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Friday, November 25, 2016

On The Hunt For Ideas


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I recently tried to come up with a rough estimate of how many columns I’ve written. For many years, I wrote four a week, with maybe an additional stand-alone for a newspaper like USA Today. Some years I wrote two a week and other years just one. I may be wildly off the mark but as near as I can figure, that comes to over 3,500 columns and that is over 2,000,000 words.

Over time, writing columns has become a basic element of my life. I’ve never taken a “writing” vacation. If I actually go on vacation, I write about it. If something momentous happens, like my husband’s death, I simply describe about how that affected me. After all these years, I see life itself through a prism of the words that can illustrate it.

The most difficult part of column writing is coming up with new ideas. Once I know what I’m going to write about, putting 700 or so words together is easy. I used to tell my writing class students that I could write 1,000 words about a crumpled up candy bar wrapper if I had to. Then I challenged them to write a few paragraphs about some every day, unimportant thing and to try to make it seem interesting.. (Of course, Andy Rooney was the master of this style).

Sometimes, events occur that are natural subjects for a column. I’m grateful when I can say, “ah, well, that takes care of this week.”

It was always a standing joke with my family that every week I asked Mom and John for column ideas. Mom always pretended to think, then she'd say the same thing every time – “what about the weather?” Actually, sometimes I do write about the weather but if Mom had been dictating the subject matter for my columns, it would have been about the weather 50 weeks out of every 52. Indiana weather is changeable but it isn’t that changeable!

John sometimes came up with ideas but he spent so much time taking college courses that his columns would be more like intellectually-deep, peer-reviewed abstracts that only nine people would have understood or enjoyed.

I can’t use some of my best stuff because of embarrassing my friends. They will pull some particularly foolish stunt and immediately beg me not to write about it. Part of the risk of being friends with a writer always searching for column ideas is that your most humiliating moments will end up in the pages of a newspaper for all the world to see. I try to honor their pleas unless I get really, really desperate.

Often people I don’t even know give me suggestions for columns. My all-time favorite was when George and Donna Russell of Roann, gave me access to family letters they’d discovered that were written during the Civil War.

I wrote three columns incorporating the correspondence John and Andrew Scott had with their family back home in Niconza (Miami County) and barely scratched the surface of what they told about being soldiers in the Civil War. I fell in love with those boys and so did my readers.

Different readers, I’ve found, like different columns. Some get off on good old partisan political debates while others resent them. Some love the history columns and others think those are boring.  I had a reader tell me once that his eyes glazed over as soon as he realized a column was about the past.

I’d say the human interest or humorous columns are the ones a majority of readers like best and therefore, they are what I do the most of.  Sometimes you have to dig to get a column’s worth of information about people. Most of us don’t think our lives have been especially interesting but that’s not my experience. I’ve always thought I could get 1,000 fascinating words from anyone if they’d be willing to talk to me for a while.

Most people who write do it to touch others (only journal writing is for one’s self alone and even then perhaps most journal writers are looking toward posterity). You want to make readers smile or laugh or maybe, shed a tear. You want them to see a picture from an angle they’ve never seen it before. You may want simply to share information or even better, provoke someone to action, whether that’s to vote or write a letter to the editor or adopt a pet…

If no one is touched in some way by what you do, then you’re wasting your time. Some columns aren’t as amusing or interesting as you’d hoped but you have to be philosophical. Writing is like baseball. Sometimes, you get on base, sometimes you strike, out but you live for those occasional home runs.


Over two million words later, I still believe I reach some people, some times, and so the search for ideas continues.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Our Downhill Slide


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I wrote a column recently about being given a packet of letters written by two boys fighting in the Civil War back to their family here in Indiana. Remembering those letters made me recall how impressed I was with the education those boys seemed to have received despite having attended small rural schools in Indiana. And that made me think of a book I bought once at an auction for $1. I went looking for it and found it. This book, an Indiana State Series, Fourth Grade Reader, was owned by a little girl named Minnie Gaskill who went to elementary school in Markle sometime around the turn of the century...the last century.

