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.