The writes of Spring

Sunny Day Landscape_preview

When the middle of April rolls around, as it insists on doing every year, two things nag at me. You’ve likely already guessed that the first one has to do with the Internal Revenue Service. But the second is an annual remembrance of a much more pleasurable experience.
Shortly after my first book came out in 1998 a fellow unknown to me telephoned, identified himself as Gilbert Benton, and asked me to be one of four presenters at his annual writing conference at Alvin College. Gilbert was an English professor at that fine institution for several centuries – maybe not that long – before retiring several years ago. And for over three decades he hosted a dandy conference for folks who were interested in polishing their creative writing skills.
I went, and I enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I was one of the quartet of speakers for the next dozen or so years. Gilbert, a baseball fan and softball coach, always called me his clean-up hitter, since I was perennial last act on the program. In my most egotistical moments I like to think that was because he saved the best for last, but in reality Gilbert probably figured if anybody got so fed up that they walked out during my spiel it would be okay, since the proceedings were drawing to a close anyway.
The trip to Alvin for that get-together every spring became a fixed point on my annual calendar, and I always looked forward to that day. I took a meandering route, past lazy cattle in big pastures and over the tall bridge at Chocolate Bayou, then I’d wander up another couple of roads past rice fields. That drive and that workshop were downright therapeutic for me, and being a public school teacher I always needed a good dose of therapy by the ides of April.
But Gilbert got in touch a few years ago to tell me the workshop had finally left the building. And I can tell you that I miss that annual get-together. I started missing it when I read his email.
The participants there weren’t the sort that often pops up at bigger conferences: Stephen King wannabes who demand to be given a short cut to getting published, rich, and famous overnight. Or they want my agent’s phone number. I’ve long made it a rule to never give that number out, since I like my agent and intend to keep him (agents like to initiate the courtship; not the other way around). And I know absolutely nothing about how to get rich or famous, overnight or long term.
The people who came to Gilbert’s event just wanted some instruction on how to be better wordsmiths. They wanted encouragement, and a few hints on how to best tell their story, be it something they might send off for a publisher to consider, or a family history that they’ll only print for their descendants.
I’m sure Gilbert’s workshop was never a money maker. I’m just as sure it was never his intention, or the college’s, for it to be one. The price of registration was ten bucks, I think, and students of the college got in free. Every year some of the kids in my high school creative writing classes went, and they got in free as well. Senior citizens might have gotten in free. I’m not sure; I wasn’t one when I started going over there. The other presenters and I always got paid, and our lunch was provided – pizza or subs, chips and sodas – not to mention doughnuts and coffee when we arrived.
So I’m betting the college never made a dime off that conference; probably it operated in the red. But I figure that didn’t matter any to Gilbert, or to the college either. What they provided was a forum for people who wanted to locate, hone, and put to use their creative voice by associating with other people with the same agenda and with some published authors.
They wanted the workshop to be a useful outreach to the community. Because that’s part of what they figured a community college should be about.
Anyway, I should have been in Alvin a few weeks ago. And I’m sorry I wasn’t. I’m sure the regular attendees of that fine little meeting don’t miss more of my rattling on about writing.
But I miss them. And I wish them well with their wordsmithing.
But I still wouldn’t give them my agent’s number.





We talk too much.

Did you know that?  It is a common trait among most people that, given the opportunity, we’ll just ramble on and on, as if we have to take a running start at whatever it is we want to communicate and can’t just come directly to the point.  And then, when that point has been made, we too often keep on going when we should have stopped.

And – guess what – that trait bleeds over into our writing. Consequently, the first chore I have to undertake with many beginning writing students is not unlike an exorcism.  I have to cast out all the sentences and paragraphs and sometimes whole pages of unneeded material in their writing before actually getting to what really needs to be there. It’s not uncommon to finally locate the perfect first sentence of a story or essay after a page or two of pure beating around the bush.

It’s kind of like attacking that kitchen drawer that everyone has.  You know the one; the one where things end up, finally becoming so full that it’s hard to get it open.  If you would take the time to take all that stuff out and look at it, you will probably discover that much of it – maybe most of it – can either be stored in a more logical place or tossed out completely.  Face it: that Perry Como 8-track tape is useless now; so is that wad of S&H Green Stamps.

