Sunday, February 27, 2011

More on San Francisco and the Blog

Among the wonderful things I learned at the San Francisco Writers Conference was to blog seriously and well.  I have blogged seriously, but not always well.  More than a couple of entries have done me less than proud.  One was my infamous pity party on the page.  Another was my cutesy attempt to turn some of the hundred best movie lines of all time into a lesson on dialogue.


With that one I started toward point A and wound up zigging and zagging to the unknown.  No doubt, Rod Serling would call it "The Twilight Zone."

From here on I'm going to set up a different set of guidelines.  The problem is I don't have them all finalized.  I will promise not to post haphazardly, to consider each entry as a representation of my writing thrust into the blogosphere.  Because lord knows I learned the hard way about admitting to the world that I'm bleeding.  I'll bleed privately from now on.

In the original guidelines of the blog, I promised to post the good and the bad.  I can still do that, but with great care.  Therefore, I may not post every week, or I may post twice or three times in a week.  Depends on what's happening.  I'll formulate this as we go along, entry by entry.  It'll be a constant work in progress.

For now, though, let me share some of my San Francisco experiences.  I'll start with the Top of the Mark, where Princes, Presidents, Judy Garland and Elvis have spent time.  The view is amazing.  With good peripheral vision one can see both Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.  I have good peripheral vision.  Breakfast is a bit pricey.  It's a solid $12.95 buffet for $35.95.  And Sunday's brunch is $70.09 per person.  I'm a cross between cotton candy and a medicine ball, and I couldn't eat thirty-six bucks worth of breakfast.

I discovered that a cab ride to many restaurants in North Beach, combined with a glass of wine, is less expensive than a single glass of wine at the Top of the Mark.  Still, I had a few up there because the view is so breathtaking.  It's what I'll think of when I hear the name San Francisco.

I adored Fisherman Wharf, particularly Scoma's, where a friend and I had a wonderful dinner.

I enjoyed the City Lights Bookstore.

San Francisco is not Maui, but it shouldn't be.  It is what it is and that's pretty damn awesome.  I understand why people love the life there.

Yes, I'll be back next year for the conference and the city.  It's a place that grabs you and holds on until your heart opens to it.  And, according to the song, you can leave your heart there.  Thanks, Tony Bennett.  I've had the devil's own time bringing mine back.  And the writer in me likes that.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Flowers in What's Left of My Hair

I'm writing this entry from my hotel room at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins, the sight of the 2011 San Francisco Writers Conference.  I'm sure my view isn't the greatest, paying a conference discount rate, but I can see a bit of Fisherman's Wharf and the bay.  The view is spectacular at the Top of the Mark on the nineteenth floor.  With minor blocks, it gives a 360-degree view.  From it you can see a bit of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and most of Fisherman's Wharf.

The sight blew me away and brought a tear or two, as friends and acquaintances have lauded the praises of San Francisco for decades. I can't forget all of the movies I've seen set in San Francisco including Hitchcock's Vertigo, which shows this very hotel. And the novels I've read set here.  Finally seeing some of the sights with my own eyes pulled the emotions just over the edge.

And then there is the conference.

I feel like a junkie in the middle of a fix.

Dorothy Allison the first of our keynoters is one of the most amazing speakers I've ever encountered.  One sentence will break the room into belly laughs while the very next will send chills everywhere.

Yesterday featured David Morrell, father of Rambo, who holds the room with an economy of words.

Both inspired.

I'm going to post this now, short as it is, because I won't have time later.  Next week, I will lay out new guidelines for this blog based on suggestions from industry professionals. And also post some of the many things I've learned here at the conference.  If I listed any now, I would miss breakfast because I wouldn't be able to stop.

I will say, though, that I learned how to use a coffeemaker to brew tea.

I might have to invest in a coffeemaker for home.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Let's All Play

I think more people should learn how to play a musical instrument.  How about a guitar?  Keyboards?  Maybe even an autoharp?  It's fun.  I'm reminded of that from time to time when I play alone or with friends.

