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.

Monday, March 14, 2016

A New Ism

Well, it really isn’t so new: ageism. Ageism, as defined by the cultural monitors of our time, relates to perceived discrimination based on a person’s age. That is, being rejected for something (or promoted for something) because of one’s age. Some of it is self-imposed, I’m sure.

I have friends and acquaintances a decade or so younger than I am, who are constantly sending me things that say, in effect, "I’m one of the old people, now." Well, I’m not. But that isn’t the point.

The point is, from the time we are born, we face discrimination because of age. One is too young to do this or that, too juvenile to understand, to immature to have some responsibility and so on. And them, somewhere along the way, the pointer shifts to "too old." And while we accept that we are too young or too old for some things, we admit our admiration for those who begin adult tasks younger, or undertake strenuous activities as they get older.

I reject being classified by my age. It has the negative effect of making me think there are things I can no longer accomplish, tasks I can no longer do. There are days when I may not want to do some things that need doing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t. Instead, it means I’m more thoughtful about how I expend my energy and my time. I still can do anything I want to do or need to do, but just because I do them more slowly doesn’t mean I have lost the ability. It means, I believe, that I’m wiser about how I use resources; mine and the world’s.

Years ago, when we were relocating to our mountainside, I sometimes worked along side the men who were constructing our house. I noticed then that if 20-foot 1 x 12 boards needed to be moved from the stack to the house-site itself, two men would take two boards and walk them to where they were needed. I would pick up two and balance them on my shoulder and carry them myself. That’s when I discovered my version of the law of conservation of energy: at the end of the day the two guys were ready to go home and feed their cattle or check the turkey houses or make their firewood. I was ready to pour something over ice and sit down. We got the same amount of work done in a day, but they could do it longer. It wasn’t a question of age, but of science: share the work and have energy left over for other jobs. It wasn’t a matter of age, but of physics.

So now I’m 25 years further along, and I still have to cut and split firewood to heat the house we built then; still maintain equipment that is needed to move snow from the driveway or repair fences or haul logs to the furnace. I still have to build bookshelves for the ever-expanding library or install new lights, fix plumbing problems and other things needing attention. Where we live, how we live, means taking care of things that need help because getting someone to come and do it isn’t easy. Maybe it isn’t easy anywhere these days, but when "town" is 30 miles away, or 15 if you go to the one three mountains to the west, you have to be self-sufficient where ever possible. Age can have an effect on that, too.

Age should give you experience and knowledge. You should be able to remember what happened before, so you can apply the same fix again, or at least eliminate that as a problem and go on to find a real solution. What should not happen is that you say "I can’t do that anymore," and sit down. Unless that’s what you want to do. I’ve known people who retired so thoroughly that when you asked them what they did all day, replied that they "watched tv." I watch TV, for maybe an hour at night, maybe two if we have a movie we want to see. But after that, I still have things to do, things I want to do or need to do that won’t wait. I don’t work as quickly as I one did, but I can still do the things I used to do when I was younger.

I still remember how eager I was to take on adult responsibilities, grown-up jobs. Well, now I have them and then some. I am learning to take them on one at a time, as they occur. I want to leave time for the things I want to do, learn a few new things, try things I couldn’t do the first time I tried them, perhaps. After all, I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

It’s just "Older-and-wiser-ism."

Monday, February 29, 2016


I once jokingly explained why California seemed to be the breeding ground for odd and impractical ideas and culture, by attributing the phenomenon to the Rocky Mountains: all the nuts roll downhill and don’t stop till they reach the ocean. The east coast, I was sure, was protected by the Mississippi River. Since then I’ve moved to the least populated county east of that river, a place with the highest mean elevation east of that same liquid barrier. And I’ve learned a thing or two.

First of all, not all the nuts roll downhill. Some of them remain ever stuck at the top of the rocks. Those that do roll down to the east seem somehow to be able to float until they climb out of the water and head to the Atlantic. Perhaps after rolling far enough to enter the water all the internal matter has degraded sufficiently to allow the empty shell to float. I don’t know. It seems likely, though. Then somehow these eastern nuts come to rest on the shores of the Atlantic.