Stephen King – the enormously successful spinner of macabre yarns – relates this story in his dandy memoir titled On Writing.  Back when he was a high school student up in Maine, he asked the editor of his hometown newspaper to hire him as a part time reporter, so the old man gave him a topic to research and told him to come up with a story. The next day young Stephen handed him several pages of typed, single-spaced text which the editor read carefully before taking out a red pencil and marking through what amounted to more than half of it.

Young Stephen looked at what was left and was amazed that what the old man had left was exactly what he had intended to say.  Then the editor taught him a rule that he has never forgotten (and, thanks to him, neither have I): “when you write, you tell yourself a story, and when you rewrite, you take out everything that is NOT the story.”

There’s great truth in that; it’s a useful light to steer by when writing.  Or talking.

I’ll bet you know at least one person – probably several more than that – who couldn’t effectively tell a joke if their life depended on it.  And the problem usually is that they drag it out to the point of agony.  They hem and haw and pause and put in way too many useless details before finally reaching the punch line.  I’ve listened to jokes told badly enough that when they finally did draw to their merciful endings I probably gave audible sighs of relief.

And, be truthful now, you know at least one person who you go out of your way to avoid because you know you’re in for the long haul when they get going in a one-sided conversation.

Much of effective communication is a process of decluttering. It was Flannery O’Conner – the great short story writer and raiser of peacocks – that said good writing is very seldom a matter of saying things, but is almost always a matter of not saying things.

“Not saying things” is just often another way of saying “not cluttering.”

Here’s an example.  Consider this pair of sentences:  Bill cheated on his wife constantly.  He wasn’t a good husband.

The first sentence shows us what the second one tells us.  So the second sentence is clutter, and has to go.  Showing trumps telling every time.

If you intend to be a writer of things that people might actually read it would be a good idea to keep this question constantly in mind (or physically posted on the wall over your computer):  “What, exactly, am I trying to say?”

It would be well for longwinded senders of confusing memos, endless chatterers on telephones, and tellers of jokes that wander snaillike toward some hopeful conclusion to consider it also.




The creme de la creme of bookshops

Image result for shakespeare and company illustration

There are bookstores and bookstores and bookstores.

Then there is THE bookstore.

Shakespeare and Company, located at 37 rue de la Bucherie in Paris (France, not Texas), faces the River Seine and looks out on the majestic flying buttresses of Notre Dame cathedral.    I’m betting you’ve seen it, even if you’ve never been to Paris.  Its unique façade has popped up in many a movie, including Midnight in Paris, Julie and Julia, and Before Sunset.

The rooms are small and crammed full with volumes old and new, not only on the many shelves but in piles on the floor.  A steep staircase leads up to more little rooms full of reading treasures, and the steps themselves have even more books at their edges. Back when I was there the old man who owned the place made change out of an old cigar box.  And there were several sleeping cats among the inventory.

That fine establishment offers an eclectic variety of good reads, but it’s particularly famous for its history.  The present store is the reincarnation of one that was opened in 1919 on the left bank and was a favorite meeting place for a group of young writers and artists who gravitated to Paris when the smoke cleared from the horror of the First World War.

It’s always been a hub for any English-speaking folks living in that city; most of the books in its sprawling inventory are in English.  People meet there to peruse the titles, to stand outside and chat, and just to stay in touch as strangers in a strange land.  When I used to visit there,  thirty something years ago, they left messages for each other on a small chalkboard mounted on the outside wall beside the window.  “Need female flat mate, no funny business” was printed on it one time, with a phone number.  Another time it was “Jeremy, made too much lamb stew.  Come at six.  Lisa.”   Directly under it was “In desperate need of lamb stew.  Please advise.  Greg.”

Whenever I send people in the direction of that magical shop – and I encourage anyone with Paris on their travel agenda to go there – I suggest they purchase a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and get it stamped with the shop’s logo, a bust of Shakespeare inside a circle of words: “Shakespeare & Company – Kilometer Zero, Paris”.   In that memoir of his time in Paris Hemingway devotes an entire chapter to that bookshop.  He was very young, very unpublished, and very poor, with a wife and son to feed, so he couldn’t afford books.  And a writer without books is a miserable creature indeed.  He went every day, reading standing up or sitting on the stairs, and the owner finally took pity on him and started loaning him volumes to take to sidewalk cafes or to his flat.