I'm not kidding myself.  I'll never be a star.  Never trot onstage with my guitar to the roaring screams of crowds and break into song, be that in an arena or a ten seat pub.  But it's fun to imagine it.  More so to get together for a mutual jam session and play as a group, everyone getting a chance to shine a little.  Maybe the experience stops there.  So what if it does?  It's a great way to while away a few hours enjoying either our own company or that of friends.

In the decades before television; the time when live concerts weren't nearly so prevalent; when radio was the primary entertainment for families, more people played instruments, in their living rooms, on their front porches, wherever and whenever the mood struck.

Stars emerged.  From Jimmie Rodgers to the Carter Family.  Robert Johnson to Doc Watson (pictured on right).  Most of the great blues artists from the 20's through the 40's were discovered playing on front porches or small joints.

Let's set that aside a second.  I've already said that we're not going to become stars here.  But we can become a little closer, sharing a creative endeavor rather a position in an audience.  Make no mistake, I love watching other people create whether at a monster arena or a ten seat pub.  Truth be told, most times I'd prefer the ten seater to the monster.

So why don't we do more of it?

Because we ... myself included, and I've been playing for forty-five years... aren't particularly happy starting with folk songs and one-four-five rock and twelve bar blues then, working together, building up the more complex material.  We want to play the guitar like Clapton or Slash or not at all.  We want to be Elton John on the keyboards instead of enjoying a little Heart and Soul.

Listening to the perfection of those who practice six to eight hours a day, five of which is nothing but scales and bleeding fingers has spoiled us.

But I say let's all learn an instrument.  I'll learn a new one.  I'll buy a banjo, or maybe I'll learn to play the autoharp like Maybelle Carter played it.

And writing songs is pretty fun, too.

I leave for San Francisco this Thursday for the conference.  I'm not expecting anything.  I have hopes, but mostly I was to see a beautiful city.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Revenge of Tom and Tex

When Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys in 1989, his first order of business was to fire Tom Landry, their legendary coach of 29 years.  The only coach they'd had up to that point.  Anyone could understand that a new owner might want to go in a different direction, but a fair and decent man, a man with any class at all, would have explained that privately to Coach Landry and given him a chance to retire with the dignity his place in professional football had earned.

Jones's second order of business was to hang on to Tex Schramm, the architect of the Cowboy brand, long enough to learn the ropes before putting Schramm unceremoniously out to pasture.

Had Jones any sense of honor he would have renamed Texas Stadium, Tom Landry Stadium.  He didn't do that.  And it took four years for Jones to induct Landry into the Cowboy's Ring of Honor, three years AFTER the NFL waived the usual waiting period and inducted Landry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Schramm wasn't inducted into the Ring of Honor until 2003, three months after his death, and eleven years after he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It took the Texas Legislature to properly acknowledge Landry's contribution to the Dallas/Ft. Worth area by naming Interstate 30 between the two, "Tom Landry Highway."  They did so in 2001, the year after Landry died.  We used to call that stretch "The Turnpike."

The Cowboys have had success with Jones as owner, winning 3 Super Bowls and Cowboy fans remain fans, but there still exists a resentment of Jones for the way he treated Landry and Schramm, and, later, his Super Bowl winning coach, Jimmy Johnson.

In 2009, Jones built, thanks to the city of Arlington, an amazing Stadium that will host the Super Bowl tomorrow (Sunday February 6th).  Jones was hoping that this would put his dream stadium over the top in terms of legend.

Slight problem.

The weather.

From this past Tuesday, ice, snow and amazingly cold temperatures for this area (I've never seen it like this) have come close to shutting us down.  Add to that, this last day when the ice and snow started to melt, much of it slid off the top of the stadium damaging structures and injuring some workers.  One wonders whether the stadium will be deemed fit by the various safety marshals to allow people in.  This has caused many to wonder whether Dallas will ever get another Super Bowl.