Now, sitting on my Allegheny mountainside, I have a different perspective. It applies particularly to the crop of nuts known as "politicians." It seems, first of all, that no matter your taste in nuts, there is one for every tongue. It’s really hard to tell, of course, because instead of offering a sample to taste, we are instead given bites that hardly satisfy, much less give something to roll around in our mouth and decide if it matches our preference. Too often, at least in my mouth, I simply want to spit out whatever I’ve sampled. Besides that, there is a similarity of taste, regardless of the name, and they all seem to cost the same.

This week (tomorrow, as I write this) offers what is known as "Super Tuesday." I suppose "super" applies to the number of primaries being conducted on the first day of March, but I suspect that some of the candidates hope that the results will bring super support for their promises. Again, I don’t know. Late tomorrow night we’ll have lots of television "journalists" and their paid commentators telling us what the voting means, and expect us to believe. I will miss most of that because as in past years, I’ll be at our polling place from five in the morning until we have closed and counted and reported the results, which means I will arrive home around the time the polls on the west coast have closed and the pundits will have told us (without all the ballots counted), who and what has won or lost. Not that that means anything.

Come November, when we go through the final phase of the election process, the same people who will be so sure tomorow night of how the world will shift in 2017, will have a chance to tell us again what only they seem able to know before the last vote is counted and posted. It is a remarkable process, built from asking people who don’t know about things they might not understand, to give a single word endorsement or refutation of person or proposal which may or may not have anything to do with the running of a town or county, state or nation. Then these same experts will tell us how the world will end, and probably when. And then, of course, we will repeat the process when the next election cycle comes around.

If all of this seems negative, I must admit that I have some reservations about what the world my great grandchildren will inherit. My generation has done what it could, not always the best or in the best way (but we are still here and we know there is a future). Some of what is being proposed seems useful and positive. Too much appears to me to be negative (including some of what is written here). I hope we wake up on Wednesday (and again in November) to something positive and good.

We have tried to prepare the ground for the next crop. Let’s hope it is something more than nuts.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Suspension of Disbelief

There are two terms related to filmmaking that have utility in other fields: persistence of vision and suspension of disbelief.

Persistence of vision describes the phenomenon wherein sequential still pictures shown in specific time intervals, give the impression of motion. When about 18 pictures are projected per second, the brain retains each image until the next one is presented, and connects them as motion. If you want the full story on that, look up Eadweard Muybridge (Originally Edward James Muggeridge), 1830-1904, who conducted the best known experiments in this field. But I digress.

The other term of art is "Suspension of Disbelief." This one applies in all fiction genres, as well as much of real life. It is what allows an audience (reader, listener, viewer) to accept things in a story that would normally not be believed, at least for the duration of the film, book or play.

Of course, writers and filmmakers are not the only ones who depend on these to reach an audience. Leaders at all levels, from politicians to dictators depend on them to control and direct their audiences. Today that effect seems more often used than thoughtful discussion. Just look at the crop of presidential hopefuls chasing us everywhere we look or listen or read.

Certainly there are things wrong that need righting, and things that are right that need support, but so far none of what I am hearing or seeing or reading from any of the candidates in either party strike me as realistic or even marginally possible, not to say plausible.

First of all, we are a people made up of so many different strands of DNA that to assert that there is one pure brand of human, and that there is no room for disparate points of view or strains of humanity is just not possible, even if it were preferable. Who among us can claim to be "authentic?" Unpleasant as it may seem, after the millions of years of evolution, to assert that there is any single or pure human line is as unrealistic as saying some breed of dog is "pure." As far as I know, the animal we call "dog" has ancestors we can call canine, but no more specific than that. But again I digress.

What is clear to me at least, is that there are no single answers, no "my way or the highway" path to health, wealth and security, no road to salvation (if salvation itself is even achievable). To hear the politicians and their die-hard supporters, however, one must accept "my way" solutions to things that may or may not be problems in the first place. Our country, especially, has grown up facing challenge after challenge, working our way from "we don’t want a king to tell us what to do" to "We don’t want a king. Period." Or any other dictator. We still want to govern ourselves. Hopefully the final candidates will be ones who recognize that.

