Sunday, April 29, 2012

Goodbye Max

We said goodbye to Max this week. He was only about 12 (we rescued him ten years ago), and he spent the last decade in what must be every dog’s dreamland: acres and acres to explore, animals to chase, places to investigate, and investigate and investigate.

Max always accompanied me on my early morning ramble. Sometimes around the edges of the fields we overlook, sometimes up on the ridges behind the house, and for years, as long as the water in the river wasn’t frozen, he would have a swim.

He was a big dog, part Australian Shepard, part something else (we speculate about this, of course). He was quiet, barking only when he needed to sound an alarm. Then he turned into a raging threat: leaping half his length above the floor, flews pulled back, teeth bared, jaws open wide enough to swallow you, forepaws up and threatening . . . until you gained entry to the house. That was a sign you were okay, and he would try one of his most endearing acts: putting his head between your legs, pressing against you as you rubbed his ears and scratched his head. But if you were on the other side of the door, it was a different story.

Max often slept in front of the door to our bedroom, usually far enough away so that it could be opened, but sometimes I would have to push hard to slide him far enough to get out in the morning. He weighed, at his peak, about 98 pounds, and was all muscle and strength. Walking him on a lead was not a comfortable experience if he wanted to move. It was "Now! Let’s go!" and unless I was prepared for it, he would drag me along until I could dig in and hold him.

In has last years Max slowed down, but didn’t stop. Our early morning walks continued right up to his last day. Climbing the hill back to the house was hard, almost more than his weakened hip could manage, but he soldiered on. The end was peaceful, induced, healing for us and for him. No more pain, no more difficulty breathing, only an endless sleep.

We have many pictures of Max to help us remember: sleeping on his back with such abandon, or acting out his dreams with moving legs and noisy breaths. Max invented tobogganing, a trick he showed to the other dogs when it snowed. He would get to the top of a smooth hill, throw himself on his back, wiggle until he started sliding, and then just head on down to the bottom, pick himself up and climb back to the top, and do it again and again. I was happy that this last winter was so mild, because had we had snow, Max would have wanted to go sliding and that would not have been good for him.

If there is a dog heaven, I like to think that here on our farm is where he found it. And if heaven means being remembered for the good and wonderful things one has done, then Max is surely there.

Goodbye, Max

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Freeing the Captive

We are captives of ourselves. Does that seem self-evident when you think about it? The only limitations on us are those we impose, knowingly or not. I once formulated the following philosophy: Given that you have all ten fingers and toes, you get out of life exactly what you want - - - whether you know it or not. That is: barring some missing or broken parts, either physical or intellectual, what happens in your life is of your own making.

It does little to help if you complain or blame. Trying to find the reason for whatever state you are in, physically or intellectually or emotionally, may help you understand it, but doesn’t do much to move you on (or keep you where you are if that’s where you want to be). One of the grand features of being human is that along with those ten fingers and ten toes, comes the ability to move at will. Forward, backward, up or down or sideways doesn’t matter as much as having the ability to do so, and exercising it.

I’m not sure what brought these thoughts to mind today, except that for the moment I seem to have come to a stop creatively. Writing has become a bit harder (it’s always hard), and less enjoyable (that has always made the difficulty worthwhile – joy of writing a collection of words that says what I want to say in a way that makes me smile).

"It doesn’t sing," has always been the worst thing I could hear from a viewer or a reader (fiction, non-fiction, print or audio or film, it doesn’t matter). Words should sing, should do what music does, what art does: lift you up and away from where you are, spur a moment of recognition, make you say "Yes! That’s what I feel." It will not be all joyful, of course; none of us has a life that is only joy. Were that the case, we would never have happiness or generate a laugh from deep within, or release tears that cleanse the mind as they clear and lubricate our vision. So when my words don’t sing, I know it is the music within that is flat.

I am, for the moment, a captive of myself.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Some Business

Writing is a tough business. In fact, it’s hardly a business at all if you are the writer. It’s tempting to add "these days" to that, but from what I have read and heard over the years, it hasn’t changed much, or even gotten worse than it was years ago. Just more of it.

My mother was a writer, even published (but never paid) when she was still a young woman. Poetry was her specialty. A dozen or so years ago, when my sister and I were cleaning out the treasurers she left behind, we discovered clips of her published work, as well as rejection slips for work never accepted anywhere. When we were children she made up stories for us, and in her later years she published a brief memoir about her early years as an immigrant from Russia growing up in a small town in North Carolina. Very interesting for her family, and perhaps inspiring for others who might have been given a copy, but her writing never went beyond that.

There are a lot of people with stories to tell, and some of them are gifted tellers of tales. I am part of a small group of writers who meet more-or-less regularly to read to each other, gauge the success of what we are working on, and eventually, when the stars are properly aligned, get published. We are all "seniors" (meaning we are regular recipients of offers from companies that offer discounts if you’re over 50), some more senior than others. Our writings are often directly based on our own lives, or projections of our lives through fictional characters. After all, how better to "write what you know," than to recreate your own life as fiction?

Well, there is a better way for many people, I think: write the truth. If you only write for your friends or family, it is still writing. It is sharing what you have learned over a lifetime. Your story might even influence a young relative or friend to pursue (or not) a lifestory line of his or her own. When our daughter was very young I often told her: "You may be the one who changes the world. Or you may change the one who changes the world. Or the one who changes the one who changes the one who changes the world."

That isn’t to say that every personal story will have meaning beyond your immediate family or circle. Most likely it will not. Still, one never knows (and often never lives long enough to find out) what influences another person. We all have stories. We all have lives. We can all tell stories. The stories we tell are a part of what makes up the world we all share.

