I own a Ford F150 pickup that has around 160,000 miles on it. I’m thinking seriously about buying a newer one with less miles, so, having never looked at them before, I’ve been surfing through one of those cars-and-trucks-for-sale websites. I am amazed. It lists around a thousand pickups all over the United States. I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to buy a pickup over the internet since I think any vehicle that I’m going to spend thousands of dollars on deserves to be driven first, duh, but it really was fun going through all the advertisements.
In fact, it was addictive. Last night, I looked at fifty detailed descriptions of pickups while viewing every one of the 1,089 listings. Today, similar ads are popping-up on my screen while I’m reading mail, looking at Facebook, or checking the news. I resent being flooded by ads, but, on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if anything new has been posted.
I’ve been sucked into an electronic monster.
Besides getting a feeling for the prices of various years and models of pickups, the affect of mileage, and imagining how difficult it would be to buy a pickup that is physically in Maine while I’m sitting in New Mexico, it felt like real power to see all the for-sale things on my screen and think that, with only an email, I could start a bargaining process that was nation-wide.
How many parents are watching their kids spend hours every day looking at YouTube videos, exchanging email, texting, or posting pictures on Instagram. I heard of one girl who routinely takes two hundred selfies every night before selecting the one that’s just right to post to all her friends that evening. She’s not only in a competitive atmosphere for selfies, but is in real combat.
I like my phone and I like email and I like discovering information with my computer. I am getting a little tired of Facebook, but I’m delighted to watch some of the videos on YouTube. What an amazing environment!
But it’s not all I do. If I am addicted to anything, it’s ordering books from Amazon. I could do a lot worse, but I try to read a book a week. Most of them are nonfiction like writing advice or history or biography, but I also enjoy a good Clive Cussler or a Baldacci.
I wish it were so with younger generations.
This is from Common Sense Media’s “Children, Teens, and Reading” 2014 research brief:
- 53 percent of nine-year-olds versus 17 percent of seventeen-year-olds are daily readers
- The proportion of children who “never” or “hardly ever” read tripled from 1984 to 2014. A third of thirteen-year-olds and 45 percent of seventeen-year-olds say they’ve read for pleasure one or two times a year, if that.
Believe it or not, this isn’t just books. It includes ANY vehicle of words, like magazine, newspapers, or comic books. One report observed that a college student will typically read two hundred to six hundred pages every week. Any student who is used to reading only phone texts and tweets may be in big trouble.
Let me state up front that I’m not blaming social media as the only culprit in soaking up young people’s eyes nor am I blaming only the young for not reading; I see a lot of adults who are just as absorbed in their cell phones as any teenager. The lure of video games and take-them-with-you-anywhere-on-every-device-you-own videos and movies are also strong.
Okay, so I don’t want to rant; I want to recommend a book.
How to Get Your Screen-Loving Kids to Read Books for Pleasure, by Kaye Newton
If you are a parent concerned that your kids are not interested in reading, or not reading enough, get this book. It identifies the problems (using her family as examples), it cites several studies for why kids need to be reading on a regular basis, and has a lot of down-to-earth recommendations for getting your kids unplugged from electronic screens and more plugged into books.
Everyone will benefit.
I’m always looking for good how-to-write books.
While convalescing at home from a sickness this summer, I edited and rewrote a manuscript that I finished in March. After writing a middle-grade mystery/adventure series, writing a new story involving adult-themed murder and intrigue embedded in the societal issues of ocean trash and homelessness (no kidding) was certainly different. I wrote it in first person, meaning that the story is told from the perspective of the main character, which was a good trick since I normally write in the third person narrator.
After I finished my latest draft and sent it to my publisher (he and I had already reviewed one draft), I bought a writing book from Amazon, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, by Donald Maass. Mr. Maass is a veteran literary agent, author, and workshop presenter. He’s probably read a million books in his lifetime and has a firm grip on what he expects a successful and meaningful book to contain.