In the original shop Hemingway spent time with F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, poets T. S. Eliot and John Dos Passos, composer Cole Porter, painter Pablo Picasso, and other members of what Gerturde Stein famously dubbed the “Lost Generation”.  All of them were, of course, destined to make enormous splashes in the world.

Maybe the biggest reason that I see Shakespeare and Company as the zenith of bookstores is the fact that it’s so far away that I can’t actually visit it often.  In fact, the very real possibility exists that I never will again.  Absence, you might have heard, makes the heart grow fonder.

But I know the little store is still there, brimming with books crammed into shelves, stacked on the floor, and spilling down those steep stairs.  That chalkboard might have been taken down, now that everybody texts and emails to keep in touch. But I hope it’s still there too, filled with interesting messages. I almost took chalk in hand, on my last visit, to write “Ernest, please send secret of your genius, Ron.”  But it was a small board, and I didn’t want to take up space from someone in need of lamb stew.

If you want to read more about Shakespeare and Company and the Lost Generation I recommend, in addition to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, author Morley Callaghan’s memoir That Summer in Paris and Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojurn at Shakespeare & Co by Jeremy Mercer.

And, of course, if you’re fortunate enough to actually visit Paris, you should go the store, browse through the stacks of books, look out at the river, and let me know if the little chalkboard is still in place.

Here’s my magic table; who would sit at yours?

meeting of minds

Steve Allen, who some of you may remember as the original host of the Tonight Show and others won’t remember at all, used to host a show on PBS called “Meeting of Minds”.  I loved it.  Every week four or five actors and actresses portraying famous folks from the past would sit down at a table with Mr. Allen and have a conversation.

One week there might be, say, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, Genghis Khan, Michelangelo, and Harriet Tubman. The next week a whole new group would show up, maybe Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglas, Mozart, Poncho Villa, Picasso, and Eva Peron.

Now, I can’t imagine what Emily Dickinson and Genghis Khan would possibly find to talk about, but Steve Allen could.  Being the genius that he was, he wrote the script, served as moderator, composed the theme song, and produced and directed the show.  He probably swept out the studio when everybody left.

Those discussions were inspired and witty and razor sharp.  I learned a heck of a lot of history, and liked it best when diametrically opposed people – like Gandhi and Napoleon – would first argue and then grope for some little piece of common ground.  If there was an overall theme to that show, it had to be that when we, as a worldwide hodgepodge of cultures and beliefs, quit looking for common ground we might as well close up shop.

“Meeting of Minds” didn’t run long, probably a season or two in the late 70’s.  It was billed as the “ultimate talk show”, but it lacked the sex, violence, and action that most viewers wanted.  Any title with the word “mind” in it will likely send a large percentage of the television audience in search of another channel.

I’ve long imagined my own Meeting of Minds scenario, not with actors but with real people brought back to life.  You can play, too. But you have to follow the rules.

Choose six people, from any era, who you would like to sit down and have a conversation with. They can’t be people you actually know, or have known.  You can never have met them, even when you were a small child. You can choose a family member, but not one you’ve ever actually laid eyes on.  They had to be out of the picture before you were in it.

Here, after much deliberation – years, in fact – are who I would invite to my magic table. I won’t serve coffee since two of my guests won’t know what it is, and that might make for an awkward moment.

Two of my favorite writers of fiction – Flannery O’Conner and W. Somerset Maugham – will be there; if I’m going to do this, why not get some useful information on how they crafted such perfect stories?  Plato will sit between them, because a little philosophy never hurt a gathering, so why not invite the guy who pretty much invented it?  Sam Houston will sit right beside me.  I just spent three years researching and writing about him so I feel like we’re already buddies.  12 century martyr St. Thomas Beckett, a faith hero of mine, will have to make the longest journey time wise, nearly a millennia.  Rounding out the group will be my paternal grandmother, who died a decade before I was born.  By all accounts, she was a pistol: a teller of tall tales, practical joker, and a big laugher.  Who knows?  This group might need a little joviality.