It is approximately 125 years since the Indiana School Book Company published Minnie’s little book and we, as a country, are currently engaged in great controversy and debate about our how school system should be administered. No Child Left Behind....Charter schools....funding....for-profit schools...extreme testing. Here in Indiana, the governor and the Republican-dominated legislature are at odds with most educators and many parents.

In light of all this, it is curious to look back to see what was expected of a typical fourth grader in the late 1800’s. I don’t remember what my books were like then but I know Minnie’s lessons strike me as a lot farther advanced than what I was taught at that age. Her first reading lesson consisted of a four-page, illustrated story on the life of Benjamin Franklin. Afterwards, her teacher questioned students on the leading facts of the piece. For their “written expression” they were expected to compose from memory a selected portion of the story.

Throughout the book are poems which pupils were required to memorize and recite in class. The first poem is the 23-line, Love of Country, by Walter Scott. Even in my childhood, memorizing verse was in vogue. I still remember a large part of this very poem. (Breathes there a man with soul so dead, that never to himself has said: “This is my own, my native land”?)

As the lessons progress, Minnie was required to memorize much longer poems. She was given vocal training as well. Her book admonished her: “”Learn the vowel sounds and diacritical marks. A knowledge of these sounds and their notations will enable you to find out by yourself the correct pronunciation of the worlds from the dictionary.”

Minnie’s reader was stuffed with history, health, science and geography. Before the year was over, she learned about Andrew Jackson, George Washington, the Romans, the Battle of Bunker Hill, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the most useful metals, the Sahara Desert and much more.

The book was not backward about using readings as a springboard for debating moral conclusions. In illustrating right from wrong, it drew from poems, stories, the Bible, “Poor Richard’s Sayings” and “Aesop’s Fables”.

At the end of each lesson, the students were expected to learn word definitions. Many of them would be difficult for adults in 2013. Here are a selection at the end of one story: patriarchal, adjoining, primeval, solitary, armorial, sonorous, wan, wane, zenith. From the same lesson, the spelling list included: reigns, balmy, twofold, icicles, heirloom, anise-seed, initials and zenith.

After reading a story about Daniel Webster, Markle’s fourth graders were given instructions to: write from memory a short sketch of Webster, dividing their subject into 1) his date and state of birth and residence as a man, 2) his characteristics as a boy, 3) his chief distinctions as a man and 4) any anecdote you have heard of him.


I have not had a child in the public school system for decades but studying the reader leads to the conclusion that over the last century, we have required less of each succeeding generation of American students. Am I wrong? 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Trying To Get Rid Of Books



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I’ve been sorting books for the last few weeks. I’ve finally decided to do something about them so someone else doesn’t have to handle a thousand pounds of books when I die. First, I’d get rid of all those books I knew I’d never read again and replace them with those I might re-read. (I hardly ever do read books twice but...).

The 10 bookcases in this house range from old to new and so do the books within them. Looking at them is like taking a journey through the looking glass of my life. I still have all the Little Colonel books, beloved of the pre-teen me. I remember moving to California and telling people I was from Kentucky rather than Indiana and trying to talk with a southern accent, like the Little Colonel announcing – “lettah foah you, fathah deah.” And the Saga of Billy the Kid in which Billy was romanticized into a dashing hero on horseback. I read several more realistic books about Billy’s sad, short life later but it was this incarnation that captured my heart. Animals were always a big part of my reading world, including  the Collies of Sunnybrook Farm and The Black Stallion series.

I went through a stage of idealizing farm life and there are many volumes that reflect that. I still have my autographed copies of Rachel Peden’s books about her farm in southern Indiana and the wonderful narrations about life at Stillmeadow Farm by Gladys Taber.  I think I must have been way more optimistic then about obtaining such a life for myself and those authors were more optimistic too as nothing ever seemed to go wrong in their books. The roses were always blooming and the air always smelled of new-mown hay.

There are an abundance of books about religion, all kinds of religion, from my period of searching for something to believe in. They range from denominations of Christianity to Buddhism to spiritualism and beyond. I could get rid of all of them. None of them convinced me.

I have oodles of books about writing and marketing what you write. I’ll probably pass them on. I learned some helpful things from all of them but in my older age, I’m convinced that the path that took one person directly to success won’t necessarily work for another and we all have to blaze our own trail. I will keep the books of columns by authors I most admired – among them, Molly Ivins and Ellen Goodman and Lewis Grizzard. If my writing has a “style”, there are dribs and drabs of all of theirs in it.