If the game is delayed, then we have the answer.

All for you, Jerrah.

And somewhere, I suspect that Tex Schramm is laughing, and Tom Landry is smiling.

I leave for San Francisco in less than two weeks, and am proud of the first hundred pages of Catch a Falling Star.  I've said this before, but I'm quite serious when I say that this draft will be the last until and unless someone wants it.  I have too many other stories to tell.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

I'll Miss You, Kaye!

A storyteller passed away this last Tuesday evening.  One I will miss for the rest of my life.  This person when pressed, and to be honest, it didn't take a lot of pressing, could spin yarn well into the wee hours of the morning.  It is true that this weaver of tales would tell the same story a number of different times in a number of different ways only occasionally matching a previous version, and that most likely by chance.  This didn't matter because charm and sincerity made up for it.

I inherited the first part without question.  If I ever spun a yarn the same way twice, it was under oath and hence couldn't be called a yarn.  I hope I inherited the charm and sincerity to go with it.

You can tell by the title that the storyteller was my aunt Kaye.  I'm writing this in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.  She will be buried here, next to my uncle, one of the best men I've ever known.

Do any of you blues aficionados recognize Clarksdale, Mississippi?  It is the home of Ground Zero Blues Club.  One of the owners is Morgan Freeman.  And it was the place where legendary blues singer Bessie Smith died in 1937, currently memorialized at the Riverside Hotel as the fourth historic marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail.

I remember it as the home of my aunt, uncle, and cousins.  True, most of the time we all met at my grandparents home in Joiner, Arkansas, but from time to time, we made it down to Clarksdale.  One in particular stands out, which I may relate some time.  I'll just say now that it involved my father and me escorting my grandmother back to Texas thirty-eight years ago.

Kaye told family histories mostly, things that happened when she was young, or things she heard that happened from people who saw.  The flood of the Mississippi River in 1936 is an example.  Maybe "histories" isn't a good word.  I think that "tales" is a better one.

I had so looked forward to many more years of swapping tales with her and listening to her correct my versions with inaccurate versions, which was fine because my versions weren't that accurate anyway.  I'll miss visiting her in Hattiesburg, though I'll still come to visit my cousin from time to time.  What seems odd to the point of the surreal is that on my mother's side of the family, I am now the oldest living member.  Yikes!  Me!  Holy shemama!

No new stories will issue forth from anyone born before 1957. So the stories of the family are mine to tell, with only two left to collaborate with.

In a family of storytellers, that's quite a responsibility to carry.

See y'all next week!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Case Against the Bullies.

The parents of a 9 year-old boy are suing the Lewisville School District in Lewisville, Texas. I should say the parents of a deceased 9 year-old boy are suing the Lewisville School District.  The parents allege that the school district did not properly protect the boy from bullying.

The child was not murdered.

Young Montana Lance (pictured) hung himself in a bathroom at Stewart's Creek Elementary School, you see.  I find it interesting that the school district found no correlation between the suicide of Montana and bullying.

If I were a parent, I would see that as self-serving bullshit, kinda like the fox guarding the henhouse.  If the school district admitted finding a link, then that would set them up for potential liability.  Hence the lawsuit, and a conflict for me.

On the one hand, I hate lawsuits filed when something goes wrong, including, and maybe especially, when a loved one dies and no criminal liability exists intentional or unintentional.  It just smacks of greed or vengeance, neither an admirable quality.

I’ll leave that for another day.

On the other hand, bullying is a subversive, persistent, criminal behavior that has been tolerated forever with nothing more than lip service paid to it.  It is the bane of childhood for many, and is often met with disappointed looks from some parents who are secretly ashamed of having a wimp for a child, or aggressive parents stepping in to protect their child without teaching coping skills.  I came from both camps.  Name me a parent who wouldn’t secretly prefer to have a Super Bowl winning quarterback for a son than a bestselling romance novelist, particularly the dads out there.  If you can name one or two, do they really mean it, or are they paying lip service?

