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The pen is mightier than the sword, and easier to use

 

pens

 

Let’s start  with a trivia question.

In the movie “Casablanca,” how does Humphrey Bogart make his entrance? And extra points for what he is specifically doing. The answer will be provided in due course.

Today’s title came from comedian Marty Feldman by the way, but no points for knowing that. It should, however, have provided a strong clue about our topic: the tools we use to write things down.

I rarely read anything without a sharp pencil in hand. Because I am a confirmed and constant underliner and margin scribbler. Those scribbles, in an admittedly horrible handwriting that usually only I can make any sense of, might be the title of a poem or a novel that a passage reminds me of, or maybe a memo to myself to look something up. Sometimes a well-turned phrase makes me envious, so I underline it and make myself a note in the margin to use it in my own writing.

Consequently the books on my shelves are filled with messy marginalia. Not so much because I might actually go back through them and do the things I told myself to, but more because putting my own pencil to those writers’ words somehow brings me closer to whatever truth or beauty they’ve expressed there.

There’s something about holding a pen or a pencil that provides a degree of comfort and, I think, security. I’ve watched many a student about to take a big life-altering test — like a college entrance exam — lay out their sharp #2s precisely, like surgical instruments.

Holding a pen or a pencil makes us feel smarter, I guess, and more capable of the task at hand. Sort of like holding a hammer makes us feel more like a real carpenter.

Pens can do the same thing.

I used to have an old-fashioned fountain pen, a pricey model with a bladder that had to be filled up from a little bottle of ink. I bought it to celebrate the publication of my first book, justifying the extravagance by figuring that if I was going to be a real writer I needed a real fountain pen. After all, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen would hardly have been expected to scratch out their stories with second rate quills, now would they?

Not too long after I got it I dropped the pen and broke the nib. So I ordered another one, which cost nearly as much as the pen itself, and promptly dropped it again and broke the second one. At which time I determined that the gods of writing seemed to be in agreement that I was no Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. So I put the broken pen in a drawer and have since made do with ball points and felt tips. And pencils. Nothing nudges me toward creativity like the sight and feel of a freshly sharpened pencil.

Notice, next time you watch a panel of political pundits on television on Sunday morning or a panel of pigskin pundits before the football games on Sunday afternoon, that most of the panelists are holding pens while they pontificate. They never actually use them, but I’ll bet if those pens were taken away those knowledgeable folks would come off as less knowledgeable. Because holding a pen or pencil doesn’t just help us write. It helps us think.

Now for the answer to the trivia question. The first we see of Mr. Bogart in “Casablanca” is his hand, emerging from the cuffs of a white dinner jacket, putting a cigarette in an ashtray and taking up a pencil to sign a voucher that has been handed to him by an employee in his nightclub. He scrawls “O.K. — Rick” on the paper. Then the camera lifts slowly up to give us the sad-faced Bogie, ready to take on Nazis, old lovers and various other foes.

I’ve always thought it fitting that one of the best movies ever made should begin with the leading character lifting up a writing instrument. After all, every good story more than likely began with someone taking out a pen or pencil and scribbling down a lonely idea, or maybe a fragment or two of description or dialogue.

I think I remember reading that Dickens jotted down “best of times — worst of times” on the back of a menu. Maybe not.

I’ll have to think about it. Let me grab a pencil.

A lonely, lofty perspective

lighthouse

 

We come now to the subject of lighthouses.

Of course we aren’t exactly inundated with them where I live, on the Texas gulf coast.  The closest one to yours truly, over on Bolívar Point, has been privately owned for decades and isn’t open to the public.

As a member of said public, I want to go on record as saying I wish that it was.

That coal black, kerosene-powered beauty illuminated the entrance to the port of Galveston from 1872 until 1933, when it was determined that lights installed on the ends of the jetties provided the same service, and more economically.  Since then it’s sat unused, a constant reminder of a past era.  And I’d like to be able to visit it up close and personal.

I’ve always been infatuated with lighthouses.  And the room I am sitting in as I write this – the former bedroom of a daughter who grew up and moved away – that is now my office is proof.  If there is anything close to a specific theme among all these books, maps, mementos, mugs stuffed with pencils and pens, journals, and stacks of old manuscripts it is a lighthouse motif.  There are framed prints of lighthouses and ceramic miniatures of lighthouses and coffee mugs displaying pictures of … well, you get the idea.  One of my most cherished possessions was a thoughtful gift from a good friend: a framed drawing of the Brazos River lighthouse that was dismantled years ago, with a piece of the lens from the light matted beneath the print.

