Why Am I a Writer? (Part Deux)

So, why am I a writer? In introducing this question in my previous post, I made two points: (1) by “Writer,” we usually mean someone who writes books for the purpose of getting published, and (2) although that is certainly true for me the over-riding reason why I write is that I simply enjoy writing—very much so, as a matter of fact. But as I also said, most of my writing during my career years was of a technical nature. It wasn’t until retirement that I got into “real” writing. How’d that happen, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.

It was much like a story I read recently about a youngish man who had become a published poet. I don’t remember his name, but he said that because he was a sickly child, and spent a lot of time in the presence of pediatricians, he decided he wanted to go into medicine. So, he got himself into medical school, where he had to take an anatomy class. After the third time of fainting during some of the stuff they had to do on cadavers, he got tired of dropping to the floor and dropped the class.

In looking for a replacement class, curiosity got the best of him and he joined a poetry class. The first assignment was for the class to write a poem, which the professor planned to distribute to other classmates to read and appraise. He had written his poem, and was waiting in class for his review. A girl came in, sat next to him, and began to gush over how much she liked his poem. Soon, another girl sat down next to him and did the same and others joined in the praise. “And that,” he said, “is how I became a poet.” Praise will do that to you.

I’ve known since high school that I can write well. I know my subjects from my predicates and have a decent vocabulary. My papers in school always received good grades and my technical articles were well received. But college girls don’t gush over “The Role of Airport Surveillance Radar in Weather Avoidance.” By the time I had left the technical arena behind me, I began to feel a need to be more creative, more personal, in my writing.

During the latter years of my business career I had taken to writing in a journal (I mean real writing, with a fountain pen and ink, on paper). But as time passed, an itch began to develop to do some creative writing—something, anything, just to see if I could express myself the way I would read in Steinbeck, or Fitzgerald or Hemmingway. As I attempted to scratch that itch, a strange scene came to mind. Where it came from, I have no idea. That’s a topic for later.

In this mental image, I saw an old man sitting alone at a crude wooden table in a run-down, nineteenth-century tavern. The man looks beat down, defeated. As the cowboys say, he looked like he’d been “rode hard and put away wet.” There’s an anemic fire in a nearby fireplace. As a creative-writing challenge to myself, I decided to try to describe that scene the way it might appear in a novel written by some of the well known authors I had always admired.

It didn’t go well, at first. I would write well-crafted sentences, read the result and think, This just doesn’t seem like the way Steinbeck or Hemmingway would write it. What’s wrong, what’s different? Over many drafts, the imagery improved. I had a much better picture of the tavern and the context. But still—it just wasn’t interesting. It didn’t grab me.

Finally, it hit me. In a talk to the TED group, Oscar-winning filmmaker Andrew Stanton told the audience that if you want to write a good story, “Make me care! Make me care about your character, make me care what happens.” I finished reading yet another technically well-crafted draft and realized, “I don’t care why the old man is there, or why he is so despondent. I don’t even know him. Why should I care about him?”

I knew then what was wrong with my writing. Until the reader knew something about that old man, why he was so disconsolate and lonely, why he looked so defeated, there was no story. I had to make the reader care. Stanton added, “Story telling is like joke telling. You have to know your punch line.” He went on to say there should be some “truth” to your story, something that deepens our understanding of who we are as human beings. And that was my fundamental problem with my creative writing experiment. There was no story, no punch line, no reason for the reader to be interested. If I wanted to be creative, I had to create a story. That old man had to come alive in my pages.

And that’s when my first novel, The Old Man, was given birth.

There will be more about creating The Old Man in future posts. But suffice here to say that after completing the story, Orwell’s “sheer egoism” got hold of me. I wanted to see it in print, so paid to have a so-called vanity press publish it for me. I gave copies to several friends, and nervously awaited their response. In not long, I began to receive very flattering—gushing, even, in one or two cases—praise for my “sweet love story.” And that is how I became a writer.

PS: I have recently cancelled the contract with iUniverse, and am in the process of re-releasing The Old Man under Del Hayes Press. It won’t be available for ordering for a bit, until I can get that all done. I’ll post when it’s available.

Missing Mrs. Miniver

 I miss Mrs. Miniver. She was much older than I. In truth, I didn’t come to know how much I missed her until many years after her passing. Mrs. Miniver was the movie, released in 1942, that won the Academy Award for Greer Garson, who played the title role. I was six years old when the movie was released. I was seventy one when Colleen and I watched it for the first time. Now that I have come to know Mrs. Miniver, I have become acutely aware of how much I miss her.

