Category Archives: Writing
As some of you know I have taken a hiatus from public writing since the death of my son 10 months ago. I have made several attempts to get back to writing about books and literature and have not quite been able to do it – though I have continued to write privately and have written quite a bit on my blog about losing Jesse; but writing about anything other than Jesse and seeking eternal truth has been difficult. This week I was contacted by an author who asked me to write a book review of a new biography about Claude Shannon, a 20th century genius and, apparently, father of information theory. I love biographies and know very little about Claude Shannon, so this seemed like a good opportunity to get back on the writing wagon. I agreed to do it.
As for books in general, since Jesse died my reading life has fallen into two categories: accounts of near death experiences and novels by PG Wodehouse, author of a zillion humorous books, not one of which I had read before Jesse died. As of today I have read a dozen of them and plan to keep going until I’ve read them all. I find PG Wodehouse gives me breathing space — temporarily transports me out of the heaviness of grief and into a lighter space where rich British people say clever things and constantly get themselves into outrageously awkward situations. PG Wodehouse has been very therapeutic. Also his books improve your vocabulary and raise your awareness of language usage.
So, now that my awareness of language usage is raised, I need to get something off my chest before embarking on the next phase of writing career — an irritating issue that has been simmering under my skin since I first entered the software development world as a technical writer fifteen years ago. The issue is this: the widespread use of the word “populate” to describe the practice of entering data into a software interface, as in “Now we need to populate the fields” — meaning we need to type or import information such as names, addresses, and numbers into a form on the computer screen. Sometimes this word even appears in a technical manual. Never in my technical manuals, mind you, but in some. And no one ever bats an eye at this outrage!
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the word populate as a verb comes from Medieval Latin and means “inhabit, to people.” The word populus was used in the Roman Empire and meant “a people, tribe, or nation” and referred to the multitude of citizens in classes lower than the Roman Senate. So, it seems, somewhere along the line some computer geek decided to take a 2000-year old word that specifically refers to human beings and appropriate it willy-nilly to mean bits of data on a computer screen. Unless you mean you are relocating people into your computer screen, I find this to be an insensitive insult to human language. As if computers have not already dehumanized us enough. At least leave words that mean human beings out of it and stop turning people into numbers.
But I do not want to register a complaint without offering a solution. I don’t want to leave my colleagues in the computer industry hanging. I understand they desperately need a one-word verb to replace the grossly inaccurate populate. To that end I have done some hard thinking on the matter: let’s see….you want a word that means putting something into a previously empty space. What you are putting into the empty space is a bit of data. Transitive verbs such as load or insert or type demand to be combined with a direct object; also they don’t cover both manual and automated input. Hmmm.
I propose datize. As far as I can tell this word does not so far exist, but words are coined every day, especially when dealing with an industry that did not exist a century ago. Datize it is both shorter and more accurate than populate. I think it could catch on. Also it has the advantage of not cannibalizing the soul of humanity.
P.S.: Recently I attended a certain training session in which I heard the shocking statement “Leadership is a verb.” No. Sorry. Leadership is a noun, has always been a noun, and will always be a noun. Is nothing sacred?
Lately my reading life has been taking me on trips in several dramatically different directions. In the reading life multiple directions is not a bad thing. In college you take five or six different classes, all of which have required reading; so you can be reading a work of modern literature such as D.W. Lawrence, a psychology text, a book on news editing, a book on statistics and analysis, a Shakespeare play, and piles literary criticism. In college that kind of reading load seems normal even if you are also working two jobs because you know all these seemingly unrelated books will eventually work together in the larger scheme that comprises your education.
As someone who sees my entire life as an education, I know that every book I read will eventually find its place in the pattern of my life. How that pattern will finally come out I will not know until the last book falls to the floor with my last breath. Shortly after that significant event I will see clearly how every experience and every decision I made, whether in my career, in my personal relationships, or in the book store, fits the pattern. I hope the result is pleasing to my creator and without too many loose ends.
