Wednesday, September 30, 2009

More Bio

And . . . since an author must always have more than one bio on hand (just in case the publisher needs something else) here's another humble approach to the proverbial question: What does an author write about himself?

Todd Outcalt is, without doubt, the Biggest Loser. He has written twenty books, none of which have turned a profit, and most of his books are no longer available accept in used stores like Half-Priced Books. He has lost in many ways. In 1985 he lost his virginity to Becky. This was a year and a half into their marriage, and since then, Todd has had whoopie some twenty-five times with this woman. This has resulted in two run-of-the-mill kids and a promissory note from his peri-menopausal wife who often asks, "Is it hot in here, or are you making me feel that way?" He has also lost at backgammon, chess, and nearly every conceivable sporting event, including ring-toss. Todd has also lost forty-percent of his pension, and he frequently loses bets to the dog. He once lost forty pounds preparing for a bodybuilding competition, but gained this weight back in one week eating glazed donuts after his last place finish. He continues to write on a fifteen year-old-computer that frequently belches fire and he would love to complete at least one more book on it before it explodes. He is available for speaking engagements on Handling a Losing Streak, Are You at Loser, Too?, and Your Loser Inside . . . Ten Steps to Discover What You Can't Be.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Author Bio

In the past month, I've been asked to submit three author bios to various writing projects: two books and a magazine article. I'm always stumped by these requests. What, after all, does one, or should one, say about one's self? How does a writer tell the truth without coming off as self-serving or self-glorifying?

Well, I think I've hit upon a solution. Here's a bio I'm toying with. Maybe this one will be more accurate, actually, than the others floating around out there. It's totally honest . . . without being self-serving.

Todd Outcalt is your proverbial loser. In 1968 he lost his 2000-count baseball card collection in an ill-fated trade for a plastic horse. In 1975 he lost a basketball game for, at that time, his undefeated 20-0 freshman team when he mishandled an out-of-bounds pass. In 1979 he fouled out of his final basketball game as a high school senior and once again found his ass attached to a hard pine bench. In 1984, Mr. Outcalt received an "F" on a paper along with a red-pencil note that read: "You can't write!" However, since 1998, Mr. Outcalt has published 20 books in ten years, all but one without the assistance of a smart-ass agent. He has also published numerous magazine articles, columns and corn-on-the-cob recipes (but he's not bragging). Additionally, he's been the recipient of two writing awards, which have since been taken away from him because Beyonce had one of the best writing awards of all-time! He is married to the loser, Rebecca, his wife of twenty-five years. They own four junk cars which they keep running with bailing wire and duct tape. They have two loser children who each own one of two loser pets. Within the next five years, one or both of these animals will be euthanized. Mr. Outcalt's losing streak actually began in 1973, when, at the age of 13, he lost his marbles to Jimmy Southwood.

Monday, September 28, 2009

My Facebook Friends

I've been on Facebook for about three months now and I've finally hit the 100 "Friend" mark. This is not difficult, as I accept anyone as a friend.

However, I never know what to write on Facebook. What do I say?

Here are few of my Facebook profile entries I have NOT WRITTEN . . . so I publish them here for the first time.

Not published on August 27: "Do any other of my friends shave with a Gillette Siete . . . the razor with the seven blades? (Men responses only please.)"

Not published on Sept. 14: "Do any of my friends practice ventriloquism while you are in the shower? (Men responses only please.)"

Not published on Sept. 20: "What's the difference between a Facebook entry and a blog entry? (Anyone.)"

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Blogging Bloggers

I'm tired . . . but I've been up late the last few nights trying to blog the bloggers. Or, to be more exact, I've been trying to convince bloggers to link my blog to their blog. I've been trying to give my blog a higher profile by linking to other blogs. And on and on it goes . . . .

I have no idea what I'm doing.

I wonder . . . is there a blogging service . . . some business that one can hire to blog other bloggers, make these links, get this groove on?

Anybody out there, other than my wife, wanna blog with me?

Friday, September 25, 2009


(My driveway . . . coming very soon)

Recently I had a thought . . . I could write advertising copy or, rather, sell advertising by painting it on my cars. I could make it part of the "cash for clunkers" deal.