I have to ask.

We as a society secretly admire bad boy behavior, even when we condemn the violence and criminal activity often associated with it.  Look at Big Ben Roethlisberger and his Big Ben.  Even if half of what was reported about his exploits with women is true, then he deserves complete and total censure. Women should never have to be subjected to that.  But because he’s a multi-Super Bowl winning quarterback, we look the other way after a paltry four game suspension.  Actually, do we look the other way, or do we forget about it completely? Gents out there?  If you or I did just what Big Ben admitted to doing with his Big Ben in a restaurant restroom, would we escape with a little suspension? Unlikely.  Most of us would probably be fired if word got out.

We would then be properly ostracized.

Might be a little tough to get another job, you think?

But Big Ben is still making millions of dollars, and no one boos him, not even opposing fans.  He still has a shot of winning another Super Bowl this year, and three wins in the big one is Hall of Fame time.  Doesn’t quite seem right putting him next to Roger Staubach and John Unitas, does it?  Those men kept their wicks dry, or, I assure you, we would have heard about it, even post mortem in the case of Johnny U.

Then again, Lawrence Taylor is in the Hall of Fame.

Character doesn’t really matter, does it?

In my childhood, I didn’t have as much trouble with bullies as some of my friends. They tried to fit in, and paid a price, usually in the form of sucker punches and blackmail. I tried slipping away, keeping out of their path.  Sometimes I would hide in the bushes until the bully passed by. Other times, I took a different route home.

Oh, I had my share of trouble, and even a couple of fights.  Well, I can’t say they were really fights, but I tried.  I’ll spare the details, but suffice it to say that I learned to stay below the sightline of the big bad bullies.

Some laughed at me.  I cared, but not that badly.  I had a keen sense of self-preservation.

I wish the Lance family every success in giving Montana a voice in the horrors of bullying, and hope the lawsuit succeeds to that extent.  Alas, I think I know what will happen.

We’ll all raise our fists crying, “Yes, bullying is bad. Bullying is horrible.  No one should be subjected to bullies.”  We’ll rattle our sabers for a month or two, but when the smoke clears we’ll still be cheering for the assholes of the world.

What do y’all think?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Using Dialogue

Reading the list of AFI's top one hundred movie quotes reminded me of the importance of great dialogue.  Passive readers may think, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," when it comes to the distinct ways characters speak, but if a fiction writer really wants his or her agent to "show me the money," the characters have to sound unique.  They have to be themselves and a great deal of that is shown through dialogue.

Great dialogue is really "the stuff that dreams are made of."  It shows truth, and when the writer sits down at the computer and looks at his or her reflection in the screen, feeling that he or she should, "Fasten your seatbelts.  It's going to be a bumpy night," afraid that the page will scream out, "You can't handle the truth," he or she has to say to the world, "I want to be alone."

With no on around, you pick up the "Rosebud" sitting in the vase next to the laptop, sniff it, dreaming that some editor in front of the editorial board saying, "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse."  And the editor named Louis makes that offer, and after you ask, "You talkin' to me?"  and he says, yes, then you reply, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," then when he asks if you want to know the numbers, you reply, "Go ahead.  Make my day." and then he can have, "My precious."

Dialogue is communication, and as a writer you never want an agent or editor to pick up your manuscript and think, "What we have here is a failure to communicate."  So you pick up your "Martini.  Shaken, not stirred," and resist the urge to procrastinate, to put down that manuscript believing that "After all, tomorrow is another day," you build that story for Louis, because, "If you build it, he will come."  And because stories come organically from the writer, you can, upon completion, proclaim, "It's alive!  It's alive!"

Remember that your manuscript is your baby, and when your agent puts it in the slush pile, you call that agent, named Tom Houston, and say, "Houston, we have a problem,"  "Nobody puts Baby in the corner."

When it comes to writing, "Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death," but you can take that manuscript and scream out, "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again."

And that day when you get that sale you call your friends telling them, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the fact of the earth."