This is the first how-to-write book that caused me to immediately stop reading, go to my computer, and change a finished manuscript. I then returned to reading the book, went through a few pages more, stopped, went to my computer and made more changes to my manuscript. I finally used a notebook to record the changes I wanted to make instead of interrupting my reading to do them. By the end of the night, I sent a note to my editor telling him to stop reading the manuscript I had sent him because everything was different. It took a week to complete a new draft of the manuscript to replace the previous one. I made forty-two changes (some of them fundamental and extensive) and every change made it better.
I am wildly enthusiastic about Mr. Maass’s book. I’m not sure it’s for beginning writers; it takes a little seasoning to really appreciate it. On the other hand, I recommend it as a “must read” for writers, whenever they can get to it.
Here are a couple of quotes that will give you an idea of the style that Mr. Maass uses:
“The spirit that you bring to your writing desk either infects your pages or enlivens them. Your story events either oppress or excite. Your characters either inspire or leave us indifferent. The difference comes not from your story choices but from you. How you feel inside is how we will feel in reading.”
“In some ways the most important work you do in writing your novel is the work you do on yourself. Everyone knows how difficult writing can be. We’ve all read the blog posts about writer’s block, despair, envy, conflicting roles, crashes, recovery, and ways to stay inspired. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I mean is your fundamental outlook, your positive spirit, your embrace of goodness, your faith in humanity. It shows in your generosity, not in supporting your writing friends, but in granting strength to your characters and filling their hearts with expectation.
Some people may read fiction to be frightened, but they never read it to be brought down. They may wish to be challenged, but they don’t want to be crushed. They may read for amusement, but they still have heart. They do seek an emotional experience, as I’ve said, but they also want to come away feeling positive.”
If you are a writer or want to be one, this book is worth reading. I strongly believe it will make you better at telling your story.
I had the special and rare opportunity to have a monthly lunch with a friend for over two years.
It was always on the first Friday of each month. I would pick him up at his house, we would both attend a writers’ discussion group at a local community building, and then we would go to the Sage Restaurant in Albuquerque, a Chinese affair only two blocks from the building in which our group met. He would consistently try something different, while I always ordered Chicken Egg Foo Yung. I love the stuff.
For both of us, though we enjoyed the writers’ group, it was the lunch that we came for and the joy that often resulted from it.
It is a precious thing to have a friend in whom you delight and can talk with at length about anything. Mostly we talked about writing – inspiration, perception, fascination with words and stories, how to improve, how to change, how to be a better writer and a better person – but we also talked about dreams and futures and the pursuit of happiness.
My friend died last Tuesday and our lunches have come to an end.
I am sorrowful and I grieve for him, but I grieve for me that something precious has slipped through my hands and I am not likely to find another companion like him. He was a unique and special person and so am I, giving us an affinity for being easy, laid back, and yet well-spoken and direct. For my part, I was a good listener when he had sage advice and an almost always original perspective on particular subjects, and for his part, he always appreciated the tidbits of information that I would have found on the web, from my latest readings, or from the dark reaches of my mind.
He was a famous person and there have already been articles and letters extolling him as a world figure with a reach that touched thousands of people, but my memories will be of those special times when we shared meals and became family.
We truthfully enjoyed each other and I miss him already.
One note: for the two blogs in which I mentioned Ursula K. Le Guin, I never once spelled her name correctly. I apologize. With that apology, I also want to say that I have begun reading her book The Wave in the Mind and I am enthralled with her writing style, her straight forward talk, and her perception of the truth. She must have been a fascinating person.
One last note: I have not written my blog lately. I have found it hard to write while having physical pain; it’s hard to concentrate and very hard to be authentic without whining. I am doing better these days and hope to now write on a regular basis.
I’m not a great writer and it’s not likely that I will ever be one.
Okay, getting over that, I’m also not a great speaker and it’s not likely that I will ever be one.
I’ve had my rare great moments in both writing and speaking where I’ve written or spoken something uniquely insightful and powerful. In those instances, I wrote or spoke better than what I (and my audience) expected and we were all enthralled (and surprised). People actually quoted me afterwards, and I was proud and ecstatic.
For the most part, however, I’m usually crossing the finish line with a rousing “good enough, and sometimes better than good” rating for writing and speaking.
