Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Writer Unleashed

In the spring of 1965, I joined the writing staff of my university’s humor magazine.

Old Jebediah Wormwood sucked on his corncob and rocked rhythmically in his favorite chair on the front porch of the ramshackle shack he shared with the old lady and kids. It was unclear how many kids there actually were since Jeb couldn’t count above eleven, it being too confusing to use all appendages. Abruptly and with an exquisitely timed push, he initiated a syncopated lurch backward just in time to execute the perfect decapitation of a wayward chicken that had strayed under the rocker’s left guillotine. “Dinner,” he mumbled to no one in particular.

That was the approximate wording of the first four sentences of the only piece I ever wrote for the magazine, the original wording being long lost because the story was never published. This may be because I never submitted it. In fact, I’m sure that’s the reason. Why? Because those four sentences were the only four sentences I wrote. It wasn’t that I’d suddenly become overwhelmed with writer’s block. No, it was because I never had any idea of what I was going to write in the first place. Nevertheless, in spite of zero output, I fancied myself a budding writer.

At about the same time, I was rather pathetically in love with a girl I’d been dating for a year or so. Love, however, wouldn’t actually be the most accurate way to describe it. When one’s most ardent feelings aren’t being returned, as mine weren’t, it’s more in the nature of unrequited infatuation. I may have been crazy about her, but she always remained at some emotional distance from me. This made me crazy, so I started writing poetry. Very bad poetry. The kind of self-indulgent, agonized poetry that can only spring from the frustrated loins and breast of a suffering college male. This would not help my writing career.

All during this period, I would discuss writing with a fellow classmate who lived a few doors from me in the dormitory. As was I, he was a pre-med student, but with a difference. I, at least, was interested in science and medicine and getting good grades. He was bored and, to make matters worse, a terrible student. On the other hand, while I was writing term papers, he was actually writing stuff that was getting into the humor magazine. I was envious; he was worried about flunking out. I went to med school; he actually became a successful writer. The first time I saw one of his pieces in Playboy, I almost threw up out of sheer jealousy.

Sometime after graduation from college, I heard the old disparaging remark about everyone wanting to write the great American novel and thought, if that’s true, than I’m a hopeless sheep in the crowd. But I decided to try it again.

Several published articles in various magazines and journals and two books later, I’m a writer, albeit still a pretty unknown one. The lessons I’ve learned along the way about generating content are many, but here are a few critical ones:

  • Ideas come but, just as quickly, go, and it’s important to make note of them before they’re forgotten in the crush of other thoughts we have during the day.
  • If you dream a vivid experience, write it down as soon as you awaken, even if it means keeping a notebook at the bedside. It’s really frustrating to know that you had a great idea when you feel it slipping inexorably through the sieve of your neural network. On the other hand, be merciless. What seems great in the dream may be dreck in the light of day.
  • Don’t discuss what you’re currently working on with others unless you’re asking for input that you really want from someone you respect. And if you ask for input, accept it graciously even if you don’t like it. After all, you asked.
  • Be receptive of, or thick-skinned in the face of, criticism of the published work, as it will help you for your next opus. Not everyone will love what you write, and reviews, especially those entered anonymously or semi-anonymously on sites like Amazon.com, are sometimes on the mark but just as often may be rude and witless. And, while we’re on this, be careful about asking your friends to post reviews. Only do it if you’re sure they liked your work…a lot. I can think of little that will upset you as a writer more than to have a friend lambaste you on the web in a review that you requested.
  • Read a lot; write a lot. Your writing will improve as you continue to do both.

As I have readily admitted, I’m still pretty much unknown as a writer, so for me to be giving advice might seem presumptuous. If you’ve read the pointers above, though, I hope you’ll understand that I’m only relating a few guidelines and suggestions drawn from what I’ve learned from my own experience. If it’s helpful, great. If not, so be it.

Today’s Annoyance:

If you think the word is “orientate”, you really need to be re-oriented.

 

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Tough Times for Freethought

These are hard times for secular humanists. I ought to know because I am one and, let me tell you this, being secular in a country increasingly coming to resemble an intolerant Christian theocracy is, well, pretty stressful.

Years ago, I used to try to slide by when folks asked the dreaded question, “What are you?” This awful and impolite query, never intended to elicit any response affirming my belief in the rational, in what is observable in the natural world and reproducible through the scientific method, has always seemed more designed to pigeonhole me into one or another of the established superstitious faiths: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, or whatever. Considering myself none of these, I have at times tried to define my self by my cultural heritage, or joked that I am a Wiccan, never meaning any offense to Wiccans but, in fact, delighting in the shocked look such a statement regularly calls forth. That is, assuming my questioner knows what a Wiccan actually is.

As I’ve grown older, and as I’ve watched an increasingly vocal and politically active, mostly Republican constituency swing toward intolerance and away from the founding principles of our country, including separation of church and state, I’ve become less timid about expressing my beliefs, feeling that the least I can do is to let others like myself know that they are not alone. And I have taken heart and courage in the knowledge that our beloved Constitution begins with the clause, “We, the people…”  No god, no official religion, no judgment of or prescription for belief in the supernatural is evident anywhere in the Constitution, no matter what Tea Party conservatives would have us believe about the nation’s founding principles.

Now, compounding my problems is the fact that I am also a bleeding heart liberal in a time when, to say the least, liberalism has fallen into general disfavor. Worse, I am a liberal who thinks that what I think is my own business and, more importantly, that what you think is your business. Decisions about how you wish to live your life, end your life, and about whether to give birth to new life, are no one’s business but your own. In this way, paradoxically, I have come to think of myself as, in fact, being more of a conservative than those who pride themselves upon being conservative. After all, isn’t it the liberal who is supposed to devalue privacy? The conservative who wants government to stay out of peoples’ lives and, most notably, the bedroom? If so, then how come today’s conservative camels are pushing their collective nose into my tent?