Mrs. Miniver was a simple, yet profound movie. The movie was profound, in the way it portrayed the quiet courage, resolve and character of the British people, and of the Miniver family, as they were drawn into the maelstrom of Britain’s desperate struggle to survive Hitler’s bombs during the crisis months of 1940. The movie was simple, in that it was done in black and white, relying on light and shadow and the skills of talented actors to play on our every emotion. The hell of war was shown us not by violent battle scenes, but by the emotions evident on the faces of the people who were living it. The physical realities of war, the bombs, blood and destruction, were largely unseen. Few special effects were available to a movie director in 1942, and few were required. We understood well what was happening. Graphic scenes would have been less painful than the look in the eyes of Mrs. Miniver as her life as she had known it was being destroyed.

I miss Mrs. Miniver, the movie, for what has been lost as movie making has substituted dramatic special effects for drama. We knew that Vincent Miniver, the twenty-year-old son who in a matter of weeks was transformed from idealistic Oxford student to embattled RAF fighter pilot, was facing death each time he took to the air to combat the overwhelming Luftwaffe. But we never once saw him in his Spitfire.

We knew the middle-aged, successful architect, Mr. Miniver, was courageous. We saw him leave his upscale English home in his small cabin cruiser, joining dozens, then hundreds, of his fellow citizens to help rescue the hundreds of thousand of soldiers facing annihilation on the beaches of Dunkirk. For five days they made countless trips across the forty miles of open sea in the English Channel, under the guns of the German armies and aircraft, ferrying those soldiers home in boats intended for leisurely cruising about on inland waterways. But we only saw him leave, then return to his home and wife, bone-weary and his lovely boat smoked and damaged. We didn’t see the epic rescues, or need to. Our imagination painted the pictures for us in vivid detail. We knew what he must have braved, and endured.

We saw Mrs. Miniver stare out a window at outnumbered British fighter planes climbing to join the battle, knowing that some of those planes would not return and that one of those pilots was her son. We saw her, with her husband and two small children, cringing in a makeshift bomb shelter as her beautiful home was heavily damaged by enemy bombs. And we saw her cradle her daughter-in-law of two weeks in her arms, watching helplessly as life drained from her young body after being hit by the bullets of an enemy plane. The irony of her son surviving combat with those enemy planes, while his new bride lay dying from a stray bullet from one of them, was as stark as the black and white of the film. We saw Mrs. Miniver melt the iron heart of the aristocratic mother-in-law. We saw the smile in Mrs. Miniver’s eyes as a friend named his prize-winning rose for her.

That’s what we saw. What we did not see was gratuitous violence shown only because technology makes it possible. We knew Mr. and Mrs. Miniver loved each other. We saw that in the way they looked at each other, and in the quiet way they smiled and talked and strengthened each other. We did not see them in bed together, nor was there a reason to. We  did not hear a profane word. We did not have to cringe at the “f-word.” We did not hear expletives fill the air as Mr. and Mrs. Miniver stumbled over the bombed shambles of their once-glorious home.

That’s why I miss Mrs. Miniver. I miss movies that end with me feeling uplifted, and not in the need of a shower. I miss adult conversation not laced with vulgarity. I miss movies where we can know that two people love each other by the look in their eyes, by the way they act, and by the way they talk to each other. I do not need to be a spectator to more than that. I miss movies that don’t insult me with banality, where everybody over age twenty behaved as an adult.

In 1942, when I was six years old, that movie depicted my world. It was a world where adults would have been mortified to be seen in public not appropriately dressed, where “please” and “thank you” were commonly heard, and swearing was not. It was a  world where every failing of human nature was as present as it is today, but those failings were not paraded or celebrated in public. As I grew, the grown-ups in my world guided me, educated me, corrected me and set examples for me. Theirs was a world I wanted to join, but I had to first earn the right to do so. I wish that I could know Mrs. Miniver again.

Marriage—the payoff

In my previous post I mentioned the Amtrak trip Colleen and I took to celebrate our 55th wedding anniversary. Shortly after our return, our son, Clint, posted a picture on Facebook with the caption “What 55 years of marriage looks like.” I’ve inserted it here, so you can see what he posted. We were taking our daily stroll up our lane as Clint was leaving our place, and he took the picture before running us off the road. Whether our anniversary prompted the posting of the picture he didn’t say, but the two events have caused me to do some reflecting and ruminating on the true meaning and significance of “marriage for life.”

It really started with the celebration of our Golden Wedding Anniversary, when I made a video about our fifty years together. Over these past five years a feeling has evolved that our marriage feels “different” now than it used to, and I’ve wondered how, for sure, and why.

A common first reaction to celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary is disbelief. “How can it have been fifty years?” A second common reaction is the growing awareness of the truth of the old aphorism, “Old age ain’t for sissies.” Life becomes all too involved with the consequences of having made it this far. We’ve lost friends to cancer, to heart attacks and just “old age.” When we gather with friends it is all too common to spend our time in an “organ recital” as we discuss our various infirmities. But underlying all that is a growing sense of…what? It’s not just a feeling of accomplishment, although that is certainly a part of it. And it’s not just bragging rights. Looking at that picture above, I began to realize that these are the “payoff” years. It is the difference between “contending” and “contentment.”