On the news this morning I heard someone say that the cash for clunkers didn't work because 85% of Americans do not have a clunker car that qualified. Obviously, these census-takers have not been to my house. I have four absolute pieces of crap sitting in my driveway. I know they would qualify because, on any given day one of them may not turn over, or may break down along the side of the road, or have a flat, or just stall while driving down the interstate. All of these things have happened in the past month. It's fun driving an Outcalt car.

So . . . why not make a little money on the side? Got a slogan you'd like to see as a traveling billboard? I'll paint it on the van: "Seniors Eat Free on Tuesdays at Elegance". That would fit nicely along the side of our 2001 Ford "Dungheap" Van. Or how about: "Got Hot Wings?" I could paint that on the tailgate of our 1993 Chevy 4X4 "Craphole" Pickup. Or how about: "Lowes" or "Kohls" or "KMart"? Any of those I could handpaint on the side panels of my 1991 Caprice "Black hole of Calcutta" wagon.

Believe me . . . it pays to advertise. Call BR-549 to check on my rates. I'm very reasonable and I can write anything!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Writing Science Fiction

I've been making my way (slowly) through the massive missal, The Year's Best Science Fiction, 26th annual edition, edited by Garner Dozois. I have a shelf full of these babies, dating all the way back to the 16th annual edition (guess I'll have to find the first 15 in a used bookstore).

Many people may not know that I have written quite a bit of science fiction myself over the past five years or so . . . and published a fair number of stories, too. A couple of years ago I placed a short story entitled, "Passover" in the little magazine, Alpha Centauri, and three years ago Amazon accepted one of my short stories, "The Word Master" as an Amazon short publication. Three of my best science fiction stories, "The Sea and All That Is In It", "Triple's Blog" and "Sentience" have made the rounds through most of the major markets, and now I'm saving them for a collection that I hope to have in a few years.

Science Fiction is one of the genres I write late, late at night (when I'm between major projects) or early, early in the morning, when my brain is fried and I'm hopped up on Starbucks Verona and begin to combine elements of my Sunday sermon with bizarre thoughts about the last dolphin on earth ("The Sea and All That Is in It") or a guy who lives in a future age when conversation, and not sex, is the commodity men purchase from prostitutes ("Triple's Blog") or a future age when people live for centuries and a lawyer is someone who handles cases to decide if other life forms are sentient beings, or not ("Sentience").

Yeah, I write this stuff. I think it up. All flows out of my little brain. And I write hundreds of other pages, too. In fact, just writing this blog is giving me more ideas. Lots more. Might be a very late night! Perhaps a story about an artist who paints the moon? Or how about a story about a priest who, in some future age, is the last remaining in his order, and must hear the confessions of the entire planet? Or how about a story about an average guy who writes himself to death, only to discover that he is resurrected through the pages of a book?

Could happen. Could.

Potato Peel Pie

A few days back I began reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. The book came highly recommended from several women I know, and has been on the NY Times bestseller list for months.

Still, I guess it's a woman's book, because I just couldn't get past the first fifty pages. And when I can't get past the first fifty, I give up. So I shelved it.

I'm not downplaying Ms. Shaffer and Ms. Barrows and their accomplishment of writing a novel through a series of letters, but I just couldn't get into it. I hear it's good at the end, but please, ladies, give me something more exciting than potato peel pie to get me there.

And while we're talking about it . . . what the heck is potato peel pie, anyway?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Yes, it happened again this week. This time in the form of an anonymous letter. A bride writing to tell me that she had read my book and that, based upon my advice, she was calling off the wedding with her deadbeat guy.

Now, at the risk of writing this blog and finding that this guy actually reads blogs and later that he shows up at my door with a double-barrel, I have to wonder: What book did you read, honey? Are you sure it was one of mine? Who reads my books? Who takes my advice? Are you sure you're doing the right thing? And finally . . . yes, you're doing the right thing!

Whoever you are out there, listen . . . life's complicated enough without throwing more complication into the mix with a bad marriage. It's like tossing gasoline on a small fire and thinking, "This will make the fire even smaller!" Doesn't work.

