Late fruit

apples-on-tree-400x266

When he was a young boy in Pennsylvania novelist James Michener once watched a neighbor driving rusty nails into the trunk of an old apple tree that had pretty much quit producing. When he asked why he was doing it  the man told him the tree had forgotten its purpose. Those nails, he said, would hopefully give it enough of a jolt to remind it to get on with its job.

Almost 80 years later Michener found himself down and very nearly out, physically and emotionally. His beloved wife Mari had just died, his own lifelong robust health was deteriorating, and he was spending a good bit of his time attending the funerals of old friends. Figuring he was done, he stopped writing.

Then he remembered that apple tree and those rusty nails, and how the tree produced huge, honey-sweet, bright red fruit the next season.

So he gave himself a swift, though metaphorical, kick in the seat of his pants, and dusted off the old manual typewriter that had rolled out so many fine novels. “The job of an apple tree is to bear apples,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The job of a storyteller is to tell stories, and I concentrated on that obligation.” So he finished the novel he’d abandoned, and then wrote several more books before he died.

Michener’s spunky determination to get on with life, to “keep on keeping on”, is a fine example of what the human spirit is capable of. Since he’d once been an English teacher, I’ll bet he was well acquainted with this snippet from Lord Byron: “The heart will break, but broken, will live on.”

Of course, it’s far too simplistic to suggest that all anybody has to do to overcome grief, illness, or heartbreak is stab in a few imaginary nails and adopt a “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” philosophy. If that were the case a lot of psychologists and psychiatrists would have to hock their couches and find new lines of work.

But the notion was enough to remind at least one writer, James Michener, that a writer ought to keep writing, like a tree bearing fruit until the very end of the season.

 

Comeuppance

scales-of-justice

So. I’ll bet this has happened to you. You’re driving down the freeway and some jerk suddenly swerves in front of you, making you tap your brake, spill your coffee, and maybe use a word or two that you usually avoid using.

Then the guy’s brake lights blink frantically as he moves one way and then the other behind the car in front of him. He’s a wobbler, maneuvering his way into position, like a cat about to pounce on a bird, so he can slide into the first narrow passage that presents itself. Then he spurts, weaves and bobs along, putting everybody in danger, upsetting everybody, making some of them use some of those words that you’re already regretting.

Then you almost certainly make a wish, or send up a little prayer. You’re not asking that the jerk suddenly become a better human being and a more considerate driver. You’re asking for a policeman to be parked just up ahead, with his radar gun on, aimed, and ready.

You’re asking for the jerk to get what he has coming to him.

You’re wanting a nice little dose of comeuppance.

The desire to see people receive their just desserts is strong in most of us. And good writers and filmmakers know it’s an effective carrot to dangle. Think of the books you’ve read and the movies you’re seen where the main thing that’s kept you interested is the possibility that somebody you’ve come to dislike will have to face the music and pay the fiddler.

Of course, those are books and movies. In reality, the fiddler usually goes unpaid..
What prompted today’s ranting is the fact that I’ve fallen into the clutches of the novelist Dominick Dunne.

As has often been the case, I came late to the party. I bought his final novel, “Too Much Money”, off the discounted sale table at Barnes and Noble three years after his death. I think I paid three bucks for the hardback. I recognized Dunne’s name from the O.J. Simpson trial years ago, when he did interviews on various network news shows and wrote a regular column in Vanity Fair magazine.

I liked the book, and ordered several of his other novels, the best of which was “A Season in Purgatory”, the story based on an actual case of a rich Connecticut family that pulls every string they can to assure an acquittal for their son who assaulted and murdered a teenaged girl.

Dunne was a gifted author with a strong voice, but what really pulled me along though that good book was a gnawing hunger for comeuppance. I wanted that smug family to get their noses rubbed in it. I wanted that arrogant young man who considered himself above the law to finally run directly into it like a brick wall.

Two more Dunne books – “Another City, Not My Own” and “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles” – convinced me that the author must have had a personal ax to grind. So I did some research.

