Follow by Email

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Be Adventurous - Don't Get Stuck in a Rut!



Image result for authors quotes


I go through phases with books. Almost the whole time I was a kid, the books I read were about animals – any kind of animal, really, but mostly horses and dogs. I still have the tiny book with the little one-paragraph reviews we had to fill out to be part of the summer reading program at the Logansport library when I was about nine. I read way more books than I needed to get my certificate. Almost every one of them was about animals – black stallions and Irish Setters that were lost in the wild and little girls who wanted a pony more than anything (which described me, incidentally ).
Into adulthood, I never lost this tendency to toward obsession about certain types of books. For many years, I read everything on the New York Times best seller list. It was one of my claims to fame then (though no one found it exceptional but me) that I’d read every best seller for several years running. No discrimination there. I didn’t care what the book was about, I read them all. Making the list was my only criteria.
Then we moved to the country and I went through my non-fiction period. I was rather smug and self-righteous about my new-found turning to “just the facts, Ma’am” reading list. I looked down on those people who read simply for enjoyment when they could be Learning Something. Most of these books were in a similar vein to my Bible of the time – “Five Acres and Independence”.  They, along with our subscription to the then  new magazine, Mother Earth News, taught me how to milk goats and plant gardens (placing plants so that the dreaded anti-environmental herbicides  and fertilizers were never needed), making my own butter and creating a compost pile. It turned out that our commitment to self-sufficiency was never up to the standard Mother Earth demanded.   I discovered I was too attached to thermostats for heat and that by the end of the garden planting, I no longer gave a darn about matching plants. I just wanted them in the ground and to get done (which is why my cucumbers mated with my melons (or, anyway, why some species crossed ethnic lines because I’d placed them too close together and they fell in love). We did have chickens but we never dammed our creek so as to tie into the electric grid and free ourselves of REMC.
I went through a Louisiana spell with no clue why. I knew everything there was to know about that state. Although I’d never been there, I was convinced that I must have been a New Orleansian in a previous incarnation. For quite a while, it was the Civil War that captured my attention and then later, the Vietnam War.
Quite a few years ago, I settled into mysteries and that’s where I have mostly stayed. Not only did I get trapped in that genre but even certain authors within it. In short, I didn’t care to read anything that wasn’t by a writer I already knew I liked. Adventuresome, I was not. I’d go to the library and never even look at titles, just author’s names. If Ed McBain or Martha Grimes wrote a new book, I got it.
Oddly, my very favorite novel for about a decade was “Lonesome Dove”, which I’d got only out of desperation because my favored authors were letting me down by not writing books quickly enough to keep up with me.  My experience venturing out of my chosen area to find my favorite book taught me nothing. Once Lee Child and Ian Rankin and Robert B Parker came out with new offerings, I fled right back to mysteries again.
Until fairly recently. Once again, my favorites were selfishly producing too slowly. I could find nothing that sounded appealing so, reluctantly, I got a novel, “The Steep Approach to Garbadale” by a Scottish writer, Iain Banks. “The Steep Approach to Garbadale” overtook “Lonesome Dove” as my all-time favorite book. Iain Banks, I discovered, has been one of Britain’s most popular authors for years. His first novel, “The Wasp Factory” has been acclaimed one of Britain’s top five books of all time.  I got another of his books from the library, then ordered the others from Amazon and have loved every one.
In addition to his novels, Iain Banks is a hugely successful writer of science fiction, writing under the name Iain M Banks. I’d always thought I hated science fiction but I don’t know why.  As far as I knew, I’d never read a science fiction book or seen a science fiction movie.  But because I was so enthralled with Banks’ writing, I took a risk and let him lead me into new territory –science fiction – and learned that wonderful writers are wonderful writers no matter what the genre.
Even more recently, I took the advice of several friends and reluctantly began the Outlander series. I didn’t think romance/history/time travel was my cup of tea at all but lo and behold, I fell in love. Now, maybe Diana Gabaldon’s books are my favorites. Or maybe an even newer discovery – Chronicles of a Legend – The Pirate Captain, by Kerry Lynn.
There’s a moral here – about ruts and how you can cheat yourself out of some of the joyousness of life when you let yourself get stuck in them.



Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Shades of George Orwell

                             Image result for Alternative facts

Well, it seems that George Orwell's 1984 has hit Amazon's best seller list again, thanks to Kellyanne Conway's statement about alternate facts. Maybe we should all give it another read to remind ourselves what we're up against in the new era of Trump.

Of course, alternate fact is an oxymoron. There can be no alternate fact. Facts are facts and stand alone. At least, that's true in the world of reality though not necessarily in the world of narcissistic politicians.

Words will be our weapons in the coming years. Obviously, the administration plans to use them as weapons as well and they have some big guns. By choosing who can cover the White House. By labeling certain news organizations (CNN) as peddlers of "fake news". By limiting how agencies may or may not communicate with the public via all forms of expression - tweet, email, press releases, interviews, policy papers. We will not hear any scientific fact the administration disapproves of. All references to climate change have been scrubbed from the EPA website. Trump seems to have taken lessons in media management from Vladimir Putin.

I don't believe we have ever had a president before who could stand before us and swear to an outright lie even when there is verbal and visual proof that his lie is a lie. It is a scary future in which the very words we rely on for communication cannot be trusted. We are lost in an information vacuum when the leader of the free world feels no responsibility to share honestly with his people.