Your story may change the one who changes the world.

Sunday, April 8, 2012


What is it about sunlight that makes us feel better? And what is it about being outside, in the sun, that improves even an already good day?

I’m not a sun worshiper as such. I don’t find just lying in the sun appealing or even relaxing, though there are days when taking a few minutes to stand in a sunny place can fix a lot of little things in both body and mind. I can do that for maybe five minutes before I get uncomfortable and restless and have to get moving again. I’m just not one to sit still very long unless I’m at some task that absorbs my effort and energy in that way. But open the door and let me out, and I immediately feel better, even when I was feeling well and happy inside.

It seems to me that being outside gives one a perspective that is of human scale. A large part of civilization’s problems, I believe, center around a world that has grown too large, too crowded, too unmanageable because everything has grown beyond what the human in each of us can comprehend. It is a matter of scale.

In the beginning, when our brains were first able to encompass the idea of past, present and future, the world we experienced was on a scale we could comprehend. The smallest thing we knew was an insect or a seed; the largest, a tree outside the cave or a distant mountain, a river or lake or even an ocean. In between were other humans of all sizes, and animals and plants, insects and seeds, all manner of natural things that had size and shape our brains could comprehend. Millennia later everything has grown except, perhaps, our ability to feel comfortable with it all.

Yes, the Grand Canyon is bigger than any other ditch, Mt. Everest far taller than any other mountain, but one approaches them slowly, from a distance. You don’t turn a corner and find it in front of you. Not so a man-made structure. You turn a corner and there it is. If you are on foot approaching a mountain in can take a day or more to get to it. You can see it getting bigger as you approach it, can get used to it, even. It is a matter of scale. In a car or a plane what is ahead can be behind you in a matter of minutes or hours, not days or weeks. You don’t approach, you confront.

So when we go outside and stand in the sun, surrounded by trees and hills and even mountains or canyons, we are in a place where the scale of things is familiar, so we relax our anxieties, put aside our discomfort, let the warmth and light of the natural world lead our thoughts and emotions into comfortable, familiar places. The sound of the wind, of birds and frogs and scurrying animals doesn’t startle or cause fear. Instead we are soothed, warmed, protected because we understand our one-ness with the world around us, on a scale we can see and hear and feel.

It restoreth the soul.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Coming Soon to a Page Near You

An article in today’s New York Times about the rise of self-publishing focused on authors mostly under the age of 18. Some of the books described were written by pre-teens, and one or two have even attracted some readership. An interesting phenomenon but, in itself, not particularly important in the world of writing and publishing.

Self-publishing isn’t new, of course. In fact, what is new (in the long history of publishing) is what the industry refers to as "traditional" publishing: a house paying an author and underwriting all the costs associated with bringing a book to market. It is a practice that only goes back a hundred years or so. Gutenberg, you will recall, made printing (and subsequently, publishing) possible over 500 years ago (1455) by applying movable type to make multiple copies of the bible. (The Chinese, of course, invented movable type far earlier, but I won’t go into that here.)

Between the Gutenberg era and the modern era books were published by subscription. If you had a manuscript you thought worthy, you took it to a publisher with enough orders to get it printed. If you had more subscribers than the book cost, you could be encouraged to try it again, perhaps, and even quit your day job. That still doesn’t happen very often - - - quitting your day job, that is.

So today we are going backward. Writers of all ages are finding self-publishing an option worth pursuing. More than one author has moved into the best-seller list after a self-published work has been picked up by a "traditional" publisher. Many more languish on Amazon, of course, or find a limited readership among specialty readers. Getting a self-published book reviewed, for instance, is no more difficult than one that is traditionally published. Getting the review published is still a game, and one the big houses may be able to engineer better, but still cannot guarantee. If you self-publish, however, you are more likely to get reviewed by friends and family than by a paid reviewer (yes, book reviewers are paid for their work).

Traditional publishers don’t have the budgets they once had, or the readership, so they buy fewer manuscripts from unknown writers and publish far fewer new authors and titles than they did in the "old days." Which leaves the door open for the electronic and print-on-demand publishers.

Two of my books (Accidents of Time and Place, and Mixed Freight: Checking Life’s Baggage) were originally published by a "traditional" house. That is, I paid nothing to have the book designed, printed, put up on Amazon and made available to booksellers through the big wholesalers. Promotion has been up to me. Letting people know about the books, setting up readings and interviews and going to book fairs, even placing books in stores has all been left to me. One, Mixed Freight, I arranged for conversion to and sale on Kindle, and a third one, A Beautiful Place for an Ugly Death, I self-published directly to Kindle. Again, promotion has been entirely in my hands, and if I am not on the NYT best-seller list, the fault lies with me (either as the author or as the promoter - take you pick). If I’m ever to be on a best-seller list, it will be by my own hand, as it were.

I’ve earned my living as a writer for almost all of my working life. I actually retired from paid full-time employment 20 years ago yesterday. I’ve been writing for myself since then. I can do that because I worked many years to achieve financial independence. I can now write what I want to write, and in this new world, publish if I think it is worth sharing. At my age the idea of spending seven or ten years sending the same story out to agents and publishers over and over again has very little to recommend it. I was thrilled the first time I received a letter accepting a manuscript, and even though I now realize that the company publishes a lot of really poor writing, I’m happy that I’ve had the experience. If I have more manuscripts that I think are worth a reader’s time, I will probably give the traditional way a shot or two, and then, if things keep coming back with polite refusals, I’ll head back to Kindle or even a "traditional" self-publishing house.

If a word falls on a page and nobody reads it, is that really writing?