It turns out his daughter, the young actress Dominique Dunne – she played the older daughter in the film “Poltergeist” – was savagely murdered by her boyfriend in 1982. The trial was obviously a gigantic miscarriage of justice and the killer, who admitted to having done the deed, served less than two years in prison.

After that the need to speak out against a system where haughty people who feel such a sense of entitlement that they can sidestep justice completely became Dominick Dunne’s passion in life. And it became the driving force in his writing.

I’ve felt that anger myself on occasion, and not just when some yahoo cuts me off on the freeway. But I’ve never pondered it longer or more deeply than when reading Mr. Donne’s books. Which might prove that he made his point, and managed to leave something of the legacy that he probably intended.

It would be nice to think that a natural system of justice is at work in the world, where retribution automatically follows wrongdoing. Like the Furies in mythology, whose job it was to seek out wrongdoers and drag them off to their deserved punishment without any need for courts, juries, or lawyers. Not vigilantism, mind you, which is just another brand of evil, but a pure, unbiased measure of justice.

But let’s face it. The chances of that happening are right up there with that policeman actually being there waiting for the wobbling jerk that made you spill your coffee and say those bad words.

(This was originally a newspaper article)

Armchair traveling

Morton

 
I’m a big fan of travel books.

I’m not talking about travel guides, like the Frommer’s Guides to … just about everywhere on earth. Or the ones for thrifty folk on how to do New York (or Paris or London) on ten dollars a day, which I can assure is not possible. I’ve tried it. There are too many  book shops and enticing eateries in those cities to keep me anywhere near such a ludicrous budget.

So a good bit of my traveling has been vicarious, through the narratives of people who actually went places, and wrote about their experiences so that I can visit them too, on the cheap and without the hassle of getting there.

Many a writer of fiction who took vacations discovered that even in distant lands they were still writers. Mark Twain’s reports of his visit to Europe are priceless. Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling wrote almost as many narratives of their travels as they did novels. One of John Steinbeck’s finest efforts was Travels with Charley, his retelling of his trek across America with his dog as his only companion. Mary Shelley, who gave us Frankenstein, also gave us Rambles in Germany and Italy and Ian Flemming, who gave us James Bond, also gave us Thrilling Cities.

This unique genre of literature where the authors go wandering far and wide and tell the stories of the people and places they find offers wonderful reading and excellent examples of vivid descriptions of settings for writers in general.

An old book titled In Search of England sat patiently on my shelf for a long time, waiting for me to pay it some attention. I bought it at a used book store years ago because the title sounded interesting. And because it was cheap. When I wanted something other than a novel last week I pulled it down, started reading, and was hooked. The author, H. V. Morton, a young veteran of  World War I in the 1920s with a new little motor car and what he called “all my roads before me”, set out to explore the country he’d been fighting for in the trenches of the battlefields in France.

His accounts of puttering into one little village after another, of partaking of scones with Devonshire cream in friendly farmhouses and pints of ale in little pubs, of standing at misty sunrise at Stonehenge, of gazing out at the old harbor that the Mayflower sailed from are all fascinating. Morton, in those pages written almost a century ago, found not only England but himself.

He also found his life’s work. Before his death in 1979 he wrote dozens of travel narratives about places the world over. I’ve already ordered a few of them from amazon.com. Used copies, of course, where I paid more for the postage than the book.

I think I’ve already established that I’m cheap.

Working short

6_on_a_post

Hemingway, according to legend, was challenged to
write a novel in only six words and came up with “For sale:
baby shoes, never worn.”

Can you do it? These folks tried (I might have gotten these from Writer’s Digest)….

Zak Nelson: I still make coffee for two.

Alex Lindquist: It was embarrassing, so don’t ask.

Will Blythe: Took scenic route, got in late.

Bob Redman: Being a monk stunk. Better gay.

Tami Maus: Little bit Lucy, tempered by Ethel.

Dickie Widjaja: I think, therefore I am bald.

John Falk: Dad wore leather pants in Reno.

John Bettencourt: One tooth, one cavity, life’s cruel.

Andie Grace: Wasn’t born a redhead; fixed that.

Sjorn Stromberg: Found true love, married someone else.

