Monday, May 16, 2016

Time Out

When I began writing these weekly essays which you so kindly accept, I did it as a way to encourage my own writing discipline. It isn’t enough, sometimes, to set a goal of so many words a day or a week. Sometimes you need to actually complete something on a schedule, as a way of keeping the blood flowing, as it were. I’ve been doing it now for the better part of five years and have built a rather large collection of these short exercises we call a "blog." (I don’t like the term, but there it is). Somewhere along the way meeting my own deadline has become less than fun, and writing, for me, has always been something I have to do, want to do, love doing and get pleasure from. But now it’s time to take a time out.

I have several major writing projects I have put aside, always hoping to get back to them and get them on their way to a more permanent format. It isn’t happening. There are too many words I need to organize, you see, and I’m just not getting there. I need some time.

So for the foreseeable future, I will limit myself to reviewing the collection found on this site, looking to complete a publishable whole, something like the essays found in my 2010 book, Mixed Freight: Checking Life’s Baggage. As a short form, essays fit my need to put something I have to say in front of as many readers as I can. Sometimes the whole essay comes to me complete, title and all. It often happens when I’m walking alone in the woods, climbing one of the trails on the ridges that define our mountain farm, or performing some physical task such as driving or mowing or doing maintenance things on equipment a place like ours demands.

There is another longer work in progress, as well. Two, actually. Make that four. One is a collection of short stories or character studies that I have been polishing over the years. There is also a novel, a longer work about families, and at least two science fiction plots I’ve been playing with. In other words, I have more stories ahead than behind, that need my attention if I’m ever going to send them on their way. My list grows, rather than shrinks, even as I write this explanation of why I need a time out.

This site calls to me still, and I’m sure there will be something I feel I have to share from time to time, but not on a regular basis. I do appreciate comments and knowing that I am reaching readers, so if there is something I just have to say, I’ll drop a note in your inbox. You are always welcome to return the favor.

In the meantime, there are all the previous entries on this site. Feel free to re-read them and perhaps offer a comment when you feel the urge.

Time Out begins today. Thank you.

Sunday, May 8, 2016


 About celebrity: I think we celebrate the wrong things.

In the last few weeks months, we’ve read obituaries of people with famous names; famous for being famous, in some cases. The ones I don’t know about are mostly stars of some pop culture specialty: contemporary music, artists who have "thrown away the rules" of some art form or entertainment skill. Usually they receive kudos for "changing the way we hear/see/think about music, or painting or writing or ourselves. We worship at feet of clay, perhaps.

In the city where we lived for many years, there is a museum of art donated perhaps thirty years ago by a very wealthy individual. The collection included paintings, photographs, sculpture, furniture and a lot of other things, some quite ordinary in shape or purpose but unusual in execution or color or material. Almost all were by artists whose names were recognizable, even if the pieces on display were not among those usually associated with the name. They seemed to me to be examples of work nobody else wanted. At about the same time, another donor had given great stone and metal sculptures to be placed on public land. You may well have seen some of the things I mean: things that look at first glance as if they had fallen off the back of a truck and been abandoned. Some call them "art."

We tend to venerate the creators of "pop culture" and give them status beyond their raising, as they say in the south. Someone composes a song that catches the air and flies, and suddenly the lyricist or composer is elevated to someone we all are now supposed to admire. I don’t mean people who use their position to work for the greater good, for society and for some specific part of society. Those people make a difference that is often lasting and worthwhile. They succeed and they give back, going far beyond brightening someone’s day with a song. Pop Culture doesn’t go beyond that very often.

I’m being curmudgeonly, perhaps, showing my advanced age if you will. Still, I think that celebrating the lives of people we know only from some rhythm or acoustic assault on our brains is far too manipulative. Take the current trend of putting a truck-load of flowers at some public place by people who have never met the person being honored. Here is a phenomenon in which strangers metaphorically don sack cloth and ashes, in honor of a stranger with a famous name (and often an unhealthy lifestyle).

There are a few reasons, it seems to me, why we make heros out of entertainers and glorify them with dispensations even when they commit public follies. The first is that their public relations flacks can manipulate us so easily, removing the curse and stain some of these people bring on themselves. Another reason might be that the people who should receive the glamor clamor don’t give us anything to admire, professionally or personally. They simply do what the do, do it well, and go on to the next thing. Such adulation should not be given lightly.

For those whose claim to fame is fame, rather than some lasting, measurable contribution, often accompanied by shouting, foot stomping, screaming and swooning fans, there is the risk that they may take us along on their ride, ending in "sound and fury, signifying nothing."