It would be nice now if I could tell you that my interest in those lonely sentinels comes from visiting a good many of them, climbing up into them, and standing long on their parapets and gazing out at to sea.  But the honest fact is that I have never set foot in a lighthouse or even, I’m pretty sure, stood in close proximity to one.

Part of the romantic notion I have must comes from old movies.  You know the ones, with crusty light tenders played by actors like Guy Kibbee and Lionel Barrymore, old salts smoking stubby briar pipes and outfitted in heavy, tattered parkas and short-visored captain’s caps.  They snarl and roar a good bit, matching their mood to the sea, and usually display a heart of gold to some waif that’s been left in their care.  In the process, they offer direction in the kid’s life, stretching out the lighthouse metaphor about as far as it will go.

And many a novel I’ve read has fueled this odd enthrallment.  The lonely tower on the edge of terra firma with the vast eternal briny deep stretched out to the far horizon has provided authors with perfect settings for their tales for centuries.  One recent offering I especially enjoyed was The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Steadman, and one I read in college by Virginia Woolf was titled, appropriately enough, To the Lighthouse. There were  many more good yarns in between; one of the best was Ray Bradbury’s fine short story “The Fog Horn”, which was set in a lighthouse.

And part of my fascination comes from wondering what it must be like to live completely removed from towns and society and have just one responsibility: to keep the light burning so ships’ captains can navigate by it.  The rest of the time, the way I’ve conjured it, would be spent reading books by the fireplace – the perfect lighthouse in my imagination has a big fireplace in the keeper’s cottage – or standing on a nearby windswept cliff looking at the ocean and pondering the meaning of life.

Realistically, a day and a half of such a routine would just about do me.  Beyond that, I’d get awfully bored and have to go off in search of those towns and that society I wanted to distance myself from.

Still, there’s something soul-stirring about those tall, handsome monuments to the past that once sent their illumination crawling out over the waves to bring vessels safely home. Almost all of them have stood dark for decades, having long outlived the people who kept their lights burning.

Maybe it was the symbolism offered by lighthouses that lured me into my paying such close attention to them.  Because they are, at their most functional level – purely useful.  And, given this frantic, oftentimes mean world we inhabit, what is more appealing, really, than something useful?  Something like a light in the darkness that can bring us safely through.

I’ll go on loving lighthouses.  I might even follow through on an old goal and write a story or novel set in one.  But if I do it would probably be a good idea to actually pay a visit to one, don’t your think?  I just hope it will have an elevator.

 

[Parts of this lighthouse piece first cast its beam in a Sunday morning newspaper column sometime in the dark past.]

Some real estate I’d rather put off using

Grave

A piece in the paper caught my attention a while ago, having to do with cemeteries and the sad though necessary business that is conducted there.

USA Today, a publication I usually only read in motels or hotels that provide free copies with the breakfast buffet, had a story about people putting their cemetery lots up for sale because that particular brand of property is fetching more than it did when they bought them.

The couple in the story – Clinton and Janet Lemons of Titusville, Florida – purchased their adjoining plots in 1978 for $1,500 and have set an asking price of $4.000 for the pair.  Which is still, according to Baron Chu, a secondary seller of plots, well below the national average of $3,500 per single plot.

The article didn’t mention what Mr. and Mrs. Lemon have as a backup plan for when and if they sell their plots.  They say their price might be negotiable.  Maybe they’ll snap up a couple of cheaper places on eBay or amazon.com, which will surely add graves to its enormous inventory at some point.

I had never heard of reselling eternal resting places until I read that piece. Neither had I run across that unique job description – secondary seller of plots – before I picked up that copy of USA Today along with a Best Western bran muffin.

I don’t own a cemetery plot myself, though I suppose I should look into getting a couple for me and the Mrs.  I guess I figure that putting off that little shopping trip will somehow prolong the need for them.  Talk about your wishful thinking.

Actually, I had a plot at one time.  Back in the early 1980’s, when I hadn’t yet located my wife Karen, I arranged for a burial plot next to my parents’ graves up in a beautiful little rural burying ground called Shiloh, just outside Alto, in Cherokee County.  You didn’t actually fill out paperwork and put down money there; you staked out your place and informed the chairman of the cemetery association.  Then you were expected to make a monetary contribution to the general upkeep fund.