Drew Peck: Ex-wife and contractor now have house.

Go ahead.  Write one.  Then share. (That’s my six word novel)

A bond writers shouldn’t overlook

best friend

Writers have been working animals into their stories for as long as there have been stories.

When Odysseus returned from Troy the only member of his family to recognize him was his faithful old dog Argos.  One of the earliest beast fables, stories where animals speak to each other in human voices, was Chaucer’s tale of a crafty rooster named Chanticleer outwitting a wily fox.  James Michener prefaced each section of his big novel Chesapeake with journeys of creatures like blue crabs and Canadian geese.  Poet Carl Sandburg employed a cat as a perfect metaphor for sly, silent stealth.  “The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on”.

Not to put myself anywhere near that parade of literary giants, I’ve trotted out a few critters as well.  I provided a yellow dog named Chester for the children of Galveston’s St. Mary’s Orphanage in my novel The Windows of Heaven and a cat named Duke for the loner protagonist Sam in A Place Apart.

If effective writing truly reflects the human experience, then it has to occasionally deal with the reality that the bond between humans and animals is a strong one. And often a therapeutic one.

Let’s say I come home after an exasperating day, one full of what Mr. Shakespeare called the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, one full of nothing going right. I thumb through the mail – four bills and a jury duty summons – and reach for a cold beverage but we’re all out.  I plop down in my favorite chair and turn on the evening news.  Which is all bad.

And there on the ottoman by my feet is Gracie, the smallest of my wife Karen’s and my trio of elderly cats and the one most devoted to yours truly.  Gracie doesn’t care a fig about all those things that have got me in a sour mood.  All she cares about, at the moment, is me. And that’s comforting.  Okay, to be fair she also cares about the treats that I sometimes feed to her.

Gracie and I are pretty far removed from each other on the biological family tree.   But it’s nice to know that, for a few minutes at least, we are kindred spirits.  For a little while, it’s Gracie and me against the world.

I am in complete agreement with Henry Beston, who wrote a little book in 1928 that ranks pretty high on my list of all-time favorites.  It’s called The Outermost House, and is his memoir of spending a full calendar year in a tiny house the big beach on Cape Cod.

He hit the nail on the head when he said we need “another and a wiser and perhaps a mystical concept of animals.”  He maintained that “the animal shall not be measured by man.  In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.  They are not our brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

Other nations.  I like that, and so does Gracie.  I read it to her one day, and gave her a treat. Whereupon she purred, blinked, and gave me an appreciated gaze full of love and devotion.

 

 

 

New insights from an old medium

 

Old Time Radio

I barely missed the golden age of radio.    But I caught it on the rebound.

When Uncle Sam put me to some little use in Germany in the early 1970s, keeping democracy safe by standing guard duty and typing reports, the Armed Forces Radio Network regularly aired a variety of old radio programs.

Those little half hour American dramas, most of them originally broadcast before I was born, provided welcome breaks from “Flipper” and “The Beverley Hillbillies” dubbed in German on television and constant polka bands and disco, then in the infancy of its unfortunate run, on Bavarian radio stations.

It stands to reason, I guess, that having grown up watching television shows on the trio of networks in the late 50’s and early 60’s I would feel an affinity for the radio programs that preceded them.  Because many of them –  “Father Knows Best”, “The Jack Benny Show”, “Gunsmoke”, “Dragnet”, “Ozzie and Harriet”, “Death Valley Days”, and others – had all been on radio first.

So when I listened to the older versions, either in the barracks in Germany or later on tapes from  used book stores, I was already comfortable with the characters and their situations. Though I did struggle with William Conrad’s ominously deep voice as the marshal on “Gunsmoke”.  James Arness was the only Matt Dillon for me, and my allegiance was resolute.

In 1979, when I was a young, single teacher, I rented a beach house down at Matagorda for a summer, thinking it would be the perfect place to write a book.  Which I did.  But it was so bad I finally judged it beyond salvation and sentenced it to death, so it was relegated to the trash bin, all three hundred or so pages of it.

