Sunday, January 29, 2012

Growing a story

Last week was a particularly good week for me. A story I began writing in October had gone dormant by November. Try as I might, often writing only a few lines a day, some days none at all, the story just wasn’t growing. "Writer’s Block" is the term usually applied, but it isn’t the writer who is blocked, so much as the story. It happens to all of us who write regularly, and sometimes the causes are obvious: the concept is a poor one, the characters are the writer’s creation, not the story’s. The writer is trying to write the story, instead of tell it.

You see, we are all storytellers. When we reminisce with friends and family,  when we pass on a story someone has told us or we tell a joke, we are telling a story. Those who write do it with greater art, perhaps, even skill, than those who are simply relaying something they have experienced or heard or thought about, but we are all telling stories.

For the writer, it becomes complicated when you try to influence the story. Every story has its own beginning, middle and end; has a structure that you create. It is something like a tree: from a root that has been planted, branches and twigs and leaves develop. It becomes beautiful when it is in full leaf and even more when it flowers. An arborist may influence the way the tree is shaped and blossoms by pruning, but once the seed is planted, when the roots take hold and the trunk begins to grow, you cannot do too much without changing the way the finished tree will look. What you do may at times make it more handsome, but you also run the risk of weakening it, shaping it to an ugly form, creating something that even you want to simply cut down and burn.

This week past I rediscovered what I already knew about my tree: let it grow on its own, with perhaps some judicious trimming here and there, and it will achieve the shape and size I first envisioned. Finally, after weeks of struggle, I just stopped, and suddenly the characters took over. Letting them drive the story, telling it through me, has allowed them to breathe again, to begin their final growth into fully shaped and living characters.

At about half-past noon the day the characters came alive again, a nuthatch came to the ring at the bottom of the feeder that hangs just beyond my window. For almost a minute, instead of eating he sat, back to the feeder, facing the sun. He was obviously enjoying the nearly 50-degree temperature and the warm, full sun. Perhaps is was just the winter dormancy I was dealing with.

Spring seems to be coming after all. I am letting my characters open up and flower.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Snow Job

Last week I received an email from a friend who evidently believes what he reads. Especially about oil. The story he forwarded purported to come from someone in Alaska, who is convinced that not only do we need the oil in the ANWR, but that the wildlife love pipelines! Just like people in Ohio love earthquakes!

You know, I might give some credence to silly pieces like this, except for one thing: we’re in trouble! I don’t know when it will happen, but it will. We will run out of petroleum. It will all be used up. There will come a time, probably not in my lifetime, but in my grandchildren's, when the pump sucks air. Then what? If, just once, I heard someone who wants to keep on drilling say, "But we’ll put 50% of the income from this well into alternate methods and sources of energy," I might be inclined to say: "Okay. Let’s drill." But the drillers never say that. Instead they tell us that we have so much reserve we shouldn’t even think about subsidies for solar or wind or geothermal or biomass. Especially if it means cutting or eliminating something called the "oil depletion allowance." And besides, who likes cold winters anyway?

I live in a place where wind is a potential resource. One landowner has even proposed a wind farm on the highest ridge in the county. Despite the fact that he can’t find investors who will fund it, and many people don’t like the idea because we live in a place with pristine mountain views and landscapes that draw people to the county. Eventually we will have them, I’m sure. It won’t be a matter of options and choices then, and it might be too late.

Why don’t people care? Just who is it that benefits from $5 gas? I certainly don’t. The bears and the caribou in ANWR don’t. It must be someone. Maybe the shareholders at EXXON and BP, but not me. Not the people who experienced the earthquakes in Ohio. Not the people who will find their water contaminated. You know what I’m talking about.

And when the last slurp is heard here, or in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela, someone, somewhere, will say: "Obama did it."

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Dress Code

Really! Armani must be sick to his stomach when he sees his multi-thousand dollar suits on those guys. You know the ones I mean: politicians and hopefuls showing up at rallies and on factory floors in the mandatory dark suit, white shirt and no tie. Do they really think that makes them one of us?

"Look, I took off my tie. I’m just a working man, just like you!"

The first time I saw a politician dressed like that was probably when "W" invited some diplomat to his ranch, and the poor guy felt over-dressed. Then I began to see it in places where people weren’t interrupting their daily toil to listen to a speech, but here was some guy from somewhere looking like he forgot to finish dressing. Is that an insult or what? When I go to meet someone I don’t know, especially a client or a group of readers, I extend to them the courtesy of dressing as though I meant it.

What a put-down. Who wouldn’t like to be able to wear the $2000 suits and $300 dress shirts (not to mention the $150 silk ties), the designer clothes worn only once for some charity affair, have a job where it wasn't necessary to have your clothes washed or dry cleaned after a day’s labor. Just where did you guys get the idea that taking off your tie makes you likable (or maybe lovable)?