I do want to be better. I’d like to write something that’s particularly well-written and memorable, and I would like to say something where people treasure the words. In general, I want to be an effective and appreciated communicator.
In my last blog, I quoted Ursula Guin with excerpts that described words as powerful. Her point concerned good conversations being powerful and special, but it extends to writing as well. She was a brilliant writer and was internationally recognized for her stories, book, poems, essays, and criticisms. And speeches, as well.
Oh, to be able to write and speak like that!
Okay, so having decided to be a better writer and a better speaker (and a better conversationalist as a result), here’s what I think I need to do: conscious practice.
I want to be a writer? Write; write a lot. I want to be a speaker? Speak; have great conversations when I can. But as I am doing both, I need to be constantly reading what I write: paying attention to vocabulary, grammar, clarity, pace, and sentence structure; is what I just wrote really understandable and does it, at the same, evoke the emotion that I want? I need to be constantly listening to myself as I talk to people, or formally give a speech: am I saying things correctly, succinctly, using words that my audience uses, in a way that they hear what I want them to hear, and have I made them care about what I’m saying?
I need to be as conscious of me as my readers or listeners are conscious of me.
Tony Hillerman said that you have to write a million words before you’re ready to write your own stories. That’s why he suggested everyone should write for a newspaper, with guidelines, schedules, word counts, column lengths, and instant review. It forces you not just to write, but to be extremely conscious of what you’re writing and how you’re writing it. And it forces you to write a lot.
I had a friend who was a minister and also a member of Toastmasters, the organization that revers speaking as a craft. I asked him why he did both; seems like he’d get tired of talking. His reaction was the opposite: Toastmasters was a wonderful way to speech, get feedback on his speaking, and to improve. Speaking from a pulpit, he said, is always a once-sided activity. He might get compliments or criticisms, but they were typically with regard to the content; comments were marginal when it came to helping him speak better.
My current focus is to be precise. I would be happy to naturally produce top-notch colorful and entertaining prose, but if I can develop my writing enough to say something simply in a straightforward manner and be correct with the words that I use so that my readers see in their minds what I see in my mind, that’s a pretty good accomplishment. On that foundation, I can develop a richer vocabulary, better sentence structure, more crafty ways to say things, and create a more powerful delivery.
My book editor stopped over at my house this morning and something powerful happened.
We had a real conversation – him saying something, me listening, thinking about it, and then saying something back to him. He then listened, thought about it, and said something back. Pretty soon, I understood the points of what he was saying, and he understood the points of what I was saying. Between the two of us, we spent a delightful hour identifying possible changes to a new story that I’m working on, changes that will vastly improve the eventual book.
Pretty simple, right?
It makes you wonder why more people don’t do it.
Here’s a series of quotes from The Wave in the Mind, a book by Ursala Le Guin:
“When you speak a word to a listener, the speaking is an act. And it is a mutual act. The listener enables the speaker’s speaking. It is a shared event, intersubjective: the listener and speaker entrain with each other.”
“…Mutual communication between speakers and listeners is a powerful act. The power of each speaker is amplified, augmented, by the entrainment of the listener. The strength of a community is amplified, augmented by its mutual entrainment for speech.”
“…That is why utterance is magic. Words do have power. Names have power. Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearers. They feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”
We underappreciate good conversation and we are poorer for it. Social media, in particular, has denigrated the idea that people need to talk back and forth to find real understanding. Instead, many response streams to any comment looks like unknown voices shouting into space, each voice playing one-upmanship to dominate the last voice, each voice making statements as if they had more authority.
The next time you see someone pontificating on Facebook, think about how easy it is for a speaker to believe (truly believe) that they are saying something worth hearing just as a result from not being required to actually talk to anyone.
If “Mutual communication between speakers and listeners is a powerful act,” then we have surrendered ourselves to weakness.