I have practically every book ever written about Vietnam, both fiction and non-fiction, many of them signed by the men who wrote them. I’ll hold on to them even though I don’t think I could bear the heart-hurt of ever reading them again.

You could track the trail of American politics in the last 50 years by my bookshelves. There are books about Kennedy and Johnson, Carter and Reagan, Clinton and Bush and Obama. I’m not into politics so much anymore. Maybe we see the past through rose-colored glasses as we age but politics seems a lot meaner than it used to be. I disagreed with practically everything Ronald Reagan ever did but I never doubted his sincerity, his patriotism or his love for America. I even thought Iran-Contra merited the title “high crimes and misdemeanors but I still wasn’t up for impeaching him.

I mostly read fiction now but I’ve lost my taste for Pollyanna stories. That poor girl would never make it in today’s world of gritty realism. I like my stories harsh and graphic and my heroes flawed and perverse. Maybe I like my fiction black because in comparison, it makes reality seem a little lighter although living humans seem to be able to top the worst that writers can even imagine.

Actually, bookcases are beginning to seem anachronistic now that e-readers have been invented. Most of the most recent “books” I’ve bought are sent instantly to my Kindle, which can hold, I think, something like 3,500 volumes. I used to stress about what I would do to keep myself in reading material if ever I had to go to a nursing home but thank heavens, that’s one worry off my mind. Now I’m more concerned about whether I’ll live long enough to read all my Kindle purchases.

Getting rid of my books isn’t really that difficult. It’s saying good-bye to the memories that go along with them that is the hard part.



Sunday, September 18, 2016

When Your Writing Makes A Difference




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I have had magical things happen because of my writing – columns printed in college textbooks; awards; appearing on numerous t.v. programs; testifying before the Senate as a guest of Senator Edward Kennedy.....

All those were wonderful experiences but I think getting to know John and Andrew Scott would top my list of treasured writing memories.

I received a call from the Russell’s, who’d found a bundle of letters in their garage attic – letters that had been forgotten by the family since the early days of the Civil War. There were 50 or so of them, in excellent condition, spanning the years 1861 through 1864.

The first letters were between John Calvin Scott, 18 years old, and his mother, Mary Ann Adams. John had gone to live with relatives and attend school in Ohio. In a letter to his younger brother, Andrew, he makes the first mention of the civil war, “there are 2700 men in Mansfield now. They have marching orders next Tuesday.”

On August 25, 1862, John writes the letter his mother must have dreaded. He has joined the Army, although he’d promised her he wouldn’t. He makes an impassioned plea for understanding.

“We are all conscious that our glorious government is in danger of being overthrown by the most wicked set of men that ever existed on the face of the Globe...” John said that if Americans did not rally to the cause, it would be said that “Liberty rose and here Liberty fell in the short space of 86 years.”

It is difficult to believe that John is the product of a rural schoolhouse in Somerset, Indiana. His spelling is perfect, as is his grammar, and his penmanship is elegant, even when writing beside a campfire.

On October 22, 1862, he wrote that they just gotten paid – a $50 township bounty and $27 from the federal government. 

John spent his 20th birthday in the Vanburens Hospital in Louisiana. By now, war had lost its allure. “It is possible, Mother, that I have spent twenty years in this vile, this sinful world?...Perhaps I shall never live to see another birthday.”

That was the last letter from John but in September Mary Ann hears from her sister-in-law in Ohio – “sorry to hear that Andrew had volunteered to go help put down this wicked rebellion and was sick. Well, poor fellow, he had better die at home as away thare among strangers as did his dear brother.”

Now the communications from Andrew begin. He has always seemed to be the more carefree brother and Mary Ann seems to worry more that he will be led into wickedness by the temptations of camp life.

He writes from “a camp near Granville, Tenn” and tells his stepfather about going to a field of corn husks and taking it to the mill and grinding it to make mush which they eat without salt or milk.

Later, Andrew is in the Cumberland Gap and is sick with the ague. By January of 1864, he’s in the “hospittle” in Knoxville, Tenn. “I have had the diarrhea so long that I am weak and poor as a snake.”