If you’re going to "get down and dirty," then do it. Just don’t make it look like an afterthought. You know, there’s nothing wrong with being in a suit and tie job, any more than there is something unwholesome about being in a (dirty) hands-on job. It isn’t the kind of labor that makes a difference; it’s the kind of laborer you are. If you wear a uniform then wear it correctly.

And if you are going to sell yourself, at least be honest about what you are.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Living forever

I suppose that in time science will find a way to let us live forever. Perhaps that is what motivates space exploration: finding a place to put us when we have no more room on this planet. But frankly, I’m not interested in waiting for that, nor do I think it is right.

Somewhere along the way in the current health care debate, opponents have asserted that there will be "death panels," that will essentially determine "who shall live and who shall die." That was the title, by the way, of a television documentary in the 1950s. The subject then was kidney dialysis and the lack of sufficient machines to provide the service to all who might benefit from it. The same question arises whenever there is a shortage of an advanced medical intervention, and it goes away as the health care industry reaches a point where resources equal need. Of course that doesn’t mean all who need it will get it, or all who get it will want it. Some will be denied because they don’t have a way to pay for life. Some will not get it because they don’t want it.

For a number of years I wrote and produced medical teaching films, translating the latest advances in the specialized sphere loosely identified as "combat medicine." I was associated with a highly specialized medical research institute whose mission was briefly stated in the motto: "Research for the Soldier." The goal was to identify the threats and develop the countermeasures against those which could render a soldier ineffective. That’s a very simplistic description, but it is generally accurate. I mention this because it relates to a personal philosophy, and it is relevant to some of the emotional and perhaps intentional misreading of the legislation designed to provide comprehensive health care to a significant number of Americans who have, at best, inadequate protection from incredibly expensive health care today.

When I made those films I was between my mid-thirties and mid-fifties, and life was good. (I’m well past that now, and life is still good!) I had no doubts about the work I was doing, or the work being done by my colleagues in military medical research. After all, we were asking our youngest and best to expose themselves willingly to the possibility of pain, suffering, dismemberment, disfigurement and death. We owed (and still owe) every one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines the very best opportunity to recover and live full lives when war takes its inevitable payment. Anything we have to spend to provide the knowledge and tools necessary to repair and replace is just and righteous, no matter who started the war, or how unwise our involvement. The men and women who face the dangers don’t start the wars, don’t vote for them, don’t get paid enough to make the risk worthwhile.

But what about the rest of us? Don’t we have a little more responsibility for how our lives are lived? Don’t we as individuals control a lot of the potential exposure to threats? We know how to minimize the spread of disease, we learn early that alcohol and drugs (illegal and legal) can affect our abilities. Today we certainly have some idea of foods that help us and those that can kill us. We have choices that we make, and there are choices our bodies make for us.

I’ve already convened my death panel.  I have a "living will," that says I want no "heroic" measures taken in the event that routine procedures will not work. I don’t want to come back from the dead missing half my body or my brain. I cannot imagine a worse death than the one in which I would be able to hear you and maybe see you, and not be able to communicate; to know where my arms and legs are but unable to make them function. Life in which I could only communicate with eye-blinks would not be living, to me.

I just don't want the decisions in my life to be made because I can't afford any other choices.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


So, how was last year? Couldn't have been too bad: you’re able to press the "enter’ key and open this blog, which means you still have an Internet connection, still have your computer, and still can control at least some of your physical environment. Good! Then I won’t go back and try to recall the last 12 months, either yours or mine. Let’s look forward, instead.

I have a good supply of wood cut, split and stacked next to the furnace, and about two-thirds of what I thought I’d need for the winter still uncut, so I’m taking a relaxed attitude to the wood pile this winter. Global warming has its advantages.

I’m well along with the sequel to "A Beautiful Place for an Ugly Death," the Kindle-released mystery that went on sale last Fall, and I have two more stories in outline form waiting to be resuscitated, so I have work ahead of me for 2012. That’s always good. I can’t imagine a time when I will have nothing to do.

And you: do you have a plan for the year? Will you continue to grow and find your path? The beginning of a new year has all the elements of writing a new chapter in a book, I think. You end the previous chapter with at least some idea of where you are going, what to expect, but even as you write the next one you are going to be surprised by what your characters do, how they will behave, what discoveries they may make. Failures, successes, perplexities and insights will change the people you create, and that is what makes the story interesting. If you could predict and project the next 12 chapters, or even the one after the one you're working on, there would probably be no motivation to write it. When we talk about "formula writing," we mean that it is usually predictable and not very good, or at least not terribly exciting, and all of those are necessary to keep the reader turning the pages.

There is a formula you can apply, though a mathematical one: Expectation, divided by Uncertainty, multiplied by Time, equals Life. I hope your equation is full of prime numbers and a positive result.

Happy New Year.