So, take my advice, love-lorn. Take it from Uncle Toddy. You don't HAVE to marry ANYONE. Don't let aunt Sadie talk you into it if the mix isn't right for YOU.

And there's more . . . don't marry any man who shaves off a moustache. Don't marry a guy who loves pastries. Stear clear of any man with a last name beginning in the letter "O".

But that's just me . . . .

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Weird . . . but I awoke in the middle of the night after watching the Colts on Monday night football with the realization that the mailman may have left a box of books on the front seat of my 1991 Caprice wagon. Our deliverer sometimes does this.

I don't know how many times I've wondered: Where are those books I ordered? only to go out to the car in the middle of the night and find the box sitting on the front seat. Makes me feel like Joseph or Daniel. I can interpret dreams.

Of course, I never lock our car doors. Not even in rough neighborhoods. My only hope of getting a better car at this point is if someone steals one of our four heaps-o-junk--I have another one in the shop this week at $500 a crack repair. At least there might be a little insurance money in the mix if someone takes one of these off my hands. (Please, thieves, have mercy and help me out!!!)

I've even been driving down the road when the thought will hit me: I wonder if there's a box of books in the back seat of one of our junk cars? Often, there is! Makes driving junk a little more tolerable.

A box of books is like having a second Christmas. Or, maybe it's just like a box of chocolates. You never know what your gonna get.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


A few weeks back I received an email from a fellow in England (London, I think) who had questions about marriage. I'm not sure if he had read my blog, or one of my books, or just found my name on eHarmony, but he obviously considered me an expert on marriage. (He's so mistaken there, it ain't even funny.) Nevertheless, I did write him back with some advice.

Dear Mr. Alleycat,
Do you have any advice for me?
I'm a man living in London and need some expert advice on marriage.
Any advice you can give?
Desperately yours,
Stewart (Yeah, I'm English)

Dear Stewart,
Ever read Alexander Pope? How about that poem, "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats? He was English, wasn't he? There's great stuff in there.
As for advice on marriage, try T.S. Eliot, who wrote in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":
"I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floor of silent seas."
You ever felt that way, Stewart, when your double-decker bus breaks down? Or how about when the moat dries up around the castle and you can't go fishing for bluegill? Well . . . that's what marriage is like, that's why poets write, and that's why blogs like this get written.
Best of luck and Tally-Ho!
The Married Man

I love England by the way!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Reading The Bible While Reading The Bible

I'm about to complete my reading of Karen Armstrong's masterful book, The Bible, while reading the Bible. So, I'm learning a great deal right now about the Bible. First, history of the canon (that's the "official" collection of Biblical books, folks), then stuff like Midrash, Allegory, Christianization of the Jewish scriptures, and finally other movements and modernization. Great stuff. Really filled my keister with some new information and dredged up mounds of mouldy stuff that had been lingering inside my brain stem for nearly three decades since last I studied this deep in seminary.

But I like Armstrong's books . . . have a lot of 'em, and all are top-notch. Her autobiographical works, too, are some of the more enlightening memoirs I've perused in the past decade. She fascinates me, haunts my dreams (well, not really).

Still, any time I see a K. Armstrong book in the bookstore, I wanna grab her.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Wedding Bell Blues

Over the past three weeks I've had my first bits of "fan mail" and "f-email" arriving since the publication of Your Beautiful Wedding on Any Budget . . . a book that has been selling at such a slow pace and with such a languid sales record, everyone involved in the publishing process, including this writer, has fallen into a severe depression. My editor has threatened to sue. I could have sold more copies of this book had I printed them at Kinkos on bright-red card stock, gone door-to-door, and asked, "Hey, you wudn't wanna buy my book wucha?"

Still, a few brides have purchased copies in those rare Barnes and Noble stores littered around the country that are still financially solvent, and a few have sent along their own questions. Questions like:

Mr. Alleycat,
My boyfriend and I really love each other (some people only say they love each other, but we really do, and I ain't just writing this to impress you) and we've been talking marriage. What is this marriage thing anyway? Can you explain it to me?
Really in Love (and I'm serious here!)