There is no single answer, no one path that will take us farther along the road to the "perfect union," that we seek. I, for one, find much of this year’s rhetoric disturbing. By casting our choices in terms of good and evil, of "my way or no way," we not only limit our choices. We limit our humanity. Do the politicians really believe what they are saying?

My suspension of disbelief needs new shock absorbers.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Writing Happens

Back in the 70s one of my colleagues said, after we had reviewed a student film, that the filmmaker had "filmed a happening;" in other words, whatever took place in front of the camera remained between the opening and closing credits. Some people can get away with it. Most can’t. The same applies to writing.

Like most writers, I both outline and write from the heart. Usually I start with an end in mind: the story I ultimately want to tell. Then as quickly as I can, I rough-out an outline. That comes from my commercial film background, tempered with my early apprenticeship in architecture: you can envision a building or an ending, but you can't build either without a solid structural framework. The secret to writing and to building? Blueprint, but be prepared for change-orders.

I have written stories that began with a simple statement or line of dialog. Not on the page, but in my mind. It happens often when I’m walking with my dogs early in the morning, letting my thoughts gather around a simple image or action, and a story begins to tell itself. I might even try out some dialog on my companions (who seldom criticize what I say). If it is good enough to remain in my mind once I am back home and at the keyboard, I will write down what I have sketched in my mind, and then put it away for a time. When I look at it next, if it still generates more thoughts, I will turn the idea into a simple outline: a beginning, a middle and an end. The next step will be to write what I term the "Alfie." If you’re old enough you will remember the film Alfie, and it’s musical signature, "What’s it all about, Alfie?" Well, we all have ways we identify things in our lives, don’t we?

The Alfie is definitely and absolutely what the story is about, who the main characters are, their relationships, their looks, that sort of thing. And there are detailed descriptions of the people: who they are, how they look, what they wear. Locations, too, are delineated, as are time and place. And none of it is cast in stainless steel. But I can’t begin to tell a story if I don’t know what it’s about, who the players are, where things happen, when they happen, and so on. And of course all are subject to change.

Once I have the basic outline, cast of characters, the time frame and time-line, the geography and the personal characteristics of the players, I can truly begin writing. I see the characters, the setting and specifics of time and place. As the story grows there are inevitable side-trips – excursions – if you will that may or may not end up in the finished story. As with building a house, there are things that at some point seem like good ideas, even necessary embellishments. As the costs push against the budget, however, many of those things get cut. So it is with a story.

The purpose of telling a story is to take the reader or listener or viewer from a known beginning to a believable end. Side trips, unless they truly help tell the story, are subject to cutting. It is best to do your trimming before you hand the key over to the new owner, or the manuscript over to and editor or publisher. The more finished the construction, the sooner one can move on to the next location.

For me, if not for very writer, telling a story is what I do. How I do it is based on experience, observation, instruction and (under it all), creativity.

And it doesn’t just "happen."

Sunday, January 17, 2016


We attended a closing yesterday. It was a sad but not un-expected event. For seven years a local entrepreneur had devoted himself to a corner store specializing in books, and including almost any other printed matter – posters, cards, that sort of thing.

A personable, experienced businessman, Ron had taken up the fight for independent bookstores when most of the books being sold were already finding their way to readers via what has become the ultimate home shopping outlet: the internet. Our friend offered space for writers to meet and interact with readers (this writer included), encouraged local authors to consign books to his shelves, and even promoted our work in displays and special places in the store. And if he didn’t have the book you were seeking, a minute or two at the desk would add your request to his next order. But no longer.

The town still has one independent seller of a limited selection of new books (along with clothing, jewelry, and other non-books), antique shops with racks of used books, and three or four selling nothing but old books. The passing of the one small, independent bookseller, operated by a person who not only knows books but loves them, too, is a sad day for readers and writers, for reading and writing.