Maybe I didn’t make enough of a contribution, or maybe our communications got crossed up.  I don’t know.  But I do know this: the next time I drove up there to visit my mother’s grave – my father wasn’t in his yet – there was a fresh mound of dirt, a headstone, and some withered flower arrangements on what I thought was my plot.

I felt like one of the three bears when he discovered that someone was sleeping in his bed.

So, now that I don’t have an earthly spot reserved for my eternal slumber, I’d best quit putting it off and get myself a reservation.  But first off, I need to decide on burial or cremation. I have a sufficiently strong religious faith to be hopeful about the hereafter, but I also know I have a responsibility regarding this physical body I’ll be vacating.

Burial means a grave that will have to be tended and visited occasionally by family members.  It also means taking up space that can be used for better things and a pretty big outlay of cash for a place that will just be sitting dormant.

If I had a shot at a really good location, I might think about being buried.  But considering I only made Private (First Class!) in the army it’s a cinch that Arlington National Cemetery won’t be sending an invitation. And given the recent scandal involving the fired superintendent of that cemetery and how he and his staff managed to mismark over six thousand graves, it’s just as well. If I’m going to be under a headstone, I’d like for it to have my name on it.

Even though I’ve written a few books having to do with Texas history, I would be foolish to bet on the venerable state cemetery in Austin marking off a spot.

I might consider the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abby.  But I seriously doubt my scribbling will qualify me to rest in the company of Chaucer and Dickens. Besides, they bury lots of those writers standing up in the Abby, to leave room for future generations of dead authors.  If I’m going to be buried, I’d just as soon be reclining.  Call me lazy.

Anyway, I’ve got some decisions to make before I leave for what Mr. Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country.”

If I go with burial, I guess I can call the Lemons, over there in Titusville.  But this time I’ll require a signed deed, to keep my bed empty till I need it.

When a story is more than just a story

fort ord

Forty-five years ago today I raised my hand with a roomful of other young fellows in Dallas and recited an oath that delivered us into the United States Army.  Later that afternoon I settled into the first airliner seat I’d ever been in and clutched a paperback novel I’d just bought in the airport gift shop.  It was The Godfather, by Mario Puzo, which had been published a few years before and had just been made into a film that was destined to be widely considered one of the best two or three movies of all time.

Of course, I didn’t know how good the film was then, since I hadn’t seen it yet.

Truth be told, I didn’t know much, period.  I had just turned 20, had taken an unproductive first stab at college, and had been working as a clerk at a Gibson’s Discount Center in the automotive department, an assignment for which I was totally unqualified. Finally, Uncle Sam took notice of my less than spectacular accomplishments thus far and sent along my draft notice.

Jump forward to the fact that my stint in the service would turn me around completely, send me back to college (literally, via the GI Bill) and set me on a much more responsible path.  But the nervous young guy, unable to see the future, holding that book during that long-ago airplane ride faced a challenging and daunting reality at the end of it: basic training.

When the plane landed in San Francisco a bunch of us recruits were herded into an olive drab (a color we would get used to) army bus and driven down to Fort Ord, given bowls of lukewarm soup by a disgruntled private in the late night, and taken to an old Beetle Bailey type barracks.  When everybody else stretched out on narrow metal bunks (we’d get used to those, too) I found the only lighted room in the two-story wooden building, the latrine. Where I read the first chapter or two of The Godfather before turning in and getting a few hours’ sleep until a fireplug of a drill sergeant, in the wee hours of the next morning, charged into the big room bellowing out a blood-curdling promise that our lives would be a living hell for the next eight weeks.

It turned out he generally delivered on that vow, particularly, I recall, when prodding us through double-time marches in combat boots and full gear through the surging, cold (even in August), knee-high surf of the Pacific.

But what kept those weeks from being a total hell for me was, believe it or not, that paperback novel.  In the precious few minutes of reading time I could fit in every day between physical training, classroom instruction, late night inspections, early morning inspections, long marches to firing ranges, and literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of pushups I managed to get The Godfather read before graduation.

Then, when I was sent across Fort Ord to my specialized training school – it was determined I would be a 71B10, a clerk-typist (surely not a title used now; I suspect no typewriters survive in the modern military) – I had more time on my hands to read and make my way through something like two books from the base library a week until I completed the course and went home for Christmas leave.

Here’s the point of this little saga, not uncommon to countless folks of that generation:  Those books provided, for me, much more than entertainment.  They offered other worlds to go to when I needed to distance myself from the one I was actually in.

