the dishwasher and never seen again.

Coach also walked them through the schedule. The good - or bad - news (it's all on your perspective, was the schedule had been pretty much the same year after year: The person tasked with making the meal would start pulling out the silverwear at about 10 a.m., some would be layed out on the table as early as noon, others not until 2. The big important moments - the moment of truth for Cutty - happened about 3:15 pm.

Cutty had been trying breathing exercises all day as well as some meditation but he just couldn't focus well enough. It wasn't just that he thought the therapy ideas were silly and wouldnt help him but also that there was too much noise in the drawer. For some of the newer silverwear - they didn't call them virgin preferring the more innocent term first timers - were nervous and chatty and talkative. As usual the spoons were pretty quiet - they literally fit snugly together - but the forks and knifes were full of chaffing, gossiping and chatting.

Complicating matters was the matter of a rumor heard: That the family was seriously considering having someone else make the food. If that were too happen they would all be skipped this year and if that happened again for Christmas maybe the home occupants would reassess if they needed a carving knife. Could he be tossed aside like yesterday's newspapers? It was the kind of rumor he wished he had not heard but it was not one more thing to worry about.

Yes, Cutty was nervous and worried.

After all his worrying Cutty fell asleep at about 11 pm and woke at about 8 a.m. when he was picked up and placed on the dining table. This was earlier than usual which caused him to have what would be heart palpitations if he had a heart. He sweat a bit which appears to look like condensation. He counted the place settings and noticed there was one miss and he realized someone in the family must have died. He sighed. But over at the kids table there was a new setting so someone must have been born. Ah, the circle of life, Cutty said, one dies and one is born. While contemplating this he fell asleep again.

When he came to he saw the mammoth turkey near him. Wow, that was quite a piece of meal. He began psyching himself up - "Who's the baddest cutter around? I am! Who rocks? I do! Who's the sharpest knife on the block! I am, yeah, i'm bad," etc.

Then it was showtime - everyone sat down and he saw the new face of the new baby and figured out who had passed - and then the mother of the house picked him up. She smelled nice - she must have switched perfume.

She held him over the turkey and while she thought she was doing the work HE was convinced he was the one who did the magic. Cut, slice, cut, jab, cut, slice - they say it's like riding a bike, whatever a bike was - but it's true that it all came naturally after the first slice or two.

Everyone was served. He didn't drop or spill or cut anything that wasn't meant to be cut. She received all the usual compliments for her good cutting and slicing and he was ok with that - they didn't know, he'd long since realized, that they didn't know he could hear them.

He smiled. He'd done good. He looked over at the salad tongs and coach nodded that nod that said "you done good." He began to relax, he watched them all eat happily and knew that now he can look forward to the other part he loved of the holidays - getting washed up. When that stream of water hit him just right it was quite a thrill.

He watched them some more and then did what they always did after the meal - fell asleep.

Good News: I Know A Trick For Typing Faster

(Typed this in 2007. I have fond memories of that typing class and writing this. Guess this is a class that no longer exists.)

Have a seat now while Uncle Scott tell you a story about a day - yes, children, such a day existed - before ipods and iphones and bluetooth and other such things people stuck in their ears.

Once upon a time, back around 1989 or 1990 as I was in my final two years of college, I took a required typing class. 
I forget if it was required because I entered college as a computer programmer or because I left it a newspaper reporter. 

Either way back then I was running the college newspaper and had been writing my quirky columns and pieces like thi(look out for Gumby!) and this (How to Sleep Until Noon) for years so my typing speed was already in the 45 words per minute range.

I mention this because I had noticed, by the time class started, some direct correlations between listening to music and typing speed, namely the faster the music the faster the typing.

This was also, and this too is foreshadowing, around the time I was listening to lots of punk music.

So enough preface, lets get to the meat of the story or, for you vegetarians, the salad
of the story?

So there were about 30 of us and the teacher was typically boring and wanted us to
type various things and we'd be timed and did I mention that it was like time stopped
and the 90 minute class seemed like 5 hours?

It was in the second or third week when I made a request: Can I listen to my walkman (this was
when they were just tapes, not yet cds) while I typed and he waved his hand to indicate
sure, whatever.