Steve Allen, who started all of this, might have made my short list.  But I actually met him once, for just a couple of minutes. So choosing him would be a violation of my own rules.  We were both guests at a talk radio station in Houston not long before he passed away, and I only had time, during the commercial break as he was being hustled out of the booth and me in, to shake his hand and thank him for “Meeting of Minds.” He looked a little confused as he was led out by his handler to another radio station; I’m sure most compliments that came his way were for his stint on “Tonight” and or for the many songs and books he wrote.

But “Meeting of Minds” was his masterpiece, in my opinion.  And I wanted him to know that.

So, who will be on your list?  Narrowing it down will most probably prove a harder task than you think. Flannery O’Conner once said anything worth doing well is difficult.

At least I think she said that.  I’ll ask her.

[ Most of this first appeared as a newspaper article some years ago, but I made a few changes in the lineup this time around ]

Good stories often travel by train

Book Illustration Depicting Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in a Train Cabin

            Every now and again I sit at a railroad crossing for what seems like an hour – and is probably more like four or five minutes – as an almost unbelievably long freight train lumbers slowly by in front of my car.

            Sometimes when that happens I tap the steering wheel and fume about the delay.  But one morning I wasn’t in any hurry so I turned off the car’s engine and watched the old fellow squeak and rattle along, slowly building up momentum for its journey.

            A snippet of poetry popped up into my mind, which isn’t an uncommon occurrence. This time it was a couple of lines about a train courtesy of Emily Dickinson: “I like to see it lap the miles, and lick the valleys up.”

When I was a kid up in Oakwood I used to lay awake in my bed and look out the window every night as a passenger train, the Eagle, rumbled by in the darkness.  Some of the lights in the private compartments would be on, and one car – probably the bar car – would be brightly lit.  Highway 79 and a wide pasture separated my bedroom window and the tracks, but I could see it plain as it made its nightly appearance, like an old friend waving as it passed.

            Since then I’ve worked trains into my books once or twice, not nearly as effectively as Agatha Christie did, making a breathing, steam-belching major character in her Murder on the Orient Express. And my advice to writers wanting to clearly establish a bygone era and locale is to run a train through it, because not many things are as nostalgic or romantic.

I remember when I was maybe eight or nine first making the acquaintance of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who often traveled by train with Dr. Watson.  Sometimes Sherlock would smoke his big pipe as the wheels sang their way over the tracks.  He’d puff away as he mulled over whatever case he was investigating, all the while watching the sheep-dotted green landscape of rural England go by.  And I’d stop reading and imagine how fine that must be.

            You see, I fell in love with trains before I ever rode one.

            Then my parents surprised my sister and me with a railway trip to Austin.  Oakwood still had a depot then, a pretty little building with a steeply-slanted roof that you would expect a depot to look like.  But it was no longer used, and trains just clanged past it. So we boarded in Palestine, some twenty miles to the north.

When we came back through Oakwood I waved at our house across the pasture and the highway.

We spent most of that trip looking out the windows at farms and towns and woods, and we ate in the dining car just like Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye did in White Christmas.  In Austin we took a cab or a bus  (probably a bus; my father was, um … thrifty)  to the state capitol building for a visit, then got on the Eagle and came home.

            The last part of that return journey was in darkness, and when we flew through Oakwood it was too dark for me to see our house.  But I knew that my window was over there somewhere, and my bed.  And I wondered if other children had watched the Eagle, with me aboard, as she’d lapped the miles and licked the valleys up.

            I’ve ridden a good many trains since then.   I’ve been rocked to sleep by their gentle swaying, have laid newspapers and novels aside to watch scenery float by, have chugged, with my wife Karen and our children, to the top of Pike’s Peak and back down again, and even took a turn around the Houston Zoo in a train so small that I was sore for the rest of the day.

And I have a vivid memory of one train journey from London to Dover, where I boarded a ferry to cross the English Channel and then, at Pas de Calais, climbed on another train bound for Paris.  Outside the big window northern France was all yellow mustard fields and quaint villages bathed in golden sunlight, till finally the grand old lady presented herself, her Eiffel Tower ablaze with light in the early evening.

            But I’ve never had a train trip that equaled that first one, when I waved at my house.  Both that house and the train called the Eagle are long gone now.

            Except when I close my eyes and think of them, like I did recently when that old chugger kept me waiting at the crossing.