Dear Really,
Mr. Alleycat

Mr. Book Writer,
I met Mr. Right on eHarmony last week. Only thing is, he's sort of engaged. Should I give up hope that this relationship will turn into something more than just a footnote on Facebook?
Yours truly,

Dear Hope,
It's hopeless.
Mr. Writer

See what I mean? I'm just no good at fan mail or f-email, or whatever they call it these days. Even when some woman sends me a photograph of herself with smudged lipstick on the back, I don't know what to say. I can barely handle my own wife. How am I supposed to help all of those other wife-wannabes out there?

Me . . . and Jewish Writers

(Isaac Singer . . . before he croaked)

Reading Writers at Work, I was also taken in by the interview with Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Jewish writer whose work I began reading in the 1980s. Singer has always written in Yiddish, and finding translators for his work has always been a difficult task (how many read/write Yiddish anymore?)

Nevertheless, Singer has written some of the most widely-anthologized short stories to be found in college English surveys, and over the years, I've managed to shelve a number of his books, which I still read periodically.

Singer was also responsible for leading me to another Jewish writer, Bernard Malumud, who was, no doubt, one of the best American writers of the 20th century. One of my best memories of reading Malamud was when, on a flight from New York to Tel Aviv in 1991, I read the entirety of his novel, The Assistant, probably his best work, though not his Pulitzer or National Book award nominee.

I've got every one of Malumud's books at home, and I frequently take down his massive collected works and enter another world.

So . . . I know a bit about Jewish authors, I think . . . and I'm always on the lookout for others.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Back to Reading . . .

Enough about my history and meager accomplishments. Let's get back to books. Over the past two-three weeks I've been perusing the 9-book series published by The Paris Review: Writers at Work--books I've found in used bookstores and online. These volumes, published over the span of a decade, are the best of The Paris Review interviews with writers. In a nutshell: inspiring, elucidating, illuminating.

Volume 5 is particularly striking to me, as it contains interviews with such luminaries as Pablo Neruda, John Cheever, Irwin Shaw, James Dickey, Joseph Heller, Gore Vidal, and Joyce Carol Oates. Even at 378 pages, I consumed this one in a day . . . and these interviews provided numerous insights into the writing lives of some of my favorite writers. I began read Cheever's short stories beginning in the 70s, and Shaw's novels and Heller's Catch-22 were staples for me in college. Vidal is a biggie on my shelves, too. And I've got an ample supply of Joyce Carol Oates novels, short-story collections, and poetry titles stuffed on shelves at my house, upstairs and down.

And as for James Dickey, he's renowned as a poet, but actually gained his fame from his novel, Deliverance. I've read the novel, seen the movie, and I have no desire to squeal like a pig.

But this, volume 5 of Writers at Work . . . I wasn't squealing, but I'm sure I was smiling as I read it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

In the Beginning: Page Fourteen

During the three years I spent at Duke, it was tough NOT writing. Oh, sure, I had the big research papers to write, the theses, the final exams in blue book . . . but none of these cranked my cogs. How I wrote all of that junk on my crappy little Smith-Corona correctable, I'll never know. But I always wanted to write what I wanted to write, not what was assigned to me.

After three years in the asylum, however, some good things did happen. First, I did get married in my last year. I did eek out a living to pay my Duke tuition in full (mostly by subsisting on 10 cent boxes of mac and cheese and selling my body and my bodily fluids for scientific experiments in the Duke hospital--no lie). And after three years, most of my seminary professors learned that I was not like the other students, and I was not going to write the cheesy-type of research papers most others handed in. Many of my papers were esoteric, bizarre, and borderline psychotic, and every now and then one of them would write, "This is actually good . . . but you need help", in the margins of the papers while sending along their hope that I would soon graduate and get-the-heck out of Durham.

I was happy to oblige.

And then it happened. On a May day in 1985, I skipped my graduation ceremony, stripped down to my skivvies, carried a beach blanket out onto the lawn of our apartment complex that was infested with cockroaches, and sat down in the sweet sunshine to begin a new novel and a new life. Becky, my bride of nine months, asked me, "What are you doing with that mound of paper?"