How about a little scattershooting?

When you're writing murder mysteries you're telling your readers, "I see dead people."

You don't have to write at Starbucks.  I've tried and believe that "There's no place like home."  And when you have to force a line or two of dialogue, "May the Force be with you."

After that first novel hits the bestseller list, tell them, "I'll be back."  And when you look at your sailing craft in the marina that you paid hard-earned writing money for thinking, "What a dump," the answer is simple, "You're going to need a bigger boat."

When everything falls into place, look in the mirror, nod knowingly and think, "I'm the king of the world."

See y'all next week.  "Carpe Diem."

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Censorship of Huckleberry Finn

I have great respect for editing and those who practice the craft.  Those who write for a living and those of us who aspire to depend on editors for so many things, from catching a misplaced modifier, to an illogical plot point, to letting us know that our protagonist had blue eyes in chapter one and brown in chapter thirty.

And that's just the beginning of what good editors do.

There is, however, an ugly beast called censorship, and Auburn professor Alan Gribben, to my mind, has ventured into that territory. I think he means well, but so do most censors.  Remember that the Volstead Act, prohibiting alcohol, brought organized crime to the forefront where it's been ever since.  But we had to protect our kids from the saloons and pool halls and drunken slobs, didn't we?  Hence Prohibition.  Hence Al Capone and all who have followed.

So what has Professor Gribben done?

Censored a classic to make it more "palatable."  Gribben has taken Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and changed the 219 uses of the word "nigger" and replaced it with the word "slave," and changed the colloquial term "Injun" (remember Injun Joe?) to "Indian."

As a white man, I had to take a little time to see whether my knee-jerk reaction was well founded and not insensitive.  I think it is well founded and not insensitive.

Read the book.  I just did in the last few days.  It doesn't take long.

In no way is Twain (pictured) or Huck racist.  In fact, some critics have argued that Huck and Jim are lovers.  I personally thing that's overdoing it a bit, but there is no doubt that Jim is far more of a father and father figure to Huck than that mean, drunken sot of a bastard who actually sired him was.

I read a thoughtful opinion piece from Clarence Page, a member of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board.  Mr. Page, who also happens to be black, writes ...

Besides, making the book less controversial might make it more palatable for many classrooms, but it also risks taking away its edge, the risky subversive power of Twain's words and story that kept my classmates and me awake, alert and talking about it.

And that's the key, to my mind.  Let's talk about it.  In class.  Let's allow our young people to read literature and discuss all of the implications.  That's what literature is supposed to be about, isn't it?  It was when I went to school.  Let's not hide from the time that Twain writes about.  And let's damn sure not censor it.

I read it first (along with Tom Sawyer) when I was in the fifth grade.  Granted we were in the early years of civil rights legislation.  In fact, that was 1968, then year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.  We actually discussed Tom and Huck in class, discussing the evils of racism, we called it race prejudice back then, and ways to help all of us understand each other.

A whole bunch of racism was exposed, in society itself, and in the printed word, but not one serious accusation about Twain being racist was made to my knowledge.

I read Huck again as a junior in high school, and then again in college.  We had some lively discussions, I can tell you, but nothing about Twain's choice of words being bad or evil.

I agree with Mr. Page when he writes ...

I would rather see "Huck Finn" restricted to eighth-graders and older than see it shoved out of sight or watered down.

So would I.  Are you listening Professor Gribben?  Or are you hopelessly caught in the PC vortex?  One again, from Mr. Page ...

We should teach youngsters about history, not try to protect them from it.

I couldn't have said it nearly so well or compelling.

Now for a little scattershooting.

First, I weighed in at 265 this morning (Saturday morning).  I feel better, and am looking forward to the day when I can return to the pool and swim real laps.

I can't wait until my trip to San Francisco and the writers conference.

I know I haven't posted on my other blog for awhile, but I'll try to post twice this month to make up for it.