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about all this, lately, and, along with the associated anxiety I’ve been feeling over my apparent deviancy from the American mainstream, I finally arrived at a sort of a secular epiphany when, while in the shower (where I always do my best thinking), I suddenly had the answer to the following burning conundrum, namely, why the religious right is so pro-business, anti-environment, homophobic, pro-death penalty/anti-abortion, pro-gun, and insensitive to so much human suffering. The answer, I realized, is that these true believers are convinced that human behavior is irrelevant in the face of Armageddon and “the Rapture”. See, if Jesus is about to return, if the righteous who accept him are about to be raised and folks like me very shortly going to burn in hell, who cares about oil drilling in Alaska, HIV and African genocide, not to mention a bunch of squabbling Middle Eastern types? And, by extension, so what if our sons and daughters die in wars based upon lies and greed when the big reunion is just around the corner? Sure makes it easy to believe whatever the Hannitys and Coulters vomit up, doesn’t it?

Of course, all this makes folks like me, who believe that this life on our fragile planet is all we have, that moral and ethical behavior lies in protecting the environment, helping the less fortunate and allowing people to live in peace according to their own precepts, nuts. I mean, arrrgh! This is the 21st century, folks. Wake up! If there were one true religion with one true god, wouldn’t she have revealed herself in some obvious way by now? Maybe via some manifestation more profound and convincing than an image on a piece of moldy toast? And if the end result is everlasting life and harps for the deserving, why make hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children die waterlogged deaths in a tsunami to get there? I, for one, am absolutely certain that if there were a real god, she’d certainly strike down televangelists and that guy who does the mattress commercials.

So, what’s my point? Only that our unique country is in danger of being undermined by the machinations and manipulations of superstitious know-nothings and cynical, opportunistic politicians who have no understanding of the nation’s founding principles and no appreciation of the openness and tolerance that have made the United States the envy of the world, at least until very recently. These self-righteous people are like an army of robotically programmed army ants marching to a fairytale vision of salvation in the soon to be in a theatre near you apocalypse, and woe be to those who might try to stand in their way.

Epiphanies generally bring inner peace with the achieved understanding. In my case, however, epiphany has only brought anxiety and frustration. I puzzle over how complicated humankind makes things for itself by seeking superstitious escape from personal responsibility or, simply, bad luck. Ever notice how folks thank God instead of the fireman for saving the child from the building set aflame by a tossed cigarette? How God’s will is invoked when people die in an earthquake or flood? I marvel at how cruel we are to one another in the name of some true faith or patriotism. How do we justify doing to prisoners at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo what we revile when done by others to us? And I despair over how, when we ought to be making life easier and more bearable for one another, we instead commit violence on a massive scale and on the flimsiest and most self-serving of pretexts.

We are living in an age when men have walked on the moon, when HIV/AIDS is preventable with condoms that cost pennies apiece, when it would be so much easier to be kind than to be cruel. Why are so many so intent upon catapulting us back into the stone age? Perhaps the late Rodney King, in one brilliant philosophical moment, said it best: “Can we all get along?”

If there is a god, she must be weeping.

Today’s Annoyance:

Overuse of the word, “basically”. The word seems to have become ubiquitous, as many pepper their conversation with its useless insertion. Example: Instead of saying, “I think that the Earth is round,” someone will say, “Basically, I think that the Earth is round,” or “I think, basically, that the Earth is round,” or, “I think that the Earth, basically, is round.,” or even, “I think that the Earth is basically round.” In none of these does the word add to our understanding of the fact (not the basic fact, by the way) of the Earth’s roundness. Bottom line: economy of speech is to be prized, especially when the clutter is meaningless.

Zendoscopy Now Available!

On Monday, 1/20/2014, I signed off on the final proof copy of Zendoscopy, and on Thursday, 1/30, the book appeared on, and is available from, the Inkwater Press website (http://inkwater.com/books/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=1116). It’s also available from Amazon.com, Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble, and just about every other online bookseller. It can also be ordered from any four-walled bookstore. Please note that the cover photo may not appear on some websites for another week or so, but this does not affect the ability to order the book.

   Zendoscopy is the story of a young man’s life from the time of his highly unusual birth through his somewhat stressful youth and into marriage. It is a coming of age tale told in discrete episodes, some serious and some, as described by one advance reader, flat out hilarious. For anyone who’s ever felt that, somehow, he or she didn’t quite fit in with the zeitgeist of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s or, for that matter, any other period in history including the present, Zendoscopy  should ignite a spark of recognition, and maybe just an empathetic frisson as both the miseries and the joys of growing up are recalled in stories that will bring you to tears as you remember your own awful, wonderful youth. (Okay, that’s my pitch and, hey, I’m begging you: buy the book – I can really use the royalties.)

Next step, moving copies. Stay tuned over the coming weeks (months?) as I wade nose deep into the wilds of marketing. It should be an “interesting” ride.

Today’s Annoyance

People who don’t understand that “criteria” is the plural of “criterion”. In other words, many criteria are, but one  criterion is.

In similar fashion, I’d harp on “media” and “medium”, and on “data” and “datum”, but commonly accepted usage unfortunately works against me with these. Maybe I have to grit my teeth over them, but I refuse to yield on ”criteria” and “criterion”. Hearing someone use “criteria” as a singular is like scraping fingers on a blackboard, especially when it’s someone who really should know better.