Most of the earlier decades of a marriage are years of contending. Contending with supporting a family, with raising your kids, getting them through college, marriages, divorces. Contending with paying bills and fear of the drug culture in our society. If your marriage is a good one, if the bond of love and commitment is strong enough, these years strengthen that bond, deepen that love. But they are not easy years.

Now that is all (well, mostly) behind us. And as the dust settles, our relationship emerges. We get to begin focusing on each other, again, but now with a knowledge and conviction proved in the line of fire. And what emerges is a growing awareness that here beside you is a person who has committed their entire life to you, who stood by you in thick and thin, a person who never has and never will betray you or leave you. It is an humbling feeling, unlike any other I’ve experienced in these five-plus decades. I can’t imagine walking those roads alone.

Our celebrity culture demeans and shuns marriage. Too many are fearful of that commitment, who see no value in it. I can only feel sorry for those who deny themselves the greatest reward they will never get to experience: that of having a person who will walk your roads in life arm in arm with you, and never forsake you. They will never get to have the pay-off years.

I’ve been trained

It was a dark and stormy night. No, I’m serious. It really was a dark and stormy night. Not an auspicious beginning to what we hoped would be a memorable trip. My wife, Colleen, and I had finally agreed that for our 55th wedding anniversary we would celebrate with an extended Amtrak train trip. We had arrived at this choice because she knew three things about me. One, I loved to drive, and as a result we had taken some extended road trips for previous anniversaries. Two, I loved to fly our plane, and as a result we had flown on many trips. And three, with the deterioration of commercial flight service, baggage fees, and TSA agents who had yet to be convinced we were not septuaginarian terrorists, she knew I had come to loathe commercial flying.

So, she had proposed an Amtrak trip because  (a) I could avoid the airlines, (b) I had a few years ago given up private flying and (c) she wanted us to be on a trip where I could just relax and watch the scenery go by. That sounded intriguing, so I researched the train schedules and we booked an Amtrak trip from Dallas to Chicago, then to Los Angeles, back to San Antonio and finally to Dallas. As the departure day arrived I found I was actually looking forward to it. Except for the bus trip part, that is.

Turns out the train tracks were being repaired between Dallas and Longview, Texas, and passengers were not permitted on the trains between those two sites. Thus we went to Union Station in Dallas to start our train trip, only to be loaded on a somewhat dilapidated old bus for the two-plus hour trip to beautiful downtown Longview. As the bus rattled its way out of Dallas, it did, in fact, become a dark and stormy night. Rain lashed the bus and wind gusts rocked it as we plunged through the spray put up by eighteen wheelers along Interstate I-20. Yes, I got to sit and stare out the window. And yes, I wasn’t having to drive in that murk. But it wasn’t exactly a dream fulfilled. We  eventually made it to Longview, got assigned to our sleeper car, and from then on the trip went as planned, and anticipated. It was all we had hoped for.

Here’s where the subject of writing gets into all this. The dining car on the train had limited seating, so all available tables had to be fully utilized. We would be seated with two other passengers at each meal of the day. We had experienced the same on cruises, and on our one previous train trip, so I knew it was coming. I am not what you would call a flaming extrovert, so knew I had but two choices: be a silent, grumpy old man, or man up and enjoy getting to visit with people I had never met and would never see again. In many respects, that proved to be the best part of the trip (visiting, that is, not being grumpy).

Someone once said, or if they didn’t they should have, that “Every person has a story.” We met a woman who was a retired scientist from the University of Wisconsin, and visited until breakfast turned into lunch. We met a young man from New Mexico who was just beginning his mechanical engineering career in robotics. We shared stories with a Louisianan who was as red-neck as they come and who kept us grinning across much of Arizona. We talked with a Catholic spiritual counselor and a young Hispanic single-mom from California struggling to raise teenagers in an environment not conducive to her Catholic values. Each one gave us a perspective on life we would never have gained had I been restrained to life in the left lane of the interstates.

It occurred to me that each one of those chance meetings could be the making of a new novel, or the basis for a character in a story. It reminded me, in fact, of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Like her story, ours took place on an extended train trip. I began to imagine various story lines about our trip; surviving a derailment, a terrorist plot, a chance encounter that leads to a romance, or illicit affair. And just as Murder had a plethora of intriguing and mysterious characters, I would imagine our table-mates as characters in some plot.

I have not yet done it, but it would seem to be a good creative writing exercise to try to describe each of those people, to make them seem as real as if they were sitting across the table from us, and to develop dialogue that would feel as natural as our conversations became as we “rode the rails” across our vast land.