Years later, when I became a writer and a teacher of people who wanted to be one, I reminded my students that we can only tell stories, hopefully to the best of our abilities to relate them. We can’t know what an individual reader needs that story to be in his or her current and unique situation. But if it’s a good yarn, well-structured and well-told, it might just serve a purpose we can never envision.

A paperback novel I bought forty-five years ago today in an airport gift shop served as proof positive, for me, that a book, story, play, poem, or even a song can sometimes work a kind of magic that goes beyond mere enjoyment or enlightenment. It can be therapy. It can be a temporary escape pod.

I reread The Godfather a few years ago and discovered that it wasn’t particularly well-written, certainly inferior to the screen adaption and even other books by its author.  But that’s okay.  It was exactly what I needed it to be at the time.

Happy anniversary, young Ronnie Rozelle from Oakwood in your lonely airplane seat back on August 2nd 1972.  You’ll survive boot camp.  That book you’re holding will be a big part of the reason.

There was a crooked king who had a crooked back

 

Richard

Well, you might have heard on the news or read in the paper a few years ago that they’ve found King Richard the Third.

I don’t know about you, but I was getting awfully worried.  After all, he’d been missing for over 500 years.  And they hadn’t even put out an Amber alert.

It turns out he’d been in the parking lot of a grocery store in Leicester, a small city in the English midlands, all this time.  Or actually under the parking lot, which was the site of a monastery when he was buried there.

DNA evidence and carbon dating apparently established the remains as almost certainly those of Richard, the cause of death likely a “large skull fracture behind the left ear that was consistent with a crushing blow from a halberd.”  A halberd, according to Webster, was a battle ax or pike mounted on a shaft about six feet long.  That would have done it, I’d think.  The spine of the skeleton is significantly crooked, which accounts for his trademark posture.

The freshly unearthed sovereign might not have been the worst monarch in British history – that dubious honor might have to go to King John, the despicable ruler who is best remembered from the Robin Hood tales and was so abysmally inept that no other king in the 800 years since has taken his name – but Richard has to win the prize for the meanest.

At least tradition and legend have made him that.  And the greatest literary voice in England, and arguably in the world, was largely responsible for it.

Leicester, where Richard has recently turned up in that parking lot, is just up the road from Stratford on Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare, who had yet to be born when King Richard died.  But Shakespeare would go on to write the play that would forever saddle the hunchbacked monarch with his vile reputation and revolting legacy.

In Richard III Shakespeare paints the portrait of a dastardly fellow who murdered his two nephews, princes aged about 10 and 13, by walling them up, still alive, in a castle in order to assume the throne.  He doesn’t pull any punches in his portrayal; his Richard is a real piece of work as a villain: scheming, scowling, snidely snickering. For half a millennium, famous actors (Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen in two of the best film adaptations) have pulled on heavy shoulder pads to affect the awkwardly jutting right hump and limped along, snarling out some of the poet’s best lines.

“Now is the winter of our discontent,” the grotesque cripple moans in the opening scene, “made glorious summer by this sun of York, and all the clouds that loured (loomed dark and threatening) upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”

He goes on like that for five long acts, spitting out vile snippets and long speeches full of venom and cold calculation.  He even alludes to his own physical ugliness, lamenting that “dogs bark when I halt by them.”  And at the end, on the field of battle, he shakes his gnarled hand and, in a desperate clutching at straws to survive the day, shouts out what would become his epitaph:  “A horse!  A horse!  My kingdom for a horse!”

He didn’t get the horse.  He got the business end of that halberd instead during the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

Then he apparently got unceremoniously thrown into a hastily dug grave by some nervous monks in the monastery where his body was delivered after the battle.  The brothers wanted no association with the vile king so they covered his naked body up and kept their silence.  Being monks, they were probably very good at keeping their silence.

But rumors persisted.   The general site of the old monastery was always believed to be in a particular section of Leicester, and recent excavations hit the jackpot.

Richard was buried in royal splendor in a cathedral. And a group of historians hope the recent discovery can be what they’ve called “a springboard to a new age of scholarship” that might lead to a reappraisal of his life and legacy.

Just how they hope to do that with nothing more than a heap of 500 year old bones is beyond me.  But never underestimate the commitment of historical revisionists.  Before they’re through they might manage to dehobgoblinize the old rascal to such an extent that he could end up a saint.