But that summer was wonderful anyway.  The portable TV received nothing but static on its rabbit ears, but my storm radio came in clear as a bell.  Back then a station in Houston ran the CBS Radio Mystery Theater every night at ten.  They were hour-long whodunits almost certainly recorded while the actors read the script aloud for the first time, but I enjoyed them every night sitting on the screened-in porch with all the lights off, watching the glistening reflection of the moon and stars dancing on the gulf.

It was a good way to end a day of fishing, walking along the beach, reading my way through a box of books I’d brought, and working hard on what would turn out to be a valuable lesson in how not to write one that people might actually consider reading.

I’ve met a good many folks over the years who share my fondness for radio plays and vintage programs from a bygone era.  And we’re pretty much in agreement that one of the reasons for our fascination is that listening to a story makes you use much more of your imagination than having all the work done for you in a movie or on television.

When all you have is the spoken word, a few sound effects, and perhaps a bit of a musical soundtrack, you’re forced to conjure everything else.  You have to imagine what the characters look like, how they move around, how they’re dressed, what the setting looks like, what the weather is doing, and all the rest.

When I taught freshman English I always introduced my classes to Mr. Sherlock Holmes in a recording of a radio play from the 1930’s, then I had them read one of the adventures in the textbook.  The mother of one of my students donated an old wooden radio cabinet, its electronic innards long gone.  I put a portable cassette tape player inside the cathedral-shaped contraption and made the kids watch the radio while they listened to Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce become Sherlock and Watson as carriage horses clip-clopped along the cobblestones in foggy Victorian London.

It might have been nothing more than a welcome recess from reading for some of the students.  But it may have planted those characters and that place in the minds of others, sending them off on a lifetime of reading enjoyment.

And little did I know, back in those wandering days of my sometimes misspent youth, that if I’d paid better attention to the pacing, characterization, ironic twists, and other elements of those concise radio stories, I would have made a better job of that rambling novel I churned out of my typewriter every day.

Can we learn to write more effectively from more sources than we might have imagined?   Personally, I think the answer to that is elementary, my dear Watson.

(Part of this was first published as a newspaper article)

 

 

As a new school year commences, a little story.

Aple and book

Mrs. Anderson, my senior English teacher in high school, was an oddity.  She drove an enormous old Buick with high, sharp tailfins from her home in Palestine to Oakwood, my hometown in East Texas, every day.  She had retired years before but fate, or an inadequate pension, sent her to us as an afterthought.

She would gaze out the big open windows of our classroom sometimes and be obviously somewhere else.  Every once in a while she would cast a real pearl of wisdom, like when she was asked how long our essay should be.  “A good essay,” she proclaimed, fiddling with the reading glasses that hung on a lanyard from her tiny neck, “should be exactly the length of a girl’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject but short enough to keep it interesting.”

She would often as not forget what she intended for us to study and open the book to something entirely different, and she left little memos to herself all over her desk and around the room.  She famously kept a note taped – I don’t remember if we had Post-it notes in the late 1960’s or, at least, if we did in Oakwood – over the ignition of her Buick to remind her where to insert the key before driving home again every afternoon.

We gave her hell, of course.  But she never seemed to mind.

There was always, on any given day, a stack of random books and magazines on her desk from which she would lift one up occasionally and tell us about the story it contained or read a bit to us.  And when we were supposed to be reading silently, she actually would be.  She would nod during the enterprise, and sometimes smile, wandering  around the room from one book to another like Merlin among his potions.  She would ask us what we thought the author meant in a passage, and would actually listen to our answers.

That year we dipped into Beowulf, Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrimage, things from Mr. Shakespeare, the poetry of the Romantic Age, and sundry other masterpieces.  Not in the correct chronology, but as the spirit moved Mrs. Anderson.  I probably didn’t learn the proper order of worship of those great writers and their works  until I went to college and became an English teacher, and I’ve made sure to teach them in their appropriate sequence for a long time now.  Teachers should understand that this little tale is not intended to encourage you to stare out your window, if you have one, or to deviate from your curriculum. All of those epics would have made more sense to me on first reading them if we had followed a straight road from start to finish.