He had no idea what he had just begun....
(cue ominous music)

So I listened to my music -  fast punk and rock. - and the faster the music the higher I scored on the music tests.

Others in class noticed this and soon they too were wearing headphones and typing faster.

On the one hand the instructor seemed pleased: His students were making great strides in
improving their typing speed. If they were to go on to data entry jobs at, say, a hospital they
would do great. 

There was just one problem: Whenever he had something to say he would have to wait,
patiently at first then less patient over time, for the students to take off their headphones
so we could hear what he was trying to tell us.

At one point, if memory serves, he was talking about banning the headphones from his 
classroom. But we talked him into letting us use the headphones and music for the final, reminding
him it might look bad, not to mention reflect poorly on all of us, if our typing speeds
suddenly dropped.

So he relented and we typed our butts off.

I was reminded of all of this at my current data entry job which, unlike my last few data
entry jobs, lets employees listen to music while they work. This means for happier employees,
and not just because it gives folks like myself the chance - as I mentioned in this Monday
piece - to listen to new music while working. If I'm feeling sleepy I can put on some fast
music but if I need to concentrate or block out distracting talkers sitting nearby I can put
on something more like a relaxing white noise type of thing.

Thus I decided it was time to share the good news of my typing tip. I hope it helps you.

note: the author of this piece is not responsible for any problems you have as a result of using
any of the information in this piece.

Reflecting On My Dad and Journalism

Related:  Journalism Stereotypes Need to Be Updated

Journalism 100 years ago versus today

I miss my dad

I did not think about it too much until I was watching my Dad dying, but I bet my fascination with newspapers came from him. Or, as I once put it in a column I wrote, “I have ink in my veins due to my father.”

Why is this a big deal to me?

I entered the writing field, became a liberal (a pacifist even), and protested against societal norms in my own way because I wanted to rebel against my conservative, engineer father. He wanted me to be a computer scientist. He wanted me to see why President Reagan was right and I was wrong. I wouldn’t give in to his rhetorical pushes. It wasn’t stubbornness; I just felt sure I was right and he was wrong. And he disagreed.

This scenario repeated itself for years. He would bring home the libertarian Orange County Register, the conservative Wall Street Journal, and the more liberal Los Angeles Times. He’d get home from work about seven and be asleep by nine. But during that time, we’d both pore through the newspapers.

If he saw an article or column that reflected some point he wanted to make, or reinforced his argument, he’d rip it out and hand it to me. And I’d do the same to him. Many was the day when I would wake to find a stack of dog-eared newspapers on the kitchen counter waiting to be read by me so I could learn the error of my ways – about Reagan, the Star Wars initiative, etc. At night we would debate the issues over whatever food he picked up on the way home. God, I miss those conversations.

 Now when I pick up a newspaper each day or see a stack of unread newspapers, I think of him.

Maybe I didn’t become a Republican or enter the sciences. I worked in a profession he may not have shown respect for (many was the time he rallied against reporters for oversimplifying issues), but one he appreciated.

The first day I saw him in the hospital after he got cancer, I brought a newspaper with me. I think it was the Los Angeles Times. I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to talk to him and figured we could always discuss the articles. I quickly set the newspaper aside when I saw how dire the situation was.

The cancer had advanced, and an experimental procedure had backfired. He tried hard that morning to talk. Maybe too hard. I worry he pushed himself too much to talk to me and to others when he should have been resting. He asked about the newspaper and I read a little bit to him, but he would fall asleep mid-sentence and wake with a jerk 15 minutes later. He was polite about it: “What was that you were saying? Please repeat.” But we gave up eventually.

The next morning, a new edition of the L.A. Times was lying on a table by his bed. At one point I asked if he wanted to read it and he said he couldn’t focus on it enough. I offered to read it to him but he said that wouldn’t do because he couldn’t concentrate. The papers piled up for the next two days, like so many unaddressed issues and emotions. I just stopped setting them by his bed.

I joined him for dinner in his hospital room. During the meal he suggested we watch the local television news, something totally unheard of in our past relationship. He hated local television news, even more than I do. But again, because of his health and the drugs, he kept falling asleep. Finally I turned it off. And it was the last time we watched television together.