"Writing," I said.

And I did. And that was a sweet sunny day, and one of my fondest memories, and one of the brightest and best days of my life. And heck, I've never looked back.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

In the Beginning: Page Thirteen

As Charles Dickens once wrote to begin his Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times . . . it was the worst of times." That would describe my three years at Duke University Divinity School.

I went there because the campus was beautiful, but my suffering as a writer was immense. First, one year at Duke cost more than my entire undergraduate degree at ISU . . . no big surprise there. And the work load was immense, too. Mounds of books, mounds of research, mounds of time. It was tough for me to write a research paper on, oh, say, Ulrich Zwingli or a ten page paper on the Greek word LOGOS, when what I really wanted to write was the first chapter of a novel or a humorous essay that could be entitled, "How to Live on a Dollar a Day." But I did study, and I did do the work required. In fact, that's all I did. I had no friends. No buddies. No fun pursuits. I accepted a pastoral call in a small rural church and worked my fanny off, I worked a campus job, I wrote minuscule columns for even smaller pay . . . and in between the cracks I studied and wrote my dry, boring little papers for guys like Dr. Steinmetz and Dr. Langford. (But I loved them, anyway . . . just like a Div School student at Duke is supposed to do!)

About the only superb writing I turned out were love letters to Becky. We were not yet engaged and I was sending a letter every few days to Purdue to make sure she knew I still cared, and that I was living on a dollar a day, gnawing on chicken bones, sucking at the marrow for sustenance, and awaiting her graduation. (She was one of those slow-pokes who took four years to get her B.A.)

These were grand love letters. The real McCoy. All written on Duke University stationery in Duke blue ink.

And I kept telling her . . . some day I'm going to get out of this asylum and come for you and sweep you off your feet and then you can get a job and support me while I write.

She has not yet accepted that charge.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

In the Beginning: Page Twelve

Earning my degree from ISU was much like my writing: fast, furious, and affordable. I graduated in two and a half years with an English degree and a double minor in Writing and Classical Studies (lots of Homeric Greek). One semester, as I recall, I took 22 credit hours, which may still be an ISU record! To say that I had a life outside of studying and writing would be a lie. I was boring to a fault, and I still am. All I did was read, write, and eat corn chips.

Still, along the way I wrote more than any of my professors could read.

In the winter of 1981, I also enrolled in a writing course with a visiting professor who, oddly enough, hand-picked me to read some of my work at a "conference". As it turned out, the conference was a local Terre Haute tavern inhabited by inebriated patrons who interjected cat calls and heckles into the mix as I was reading. And, looking back on it, I think the professor actually had a thing for young boys like me; but I was just too naive and stupid to pick up on his advances. But somewhere in my files, I probably have the fountain pen he gave me as a parting gift. So much for love . . . .

And it was long about 1981 that I also made a decision to apply to seminary. I felt called to work with God's words, among other things. Words, I thought, still had power to persuade, heal and save.

Along the way, I had actually accumulated a 3.8 GPA, which weren't too God-awful for a small town hick like me (and a far cry from my bottom-of-the-high-school-class ranking), and I applied to Southern Methodist, Yale and Duke . . . and was accepted by all three. I chose Duke because I liked the campus and the distance from home and I wanted to make my momma cry. And besides that . . . Duke had bathroom walls that were unadorned by poetry. I checked. And so I had a blank slate to work with.

And during my brief years at ISU, I had begun to have some good fortune getting my work published . . . poetry mostly (which was so awful, I can't bear to read it now) and a few light essays and humor pieces.

On my final walk across the ISU campus, I also happened to run into Karl, who told me: "Whatever you do, don't stop writing. You've got the fire in the belly, and don't ever let it go out."

Thanks, Karl. It's still burning.

In the Beginning: Page Eleven

A few weeks later I found myself sitting under a giant pin oak on the ISU lawn listening to a guy named Karl talk about writing. Karl didn't want to be called Dr. Barnaby. He told us to call him Karl. Karl was hip; he was beatnik; he was with-it; he was makin' the scene, baby. But then, it was the late 70's, and everyone was trippin' back then and writing poetry and hangin' out and growin' their hair long.