Though there might be two little murdered princes tucked neatly away who would have likely had a thing or two to say about that.

 

The night the fat lady finally sang for me

jones hall

Let me tell you about a love affair, other than the much more important one with my wife, that I’ve been involved in for a long time.

And it began with a blind date.

When I was a young teacher I did a favor for a colleague, who offered to reciprocate with a nice dinner with her and her husband, followed by a “surprise.”

The dinner was a good steak and trimmings at The Stables, a Houston culinary landmark that is now gone.  Over dessert, coffee and a snifter of brandy I must have tried hard to not look disappointed when I was told the surprise: I was being treated to a night at the … opera.

My life, prior to that evening, had been completely opera-free. There is a remote possibility that I could have, on a dare, come up with two or three titles, and maybe one composer.  I admit to having been confident that I was in for a long and boring ordeal.

When what I was in for was, in fact, a revelation.

We saw “Faust”, one of the grandest of grand operas, with rousing choruses, sweeping melodies, moral dilemmas, and an imposing finale with nothing less than one character ascending to heaven and another descending to hell.   Now that’s something you don’t see every day.

I came out of Jones Hall, which was then the home of Houston Grand Opera, humming.  In the car, I wanted to know about the composer, the story, the singers, and everything else. My hosts were probably glad to be rid of me after our hour drive.

I was caught: hook, line, and sinker.  And, like many fresh converts to anything new and fascinating, I dove in head first.  Within weeks I had seen another production in person, had subscribed to Opera News magazine, and was a faithful listener to the Saturday afternoon Texaco radio broadcasts of live performances from the Met in New York.

I was in an Astros group back then, which consisted of five of us who bought mini-season ticket packages and drove up to the Dome several times a month. On the way home one night I told the guys I’d have to miss the next game.  It was with the Cincinnati Reds, which was one of our favorite pairings because we loved to boo Pete Rose.  So the guys wanted to know what was up.

When I told them I had a ticket to “Rigaletto”, with a world-class baritone in the title role (maybe Sherrill Milnes; I can’t remember), they looked at me as if I had spoken in Swahili. And I was in for some ribbing after that.

But I didn’t care.  I was a bona fide opera fan, complete with strong binoculars rather than those little wimpy opera glasses.  And it was a good thing, given the nosebleed section seats which were the only ones I could afford.

As time went by, I discovered that I am a neophyte fan at best.  I don’t understand any foreign languages, don’t know an E minor from an F sharp, and much of opera is beyond me.  I fully understand that Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and “The Marriage of Figaro” are supposed to be two of the best compositions ever, but after the soaring overtures there is just too much harpsichord plucking for me. And Wagner’s Ring cycle is too thunderously loud and so full of mythic characters flying around that I can’t keep up with all of them.

My admittedly provincial tastes run to stories with pleasing melodies throughout, a triumphal march or two and a good bit of melodrama, usually resulting in a beautiful young girl (who might, depending on the performance, be played by a rotund and not so very young soprano) who almost certainly dies in the final scene.  In other words, I am an Italian, perhaps specifically a Sicilian, at heart when it comes to opera. Give me Puccini’s “Tosca”, “Turandot”, and “La Boheme”.  Or Verdi’s “La Traviata” and “Aida”.  Or Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”, which might just be my favorite.

I think I like opera – or the relatively few operas that I know anything about – because it combines several theatrical genres into one artistic vehicle. As someone once famously said: “If you end up in a performance of a Puccini opera where the acting and singing are bad and the sets are uninteresting, you can just close your eyes and let the music wash over you.”

And as a writer I appreciate how operatic composers bring into play a balanced variety of useful tools to tell a story: plot, melody, dialogue, staging, and the full sweep of human emotions, from lively festivity in the Christmas Eve Paris street cafe scene complete with a children’s’ chorus and a snowfall in the second act of “La Boheme” to the tender last moments of little Mimi, whose “little hands will never be cold again” two acts later.  If we writers can blend and employ our various tools and manipulations that successfully then we’ll have gone a long way toward telling the stories we want to tell.

The steak dinner I was given a long time ago was very nice indeed.  But that night at the opera was the first kiss, so to speak, of a love affair that has endured nicely.

[Part of this first appeared as a newspaper article many opera performances ago]

 

 

As days go, this is a special one

flag

Every year about this time a few lyrics of a song wander through my mind: “Firecrackers poppin’, lighting up the sky; hail to the flag, it’s the Fourth of July.”