I'll see y'all next week.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Into the Woods

Happy New Year, everyone!  I know it's traditional to have a list of resolutions on the day of Janus, the two-faced God.  I've constructed one of those, too.  More than that, though, I want to keep on with the process of self-discovery.  Not the self-pity kind I indulged in a couple of months ago, and maybe not even the Scrooge-like analysis I had last week.  Real honest-to-goodness self-discovery is the goal here.

So, at the top of my list is to cultivate the good parts of my personality, to understand that my frequent lack of self-confidence stems from the fact that I ignore those good qualities and let them wither.  Many folks in various words have said that I must exercise those good parts to strengthen them like muscles.

Remember the movie "The Dead Poet's Society?"  Remember the bit that opened each of the Society's meetings?  In typical Hollywood arrogance, the screenwriters changed the wording of the great Henry David Thoreau (pictured), but let me quote the original.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

It's long past time I went into the woods.  Time that I stopped being frightened of my own potential.  Time that I discovered exactly what my potential is.  Time that I risked to gain rather than letting time catch up with me.  "To front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

New Year's Resolution Number One:  I'm going into the woods.  I'll read more.  The classics.  The genres I hope to write in.  To follow my own path wherever it may lead.  I've always wanted to be a great storyteller, and couldn't give two shits in a piss pot about being a great writer.  Well, what-the-eff is wrong with wanting to be the best possible writer as well.  BTW - a single word meaning "couldn't give two shits in a piss pot about," is "eschewed."  So, what's wrong with cultivating the ability to use either or both of those expressions depending on the situation?  Hmmm?

None, to my mind.  They're both expressive in their own ways.

Oh, and part of that is watching less television.  Sorry TVFN

New Year's Resolution Number Two:  I will not knowingly read any more bad writing or bad stories.  Period.  It'll take a little more time in the bookstore to accomplish this one, but I will.  I'll have to pick and choose carefully, because life is quickly becoming too short to read shit.  But along those same lines ...

New Year's Resolution Number Three:  I will read more new material than old, because I'm not writing in the world of Dickens, or Austen, or Thoreau.  I'm writing in the here and now, and even those stories I write about periods long since gone, I have to write from the perspective of the here and now for the here and now.

Ain't that right?  :-)

So, New Year's Resolution Number Four:  I mentioned last week, I will learn to love the man looking back at me in the morning.  He's a pretty good guy most of the time.  I'm resolved to make him better and to understand him better and try to understand other people better.

New Year's Resolution Number Five:  I'm going to cultivate courage.  I can't say I'm going to stop being afraid.  That's not realistic.  Fear is not a light switch to be turned on and off.  But I can resolve to ... what's the common phrase? ... feel the fear and do it anyway.

The art of doing that is called courage.

I have been afraid most of my life, you see, for stupid reasons and rational ones.  But setting all of that aside, a new almost overwhelming fear has latched its claws into my skin.  It's best expressed by a poem I learned in college, one you won't find in "Dead Poet's Society."  It's called, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
            The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
            And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

I'm walking up to that point of blushing unseen, and it's scaring the shit out of me.  So, by cultivating courage, I can accept this and make sure it doesn't happen, that I don't die without at least giving it my best shot.  To have the guts to walk out of that desert air and not waste myself and my gifts.  I feel I've done that to this point.

I want to contribute something.  To realize what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote ...

That you are here--that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

And yes, this one is in "Dead Poet's Society."

I'd so love to contribute a verse.

New Year's Resolution Number Six:  I will contribute a verse.  This year.

How about another verse from "Dead Poet's Society?"  Robert Herrick - To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day

To-morrow will be dying.

And so that I can put off the last part as long as possible ...

New Year's Resolution Number Seven:  In three parts ... eat healthy ... deliberate exercise three times a week ... reach out to others and care for them.

This last part may, in fact, be the most important one.  So be it resolved that I pay particular attention to that.

I weighed in at 270 yesterday morning.  We'll start there, and I'll resume posting my weight.

See y'all next week.