I flashed back to the times we would watch television programs together. He would hold the L.A. Times in front of him as if he was reading it, but if there was something entertaining to him on the TV, he wouldn’t let on he was viewing it. After about five minutes, one could conclude that the Peanuts cartoon in front of him was either pretty damn fascinating or else he was indeed watching the wacky show.

Who knows what he was thinking and feeling during his last few days when he couldn’t speak because he was intubated and medicated, but I made a point of reading the newspapers just like old times, as if somehow that would help. Like him, though, I had trouble concentrating. He asked for the newspapers to be left by his side whenever I would go away for a break but they were untouched when I’d return. The last time I left a newspaper was the last time we discussed the articles.
Within a week he was dead and I flew from California back to Maryland, where I returned to work.

At some point I realized I could no longer rebel against him since he was no longer there, and I found myself emulating the parts of his personality that I admired. In the months after his death, I would find myself interviewing someone and hear a reference to engineers and I’d think of him. I’ll read an article or an editorial and think, “Dad would get a kick out of this.”

And then I remember he’s gone and feel like someone kicked me in the stomach. And for a minute, my world seems to slow down and I get mad at others for moving at a regular pace as if things haven’t changed so much for me. Then I resume working, knowing that he’s up there looking down on his reporter son, cranking out more stories that, one day, we can discuss and debate. I owe him that, I think.

So here, Dad, is one more to set aside for future discussion.

I Miss My Dad, Especially As Christmas Nears (one of my most memorable newspaper columns ever)

Related: Dear Dad, A Few Thoughts
and My dad and journalism 
and A Fathers Day Letter to My Dead Father

I think of this newspaper column as we approach Christmas, when I spend a week or more in the house where mom and dad lived most of my life.... which includes one area where he is remembered in a collection of a photographs.

Most of this piece I wrote in 2001 after losing my dad in a fight to cancer. I revived and republished it online in 2007 when my Uncle Ernie, who I talk about in the column also got cancer and he died too.

This is one of the most meaningful pieces I have ever written as I ended it by beseeching everyone reading it in the Hagerstown, Maryland newspaper to go tell their kids that they loved them. 

I was flooded with emails and letters from parents (and sometime adult sons) proclaiming they had just had the best conversations with their son/adult in many many years. I'd call that a win.

Over time my opinion of my dad has improved and I'm embarrassed by some of my criticism of him but I'm going to resist the impulse to sanitize what I wrote.

I miss my father.
There were times when I thought I would never miss this overbearing,
pushy, sometimes rude man.
Sure, he was sometimes fun to be around. Who wouldn't love a quirky
father who would stop in a busy intersection to pick up aluminum cans
or thrown away magazines? Or insist that each family member order
something different at a restaurant so we can more adequately explore
the joint's offerings? Or steal crackers from the table so we could be
sure to have snacks later? The result was that at home we'd have a
box of stolen crackers and would never need to buy crackers.
He had a curious mind, and if there was something he didn't understand,
he would get books from the library to figure them out. He read five
newspapers daily and compared them - or at least he'd buy them and
put them on a trampoline that served as a temporary newspaper stand.
He'd pass on jokes he heard, and hearing him laugh was at times

And dad would never walk away when talking to you. He'd listen, and
while he may be unresponsive and snort at inopportune times, he would
not totally ignore you.
But that was not enough for me, though it may have been for
less-demanding children.
Still I wanted more - more love, more affection, more attempts at saying
"I love you" or "I am proud of you."
Friends and relatives said people of his generation, especially veterans
like him, couldn't say those words. But I rejected that theory.
When he started to die of skin cancer, he went to the library and took
out numerous books so he could better understand the present and
future problems, and challenges of his failing body.
Using knowledge and experience from his lifelong engineering
profession, his work as a professor and his hobby of pushing his body
to its limits by running marathons, he vowed until the end that he would
fight and defeat the cancer.
We became closer. I began calling him more often and talking about
our lives. He surprised me a few times. One day when I was about 28
he called me out of the blue - it was the first time my dad had ever
called me.
Another time he e-mailed me to ask for advice on how to deal with a
journalist who wanted to interview him. The suggestion that I now had
information he wanted me to bestow on him - blew me away. Maybe he
was proud of me after all?
I was with him in his final days. He told me he adopted a theme song to
repeat endlessly while he tried to win the biggest fight of his life.
Soon tubes were placed down his throat and I imagined he was still singing that song in his mind.
I forgot what the song was but I've not forgotten dad.
As he died I realized he would never say those words I wanted to hear.

