Sunday, March 31, 2013

Tools You Can Use

I’m a tool collector. My favorite category is words. I love words, in fact I prefer to use them more than any other tool set I own. I have books of obscure words and collections of quotations and aphorisms and dictionaries and programs that define and even translate expressions, slang and word origins. All of those are tools I can use. I prefer, however, to keep my special collections for inspiration and the pure pleasure of discovery and understanding.

The tools I use most are everyday words, in ways that help me tell stories that readers can understand and appreciate. When I’m reading, and have to stop and reach for one of my chair-side dictionaries, the author has lost me at least for a few minutes, and sometimes that loss is permanent. Writing, at least for me, is a way of sharing something I feel or understand or find mystifying, but if I cannot communicate that to a reader or listener or viewer, then I have failed at what I do.

Sometimes though, I use those tools to absolutely confuse or distract. Even when I was very young, I would try to defuse or deflect an antagonist with words. Sometimes it worked, and at others I would eventually have to resort to physical means to escape from a bad situation. Being taller than most of my peers, and skinnier than a beanpole, I somehow seemed to be a target for playground bullies, but overall, I didn’t have too many fights or bad times. When I did have to fight, my long arms would give me an advantage, and eventually the one trying to beat up on me would give up and go find another target. Still, I persisted in using words to defend myself. Later I learned how to use them to assert myself and remain in control.

 Once, when I was no longer a kid, I was asked for advice by a young person of my acquaintance. She had fallen into the target area of a larger, older, bullying kind of girl in the public school she attended. Her purse had somehow disappeared from her bookbag or desk, and a day or so later, in the girls restroom, she was approached by the older, larger girl. “Wanchapurseback?” The older girl ran the words together so quickly that the intended victim had to ask her several times to repeat it until she understood the question: “Want your purse back?” Then she had to parse “Whatchagonnagimmeforit?” which ultimately translated that into “What are you going to give me for it?”

The person seeking my advice told the bully that she had no money. It was later that day that my advice was sought. Here’s what I suggested she say: “I lost my purse. I don’t have it anymore. If it’s gone, I don’t have it. If I get it back, I will have it, but if I don’t, I won’t. If I don’t have it, its gone. What’s gone is gone, and won’t come back.”

The next day, when the two were alone, the younger girl trotted out the words I had offered. At first the bigger girl just listened, then (according to the younger girl), she blinked, she looked confused, and finally, saying nothing, walked away. Later that day the purse magically appeared on the desk of the intended extortion victim. It was a lesson well learned.

Just as a hammer will drive a nail, or mash a finger, words can help us do things we need to do, or cause us to do things we don’t want to do. But words, like a hammer that hits the nail, bends it and then lands on a fingertip, can have unintended consequences. It is necessary that we learn how to use the tools we have. Even then, you can’t always know what the ultimate use of those skills will be. For my young questioner, use of words became a skill that, later in her life, she used as a crisis and hostage negotiator.

You never know, when you pick up a tool, what the end use will be.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Questions For Your Conscience

[A] few questions to your conscience, for I know you have one. Is the present state of the nation republican [here used in the sense of  “democratic”] enough? Is virtue the principle of our government? Is honor? Or is ambition and avarice, adulation, baseness, covetousness, the thirst of riches, indifference concerning the means of rising and enriching, the contempt of principle, the spirit of party and of faction, the motive and the principle that governs? These are serious and dangerous questions, but serious men ought not to flinch from dangerous questions . . . . *

Those are good questions these days, seeing as we do have a governing body that can’t get beyond positioning itself for the next election, the people be damned. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting rather leery of anyone who sets out to establish himself or herself as a “politician.” We have fallen on what I can only describe as “evil times.” But it isn’t the first time.

If you read history, either in the form of biographies or accounts of events written by those distanced enough to make balanced judgements, you soon discover that nothing happening today is happening for the first time. History does repeat itself. Over and over.

I am appalled by the number of those (elected and un-elected) who think they can speak for me about what are totally private matters, yet cannot seem to find a voice to discuss as rational men and women, those issues that are really the heart of governance: equitable taxation, rational defense, fair compensation for labor, compassionate and honest concern for the health and safety of all.

When the “great experiment” finally fails (and history tells us that surely it will), it won’t be because the idea was flawed, but because those (with the consent of the rest of us) who undertook to conduct the experiment, were themselves flawed.

Oh, the quotation at the beginning of this essay? It is from a letter dated 6 February, 1805. The recipient was Dr. Benjamin Rush, considered the father of modern medicine in America, but also a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The author: our second president, John Adams.

How would you answer?

* From Benjamin Rush, Patriot and Physician, by Alyn Brodsky, Truman Talley Books, St. Martin's Press New York, 2004.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Job Opportunity

The second and third weekends of March the county that is home to us welcomes Spring with a festival that brings in, some years, more than fifty-thousand visitors. Our year-round population is just over two-thousand, and as a community we depend on the income from those visitors to fund many of the services we need: fire and rescue, recreation, service clubs, special school programs and the like. Many of the residents have small businesses ranging from arts and crafts to retail and lodging, and these weekends are vital to the community’s survival. So everyone finds something to do.

I usually spend two of the four days at the local fire house, where I have been a volunteer for many years. We serve a variety of locally prepared foods, including trout (from our native streams), country ham, barbecued chicken and cole slaw and green beans prepared with secret and much admired recipes. Typically, our members with young children bring them along, and before you know it, there are helping hands that are often so small it takes two of them (the hands) to hold a glass.