I live in Los Alamos, New Mexico, famous for its contribution to building the atomic bombs used to end World War Two. The land and buildings from which the war-time laboratory was built was a boy’s preparatory school: the Los Alamos Ranch School. It was established in 1917 and lasted until it was acquired by the War Department to support the war effort in 1942. The school’s largest enrollment was about forty students in the 1930s, it was supported completely by donations and fees from the parents of the students, the ages were typically 12 to 17, and most of the students were from wealthy families in large metropolitan cities – Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
It was begun not as a premier educational facility but as a rough-and-tough working ranch that provided boys with a rigorous physical environment that instilled individual character traits of independence, manhood, responsibility, rigor, pride, courage, working skills, and others that reflected the “Western Frontier” qualities made famous by John C. Fremont, Kit Carson, Lewis and Clark, explorers, cowboys, ranchers, and other frontiersmen. For example, a student enrolled at the Ranch School was assigned a personal horse and equipment, wore shorts the year around, slept outside on sleeping porches, performed calisthenics at 6:30 every morning (shirtless, in the sunlight, darkness, rain or snow), worked in the fields as needed for supporting the Ranch, and went on periodic horse packing trips that could last for months.
After reading books about Los Alamos, I found books that described other similar schools established in that period. Uniformly, they were created to serve the needs of the wealthy families in America. There were many “ranch schools” established in the early twentieth century, like the Thatcher School, California; Evans School (Arizona); Montezuma Mountain School, California; Valley Ranch School, Wyoming; Fresnal Ranch School, Arizona; Judson School for Boys, Arizona; Hacienda del Sol, Arizona; Jokake School, Arizona; Desert Willow Ranch School, Arizona; and several others. These schools (most of them in the Southwest; most were boarding schools; most of them year-round; most were for boys only; almost all served the late elementary to high school levels) came into existence primarily to answer the growing problem of raising rich kids who had not worked for the family money.
It was a big problem at the beginning of the century. The Gettys, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, the Heinz family, and the slew of substantially monied families worried that their children (those heirs soon to take over the family businesses and the wealth involved) would lack the moral fiber of the family patriarchs who were “self-made” men that had worked for the wealth. Well-to-do fathers, in particular, worried that their sons would be inadequate, weak, self-centered, lazy, entitled, and lack the responsibility and leadership qualities needed to preserve the families’ legacy.
In response to that, wealthy families and educational entrepreneurs created “schools” that provided not only academic education but also imposed standards of behavior for integrity, courage, creativity, mental discipline, citizenship, manners, and outdoor skills, as well as the physical rigor that would develop all of that vital testosterone valued by their parents. As the schools grew, they developed the stellar academic prowess that made them and their graduates famous. Several were recognized as respected college preparatory schools.
These schools were a world designed and crafted by the wealthy to get their children ready to assume their own role in that world.
This whole environment and the details of the children growing up under these ranch schools fascinated me, and, in particular, made me wonder what things might have gone wrong. Were there any kidnappings? Did anyone ever run away? Some of these children’s parents were among the richest people in the world; were there ever threats? Blackmail? Secrets? Manipulations? Intrigues?
Okay, so my mind is a little twisted. But this situation - unknown to most people today but not hard to identity with, as the entitlement problems brought on by wealth haven’t gone away – makes me think that there’s a great plot here: a good mystery, an unusual crime, a foiled scheme. How unusual it must have been for some of these kids to vacation in the Hamptons and then be riding through the wildernesses of Arizona and New Mexico surrounded by people with less money than what the students had just spent on new shoes. Was there ever a mischievous prankster among the lot? How about the lowly instructors who were never paid much, teaching kids that had money falling out of their pockets: it had to be tempting to imagine various ways to tap into that wealth.
Now that I have found a point of historical fascination, I need a good plot to go with it.
I wrote a Facebook post six or seven weeks ago that talked about a “medical accident” that I was involved in. This is my update.
In May, I started taking a blood pressure medicine to which I was allergic. No one knew I was allergic to it, especially me. Unknowingly, it was like taking poison and resulted in my inner tissues and organs being chemically “burned”. After two weeks, I suffered acute necrotic pancreatitis (which means that part of my pancreas died), renal failure, liver failure, kidney failure, and a bunch of other failures. I spent two days in the local ER, a week in a hospital in Santa Fe, and then a later week in a hospital in Albuquerque.