But at his funeral I met his younger brother, who told me that dad would call my uncle and speak admiringly of me and tell him how proud he was of me.
Much of my frustration and anger at dad went away in the months after
hearing my uncle's words, dealing with dad's death and working through
grief. They were replaced by realizations that he wasn't such a bad guy
after all.
While I was struggling to avoid his bad habits, I was also picking up
some of his good ones, such as patience, perseverance and humility.
His life leaves a permanent mark on me. And while I used to think
otherwise, that's not a bad mark to have.
Dad's birthday is April 25. Happy birthday, Dad.
And happy Father's Day, too.
I picture you up there in heaven right now, sitting in a comfortable
chair, watching the University of Michigan Wolverines trounce another
college while you sit, relaxed, reading newspapers and magazines.
Maybe you even get this newspaper, too. I sure hope so.
You've left this earth but not my mind.
Uncle Ernie was the same as my dad - he could say those words about
his children to other relatives but not to his children. I made him promise to tell his children he loved them and he did.
You should, too.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Advice To Writers: Getting Started

(I wrote this nine  years ago but I think the advice is still good)

1.  Write often. Write as much as you can, wherever you can, and whenever you can. I’ll say more later about the “when” part — partially because it’s one area Firsty and I differ on — but for now just do this for me: Say the words, “I write, therefore I am.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. Ok, good.
2. Don’t seek perfection when first writing. There’s a reason this experience of putting words together in a way that is meaningful is called writing. Notice it’s not called editing, it’s not called cutting and pasting, and it’s definitely not called rewriting. There is a time and place for editing and, yes, rewriting what you wrote, but that time is later in the process.
3. Use writing exercises, like Writing Down the Bones. Why? I can give you three reasons off the top of my head: 1) Having someone else choose the topic will spark ideas you might have not previously contemplated. 2) Material you did not even know you had will come spilling from your brain through your fingers onto the page. 3) It forces you to turn off your inner editor.
That last one is key and is my next point.
4. Lose your inhibitions as much as possible. I write everywhere (following my rule #1). You name it, I’ve written on it. I’ve written on everything from napkins to newspapers to crossword puzzles to receipts. The only thing I don’t think I’ve written on is a condom and that’s because that spermicidal stuff is yucky to write on.
The point is I know I get weird looks from people who see me writing a 100 word summation for a story that came to me while I was having dinner at McDonalds, curious as to why I’m using paper placemats and brochures to write it down. I know those people think I’m a freak, but I don’t care. I know I will get something interesting out of it and it’s worth it.
If you become self-conscious about what people are thinking you as you write — or read what you wrote — that is a stumbling block you are putting in your own way. It’s the same as saying, “Oh I don’t want to write because I can’t write as well as (fill in the name of author here).”
To quote Pink Floyd, “Tear down the wall!” Remove your inhibitions and you will find it easier to write. The more you write, the more good ideas will come to you.
5. Always be prepared to write. Yes, that sounds like Boy Scout advice, but in this case it works. Pen and paper – don’t leave home without it. There will be times when you will have to get all MacGyver and find ways to write down thoughts without your own pen and paper (see #4).
6. Read good books. You will get mixed advice on this topic. I’ve interviewed writers who avoid reading authors, or at least authors of their genre, while writing in order to avoid getting mixed up with their voice or accidentally stealing a tone or something. On the other extreme are writers — or books for writers (that's #7) — that suggest you copy down pages or books of your favorite authors because simply by doing that you are noting their cadence and their style.
I come down in the middle. I think you can learn a lot from reading others. It was by reading Kurt Vonnegut that I picked up the habit, which might be jarring or annoying (is it?), of stopping mid-stream to talk to the author. Books like the Phantom Tollbooth showed me that it’s good — hell, it’s great — fun to play around with words and basic concepts.
Does that mean you sometimes steal pens you only meant to borrow while writing something down? Yes. Does that mean you will find at times you have eight pens? Yes. Is that okay? Yes. Is it okay when writing to switch styles from long paragraphs to short ones, from statements to questions? Yes.