But lest you go thinking that my year with Mrs. Anderson was a waste let me assure you of one thing.  I became an English major and a teacher in large part because of her.

She was quirky; no doubt. But I have never encountered an educator who loved what she was doing and the subject she was teaching more than that good woman. And her devotion to reading and good, clear writing fueled, and continues to fuel, my passion for those things.

Years ago, when I was a young teacher, I intended to go see Mrs. Anderson and apologize for my often less than stellar behavior in her class. I should have, and wish I had.  Surely she and her big Buick headed off into eternity decades ago. But if I could I would tell her now that the day she obviously saw how carefully I was paying attention when she read us a short story by Rudyard Kipling was a real game-changer for me.  And her handing me the volume of his collected stories on my way out and telling me to keep it as long as I wanted was both an act of kindness and the finest lesson I ever received in how to be a real teacher.

I don’t know if Mrs. Anderson had a radio in that Buick, or if she had a note taped on the dashboard about where to turn it on.  But if she did ever listen to it she might have heard the perfect definition of what she did every day, via a popular song of that era by Crosby, Stills & Nash:

“Teach your children well.”

 

Typewriters

Typewriter

“A, S, D, F, J, K, L, semicolon.”

If you chimed in during that little mantra you are probably of sufficient age to have taken Typing in high school. Not Keyboarding, which replaced Typing in the curriculum. Or BCIS, which is a current offering; don’t ask me what the letters stand for.

I’m talking about Typing, where you sat down to big machines as heavy as boat anchors that were either electric, if you were in a prosperous school district, or manual, if you weren’t.

The first thing we had to do in Typing, before being allowed to touch an actual typewriter, was memorize those eight characters, called the home keys, and be able to rattle them off to the teacher on request. And it was requested pretty frequently.

There was a big chart in the typing room that had all the keys on it that the teacher pointed to when leading us through the strange geography of the keyboard, then she flapped it up like a venetian blind when we took quizzes or timed writings.

That was because the typewriters in that room didn’t have letters or numbers on the keys, just blank buttons.  Which meant, of course, that we had to actually know which character would slap unto the paper when we depressed the key. So we couldn’t, to use an often employed phrase from a bygone era, “hunt and peck.”

I learned enough in that class to pass, several years later, a timed test in the army which qualified me as a clerk typist, a 71B10 in military jargon.  But I have to admit the number of words I had to type in the amount of time allotted for me to do it was ridiculously easy.  I could have, in fact, hunted and pecked my way to success that day.  As I suspect some of the fellows around me did.

It was a good thing those typewriters – which were olive drab, the color of everything in the army from boxer shorts to vehicles – did have numbers and letters printed on the keys.  Because I never learned, in that high school class, which fingers to use for numbers.  To this day I can fairly fly across the keyboard when conjuring words, but I have to stop and look at the keys when a numeral is required. In the current frenzy of everybody suing everybody else, I should sue the Oakwood school for that blatant deficiency in my education.

In that red brick school building, where first graders presented themselves at one end and emerged a dozen years later as graduated seniors at the other, the plinking sound of students tapping away in the typing room reverberated through the entire place all day long. That incessant Morris Code gone amuck found its way into the plumbing, the walls, and the window panes. We didn’t have air conditioning, just plenty of tall windows kept open except in midwinter and during blowing rainstorms, so people out on the street could probably hear the typing too.  Like the heart of the school beating frantically.

I ended up with one of those big manual typewriters – don’t ask how; I honestly don’t remember – on top of a file cabinet in the classroom where I teach.  Every year my new students ogle it closely and touch the keys and look, unsuccessfully, for a monitor and an electrical cord.  They seem amazed that I actually once used it, and I’m sure it serves as proof positive that I am directly linked to a past as remote, to them, as the Jurassic era.

Truth be told, and all nostalgic business aside, I’m awfully glad that old contraption gave way to word processing programs on computers.  I remember how we used to have to use a pencil, or enough fingers and toes, to do a little arithmetic calculation when centering a title in the middle of a page.  And footnotes, which have been relegated to the trash heap along with buggy whips and slide rules, were so difficult to fit into the bottoms of pages that aspirin tablets were kept close at hand.