I grew a grand, sweeping full coal-black beard, too. I returned to my roots of writing long hand on yellowed second-sheets of cheap paper . . . great heaping mounds of gobblety-gook that consumed class time and made the other students in the writing class scream, "Dig it!", and "Right on!" and "Wanna hang out at my pad later and listen to the Doobie Brothers?"

Karl dug me, too. I enrolled in a many a writing class with Karl. He didn't own a TV or a radio, lived in a shanty, and wore the same clothes to class each day. I did the same. By the second week of class everyone under Karl's tutelage could identify the others in the class by scent alone. But we were writing our guts out and it smelled like it.

One day Karl told me, "You might want to slow down a little. You're writing so much, I can't read all this stuff. You're like a machine. And how do you afford the paper?"

Been the story of my life with editors ever since. But thanks, Karl, baby. I dig you!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

In the Beginning: Page Ten

Six weeks after I graduated from high school, I was about to receive a grade for my first college course . . . and a writing class at that. Sitting in English Composition 101, a class consisting of a hundred students or more, I felt like a true freshman from a small town. The only thing I knew how to write with any proficiency was bathroom wall poetry.

But Dr. Gates was pressing the class with in-room assignments, requiring that we write five hundred word essays on subjects as diverse as strawberries, music, and how we felt about the opposite sex. And so I wrote.

Dr. Gates, a tiny man who lectured occasionally from behind a massive podium, appeared to be little more than a forehead and a nose, and he graded the living-heck out of our essays, marking papers in large red ink blotches and grading down entire letter grades for any number of grammatically-unforgivable errors or sloppy syntax. Much to my surprise, many of my papers came back with no other marks on them other than a large red "A".

On the final day of class, Dr. Gates handed everyone a small dot of paper with a final grade on it. I didn't get a paper, however. But at the end of that final class session Dr. Gates sent my heart into spasms when he said, "Now, as I dismiss class, I need to see Mr. Allycat. The rest of you . . .have a nice life."

Had I heard correctly? Mr. Alleycat? Was that me?

I meekly made my way forward as the masses were exiting the lecture hall and approached the old professor. "Dr. Gates. I'm Todd Outcalt. Did you want to see me?"

"Yes," he said in his nasally voice. He stretched out his hand. "Mr. Alleycat, I have enjoyed your work in this session. I give very few A's in my classes. And in this class, there is only one A. And you have received it." He handed me my slip of paper.

I thanked him. But not enough. I was stunned. I wasn't about to tell anyone . . . not even my parents. Heck, in high school, the other guys would have beaten me up for getting an "A" in anything. I just walked out, headed straight for the registrars office, and signed up for another writing class.

Monday, September 7, 2009

In the Beginning: Page Nine

As a HS senior I was forced to take a college-level English class with Miss Wallace, a teacher who had been intimidating students since the Eisenhower administration. Miss Wallace was a fixture, having taught not only the class of 1979, but many of their parents as well. Her grading scale and expectations were high. It took 95% or above to get an A. My last semester with her, I finally managed to eek out an A . . . but more than that, I actually began caring about this thing called English and writing.

My wife, Becky, loves to remind me that she graduated as the number-seven-ranked student in our class (a top-tenner, a National Honor Society member, a Phi-Betta-Kapper, and other accolades), while I, on the other hand, graduated closer to the bottom ten-percent of the entire enterprise. She got all the brains. All I got were the b---s.

Nevertheless, the day after I graduated from high school, my momma told me to get in the car and push my sorry butt twenty-five miles north to Terre Haute and enroll at Indiana State University. I had no plan. No fancy resume. No money. Heck, I barely had a diploma. But by golly, the accepted me there. But I figured, if ISU would accept Larry Bird as a student, they would accept anyone.

When the ISU registrar sitting behind the bullet-proof glass asked me if I wanted to declare a major, I said, "Yeah . . . English. I ain't a smart man, but I speak it pretty good." I then asked her to direct me to the men's room, so I could practice writing my poetry on the walls.