But let us get back to the present where I belong. Here is the current crazy collection of books I am reading now – or have finished in the past couple of weeks or so. First of course, I am reading various works of philosophy. I recently completed my initial journey into the world of Kierkegaard with The Lily of the Field and the Bird of Air. Concurrently with reading Kierkegaard, I have been working my way through Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes.
It is going to take me several posts to process Leviathan. I’ll probably do one post just on how reading a book published in 1649 can really help you deal with the craziness of the current world. Leviathan is about human nature and how human nature works in politics and government. To compare what Hobbes has to say with U.S. Power politics in 2016 can be enlightening and amusing – in a dark sort of way.
Reading about Writing
In addition to philosophy I have been reading a bunch of instructional books on writing fiction. I have written lots and lots of non-fiction but very little fiction. Since I have decided I want to it and have a great idea for a novel, I need to educate myself on the nuts and bolts. Fiction is a very specialized skill set and very few of us happen on to these skills naturally. I certainly do not.
So I have have chosen a group of great writing instructors and am reading their books. I have finished Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, a great one, and am well into Voice by James Scott Bell and Sizzling Story Outlines by H.R. D’Costa. Also I recently read The Art of X-Ray Reading by Peter Roy Clark, another fantastic writing instructor. X-Ray Reading is about reading with a view to learning writing technique from the masters – what to look for to learn how great authors achieved the powerful effects they did.
All of these instructors have successfully published fiction that people have actually paid money to read. Since that is more that I have achieved I thought it might be worthwhile to find out what kind of books they have written. My reading life has focused primarily on classics and “literary” fiction, but they tell me popular fiction is where the money is, and I am thinking that money might be not be a bad idea. I want to live in the mountains some day where there are not many employers, so I need to find a way to make a living.
So with that in mind I found several novels by James Scott Bell on Hoopla. So far I have read two of them: Sins of the Father, about a mass shooting that is not what it appears to be, and Deadlock, about a Supreme Court justice who experiences a mid-career religious conversion. Both are entertaining stories, well written, and quick to read — a lovely break from Hobbes and Kierkegaard — and they also deepened my understanding of the fiction trade. I will want to read more by Bell and will also be looking for fiction written by my other writing instructors.”
Spiritual Book Club
And then there is my book club, a group of six women who read and discuss books specifically on spiritual and religious issues. Being in this book club has been a wonderfully enriching experience for me. The group actually emerged from a broken church experience, an ugly conflict within the congregation that caused these ladies to question a lot of things about both church life and personal faith.
The book club had been meeting for a while when they invited me to join them. I was hesitant because I don’t really like having a weekly thing to go to after work when I’m trying to build a writing career, but I went ahead and joined anyway and I’m glad I did. We have had some great discussions that have helped me clarify some things but we have also opened up a few truckloads of worms.
Our current book is Take this Bread by Sara Miles. Sara Miles was a war journalist during the conflicts of the 1980s in Central America. She was also a secularist and is a lesbian. One day she experienced a sudden conversion upon accepting communion at an unusual Episcopal church in San Francisco. This led her to take the Christian instruction to feed the hungry seriously and to become the founder a system of food pantries.
Sara’s food pantries are unusual in that they do not ask anyone to fill out paperwork to “prove their worthiness” or fulfill any poverty requirements. All are welcome to the table, the food is free, and no questions are asked. She writes about how this has worked out – the obstacles, the problems, the thrilling successes of feeding the hungry mobs who show up. The book gets into the whole food distribution system – such as the incredible waste that makes the food pantries feasible. Really interesting. Other books we have read include Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber, A Confession by Leo Tolstoy (my pick), Jesus and Nonviolence by Walter Wink and many others.
I am not sure exactly why I suddenly became enamored by Damon Runyon. I think it was a combination of things converging one late night: watching a few episodes of Boardwalk Empire, getting a threatening letter from the public/private toll-collecting racket in my area (they want $160 for passing through the tunnel five times or they’ll see to it I can’t renew my car registration….), memories of a long-ago summer when I was in a production of the musical Guys and Dolls.