Now computers do all the math and all the measuring, and let me move words or whole paragraphs around at will.  Something Mr. Shakespeare’s quill pen didn’t allow for. I’ll bet he would have loved word processors.

I know I do. But I like having that heavy old typewriter close by.  Sometimes when I look at it I can almost hear the ghost of a typing class tapping away down the hall.

And that, in its own strange way, is a comfort.

 

Considering Woody Allen

 

woody allen

I first read Woody Allen’s collections of humorous essays and magazine pieces – Without Feathers, Side Effects, and Getting Even – forty or so years ago and found much to like there.  Some of his screenplays are classics of American cinema, especially Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters, Manhattan, and Blue Jasmine, his reshaping of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  Those stories are filled with engaging situations, zinging dialogue, interesting characters, and nicely paced slices of life usually set in New York City and focusing on at least one insecure, neurotic soul (like Allen himself).

His infamous affair with and subsequent marriage to his stepdaughter aside – and being a stepfather myself it’s awfully difficult to put it aside – Woody Allen is by every measure a gifted writer.

Which begs a question.

When evaluating the work of an artist – author, actor, musician, visual artist, etc. – should we judge the work wholly on its merit as art or on the politics, misdeeds, or lifestyle of the artist?

A case in point: I know more than a few people who refuse to watch movies with actors in them that stand for things they don’t stand for or do things they disapprove of.

I confess to being guilty myself at least once.  Whichever film of Woody Allen’s came out right after the big stepdaughter story I chose not to see it. I’m sure the absence of my ticket price didn’t set Mr. Allen’s accountants into a frenzy, but it was my choice to make and I made it.

I’ve liked some of his films since then and didn’t care for others.  But I’ve tried to judge them on their plots, the actor’s performances, and the script.   In fact, Karen and I saw his newest, Café Society, just yesterday and liked it very much.  I never once thought of Mr. Allen’s life and deeds, but only of the situations he put his characters through.

I guess this is where I stand on the issue.  When I read Robert Frost’s poems “The Pasture” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” I can completely put aside the fact that the poet was a cantankerous, crusty, rude old curmudgeon that nobody could get along with and just let his soft, grandfatherly poetic voice invite me in and provide me with a few moments of peace and beauty.

Any thoughts on this?

 

Showing, telling, and slipping things in

Every year when it comes time for the high school seniors in my classes to compose college entrance and scholarship application essays I encourage them to show more than they tell.  Which is a fine rule to follow when writing anything other than pure reportage.

I tell them that instead of saying outright “I am the president of the student council” it will come off as much more subtle, not to mention humble, if they try this:  “As president of the student council I’ve learned to consider things from several perspectives and to deal with matters that affect more than just me.”

In the second statement the student cleverly conveys that she has learned from experience to be tolerant and less self-centered.  But she stealthily slipped in what she really wanted her reader to know … that she was the president of the student council.

Lest you think that I encourage my students to practice trickery let me remind you that good writing constantly requires clever manipulation.  And such slipping in of things that you want the reader to “get” without slapping them in the face with them is usually the best way to go.

Here’s a good example.  In Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen’s account of living in Kenya in her youth, she recalls the death of a very close friend there many years before.  Now old and near the end of her life she wants her readers to know that she believes in the existence of an afterlife and that she will see her friend again soon.  But she was a good enough writer, an excellent one in fact, to know that simply stating those two beliefs would fall short of conveying their importance.

Near the end she, having never returned to Africa, reads from a letter she received from someone there who tells of a strange occurrence at the grave of her friend:

“The Masai have reported to the district commissioner at Ngong, that many times, at sunrise and sunset, they have seen lions on his grave. A lion and a lioness have come there, and stood or lain on the grave for a long time. After you went away, the ground around the grave was leveled out into a sort of terrace. I suppose that the level place makes a good site for the lions. From there, they have a view over the plain, and the cattle and the game on it.”

“Denys will like that,” Miss Dinesen says, remembering their long-ago relationship. “I must remember to tell him.”

What a perfect way for her to show what she could have more easily, but much less effectively, told.