One of them might even grow up to be president.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Write Place

When we built our house on the side of the mountain we set it so that every room save the pantry, two closets and a bathroom look out over the valley and the mountain on the other side. It was a small house, with only the essential rooms: a "great room," a master suite with the two closets and master bath, and the library, with room (we thought) for our treasured books, and a half-bath primarily so that a sofa bed could turn the library into a guest room. At the time, we had two other houses on the property, one of which was a charming (after my wife finished decorating it) two-over-two cabin we used as a guest house, so our library-cum-guestroom was a kind of after-thought.

An unexpected sequence of events led, before the house was completed, to adding a two-car garage, a workshop, a studio and an office. The office was my special place. After we moved in I discovered that the space I had picked out for my desk and my writing corner was being overtaken by the wall-to-wall bookcases we needed for our books. (I’m in the process of adding shelves in the last un-shelved area of the room now.) So the office became my writing room as well as an office.

At first I wanted enough space for a small desktop and room for my drafting table (which is now in the workshop). The outside wall is mostly window, and the view is very calming and conducive to quiet thinking and creative wordsmithing. The perfect office for me, I thought. Not really. Not today.

In time I built long desktops on two walls, and a flat worktop on a third wall. Then I put in shelves for books that I needed close at hand: dictionaries, books of quotations and other aids writers use. Then shelves for copies of films I had made, books I have written and . . . and a lot of other stuff. What once was a neat, open area without distractions, has become like . . . Well, like every other desk I’ve even had. People who have worked with me over the years will nod in agreement as they recollect the piles of folders, books, miscellaneous papers and everything else that always populated my desk no matter where I worked. I’m organized but messy.

Lately, it seems, I can’t keep ahead of the things that wander into my office, find space on my desktop and work table, even find resting places on the floor under the desk or in front of the under-counter cabinets I built all those years ago. I know what’s in the cabinets, on the shelves, in the drawers. What I don’t know is why. Why I keep the things I keep, why I put things on top of things, why I even think I can work in this cluttered and distracting space.

I keep all of the piles of files and racks of records because they are my history, my research resources, my memory. They are the external backup drives of my long life, of my decades of duty. I call on them sometimes, I draw inspiration, I find comfort in clutter.

Oh, I make attempts to clean up, to rid myself of things I know I don’t need (or even recall why I have them). Not long ago I emptied almost half of my files in the drawers behind me. Years of journals were packed in sealed plastic tubs to be destroyed when I’m no longer here (I can’t do it myself, you see). I could even see the top of my writing desk . . . for a while. Today, I think, I’ll finish the job. I’ll delete the distractions, I’ll dump the detritus, I’ll . . . but I won’t. I know I will not change. Not now. I’ve been at this work too long, worked in this mess forever, evidently find comfort in the distractions. Even finding an essay among the unused words that clutter my notebooks. But I must do something.

Those who can’t discard history are doomed to retain it.

Monday, April 18, 2016

All’s Fair in Books

I participated in another book fair Saturday, and as sometimes happens, the authors were more plentiful than the readers. One even told me that she can’t read anymore and doesn’t like recorded books, so one might wonder why she accompanied her friends to the event, but there really isn’t a simple answer to that, anymore than there is an answer to why sometimes book fairs are crowed with buyers and sometimes not. Publicity may have a lot to do with it, but just as likely it was the weather.

Here on the western frontier where we live, and even to the east, in the Shenandoah Valley where we assembled, we have been waiting and hoping for spring to discover us, and Saturday was it. We have had weeks of warm winter, when every tree and bulb wisely withheld new grow and simply stayed curled up knowing that it wasn’t over. In February winter decided it had been in elsewhere long enough, and came roaring back. By mid-March bulbs were pushing up, leaves were opening up, and on occasion we even had windows opening up. Then of course, the day after the magnolia blossomed, the temperature went from 50 to 5. Then it went up again. Then down again. Great for the maple syrup producers in the county . . . if it stayed that way. Instead we had weeks when the temperature dropped into the teens and never rose above the 20s. Again not unusual for living in the mountains, but somehow this year it seemed to just not stabilize. So Saturday, when the overnight was above freezing, and the daytime sun brought high 60s here and 70s in the Valley, perhaps that was all it took to send readers outside, with no thought of going to a big room full of writers and books and not much else.