The rest of us with have to engage in a world duel with our leaders. Ours may not carry as much weight as a president's but we outnumber him by millions so we'll have to rely on overwhelming his deceit with our truth.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Now In Paperback - Marking Time

    

My book of columns has now been published as a paperback. It can be purchased from either Amazon or CreateSpace at a cost of $8.48. Here are the links:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1535538228

This book is completely different than any of my e-published novels. The people who read my e-books probably won't recognize that author of graphic and gritty fiction as the same one who writes about life in a rural Hoosier county with affection and humor. I hope this book brings smiles and the occasional tear to readers. I hope it reminds them that even in times of turmoil, this is still the heart of America. 

If you are looking for a unique gift, consider this book.  If you are from this area, you might even recognize yourself or someone else you know!

Sunday, December 25, 2016

My One Resolution

Image result for new years resolution

This is me. I've always been a "wing it" kind of person - very definitely a grasshopper and not an ant. I'm almost 71 and this attitude has served me surprisingly well. I almost accidentally found myself working for local or state government and ended up with a pension and social security enough to live securely, if not luxuriously.

I write in this same style. I don't plan anything out but simply sit down at the computer and start in. I've never had writer's block. The writing part of my brain has never failed me....until now.

For some reason, I haven't finished a book since my son died. I can still write blogs and columns, tasks that take no longer than an hour or two. But the thought of a novel is overwhelming. Contemplating writing a book seems like climbing a mountain. My body feels heavy and my mind feels slow just imagining it. 

I have three books started - the tenth in the Rafe series is about half complete while I have several chapters in the others. I like all of them. I think the plots are interesting and the characters are engaging and the places are appealing. I often flesh out what is going to happen next in a novel when I lay down for a nap. I can mentally write a whole chapter before I fall asleep. 

I can still do this. I have the next several chapters of the Rafe book all written in my head. It's when I sit down at the computer that it all goes haywire. My brain feels foggy; my fingers feel awkward, the words sound clunky. There is no drama. The letters are dead things lying limp on the screen.

John died in 2015. I assumed this would pass with time but it hasn't. It is very disconcerting and irritating. 

Is it depression? I've never been depressed and I don't feel depressed now, at least, what I imagine depression feels like. It doesn't affect other areas of my life. I told my doctor about it and she prescribed a mild anti-depressant. I haven't noticed that they've made any difference.

So, my New Year's Resolution for 2017 is to somehow get myself over and beyond this hump. Maybe I've simply developed a mental block that is holding me back. I have in mind some strategies to try (set a time to write on the book every evening even if it goes slow at first - ignore the flow of it for now and just get the words down, etc.)

I never title my books until they are done but I've titled this next Rafe book - A Different Kind of Man - thinking it might come to life if it had an actual name.

Publishing this book in 2017 is my only resolution. 






Monday, December 12, 2016

Fiction vs. Non-Fiction

                                               Image result for fake news meme

Being a writer is becoming more and more unsettling these days. Back in the day, we had two kinds of writing: fiction and non-fiction and they were clearly labelled as to what they were. There were two separate sections in the library to delineate them. We writers knew in which camp we belonged, sometimes moving from one to the other, but staying within the boundaries of one at a time.

We knew, of course, that some types of writing had to be fleshed out a little. Not every single word in a biography or even a memoir was precisely true. Dialogue naturally had to be made up. We didn't have recorders in the era of Abraham Lincoln. Nevertheless, authors did exhaustive research and tried to stay true to the story they were telling.

In addition to fiction and non-fiction, there is, of course, opinion which is some of each. An opinion isn't a fact but it isn't fiction either. As an opinion writer, you are only saying what you believe to be true. In a recent column, I wrote that I believe America just elected a man who may be our worst president ever. That isn't a fact (though it may turn out to be), it's simply my opinion which readers are free to agree or disagree with.

Again, newspapers make a clear distinction between faithful reporting and opinion, labeling different sections of the paper news or editorial.

Newspapers have had to adapt to the new reality though. In the beginning of the presidential campaign, they were hesitant to call a candidate a flat-out liar. They danced around that label by resorting to euphemisms. Finally, Donald Trump's lies became so egregious that they gave us and simply called a lie a lie.

In the last year or so, social media has been inundated with fake news. Some of the writers of these stories have been interviewed. They freely admit to writing sensational allegations which they present as truthful though they are meant simply as "click bait" (another new term in our vocabulary).

I believe, based on my experience, that conservatives are far more likely to accept fake news as gospel. It seems no web article is to fantastic to be believed. They never seem to say, "now, wait a minute, Hillary running a child porn ring out of the pizza shop? Seriously? That's too crazy even for me to swallow." Or they'll pass on the meme that Michelle Obama is a transvestite without question.

Meanwhile, I have been caught a few times posting phony stories. (Our world has become so crazed, it is hard to tell truth from fictions sometimes). Usually, within minutes, one of my liberal friends has called me on it and I have to go back and apologize. We try to correct conservative stories too but invariably, our right-wing friends continue to insist. (Yes, Hillary is a serial killer who sold arms to ISIS).

So here we are in a world where the the red of fiction mixes with the blue of non-fiction, resulting in a kind of purple shade that leaves neither pure . Of course, it is non-fiction which loses out in this transaction because non-fiction depends on purity while fiction doesn't care.

Friday, November 25, 2016

On The Hunt For Ideas


Image result for writers



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


Image result for school books from the 1800s


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?