It’s from an old record album I bought in the PX of the army base I was stationed at in Illesheim, Germany in 1973.  The composer and singer was Roger Miller, the King of the Road himself, and the title of the album was Dear Folks, Sorry I Haven’t Written Lately.

I still have that record, stored away in a trunk with a hundred or so others that I can finally listen to again since my good wife surprised me with a turntable a couple of Christmases ago. I truly missed those big platters of wax for a long time, and took them out on occasion just to look at their covers; I even missed the crackling sound that always came when the needle sank down into the grooves.  I’m of a generation that still refers to a place where CDs can be purchased as a “record store.”

That Roger Miller LP must have contained other good tunes, but the one that got caught in my brain and is still there was the short, simple ditty about Independence Day.

I guess that’s because it’s basically a simple holiday.  Coming, as it does, in the hottest part of the year, it’s given over pretty much to picnics and fireworks and outdoor concerts.  There’s no telling how many hot dogs and hamburgers get gobbled down on that day, washed down with considerable tonnage of soft drinks and beer.

Amid all that hoopla and food and drink a little patriotism works its way in, chiefly of the flag-waving variety.  Probably the closest we’ve come to a commemoration worthy of the event was in 1976, the Bicentennial, which – as those of you who remember it will probably agree – was one heck of a party.  What with church bells tolling, the Hudson River full of hundreds of tall ships, and the world’s great orchestras blaring out “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

That year we actually reflected, I think, on the handful of men who put their lives on the line one hot long-ago summer night in Philadelphia and transformed themselves into both traitors and patriots with the stoke of a pen.

Eleven years after that night the crafters of the Constitution emerged exhausted from the same building, having sufficiently corralled their strong wills – though not quite tightly enough, leaving the abolition of slavery out of their factoring – into a single document that would become the new nation’s bedrock and backbone. That night, somebody called out to Benjamin Franklin, asking him “Well, Doctor, what did we get – a Republic or a Monarchy?”  The old man – weary, weak, and deciding whether sleep or a drink should come first – responded with seven words which found their way into history: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

We’ve somehow managed, amid wars and tragedies and political bickering, to keep it.

I’ve never been to Independence Hall.  The only time I was ever in Philadelphia was when I was nineteen and flew in there on my way to Fort Dix, New Jersey where I would be shipped out to Germany, where I bought that Roger Miller record that I can finally listen to again.

But I intend to go to that building; it’s on my agenda.  I want to stand in the very room that is, by any measure, the birthplace of the United States. Because, like most folks, I tend to take what happened there in 1776 and 1787 for granted, and lose the pure glory and bravery of it in my everyday life.

That little snippet of a song is on my mind, making its annual visit.  “Firecrackers poppin’, lighting up the sky; hail to the flag, it’s the Fourth of July.” And it’s fitting, I think, that it’s such a simple little bit of wordsmithing.

Because there’s not really anything so very complicated about loving your country and celebrating its founding.

And there shouldn’t be.

 

(This was first a newspaper column sometime or another, then part of a collection of some of those musings published by TCU Press )

Take me home, country road

country drive

There are roads, and there are roads.  And then there is THE road.

It’s a different road for every traveler, of course. At least for those who are able to appreciate the journey as much as the destination.

I used to think my own favorite road should be one that would impress other people, a famous thoroughfare like the Pacific Coast Highway, with the cliffs of Big Sur looming over all those barking seals in the surf, or the trek up to Stratford-on-Avon from London. That one is especially fine, beside hedgerows and stone walls and through picturesque villages and the ancient university town of Oxford with its quaint pubs and bookshops and students gliding along on old bicycles and bookshops and old churches and bookshops.  Did I mention the bookshops?

I enjoyed those roads, and many others.  But it turns out my favorite isn’t famous at all.

A few years ago my wife Karen and I were driving north on a pretty spring day.  We left Interstate 45 at Madisonville and headed up old highway 75, because we find country roads to be altogether more interesting than freeways.  Along the way I spotted a sign for Farm-to-Market Road 831, which makes its winding way over to Oakwood, the town that raised me.  I’ve been back to my hometown countless times, but always on Highway 79.  831 sort of sneaks into Oakwood through the back door.  I did a little quick calculation and determined I hadn’t been that way in over decades.

I turned onto it and, to quote Robert Frost, we followed a road less traveled that day.  And I went back in time.