Andrew  died there on February 8, 1864. John had died on June 28, 1863 in the Jeffersonville (MO) Barracks.

I fell in love with these two boys through their letters. They were smart and sweet and funny. When I discovered where the Niconza Baptist Church was, the minister there was kind enough to let me research their old records. I was able to locate both the Scott boys’ worn headstones.


The Historical Society later erected a monument to recognize them as a result of my columns. John and Andrew’s lives had been obliterated by time. Helping to resurrect their memories is one of my most satisfying achievements as a writer.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Mysteriousness of Characters

I just finished reading, The Girl On The Train" which is a best seller by Paula Hawkins. It didn't sound like my cup of tea but a friend bought it and loaned it to me so I read it. I struggled to finish it because it lacks the absolute basic ingredient I have to have to love a book and that is engaging characters. I have to be enthralled by them. It doesn't even have to be in a good way. They can be worthless or evil but they must intrigue me. None of the characters in The Girl On the Train did that.

The plot was convoluted and interesting. I never did guess who dun it until almost the very end but then I really didn't care very much either because the people involved in the plot weren't able to make me care. The girl who finally turned out to be the heroine was lackluster. The other two female characters had hardly any depth. The three male characters were all losers but not really in a dramatic fashion, they were simply bland losers. Everyone in the book was extremely foolish.

So, for me, characters make or break a book. If the people in a novel don't grab readers, it is a failure. It doesn't matter how intricate the plotting. It doesn't matter how sparkling the descriptions. It doesn't matter how accurate the history. By contrast, I can overlook weaknesses in all these other areas if I am compelled by the characters.

Of course, not all readers are the same, for which we writers should thank God. Evidently, lots of people did not find the same lack in The Girl On The Train as I did. It's sold a heck of a lot more copies than any book I've ever written.

My own books all start with a character. In the beginning, I have a name. From that name, the rest of the book flows. Once I know the name, I know the person and once I know the person, I know what is going to happen in his or her life.

I wonder sometimes where they come from. I am a plump, gray-haired, 70-year-old Grandma type. My characters are mostly male. They are usually more anti-hero than hero. My series character, Rafe Vincennes, has been called a sociopath, conscienceless, an autistic savant. That's nothing like me. I'm a bleeding heart liberal. He is a killer. I hate killing bugs. He is cold-blooded. I'm an empath. So, where does Rafe come from? All I know is that he lives somewhere inside my head.

Developing a plot is an intellectual exercise. Describing a place is usually based on finding words for something real. If a place in a book isn't an actual place, it is probably based on actual places.

But characters are mysterious, seeming to spring up out of nowhere. The writer had no idea they were there until they appear.  And that is what I find so fascinating about characters.

  

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Heave Ho!

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This would be the equivalent of a writer whose words stay in the computer in a draft file. They're safe from judgment but they are never going to take you on any exciting journeys.

I've taught many writing classes and when my students asked me what the one most valuable piece of advice I can give aspiring writers, it is: "be brave." The main reason 999 out of every 1000 writers (or whatever the stat may be) are never published in any form is because they lack courage.

I've had students who wrote novels and students who wrote poetry and students who wrote comedy and students who wrote non-fiction. For many of them, it was all they could do to bring themselves to read in class before an audience of 20...and some of them never did. I knew they would never end up being published.

My course included the mandatory assignment to submit a manuscript somewhere, anywhere, whether to a book publisher, a newspaper, magazine, a poetry editor. I showed them how to find the most likely markets for their type of writing. I told them not to expect success their first time out. Rather, they would most likely get a rejection letter....or no acknowledgment at all.

I told them rejection went with the territory. Even the most popular and praised authors have felt its sting many times. I told them about writers who were rejected 10, 20, 30 times before they found a publisher for books that ended up going to the top of the best seller list. Those authors believed in their work and didn't allow themselves to become discouraged. They persevered until it paid off.

I would estimate that at least half of my students never submitted a manuscript. In some cases, it might have been lack of motivation but I'm convinced, more often than not, it was lack of confidence.