But I was "in". A real honest-to-goodness college student. And I began my first college course five days after I graduated from high school, before the ink had even dried on my high school diploma. I began earning my college credits while the others in my high school class were still whooping it up and making their scholarship selections to more prestigious universities with clean bathrooms.

I enrolled in a writing class, English Composition 101, with Dr. Gates. But like a child entering Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, I had no idea how this one decision would change my life.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

In the Beginning: Page Eight

For years leading up to the typing class, I had produced my work like Earnest Hemingway pecking two-fingered at the keyboard. I had a desk drawer full of stories and poems. But now I had a method and, as Emeril Laggasi might say, I was going to crank it up another notch.

I also asked my parents for a new electric typewriter my senior year in high school. I wanted an IBM Selectric, but I got a Smith-Cornona cartridge typewriter. . . the kind that had the correcting tape cartridge so I could white out mistakes. This was good enough for me. And this little baby followed me through college and seminary.

I also was fortunate enough to begin having some work published in high school. Small stuff really, but I thought it was grand. Poems that small magazines would publish in the margins. I think a youth magazine published one of my letters, and maybe even a short op-ed piece where I gave my opinion about some contemporary problem. At any rate, most didn't pay . . . but every now and again I would get a check in the mail. Five bucks, say, or ten. I cashed these and, as I recall, gave it all to the church thinking that God might bless me with faster fingers.

That never happened, but I did begin writing in other genres, too. And in those early days, I'd have to say that I was one heck of a letter writer. I wrote marvelous, handwritten letters to my family and friends from afar. Letters that should be preserved in the Smithsonian. They were raw and courageous. And I had not yet lost my ability to hold an ink pen and make pretty cursive letters. Becky still has many of these letters in her possession (though where, I don't know). These letters are filled with twenty-year old angst, passion, and frustration . . . the kind of stuff young writers need to begin a journey to the dark side before they stick their heads into ovens. Fortunately, Becky accepted me.

And after I had her on the chain . . . I knew there was so much more that I wanted to write.

Friday, September 4, 2009

In the Beginning: Page Seven

Mrs. Pohlman taught me how to type. Correctly, anyway. There were fifty students in her class. I was the only boy. I loved it. Got lots of attention. Usually from Mrs. Pohlman. She would drop by every couple of minutes while I was doing a tying exercise and she would rap my knuckles with a ruler and say, "Palms off the desk! Keep your fingers high! Hit those keys! Let me hear them!"

This was the era of the manual typewriter, folks, and to type, you literally had to "hit" the keys. I discovered I was a fast typist, but I made lots of mistakes. One mistake on a page was a letter grade demotion. Two typos was two letter grades.

I made a lot of D's and F's. I was the worst student in the class. But today, typing is the one subject I learned in high school that I use every day, and I'll bet I've typed rings around every single one of those girls in the class who got straight A's . . . so put that in your standardized-testing, SAT, ACT, ISTEP Pipe and Smoke It, Mr. Public Education guru!

Learning how to type correctly changed my life. Period. Following my junior year, I was all set to ask old dad for an upgrade on my typewriter. The way I figured it, if I had an IBM Selectric, I could make a million dollars writing the great American novel.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

In the Beginning: Page Six

During my high school years, I learned how to write. I loved bathroom walls (where I created original limericks and would hide between the urinals so I could overhear the principal laugh and yell to the custodian, "Hey, Marv, have you read this one over here in stall three with the big turd? What a hoot!" This, of course, inspired me to write even more).

I also wrote poems to girls. Love poems . . . real ones with feeling, yearning, and plenty of words that rhymed with "hex" and "vicissitudes". I expanded my vocabulary. I purchased my first thesaurus. The girls swooned when I carried my thesaurus to class. They asked me to pronounce, "thesaurus", since it was a new word to most of them. Becky was first in line.

And somewhere over the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I wrote an epic poem about my small hometown. It was a satirization of every business and business owner (but heck, there weren't that many!). Somehow, copies of this epic actually fell into the hands of others, and the copies proliferated and were distributed. Some of the owners were mad. My parents heard about it and demanded to see my original manuscript (neatly typed in double-spaced PICA and ready for publication).