If you have not yet read Damon Runyon you have a true delight waiting for you. Runyon was a newspaper guy who wrote hilarious stories about New York gangsters in the 1920s and ’30s. The best thing about his stories is the unique dialect. Will write more about Damon Runyon in a future post. Currently I am reading a collection called More Than Somewhat and am also listening to some old Damon Runyon radio shows, I think from the 1940s.
Coming Soon: Review of newly published book
Another new direction is about to open up in my reading life. Occasionally authors will contact me to review their book and I do want to support other writers. So I will soon be reviewing Sandlands by the British writer Rosy Thornton. It’s a collection of related short stories that take place in a village in coastal Suffolk. Suffolk England that is. I live in Suffolk, Virginia. When Rosy contacted me I felt like it was a connection not to be passed up. When it comes to book choices I am a big believer in signs. Besides some day, hopefully in the near future, I am going to need bloggers to review my book.
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How about you? Are you a multi-tasker when it comes to reading or do you prefer to focus on one book or one direction?
I ended 2015 with my wick burnt to the bitter end, but no more so than on most of my other New Year’s eves. I generally do end my years with a whimper rather than a bang. By December 31st time really does feel ancient. Also the whole holiday season thing wrings me out. By the last day of the year I am such a tired stupor that all I want to do is curl up in my big easy chair in my new Christmas pajamas watching some old movie that I’ve seen at least 20 times before. Or read a book, a comfortable old book; I am not in the mood to break through any intellectual frontiers. Perhaps I might have a glass of wine to feebly welcome in the New Year, limping half-awake across the midnight line.
But New Year’s day, as in the past, I awoke with a new sense of purpose and energy. I know the calendar is only an artificial human construct but, artificial or not, there is something magical about the dawning of the New Year. Right away I felt excited about returning to my essential creative self and beginning anew. The bright spirit who guides my reading life immediately produced exactly the right book to help me get there. I was browsing Hoopla* and there it was: C.S. Lewis: The Art of Writing and the Gifts of Writers. Immediately I felt a familiar and welcome something welling up within – that combination of urgency, desire, and “rightness”, similar I suppose, to love at first sight. The book is a collection of essays, speeches, and recordings on the theme of writing, most of which I had never read.
In fact, now that I think of it, 2015 was an unusual reading year in that other than one essay (“Why I Am Not a Pacifist”) I went the entire 12 months without reading any C.S.Lewis. He, along with a few others, is usually the bread and butter (or in my new gluten-free diet the nutritional yeast) of my reading life. Perhaps part of my burnout was due to Vitamin CSL deficiency.
As soon as I began listening to the book I felt a surge of spiritual energy and I knew I had found the perfect book to kick off my 2016 reading year. As with many other C.S. Lewis audio books, this one is narrated by Ralph Cosham. His proper slightly dry British diction strikes the perfect note of confident intelligence and self-effacing humility. It’s easy to forget I am not listening to C.S.L. himself. Sadly I have just read that Mr. Cosham passed away in 2014.
A few minutes into the first essay I felt myself coming home to the green pastures, wooded paths, and clear sparkling streams of my literary world. Many of the pieces have to do with children’s literature and Lewis’s ideas about what that means. This was especially delightful because my first project this year is illustrating a children’s book for an author I know. I am now inspired not only to illustrate but to write, maybe for children, maybe not.
In Lewis’s view, the author should let the subject matter of his or her imagination choose the appropriate form, whether that form be fairy tale, detective novel, science fiction, essay, poetry – whichever vehicle seems best to fit your material. To Lewis it would be beyond vulgar to write according to the demands of the market. He himself wrote the Narnia books because they seemed the best form for the stories he had to tell, not from any special affection for children.
Here is a quote from this book that I love:
“No book is really worth reading at the age of 10 which is not equally, and often more, worth reading at the age of 50.”
So true. I read The Wind in the Willows for the first time only a couple years ago and I can’t imagine I would have liked it better had I read it as a child. It is a book I will surely read again.