The day I spent this past weekend was enhanced by a small child of perhaps six, the daughter of one of our younger volunteers. I was in  charge of seeing that glasses were filled with tea (“sweet” or “unsweet,” as the sign indicated) or water or coffee so that as people passed through the food line they could pick up the included drink on the way to a table. Without asking for help I was soon being assisted by this very young person, wearing a very small (but still a bit large) fire department T-shirt. She took up the position by the ice chest, filling empty glasses for me to then fill with tea or water. She had been watching the process for some time, and when the young man who had been working with me moved on to another task, she just stepped in and took over.

I tell you about this because it impresses me in this way: we don’t have a lot of opportunities for the kinds of experiences city kids have. We have a school system that only has about 200 kids in the kindergarten-through-high-school cohort. There are service clubs for the teens, like 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America), but the little kids have to begin somewhere, and it is often in the fire house during the spring and summer and fall and winter fund raisers. Our young people often go on to service jobs: food, machinery, people. We have more than a few nurses, EMTs, Paramedics and Fire Fighters who are employed professionally in adjacent counties. There are garages and speciality shops serving the agricultural and logging enterprises, and a few restaurants and a hotel and a motel and B&Bs, and a medical center, as well as pure commercial enterprises. They are successful because the people of the community understand serving others, and they learn that at a very young age.

I suppose there are parents reading this who react with horror at the idea of a five-year-old carrying a tray of dishes from the table to the dishwashing window, or wiping a table or putting ice in glasses or even washing dishes (always under the supervision of at least a teenager), but this is the way we pass on our philosophy of life: being a citizen is being part of a community, and a community is people working together for a common goal. Ours is to preserve the place we live and the way we live.

Maybe we need to get the politicians in Washington to come work with us for a weekend.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Long and The Short Of It

I like writing short stories because I am impatient, and because once I know how something works, I’m anxious to use it and move on. Once I know plot and story arc, I’m ready to lay it out and see it finished.

But the novel! Time to build a set, set a scene, decode a character, deconstruct, if you will, a setting or location or a character’s mannerisms! There lies the true joy of writing for me.

Lately I have been focused on shorter pieces; ten- to twenty-thousand words. I think that is because I have stories to tell, but maybe not as much time as I need to tell them in full novel form. That means that some of the joy of writing is lost. On the other hand, getting to “the end” is so satisfying, until I read the story from end-to-end. Then I see places where I feel I can give more depth or perhaps clarity to a character or a plot. Then I want to go back and fill it all in, describe more fully the setting of a scene or the physical expressions of a character. Sometimes I do that, leading me to expand in even more places.

My writing process follows a long-held principle of mine that the first step is to get the story down without paying too much attention to the words. Then I have a skeleton to build on. The shape and structure may change but if I don’t have something to start with, there is no way I can get to the end.

It is in that period between first draft and the final “The End,” that I make a decision about length and form. Writing scenes that create an environment, that give greater form to the story and shape to the characters is where the “feel good” part of writing lies, at least for me. It goes back to my years writing filmscripts, I suppose, and before that, writing for radio. It is possible to use narrative and dialog to tell a whole story, but to truly involve a reader or listener or viewer, it is necessary to set the scene, to give substance to time and place, as well as people.

My first (and so far only) published novel began as a short sketch that was going to explore only a man who let the world around him direct his life. The title, Accidents of Time and Place, expressed the concept I was describing through my central character. As the story developed I felt it was as important to focus on “place” as it was on “time,” and whatever accidental events motivated Hector Collin. By the time I had fully developed all three of those aspects, the short piece became the novel, and the little idea consumed more than a year of my writing. During the process I learned more about my craft than I ever had, and I enjoyed the process almost as much as writing the first script I ever sold.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said it best: You don’t write because you want to say something. You write because you have something to say. Having something to say is the very first and most important part of writing.

How you say it is what makes it worth doing.

Monday, March 4, 2013


Every story begins with a title. That may not come until the story is written, but sometimes it can be the trigger that gets the tale moving. Creating the final title can often take longer than writing an essay or story.

The title of this essay came to me while I was thinking about what I wanted to say today. I’ve been working on a new story, a police procedural. I did the last rewrite a day or so ago, but it was still untitled. There has been a working title, course; you can’t file it unless you can find it. For me that part of the process begins with trying to distill the essence of what the piece is about into a single word or maybe three or six words. It really depends on the story and subject and audience.

My first novel, Accidents of Time and Place, summed up the final draft in my mind. About a man who becomes an accidental hero, the book really is about people who go through life without a real plan, simply following whatever lead opens before them, making the most of opportunity, often because the alternatives are unpleasant or dangerous or boring or unappetizing. Much like picking from a menu in a restaurant: you may sit down knowing exactly what you want, but discover that it isn’t served in the place where you are eating. You then make your choices based on what seems best of what there is. Of course, it is also possible to simply sit down at a table and eat whatever is being served. There are places in the world where that is what restaurants do.

With a piece of writing, there are several things a title should accomplish. It should be intriguing, clever, memorable. There are books about everything these days; the title is there to help you choose a specific one. The writer works hard to commit authorship. The title is the key to pulling readers to the story.

One way I approach the task is to simply start with the working title, then write riffs on that.  Usually by about number five or six on the list, new words in new order begin to assert themselves. The new story is an example. I began with Blue Byrd, Bye Bye, because of a character with a name that I thought was clever. As I wrote the story I really stopped thinking about title. As I approached the place in the story where I would write “The End,” I was ready to take that up again, because the working title didn’t seem very intriguing. It may be memorable, but that isn’t enough. It must, at least in my mind, have some perhaps indefinable quality that makes a reader want to go beyond the title.

Anyway, after writing about a dozen-and-a-half possible titles, I finally settled on a variation of one, thanks to input from a group of writers with whom I meet more-or-less regularly. The new story is called Walk, Run, Fall. It will be part of a collection of police/crime/mystery stories I hope to have ready for you to read soon. I don’t have a publication date yet, but as soon as I do, you’ll read it here.

All I need is a title.