Its two narrow lanes curve along through pretty stretches of woodland and beside handsome pastures dotted with cattle.  It’s all rolling hills and valleys, with little stock ponds full of still water mirroring whatever clouds are floating overhead. Attractive homesteads sit on hilltops, offering whoever drinks their morning coffee on those porches a fine view that encompasses miles and miles, off to a hazy blue fringe of treetops in the far distance.

Here’s what’s left of the little Flo community, where some of my boyhood friends lived.  I helped load and haul bales of hay off that hill right there, or maybe it was that one over there.  It’s been a long time. The bales out there now are the huge round ones that look like toppled gigantic tin cans and have to be moved by tractors, probably putting a good many country lads out of work.  Back then they were the smaller box-shaped ones – the bales, not the boys – but they still got awfully heavy on a broiling summer day after hoisting a hundred or so of them onto the back of a truck.

Out there was the Cormier Ranch, famous for its horses.  When I was in 7th or 8th grade somebody had a birthday hayride and barn dance there.  45s were spun on a portable record player that opened up like a small suitcase and we, reluctantly at first, danced. The Twist had just been invented by Chubby Checker and it was all the rage; we’d seen it on “American Bandstand”.  Thank God none of the parents brought their 8 millimeter movie cameras that night; trust me, a bunch of rural children seeking the rhythm required for that dance was best left undocumented for posterity.

That’s Bobby Goodner’s place right there beside the road. I saw his name on the mailbox when Karen and I passed it that first time, so I knew that he still lived in the house he grew up in.  I made myself a promise to stop and say hello one day.  But I didn’t keep it.  Somebody called a few years ago to tell me Bobby died of a heart attack.

I wish I’d stopped.

Up past that curve is the house where my friend Chris Stevens grew up.  We were running buddies all through school, and I felt as much at home in his house as I did in my own.  His daddy was a carpenter and a preacher, and Chris’ sweet mother would, pretty much on demand, make us a pan of dark, buttery fudge full of pecans.  Then she’d play a few hymns on her upright piano.  In payment for the fudge, we’d sit politely and listen as we ate it.

Driving that stretch of country road in Leon County is as close as I’m likely to come to being able to click my heels together and go back to another time and place.

Maybe, after years of wandering, your favorite road is simply the one that leads home.  I’ve found mine.

 

 

 

When wordsmithing, two heads (or ten) might be better than one

bizaro

I just spent three good days leading a writing workshop in Brenham, Texas in the pleasant company of an interested, interesting and talented group of folks.

Most  of them had a unique story they want to tell, and I hope our total of sixteen hours spent sitting around a big table looking at ways to help them become better writers, and at various devices to manipulate words and plots (and readers) will be beneficial to them on their journey.  On the final day we took sharp pencils in hand and plunged into several pages of everybody’s writing, the group scratching away at the papers and then discussing what was done well, what needed to be done better and what shouldn’t have been done at all (we call that clutter in the land of creative composition; William Zinsser, one of the patron saints of effect composition, once called clutter the disease of American writing). We located perfect first sentences where they were hiding, buried deep in in the text, and elevated them to their rightful places of honor, we shifted words and phrases around, and we found gaping holes where something that should have been there … wasn’t.

The beauty, and the magic, of collective textual analysis – we call it critiquing – is that a writer ends up with a plethora of options from which to choose when doing a second draft.  It’s the embodiment of the old “several heads are better than one” approach. Of course, the writer doesn’t have to take any of the advice.  But if seven of ten people concur that the third sentence in the second paragraph doesn’t work, you can pretty much bet that it needs some reworking or a quick exit.

In that little group we had a retired English teacher who can’t quite believe she’s a poet (she’s an excellent one), an engineer, a local businessman working on his third novel, two people who want to write memoirs, and an actuary for a big insurance company who’s working on what has the potential to be an intriguing novel of suspense. And we had one or two at our table who just wanted to become better, clearer writers and had no specific project in mind.

I love doing workshops.  Just hearing participant’s ideas, and watching them sting words, sentences and paragraphs together is mighty good stuff for an old wordsmith like myself.  It’s what C. S. Lewis would have called “red beef and strong beer”, a phrase he employed for any particularly enjoyable undertaking in his memoir titled “Surprised by Joy.”

At the beginning of every workshop I lead I tell the group that creative writing is made up of two things: craft and voice.  Craft refers to the many metaphorical tools in a writer’s kit, everything from grammar to cadence to sentence length variation to point to view and a hundred or so other ways to move words and stories around.  Craft is manipulation; it’s rabbits pulled out of hats. Voice, on the other hand, is the way an individual writer uses some or all of those tools.