I am also fascinated by what Lewis has to say about movies based on books:
“Nothing can be more disastrous than the view that the cinema can and should replace popular written fiction. The elements cinema excludes are the very elements that give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world.”
Lewis would probably be appalled at the number of untrained minds in our time who are completely shut out from this imaginative world. A non-reader cannot even know what Lewis means by “imaginative world.” He is talking about a world that exists only in the human mind, a world that has qualities far beyond mere excitement, explosions, and sequential dramatic events, however well-acted and however impressive the special effects. This imaginative/spiritual world is a vast and eternal resource. The more you read the more you discover how words can lead you through doorways and secret passages to places that are beyond the reach of language. You cannot get this magical experience from the movies.
*Hoopla is a library-connected app where you can get free ebooks, audio books, music, and movies. Check it out if you have not already found this treasure.
“Even if I knew for certain that I would never have anything published again, and would never make another cent from it, I would still keep on writing.” – Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write
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I have certain life goals that involve writing and art. It’s possible I may never reach some of these goals, or even any of them, but they are important enough to me that I won’t give up even if I die trying. However working toward these goals means I have to fight the powerful pull of other people’s expectations, the world’s obligations, and most daunting, the feeling I am being selfish whenever I work on my own goals rather than working on behalf of somebody else’s agenda. I know this is a common scenario for writers, artists, and people in general who want to do wonderful creative or intellectual things that the current market is not necessarily asking for. There are occupations that people want to do out of love – like acting or writing screen plays or doing historical research. The problem is more people want to do these occupations than the market wants to pay for. I know, for example, a guy with a graduate degree in history who has successfully managed a historical sites for 25 years, won an Emmy for directing a historical film, and published many articles in his field. He recently applied for a new job at a historical site and is happy to be one of 21 finalists for the job. Which pays about 40k.
I do not mean to imply that my immediate family is not supportive because they could hardly be more so. Most often the battle is with my own internal expectations. I am so happy my sons have now safely reached adulthood and I have been able to retrieve some of my mental real estate. But still it’s a constant battle. If I separated myself from the world and had the perfect writing studio isolated in the middle of the forest it would still be a battle. Lately I have felt the strain of swimming against the tide and started to feel like I am running out of time and strength, losing the battle. Every time I think I am making progress the surf comes in and washes me back to shore. The surf may be pleasant and the journey back to shore may be a lot of fun; but there I am, on the warm sand, no closer to that distant speck, the Isle of Publication.
So I’ve had to bring in reinforcements: a small army of books on personal inspiration and motivation. In the past few weeks I have reading or listening to these books so much, sometimes multiple times, that at times I fear I am using my motivational reading as another way to procrastinate. But on balance the time invested reading these books is already paying off on the side of productivity.
For instance, from Write. Publish. Repeat by Johnny B. Truant and David Wright I have taken the advice to start using Scrivener software for my writing projects. I am still using the 30-day trial period, but I think like it and will probably pay the $45.00 or whatever it is to keep it. I’ve used Microsoft Word for years but what sells me on the Scrivener is that it doesn’t insert a bunch of indecipherable code behind your writing and eventually, when I complete something I want to self publish, it will theoretically transfer into e-book format with fewer problems. I find technical problems are discouraging and a huge obstacle to getting things done so if $45.00 will prevent them from happening that is money well spent.
You could open a book store that sold only books on writing (if you wanted to compete with Amazon….). I found a list of 499 books on Goodreads called Best Books on Writing. I went through the list and took inventory: I have read 21, own three more that I plan to read, and am in the process of reading another. I also have a bunch of writing books on my shelf that are not on this particular list. The list, for some reason, includes several novels such as Lolita and Little Women as well as a collection of Wallace Stevens’ poems. There are also several reference books such as dictionaries and style guides. But the vast majority of the books are how-to guides: novels, screen plays, poetry, business writing, etc. Steven King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft appears three times, but I did not notice any other duplicates. On Writing is such a great book on writing that maybe it deserves to be on the list three times.