 

We have liftoff!

For those of us who got to experience the launches of the Apollo moon missions, those three words, “We have liftoff,” are burned in our memories. As the launch controller counted down the final few seconds we could scarcely breathe, filled with anticipation, excitement and yes, fear of what the next few moments would unveil. The Saturn V rocket, stark white and standing twenty stories tall next to the bright orange launch tower, breathed vapor from its liquid oxygen tanks like a monstrous dragon ready to belch its fiery blasts. We knew that in seconds an explosion of fire and overwhelming sound and fury would either launch the three astronauts, trapped in their capsule at its spear point, on their mission to the moon—or incinerate them in one vast fireball.

We were too conditioned for that latter heart-stopping failure. The early years of our attempts to catch up to the Russians and put a man into orbit and then on to the moon, were little more than an encyclopedia of failure. The US Navy, through political pull and wrangling, had been made responsible for the herculean catch-up effort. To accomplish that assignment a rocket courageously named Vanguard—the advanced guard, first into battle—was selected. It looked the part. Tall, slender, it looked like a massive rifle cartridge aimed at the sky. We could imagine it firing into the blue, streaking past the puny Russian Sputnik, carrying our national pride with it. But then came reality.

As the countdown came to zero, flames and smoke erupted about it as the first stage fired. We had liftoff. Slowly, it began its upward climb. But then…like a boy trying to balance his ball bat on his nose, it would begin to wobble, then suddenly start to flip over. In the blink of an eye, it destroyed itself and our hopes in a humiliating ball of fire. One after another, we watched in growing embarrassment and frustration that morphed into national anger. This was unacceptable. The Russians were making us a laughingstock.

Over time, our engineers and scientists (both ours, and the ones with Werner Von Braun who we rescued from the Germans at the end of World War II) came to the rescue. In 1961, as a newbie electrical engineer, I walked down the halls of Bell Telephone Labs in New Joisey listening to radio reports coming from virtually every office in the building. We held our breath and prayed, as Alan Shepard rode the first Mercury capsule into a suborbital flight to become the first American into space. We were on our way, and never looked back. “We have liftoff” became the watchwords of American pride and confidence.

And so it’s now my turn to launch, with this my inaugural post. I thought it more fitting—although perhaps it’s just wishful thinking—to title it with those three hopeful words than to choose a title such as, oh, I don’t know…“Vanguard,” maybe?

So what will it be, this blog, you ask? My intent, my hope, is that it will not be inaccurate to carry the Apollo moon mission metaphor a bit further in answer to your question. When we sent men to the moon, it was not done to discover a new world. Mankind had been looking at the moon for as long as we had existed. We went, I think, for two reasons…well three, really. First, we as a nation could not afford to fall behind Russia technically or militarily. Our national security depended on superiority. And second, we went because tackling challenges was part of our national psyche. It was part of who we were as a nation. We won wars. We built a transcontinental railroad by hand. We did it because it needed to be done, and to prove to ourselves that we could do it. Finally, and I hope not least of the reasons, we went to explore, to see what was on the backside that was forever hidden to us earthbound creatures, to see if it was indeed made of cheese as we had been told as children. We went to get acquainted with the Man in the Moon.

I have no interest in proving my superiority to the Russians, but the other two reasons are appropriate. It is not my nature to back down from a challenge, and without question doing a blog that is worth the readers’ time is a challenge. For it to be an Apollo, and not a Vanguard, is a daunting task and I can only hope I’m up to  it. You’ll let me know, I’m sure.

But then there is that third reason. I hope to so some exploring. The Preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible said “There is nothing new under the sun.” He was correct back centuries before we came along, and he’s still correct. There is little new under the sun for anyone to explore in a blog. But I haven’t explored a lot of it, so it’s new to me. And that is mostly what this will be about—my exploring topics of interest to me, and sharing them. If I do my part well, they may also be of interest to you. A lot of it will relate to writing and publishing. But not all of it. I have a strong tendency to wander down bunny trails and off into the weeds. As Yogi Berra once famously said, “ When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” And that’s what I tend to do.

And so I have liftoff. Where I’m headed, we’ll find out together.

Welcome aboard

My thanks to my DIL, Carole, for getting this blog set up and ready for me. It’s a goal I’ve had for some time but one which kept getting shoved down the “gotta do right now” list.

The primary focus will be to share my embryonic experiences of writing and self-publishing. It’s a brave new world out there for those of us who get warm fuzzies from seeing our name on the front of a book–even if that “book” is a multi-meg download to a pint-size computer.

But, I’m a generous sort and am quite willing to share my thoughts on any topic du jour, so this will likely scatter shoot a bit. I’ve an “inaugural post” forthcoming, so will wrap this up with a thank you to any and all who happen by.