Some people carry around voice recorders to deal with ideas that come to them when they are driving. I should do that, but more often than not, I should admit (I’ll deny this in traffic court) I’ve jotted down writing-related thoughts while driving. Remember, Friends Don’t Let Friends Write and Drive, but it’s hard not to do so when driving alone.
Another alternative to writing while driving or using a tape recorder is to call your own voice mail and share the idea that way. Sure, it’s a bit surreal later when you get home, especially if you’re not alone or, worse, someone else checks the voice mail, to hear yourself talking to, well, yourself. Consider the alternative – you ignore or repress the idea and then it goes away.
7. Avoid the “Being a better writer” traps. It’s very easy and tempting to get distracted or delay your writing because first you want to attend writing workshops, writing classes, and read books on writing. Avoid that temptation.
What’s important right now is to get down on the paper what you are thinking, what you are feeling, why you bit your brother’s ear off when you were eight, why you shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, or whatever you are writing about.
Between Firsty’s pieces and mine, you have been told just about everything you could gain from attending those classes, workshops, and seminars, and not reading those books. See, I just saved you money. Now you owe me.
What reading about writing does is delay your writing. There will be a time later, after you have finished that novel or written that 300-page summary of your life story, to read books about how to improve your writing. When you reach that point, the book I endorse is Stephen King’s On Writing. This is an ironic choice considering my criticisms of King, but King concisely and clearly makes all the important points. Yes, I’m aware this piece is a violation of my own suggestion in that you are, as you read this, reading about writing. I am teaching you by example.
8. Find your own writing habit. The key part of that sentence is “your own.” One of the most annoying questions I see people ask, even more annoying and grating than asking someone how they are feeling after getting some piece of good or bad news, is people asking writers about their writing habits. Why does that annoy me?
First it enters into the territory of #7 in that the writer, and by extension the person’s readers, are reading about someone else’s writing habits, which most likely will help you about as much as when a smoker asks a former smoker how they quit the habit. That is to say it won’t help. Everyone has their own habits and quirks.
The idea that we are all the same, that we can all write at the same time or in the same place or mood is the kind of stupid idea that makes authors of the books I reference at #7 much money, but helps the reader very little. This is, I note, one area where I differ with Firsty.
Yes, I too do some of my best writing at night. Heck, re-reading my piece last week, where I spoke in the voice of my pet beta fish, it appears I was on a controlled substance (Firsty’s #1,) when I was not. Instead I was writing from midnight to 4 a.m. and there’s something special about that time when you are waking up or falling asleep that results in more creative and wild thoughts. I think it’s the subconscious sneaking a run play past inhibitions, but that’s just a guess.
Here is where I differ from Firsty: I know many writers, some famous, some not, who do their best writing in the morning. Everyone is different and there is no one right time or place for everyone to write. For me, ideas for stories or even ideas on how to start or finish stories, be they factual or fiction, come when I least expect them, be it while driving (see #5), while sleeping (which is why I keep post-its near my bed), and in the shower.
The key is to find what works for you and then using that to your advantage. A friend told me she likes to write when she first wakes up before tackling life’s problems and distractions and potentially forgetting what she was going to write about or what creative gift her subconscious developed while she was sleeping. I said, “Ggreat, try that.”
More important than the time or place you write is the self-discipline. I run into people all the time who tell me they don’t have time to read books and don’t understand how I find the time to read an average of 100 books a year. They note that they work 50 or 60 an hour weeks. I have to hold my tongue because I’ve been reading two books a week in recent months while working three jobs with over 100 hours a week.
So what’s the trick? I gave up sleeping. No, wait, that’s not it – it just seems like it. No, the trick is self-discipline. I always spend an hour each day reading. If I don’t get that hour it’s like missing a meal. My body and brain feel like something important has been missed.
It’s the same way with writing. You have to give yourself time for writing. Ideally you set aside some time each day to write, but if that’s not possible at least promise yourself that when an idea comes to you, you will stop what you are doing and write down the idea.