Still, for those of us who write, which is a solitary and often lonely occupation (but none of us would rather do anything else), it was good to seclude ourselves with other writers, only occasionally interrupted by readers/buyers. Writers don’t have to explain to other writers what the writing process is all about, nor how seldom we think about sitting and talking about writing, instead of actually doing it. It is what we do: sit in a quiet place, hearing only the scratch of a pen or the clicking of a keyboard. It makes the kind of music we can hum, a tune we can whistle.

An interesting sidelight: I shared my table with a writer who also has an antiques business. To attract people to her books, she set up a kind of found art exhibit. Part of it was a portable typewriter, the kind writers of my generation often started with in college or perhaps earlier. I couldn’t help tuning in when a young person, perhaps still a teenager, asked my table mate what it was. She responded with a good description, and then offered the young one the opportunity to type something. Now I don’t know about you, but I began with a Royal portable that required real effort to move the keys. For that reason, when I began using computers, I often cracked and wrecked the fragile board under the keys. I mean, it took real strength to move typewriter keys enough to raise the type bar to press on the ribbon and the paper. I was eager to see how the young person would find this archaic tool. You know the answer, I’m sure. The first attempt barely moved the key or the type bar. Finally, after two or three tries, a letter actually rose up far enough and with sufficient force to press against the ribbon and paper and actually type a letter. Oh how things have changed.

Today I no longer punch keys on my computer as hard as I once did. Unless I’m angry, of course, or really inspired. Then I still will hit the keys hard and fast, but the manufacturers have learned about people like me, and have built electronic boards that must be extremely tough. Oh, I’ll knock off one of the pads that serve as keys (two like that on ths laptop), but since I’m a touch typist I really don’t need the letter to know what the key is. And I like to pound the keys! It give me a real feeling of controlled power to hit ‘em hard, and again and again, and feel the emotion of what I’m writing flow from brain to paper.

Now that spring has sprung, as it were, there are more things calling to me to come outside and play. A lot of work to be done repairing the winter’s work, still trees to finish cutting and splitting and stacking by the furnace. On the decks across the front of the house there are windfall leaves, flower pots in need of replanting, repairs and refinishing of the wooden deck boards. Really there is no end to what winter has left us to do, yet I have calls from the writing desk to answer, too. I have two lives, it seems.

The first is the writing life: seeing story ideas, getting something down on paper or in a computer file, exploring the ideas and developing them. Those things take time that doesn’t look like work. For some reason, some cultural artifact in my brain, sitting and thinking without even a pencil in my hand seems like not working. I know better. I know that writing is not an active occupation. Typing is. Hearing the click of keys on paper was always music to me. The dull thud or clicking of keypads doesn’t bring forth the same response. I know all of that, just as I know the physical act of writing is the easy part. The story evolves in that dark place in the brain. Events and images and personalities all leave residue behind that find their way into characters and events and thoughts that animate our characters and stories. All of that goes on inside, before the words breakout onto a screen or a piece of paper.

Most of my writing takes place in the folds and convolutions of my brain, deep in the dark. Sometimes, though, working at something physical, something that takes more muscle than brain, allows a light I hadn’t expected to flash a direction, a solution, a question to be answered, even the answer itself. Those are the creative moments I love the most. And they can happen anywhere.

I’ll be outside.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Story Time

I’m at that point in life where I think about what I will leave behind; my legacy, if you will. I’m not a president of anything, but still, there are those who will want to know more about me than they are even able to think about at this point. I have two great grandsons (and a third one on the way), and unlike my own childhood, there will be a great grandfather in their lives. What will they know about me, and the life that led to my participation in their lives, and the lives of their parents and grandparents? Perhaps they won’t care, but my own experience tells me that at some point they will have some questions, some interest in those who came before.

I never knew my grandfathers or great grandfathers. All I know about them is what little my parents passed on (which wasn’t really very much). For a long time I didn’t realize what a loss that was. A personal loss, to be sure, but it has left me with a short story where family is concerned. Not entirely, of course. There are legends in every family, funny or tragic, sometimes enlightening or inspiring, but that isn’t the same as "knowing." No smile to recall, no voice to remember, no third dimension by which to see them.

In her later years my mother, a forgotten poet and writer of children’s tales (which she never tried to publish), wrote a couple of short pieces (30 or so pages) describing her early years as an immigrant child and her growing up in a small southern town. Those were mostly the stories my sister and I had heard growing up, but some of it was new and all of it was a wonderful way to pass those stories on to our children and grandchildren and (in time) great grandchildren. A legacy.