Now, to this day, I can still recall grand, sweeping segments of that poem about some of the individual businesses and owners. Here are two that come to mind:

And then there is the B & G
Where hardware goods are sold,
You can buy a hammer for a buck,
'Cause it's a hundred-and-five years old.

And when you die, see Mr. Bill,
He is the funeral man.
He's got something for every taste
On his simple "lay-away" plan.

When school began my junior year, I was a cult hero. Copies saturated the school. My parents, however, made me apologize to a few of the store owners who were, they insisted, offended by my wit. "Where's their sense of humor?" I wondered.

Eventually I was taken in by a kindly older woman named Mrs. Pohlman, who taught English and typing. "Mr. Outcalt . . . I want you in my typing class next semester," she insisted. "I'm going to give you a new outlet for your creative energies."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

In the Beginning: Page Five

My first writing prize was awarded to me in the eighth grade. Every year our school allowed the eighth grade class to perform various skits and musical numbers in front of the entire student body as a kind of rite of passage on the final week of school. That year (1974?) I submitted a script to the teachers. It was a script I had typed on my Smith-Corona with two fingers (hunt and peck) and consisted of a bevy of short skits and musical numbers (yeah, I wrote the music, too!) that my friends and I were to perform.

Much to my amazement, the teachers allowed my script to pass muster and my friends and I went to work. I directed, choreographed, and even made a cameo appearance in the final production which we performed on the gym floor to a sell-out crowd. (Actually, no one purchased a ticket. The students were forced to attend by order of the principal, Mr. Huffman. He "Huffy" was the main target of my script. I, of course, barely graduated, and to this day, he has been my enemy for life.) Why the teachers allowed this monstrosity on the stage I still don't understand. But I loved their vote of confidence in my satirical skits and parodies, which I had already mastered by age thirteen.

The student body rioted. It was a hit. There might have even been a few broken windows. Perhaps a broken pelvis. But the reviews were stellar.

And me . . . ? I think more than a few of those teachers were glad that my typewriter and rapier wit were finally moving on to high school. I was already six foot two inches tall, weighted one hundred and forty pounds dripping wet, and could type fifty words a minute blindfolded, and by using only two fingers. Only God knew what would happen once I learned how to type like a normal person using all ten digits.

In the Beginning: Page Four

In the fall of my 7th grade year, I asked my parents if I could have a typewriter for my birthday. Sure, other kids my age were asking their parents for CB radios, or stereos, or the latest LP record of the Jackson 5. But my parents believed that all of these things were luxuries and preferred to give me, oh, a crescent wrench perhaps, or maybe a set of Ginsu Steak Knives, which my mother would later confiscate because she feared I might cut off a hand. So asking for a typewriter was like asking for the moon.

Still, dad came through. "Here's your damn typewriter," he told me. (Mom never bothered, and still doesn't, with wrapping gifts. I just lifted it out of the box.) It was a Smith-Corona manual.

I went to work right away: writing stories about dead planets, and dead people on them; stories about extraterrestrials with seven eyes, two stomachs and a gizzard; stories about kids who cut their hands off at the wrists by misusing Ginsu Steak Knives (having them cut off their second hand was very difficult and forced me to use my imagination by creating a literary assortment of belts and pulleys attached to bedposts).

Best of all, Ms. McGee adored my typewritten stories. I was the only kid in class who turned in his work neatly typed instead of written in a cursive hand that could have doubled as Ictheosaurus tracks. She wrote "A" in bright red lipstick across the top of the page and "See me after class out back of the lard cans behind the kitchen". My imagination ran wild.

I typed with two fingers, just like Dan-O on Hawaii 5-0, and I spent my weekends creating wild, wondrous tales. And every night dad would peek into my room around 1 a.m., his eyes bleary from lack of sleep, and he would ask, "Any chance you might stop that infernal racket and go to sleep? Do you know what time it is? Some of us have to work in the morning!"

I didn't have the heart to tell him I was working . . . and no, I couldn't stop. I just turned out the light and typed in the dark.