It makes perfect sense that books on how to write should be so numerous. In order to write a book you have to be a writer, and what subject do writers know best? The books I list below are the ones I have read just in the past three weeks or so.
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The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I love Pressfield’s metaphor of the creative life as an internal war. Because it’s not only a metaphor – it’s true. The birth of anything new is always a struggle. There are forces that want to bring new creation into being and there are equally strong forces that want to maintain the status quo or tear it down. The book helps you realize what you’re up against when you blithely decide you’re going to sit down and create something, whether the something is a story, a work of art, a musical composition, or a small business.
Do the Work by Steven Pressfield. This book is basically a concentrated lecture based on Pressfield’s approach to art described in The War of Art. It is a nice short motivating lecture about getting to work and bypassing all the excuses. The audio version is only an hour and 25 minutes long, so you could listen to it every morning or every night before bed. For someone like me, whose best intentions need constant reinforcement, so this wouldn’t be a terrible idea.
The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life by Thomas M. Sterner. Among these books this was my absolute favorite, and it’s not even about writing. Sterner is a musician and has a successful business restoring pianos. But the techniques he delivers have been a great help to me: how to focus on the present and if you can’t, how to train yourself into the habit of focusing on the present. It is the way to doing high quality work without stressing out and is exactly the medicine I need at this time in my life. I am on my second reading of this book and may print out parts of it to hang at my desk.
If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. This is an oldie and a classic of writing inspiration that I first read it many years ago. Then last weekend I suddenly experienced a strong urge to read it again, one of those urges that makes you get up in the middle of the night and look for the book on your shelf where it has been sitting for years, between Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Crafting the Personal Essay by Dinty W. Moore. Ms. Ueland is the wise old guru of writing, understanding, sympathetic, non-judgmental, and a fierce champion of the creative soul, giving no quarter to the naysayers and collaborators with the world of prudence. She invokes the spirits of William Blake, the eccentric writer and an artist who ignored the prudent voices of reason of his day, and Leo Tolstoy, one of my own pillars of inspiration. Recently at my company we had to do this survey about their potential new mentoring program. In the space where they asked you to name your ideal mentor I typed Leo Tolstoy.
The Portable MFA by Members of the New York Writers Workshop. While helping my son sign up for his first community college classes I started to consider going back to finish my Masters degree. For about five minutes. During those five minutes I discovered this book. It is full of great exercises for improving your writing and claims that if you do the work, you will have learned what you would learn if you enrolled in an MFA program for creative writing. I am still reading and doing the exercises, but so far I find it good stuff.
Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content by Mark Levy. Despite my hatred for the word “content” I have to say this book is pretty inspiring. It is not the usual book about writing marketable products but focuses on techniques for using free writing as an engine for problem solving. Whether your object is an advertising campaign or a novel, you can benefit from the techniques presented in this book.
Take Off Your Pants: Outline Your Books For Faster, Better, Writing by Libbie Hawker. I found this recently published e-book while browsing Kindle deals. Free-writing and writing from the heart is great, but when you’ve been doing that for the better part of a lifetime like I have, sometimes you need a definite approach to shaping all that brilliant free writing into something you might be able to publish. The title refers to the popular “pantsing” versus “plotting” debate among writers. Hawker maintains that if you want to actually make a living in writing in today’s market, you really need to embrace the need for efficient outlining. Her technique leaves plenty of room for creativity within a framework. I found the book well written, refreshing, and helpful.
Write Publish Repeat (The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success) by Johnny b. Truant and David Wright. Still reading this. It is a treasure trove of practical information if what you want is an income-producing self publishing business. Not entirely sure that is what I want but I like thinking about the idea.
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Some of these are about being true to yourself and your art and ignoring outside voices. Others are about the realities of making an actual living at writing: what you really need to do if you want income. Yes, these are two opposing philosophies and I am torn between them. My heart is with being true to my art but my need for a food and shelter is with the practical school of thought. I am still idealistic enough to think I will find a way to combine the two. Ernest Hemingway did right? So there – it’s not impossible.