What I’m writing about here is what each of us can do. We don’t have to be literary geniuses, or even moderately successful writers of fiction or essays. We all have stories that, perhaps unknowingly, formed our lives. It is something that needs to be made accessible to those who come after because without a history, no life is complete. And it isn’t difficult. All you really need is a pad of paper, a pen or pencil, or perhaps a small digital recorder (about $15 or $20 today) and the time to sit down and recall your own life, and the lives of those who came before. Maybe even stories of your own children that they may have forgotten but that, to you, were part of making them what they have become.

Santayana is usually credited with first stating the obvious (though there are about a dozen different versions of it): "Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it." "Doomed" is perhaps not always the right word to use. Sometimes forgetting history can help one live a more balanced, successful life. Either way, history is history, and knowing it, understanding it, is an important part of living.

Write it down. Leave a gift for those who come after.

Monday, April 4, 2016


There is a small maple tree about 40 feet from my office window. When the cold weather comes, so do the doves. They perch on branches about twenty feet above the ground, sitting two-by-two as if huddling to keep warm. I enjoy watching them.

We also have a single male cardinal again this year. He lost his life-mate last winter, as I recall, and will probably not find (or seek) another. The state bird is a wonderful eye-catcher against the drab gray background of late winter.

We have other birds here year-round, and they are lovley to see in any weather, but it is the doves that seem to project warmth and love at a time of year when warmth is not projected across nature’s big screen. Watching doves warming themselves warms me, as well.

Living in a remote and semi-wild environment is a school of understanding. Life is going on all around us, whether we are watching, or not. In the bigger world, the one far beyond my window, there are people who would substitute hate for love; provide targets for others to focus on; avoid dealing with the real problems living on a small planet brings. I don’t know what the answer is, or even if there is an answer, but I know what I have learned, watching the doves.

I have learned that we are warmer, more comfortable, less likely to fall when we sit down together. We, all of us, perch precariously on whatever branch we choose for our resting place because there are no certainties. We grab on to life, grip hard, hold on tight regardless of wind or snow, rain or shine. We are at our best when we find our place in the sun.

This time of year I recall a poem I learned as a child. It is not the greatest, perhaps, not the most artful of poems, but now and then it speaks to me. It is "The Rainbow," by William Wordsworth. Do you know it?

"My heart leaps up when I behold
     A rainbow in the sky:
So it was when my life began;
     So it is now I’m a Man;
So be it when I grow old,
     Or let me die!
The Child is Father to the Man;
     And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety."

Say "hello" to Spring.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

"In Collaboration With . . . "

A friend who is doing a series of articles for a writing/publishing site, BookBaby, sent me the latest chapter in which the subject was finding a collaborator. The writer suggests putting yourself together with a writer whom you admire, and through their work, letting them advise you. That doesn't mean sending a letter to Agatha Christie, or Stephen King, for instance, seeking advice. The idea, according to my colleague, would be to immerse yourself in the other person's writing to discover how their goals were achieved; how they made the right words fall into place to achieve the effect or point you are trying to make. It reminded me of a technique I had been introduced to many years ago by a colleague. It happened like this.

I had moved from writing every script to actually producing the medical teaching films that were the mainstay of my organization. I hired a couple of writers to share the load. One was a young man with good skills but not much experience. The other was an older writer, a man of great standing in the teaching film community, the son of a very successful Hollywood writer/director from the Silent Era. One morning, making my rounds of the various departments, I went into the writing office where the older man was working away. I hadn't given him a new assignment, so I asked him what he was writing.

"Hemingway," he replied.


"Well, when I asked what writer you most admired," harking back to the time I interviewed him for the job, "you said 'Hemingway.' In Hollywood if you were adapting or working with a known writer on a script, the best way to write like him (or her) was to simply sit down and type from the original novel or script, until you had developed the style, the rhythm, the music of the original."

Seeking to satisfy me, my new associate was putting on Hemingway.

The kinds of films we were producing didn't offer many opportunities for such a skill, but it was a useful one to have. I've tried it. It works.

So take the writer you most admire, want to write like, and start typing. After about 30 pages, slip into your own work. Let the rhythm, the feel of the words sing you the song you want to hear. Begin every writing session with a page or two from your "collaborator's" text, and then pick up your own work where you left off.

After the first few sessions I think you will find your co_writer standing less and less heavily on your shoulder, but perhaps just close enough to nod when you get it right.

It's a collaboration that will help you find your own, true voice.