I understand how hard it is to send your precious baby off into the cold, cruel world where it might get kicked around by callous editors and come back to you stained and torn (not so much now that everything is done on-line but the feeling is the same). I've been through it. It never occurred to me to think that my writing wasn't good enough. I blamed it on publishers not wise enough to see its value. Every successful writer has to be a little arrogant!

You can take classes and go to conferences. They are bound to help you. You'll find encouragement and understanding there, but in the final analysis, no one is going to stand over your shoulder and force you to raise the anchor on your ship. You have to find the courage to set out on your own.


Sunday, August 21, 2016

You Be STUNNED If You Read This Blog!!!!

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Sometimes, I feel that I'm drowning in exaggeration.....and I actually like exaggeration. A writing course instructor told me one time that the best way to write humor was to exaggerate and over the years, I've found that to be true. For instance, I wrote about my new pocket hose - "on the commercials, they show a woman holding it up with her little finger and that's true....when it's empty. Full of water, it weighs more like 845 pounds". That's exaggeration for effect.

But today, we live in a world of hyperbole. I've begun to hate the word awesome. (NASCAR is especially terrible for over-use of this word - the tracks are all awesome, the tires are awesome, the pit stops are awesome, etc, etc, etc.) NO! To truly be awesome, something must be, if not totally unique, at least extremely rare. Niagara Falls is awesome; the Grand Canyon is awesome, oceans are awesome...like that.

Your new car is not awesome unless it is the highest end Ferrari or Lamborghini. If it is a Chevy, Ford or Toyota...no, it's simply one like a million others.

We see these promises on t.v. Hamburgers the size of breadboxes. Medicines that fix your erectile dysfunction or allow you to control your bladder (so if there are medicines to control bladder leakage, why are there also all those ads for adult diapers?). Online courses that make your child a genius.

Incredible claims are constantly being made on Facebook.

"Use this cream on your face and your wrinkles will DISAPPEAR OVERNIGHT!"

"Take this collection of herbs and your diabetes will be CURED!"

"Use this trick that credit cards companies don't want you to know and ELIMINATE your debt!"

"He bought an old house and you'll be STUNNED by what he found in the basement!" (After you click through 452 "next pages", of course. Oops, see it's catching!)

"You'll NEVER BELIEVE what he caught in the ocean, discovered in a cave, found in an old chest."

Yeah, you're constantly being stunned and amazed and flabbergasted on Facebook.

Every recipe is mouth-watering; every bit of news is mind-blowing. Every puppy, kitten, baby is indisputably cute and they may all make you smile but none of them are not the MOST precious you've ever seen.

This is the political season and over-blown rhetoric is the norm. We've lived through seven years of Barack Obama and we've heard him called a Kenyan Muslim communist/fascist/socialist, who wants to take all our guns, prior to instituting Sharia Law.

Hillary (or Shrillary or Killery, if you prefer), we hear, is a corrupt pathological liar who literally KILLS her opponents. For some reason, she's in league with Obama to give over America to the Muslims. There must be money in it for her and Bill because we know they only do what they do for money. I'm not sure why the right is worried about her, really, because she's practically on her deathbed anyway and probably won't even live until the election.

America will be destroyed if she becomes president.

Donald Trump is a narcissistic megalomaniac - a racist and bigot who wants to unloose nuclear weapons on our enemies.

America won't survive if he becomes president.

Now, I admit that I'm a liberal Democrat so I find more credence in the claims made again the Donald than I do Hillary but still, I expect that even if he got elected America would still exist when his term was over (well, unless he really did decide to use those nukes). Probably even the Republican party would still be around to frustrate those of us on the left.

According to his worshipful devotees, the only prayer the U.S. had is if we had recognized the vast moral superiority of Bernie Sanders, the only PURE candidate in the race, the only candidate who had our best interests at heart.

The problem with all this over-magnification of the mundane is that we then don't recognize the outstanding when we actually see it. Scientists and historians and even regular people have found some amazing things, such as chests of old letters and tombs of dead kings and new species of birds and fish and butterflies. There are places in this world that are breathtakingly magnificent. There are talents that are so incredible all you can do is shake your head in wonder. We've just seen some of it during the Olympics.

As a bit of a wordsmith myself, I hate all this over-exaggeration. I think it lessens the power of words into a vast battering ram of blather.