Personally, I’m a strong believer in journaling every day. Much of the stuff I journal I can’t share here because of privacy issues, but being in the habit of writing every day is like giving foreplay to the creative writing part of the brain, telling it not only is it okay to think creative thoughts, but encouraging it to come up with even more.
9. Experiment as you write. If usually you write in one voice, for example, then try writing in another voice. One reason I really liked the result of my beta fish piece was that I was speaking with a different, possibly physically impossible, voice. That freed me up to try new things.
A common complaint or problem from new writers is they are not sure how to get started. This is what leads them to the books I warned you about at #7. Instead of fretting about how to best start, just start writing. If you are going to write down your life story, for example, it’s okay to start at the beginning of your life and work your way to the present. It is also okay to do the opposite. You can always change that later after you are done. The important thing is to write it all down now.
I used to marvel at the idea of writer’s block because for almost 10 years I was writing at least 10 articles a week for newspapers on every topic you can possibly imagine – from sex ed to Amish art. If I only had one story, my editors scowled at me. If I had no stories I’d practically be shunned. When expected to write that often, you don’t have time to wonder if you are blocked or why.
If you’re stuck on how to start something, try a different way. Put even simpler, use my mantra: “When in doubt, rewrite.” If you are writing and you are struggling for the perfect word to complete the sentence, then rewrite the sentence and move on.
Obviously, if experimenting is getting in the way of writing, then stop experimenting.
10. Minimize distractions. I just seeded a column by a professor that makes an excellent point about how multi-tasking affects learning. The professor is prohibiting students from using laptops while taking his class because they are focusing on checking their emails and chatting while also, at least in theory, listening to him. The same goes for writing. Distractions will interfere, so the best solution is to do what you can to keep them to a minimum.
If you are trying to write down what it was like to have an ex-girlfriend’s cat start licking your feet and the realization that this cat has now given you more physical affection than the girlfriend and then – beep – you get a text message, and, blink, you have new email messages, you’re going to not only lose your place in that sad-but-true personal story, but also forget what you were planning to write next.
Sometimes, and I know this is a shocking idea to my fellow net addicts, you have to disconnect from the Internet. When I want to do some serious writing work, I unplug the cable modem.
Heck, lately I’m doing some of my best writing while on a weekend job where I couldn’t have Internet access even if I wanted it. That sort of proves my point. The less distractions, the better the finished product.
This is not to say everything will be gold if you write without distractions. If you write like Dan Brown, maybe the only way your writing style may improve is with an excellent editor or a controlled substance.
For most of us, the more focused we are when writing the better the result. The fewer distractions, the lower the odds that we will make embarrassing typos like, say, referring to a person as the pubic works manager (which sounds like a cool job, but is not actually his title.)
11. Lastly, don’t worry about length. Well, okay, it does matter later when you are confused about why you can’t get a 3,000-page opus on how you slept with your twin brother and are not sure if that counts as incest or self-love, but you can worry about the book's length and legal issues later. For now the important concept — the refrain in this piece — is to get down your thoughts. Worry later about your audience and where you can get published.
I’d come back from government meetings sometimes and would be expected to write three or four stories in less than an hour. When I would tell non-reporters this, it sounded impossible. The solution has been known as vomiting or regurgitating what you just saw. It’s an unpleasant way of saying something truthful; that it’s faster to write down all of what happened on a particular topic than to try to make it all flowery with symbolism and beautiful prose.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to see 300 articles in Newsvine, Blogcritics, or in newspapers tomorrow that are 99,999 words long. You do want to edit and cut once you have finished your first draft, but that editing and cutting is a whole different process and one best addressed separately. If there is interest, I can write something another day on that topic.
I’d apologize for this piece being long, but I’ll just pretend it’s intentional in order to demonstrate the importance of #11. Besides, there is something amusing about writing the words “lastly, don’t worry about length” when on the fifth page of writing this down. I wonder how many readers I would have lost if I put that first.