I have been home for a month (I live alone), sleeping in a recliner, eating almost no food (I’ve lost about 40 pounds), taking a lot of pills every day, and battling a few bouts of despair. I am much better now, but still can’t drive, sit up for very long, write much, read much, or think much. However, I am eating more, am no longer confined to sleeping the recliner, and walked around the block for the first time last night.
I will survive. I should be much better within another month or two and expect that I will fully recover by fall. If not fully, then I may have some limitations that I can live with.
This is why I haven’t written a blog for a while. I hope now to restart.
Speaking of that, my seventh book of the Mogi Franklin Mysteries, The Lady in White, became available on Amazon on June 1st. The eighth book, The Captain’s Chest, which is a very clever story, is out for review and will be available on September 1st. My ninth book, the end of the series (for now), is River of Gold, and its review copies are being printed now. It will be available October 1st.
So, in spite of me being interrupted, my books have continued. Please check them out. They make good summer reading for middle graders and young adults.
I have spent some time wondering why, with all of the systemic failures of my body, I did not die. I believe strongly that it was because my family and friends refused to let me go and that they prayed to God sufficiently enough that He finally agreed. I thank them for that; I did not want to die.
I believe that we are a generous people, but we sometimes forget to take advantage of opportunities. One of my most well-received posts on Facebook recommended that people buy teenagers a book to read over the summer. I have no measure of what readers will actually do, but I hope that everyone takes it to heart and wallet.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what book to buy (“I don’t know what he/she likes to read…”) or especially with grandparents, they don’t want to buy the wrong book. I have some comments about that situation:
First, to a large degree, it won’t matter what book is chosen. Second, pick something that you would enjoy reading. Thirdly, avoid large, thick books, unless it’s Harry Potter – “read over the summer” is a euphemism; it’s better they read a short book all the way through than to start a long one and drift away. Fourthly, pick a biography of a good person. Most people, even teenagers, find it satisfying to experience another person’s life. Fifthly, ask the clerk at a book store, especially if you want a certain age or grade level – middle grade, middle school, young reader, young adult, or adult. Sixthly, you can ask them what they like.
My best advice is this: take your sons and daughters to a Barnes and Noble or other bookstore and tell them that you want to buy each of them a book to read over the summer and let them choose. They will learn from your generosity as much as they will learn from the books. By the way, don’t “require” them to read what they choose. If they choose well (choosing well is something they may have to learn) the books will be read.
There are no guarantees that they will read what you buy, but don’t let that keep you from paving the way. You will never lose money on giving books, even if the investment takes a while to show up.
In my elementary school in Texas, some book publisher would send around a pamphlet-sized list of books for sale. We checked the boxes, penciled in the names, added up the total, paid the teacher, and a few weeks later, the school received the books and passed them out. My family didn’t have much money (no family did at the time) so I was cautioned to not pick too many, but I was never denied ordering a book or two. My parents did not coach me on what books to buy; it was expected that I would read whatever I ordered.
I remember the generosity of my parents and I remember how much I loved the books. I chose one book based solely on the image of a spooky house on the cover. Fifty years later, I still remember buying the book. The story wasn’t as good as the image, but I read every word.
The overall point is that you want your kids or grandkids to read, to value books, and to know that it’s okay to spend money for a book. They will also learn that being given a book feels wonderful, which will teach them that giving a book also feels wonderful.
The way to teach generosity is to be generous.
I stated that I was dedicating some weeks to do some physical labor, as opposed to what I usually do, which is write, read, edit, edit some more, read some more, and sit around dreaming. And go to lunch, every day.
I was successful. I tore down an old deck and hauled away the wood; cut down a large tree and hauled away the trunk and branches; and replaced an old window with a new window. This week will be another week of labor – replacing three more windows; cutting up old deck wood into woodstove-sized pieces; and preparing a house to be stuccoed.
In my evenings, surprising even me, I edited two new novels, submitting one to an editor, and went through a proof for a new Mogi Franklin mystery that will be published September first.
Woohoo! – I got to do both of the types of labor that I like to do and I did both of them well.
Which labor do I favor?