As a writer I love the idea of potential readers taking one of my books off the shelf, discovering a story or essay they like and want to read to "The End." Paying to do that is a small part of what drives any writer. The writing is the thing we love the most, but knowing someone finds what we write compelling enough to read it is also important. Having a place where that can happen, a real place with perhaps a chair or two, where a reader can get acquainted with an author’s work before buying, seems to be slowly fading away.

Do you feel that same satisfaction sitting alone reviewing books on your phone or tablet or computer? I don’t. I do it sometimes because that is how the world is changing, but I don’t like it as much. Holding a book in my hands is a very satisfying tactile experience. Sometimes, here in our own library or in the county library half-an-hour away, I just wander from shelf to shelf, taking a down likely book, holding it, opening it, scanning a bit of the text, reading about the author, that sort of thing. A book, for me, is an experience unlike any other. There is the promise of discovery, the possibility of knowledge, the experience of emotion, held between the covers of a book. Being able to find all of that in a quiet, dedicated place is part of civilized living. In a world where civilization seems more menaced than honored, books and the places where books can be found are simultaneously threatened and needed.

When a bookstore closes, the final snap of the latch is a sad sound indeed.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A New Beginning

The other day I was looking for a document that I needed. I realized that it must be under some other things piled up on my desk. In order to find what I wanted I had to move things and that led to something I had been putting off for way too long: cleaning my office. Not the dust-and-sweep kind of cleaning, but a real find-the-desk-top cleaning. I’m not a good housekeeper. I tend to put stuff on top of other stuff with the promise (to myself) that I will put things away properly, but that at the moment I am too focused on the task at hand. I’m also a serial saver.

I found the paper I was looking for, and a few hundred others I had forgotten I ever had, plus a lot of other stuff I knew about but hadn’t thought about in a very long time. When I worked in other places, when my office was not in my own home, I had three trays on my desk: In, Out, and Hold. The first two are pretty common in both name and use. "Hold," however, is a different kind of place. Into that box went things I either didn’t know what to do about; things requiring research or input from others. I was reasonably efficient with the In and Out boxes. The Hold box, however, was really a place for a different kind of efficiency. I characterized it as a place where the six-month rule applied: anything in it older than six months got one more glance and then it hit the fourth box, the one on the floor beside my desk. And I never missed the material because after six months it was a totally dead issue. Gone. In my office now, all of the surfaces seem to be marked "Hold."

Driven by need, I began a week ago to go through the materials on my desk, on the shelves that line the walls, and things living on the floor. I filled two large plastic tubs with things I absolutely can’t get rid of: unfinished manuscripts, stories finished but not ready to submit, research information related to the stories, or to stories I might want to write but haven’t started. Then I pulled all of my old journals. When I’m gone they should be burned, which means I should probably burn them today, even though I fully expect to be around for many years. I just can’t throw them into the fire, so they are in another tub. I plan to put them in one of the storage buildings we have, for someone else to burn later.

When we built this house we decided not to have a basement or an attic. Aside from the need to blast tons of rock in order to go deep enough into the ground for a basement, we agreed that both that area and an attic are simply places where we would put things we should get rid of, and we didn’t want that burden. So we have two storage buildings instead. And they are getting full. But there is still room for the two tubs. But there is a problem.

The problem is that when I went looking for another file to look at contracts for two of my books, I discovered that I need at least one or maybe two more tubs for files I don’t need to keep in my office. My desktop is now cleaner than it has been in years (though there is at least another tub or two of things I need to sell or give away or return to someone else to treasure). I like the feeling of space my office now offers me, and for the first time in months I feel free to approach the unfinished book and un-submitted stories that filled notebooks and shelves and are now in more manageable locations. It is amazing how much freedom organization can bring.

I don’t make new years resolutions because they are just something I should be doing anyway, things I know I should (and can) accomplish. I do make promises to myself, about things I would not otherwise be motivated to do. Everyone, I an sure, has something with which they straggle to maintain a simple and achievable life. Maybe I have finally discovered mine.

For now I’m putting it in the Hold box.