On the first day I told that group in Brenham that I could hopefully be useful to them when it came to the tricks of the trade that we call craft.  But finding their unique voice would be a personal path that can only be traveled alone.

And I told them, at the end of our workshop, that I hoped they would use that voice to make themselves a promise to keep writing, be it fiction or fact, poetry or prose, and to share it.  I also encouraged them to get themselves into a critique group that meets regularly.

If you have a story to tell, I encourage you to do the same.  Find a creative writing workshop or a writing conference or a critique group and get some real feedback on your efforts.

Finally I told that Brenham group that it’s comforting, and admittedly a bit egotistical, to think that when you’ve written something that is published it might be read someday by someone who might pull it down from a dusty bookshelf or pick it up in a used book store, years and years after  you’re gone.  And when that person reads your pages you’ll be alive again, for a little while, and telling somebody your story, in your voice.

That little hope, or dream, is neither craft nor voice.  But it’s a surprisingly pleasingly sweet justification for using both.

 

 

The devil’s not the only thing in the details

beans

So, are you up to participating in a couple of experiments?

I have my students at writing conferences do these to improve their memory and attention to detail, essential tools for writers. And even if you have no intention of taking a stab at writing, they might just improve yours, too.

Who couldn’t do with a better memory and seeing things more accurately?

The first one I call Focus on the Present.  And it involves plopping yourself down, with a notepad and a pencil, in a busy place that you don’t visit very often.  So where you work is off limits.  So is any room in your house.   And remember, I said it has to be busy.  Which means there has to be enough going on for you to have lots of details to harvest.  An airport waiting area is a good choice, or a bench in a crowded mall.

Then, here’s what you do.  Jot down as many sensory particulars as you can locate from your vantage point.  You’ll be amazed at the little things you’ll notice when you’re really paying attention.  And don’t just scribble down what you see. Most beginning writers load up all their description in only one of the five senses, and pass up hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling.  When you get home, take out your notes and do your best to capture the place in a page or two of good description.

The second variation of this assignment – and most folks’ favorite – is called Focus on the Past.  This time, you don’t have to go anywhere; all you have to do is sit down, close your eyes, and remember a specific place.

There are two nonnegotiable rules for this one.  First, you have to select a place that you haven’t been to in at least ten years, minimum, but that you remember well enough to be able to recall the details.  Why not push the envelope here, and make it thirty or forty years?  Your grandmother’s kitchen might work fine.  Or maybe your childhood bedroom.  How about your fifth grade classroom?

Then, let your mind’s eye wander into every corner of that place. Don’t bypass a nook or a cranny, a picture on the wall, or a tree in the yard.  What did the place smell like (cedar-lined closets? Bread baking?) or feel like or sound like? Which brings us to the second rule: old photos are forbidden.  Make your memory do all the work.

One summer when I was teaching the memoir workshop at a writer’s conference one of the participants chose, for this activity, to recall the bridge of the battleship he served on in World War II.  The couple of pages of prose that he shared with the group took us all right there to the South Pacific over decades ago.  We smelled the oil that permeated the whole ship, felt the cold metal of the gauges and instruments, heard the sad lament of the fog horn bellowing off into the night, and tasted the strong coffee that the officers were served in thick ceramic mugs with no handles.

“I’d forgotten about those mugs not having handles,” he told us.

Which is the point of the exercise: to remember things that you’ve forgotten.

This little set of mental calisthenics might jump-start details that your brain has been hording.  Just like an old song sometimes does.  Or a smell.  For me, the aroma of butterbeans boiling puts me right back in my long-gone grandmother’s kitchen in Livingston, where I do believe she cooked butterbeans every day.

So consider taking a stroll down memory lane. It’ll be fun, and it might even prove to be profitable.

One time I had a student who chose to remember the guest room in her former mother-in-law’s house.  She’d been divorced for ages, and hadn’t actually been in that room for over twenty years, but, when remembering an ornate old dresser, she recalled putting an expensive ring in one of its tiny drawers for safekeeping during a trip. She hadn’t thought of that ring in ages, and had long since given it up for lost. Anyway, she called her former husband’s mother.  Who went upstairs, opened the hidey-hole and – sure enough – there was the ring.

I never found out if the old woman sent it back to her. Which is okay.

Because while precise description is useful to a writer, so is a little mystery.