That’s a good question, because the answer is “both, provided I can choose to do whatever I want on any particular day.”
It’s an issue of competition. Declaring a certain time period to be dedicated to one type of labor or another, or, in fact, declaring a certain time period for family, for vacation, for helping others, for concentrated walks, for some other block of activity, is my way of decreasing the competition between the different forms of labor. It decreases the frustration associated with not doing something that I want to do because I’m doing something else.
I have the greatest admiration for those writers who get up in the morning two hours before the rest of the family so they can write. There are many stories of people who do so to have the peace and concentration they need to write. Or they go off for a week to write undisturbed. Or they write at night after the family is in bed.
In my case, it’s important to be able to choose. I’m a fair-weather type of laborer. I understand why people have to work outside when it’s very cold or very hot or very windy or very wet, but I’m sorry that the work requires it. I worked for a carpenter once who treated working in the worst weather possible as a badge of honor. He wanted it to rain hard just so he could bundle up in his rain gear and prove himself on the battlefield of labor.
He and I didn’t get along very well. I did the work, but I think rain in the morning is a sign to sleep late and rain in the afternoon is a sign to quit early.
Sometimes, I need to do literary work. Sometimes, I need to do physical labor. Sometimes, I need to do neither, contemplating instead all that I’m not doing. That was referred to by Hemingway as “taking time to store up for the times to come”, an attitude that I like. Of course, you’re saying, it’s because I’m a retired fat guy with a pension. I accept that as valid criticism; it is a significant advantage.
It makes it no less important, though, that writers and other artists must know themselves to be able to manage themselves, especially in terms of creativity, inspiration, pace, and balance. We all have work. The major thing is that we should have control over the work and not the work over us.
In 1994, Ray Bradbury wrote Zen in the Art of Writing, an autobiographical book about his life of writing. The book is phenomenal, and the stories about his growing up are entertaining and memorable. He was a fascinating writer with an unbelievable passion for telling stories. Here’s one quote from the book that gives you an idea of his dedication to writing:
“But how did I begin? Starting in Mr. Electrico’s [a circus character that visited his town in 1932] year, I wrote a thousand words a day. For ten years I wrote at least one short story a week, somehow guessing that a day would finally come when I truly got out of the way and let it happen. [that’s more than five hundred stories!]
The day came in 1942 when I wrote “The Lake.” Ten years of doing something wrong suddenly became the right idea, the right scene, the right characters, the right day, the right creative time. I wrote the story sitting outside, with my typewriter, on the lawn. At the end of an hour the story was finished, the hair on the back of my neck was standing up, and I was in tears. I knew I had written the first really good story of my life.
All during my early twenties I had the following schedule. On Monday morning I wrote the first draft of a new story. On Tuesday I did a second draft. On Wednesday a third. On Thursday a fourth. On Friday a fifth. And on Saturday at noon I mailed out the sixth and final draft to New York. Sunday? I thought about all the wild ideas scrambling for my attention, waiting under the attic lid, confident at last that, because of “The Lake,” I would soon let them out.
There was another reason to write so much: I was being paid twenty to forty dollars a story, by the pulp magazines. High on the hog was hardly my way of life. I had to sell at least one story, or better two, each month in order to survive my hot-dog, hamburger, trolley-car-fare life.
In 1944 I sold some forty stories, but my total income for the year was only $800.”
I can only gasp at that level of creativity. Louis L’Amour, the famous western writer, set a goal of not only writing one short story a week but selling the story to a magazine to be able to support his family.
I’m way down the scale on such ambition. I met my goal for the winter of writing another Mogi Franklin mystery, plus a short adult fiction story. They are both finished and lying idle while I get some distance between them and the final edit. Whether they get published or not waits to be seen.
Now I’m on break from writing. It’s Spring coming into Summer and I’ve got other things on my mind – building, rafting, backpacking and such. I’m taking a trip to Alaska in June and will be on the lookout for a new story. I grew up on The Call of the Wild and I would love to find the inspiration to produce my own version of a young person’s tale of adventure.
I can’t produce at the level of Ray Bradbury, but I will do what I can.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.