Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Speaking of Speaking

It's that time of the year again when I begin receiving a multitude of invitations to speak, or lead a workshop, or be a guest speaker at a luncheon, dinner or retreat. Some are out of state and would require travel.

I've come to realize, however, that guest speaking or keynote speaking just isn't for me. Sure, I can do it, but truthfully, I'd rather be at home and speak to my son and my dog. Communicating with them actually requires more skill, and I have to hone my speeches with precision and delicate word selection if I am to get the most response from them.

And so, for these and other reasons (including the fact that I only have one set of travel underwear, or will be driving a car that might break down at the end of my driveway, or that I'm being invited to speak at a location that doesn't have a Starbucks nearby) I turn down 95% of the invitations I'm offered. I'd rather stay at home and let Becky scream at me. I'd rather write something than "say" something. And if I do speak, I'll hold out for the really big bucks with an option in the contract for a new package of underwear.

Having written all of this for your understanding and enjoyment, however, I do feel that it's only fair to let others know why I can't accept their invitations to speak at the next bar mitzvah or the opening ceremony at the Hendricks County Insecticide Convention. For those who are planning these events and had me in mind as the keynote speaker, I do hope you'll understand. I'm just not cut out for the limelight and the fame. The fact is, I can barely tie my own shoe laces (and frequently don't) and my wife would tell you that I can't communicate worth a fart anyway.

No, I'm certain there is someone out there who is far more qualified than I to speak at the Cake Bakers Annual Frosting Festival. I'll just save you the trouble and say "no" at this time.

Thanks for your understanding.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Under Construction

For the past two weeks our house has been under repair (new siding and painting). And for the past two weeks I've been startled by pounding, hammering and screams outside the window. Believe me, it's tough to concentrate on writing and romance when someone is looking through an upstairs window in the twilight.

A few days ago I was zoned into writing a great piece when, suddenly, there was a hard knock on the door. One of the workers were there with a question: "Hey, Mr. Alleycat, do you mind if we leave our trailer in your driveway over the weekend? It's filled with junk and will look very unsightly."

"No, I don't mind," I said, pointing to the four junk cars I own. "Join the club."

I had just sat down to a new paragraph when, again, the door bell rang. "Hey," another worker said, "could you give me a glass of water?"

Water? I think we have plenty of that.

With these many interruptions, I'm not sure which type of construction is more difficult: constructing sentences or constructing a house. I am sure that the sentence construction, however, is woefully under-rated.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Vacation Writing

For the past twenty years or so, I've tried to combine summer family vacation and writing. It's not easy, but somebody has to do it.

Here's how it usually works:

During the planning stages I allow my wife (and now two children) to determine the final destination. I have no say in the vacation venue or itinerary, I just bring the necessary cash for gasoline and Almond Joys. I am the lightest packer and only bring along one change of underwear (I can use my swim trunks in a pinch).

Once the destination and itinerary has been established I then begin to plan a writing scheme that might net some travel writing assignments or human-interest stories for magazines, or pieces I might be able to use in future books. For example, in the past ten years I've written pieces on the following (not all published):

A trip to Hawaii netted me two nice articles for AAA Midwest Magazine on the island of Molokai and Kayaking the Na'Pali' cost of Kawaii.

Another trip to Galena, Illinois netted me some background information on Ronald Reagan.

And last year, during a trip to California wine country, I wrote two pieces on various boutique wineries and smaller wine regions around Clear Lake.

This year, with a trip planned to Michigan once again, I am really struggling to think of some connection points. Some article titles that I'm working on include:

"Boring Vacations: How to Recognize One After You've Planned It"
"Old Foggie Romance: Ten Possibilities for Nookie While the Teenagers are Watching a DVD"
"Gas Mileage Made Easy: How to Lighten the Load by Dumping a Youngest Child at a Rest Stop"
"Writing on Vacation: One Dad's Personal Struggle to Find the Meaning of Existence While Eating Fast Food on a Cross-Country Journey to Nowhere"

Friday, June 25, 2010

Eight Ball Moments

Every writer has his/her odd moments, and for me, most of those have revolved around rejections and conversations with agents. Three of the strangest involve:

Taking the narrow-gauge train from Durango to Silverton, Colorado during the height of a large forest fire. I'm not sure why the brains didn't cancel the train, but they didn't. Our family rode the train through the mountains where great flames were shooting into the sky and airplanes would swoop down and drop tons of water into the inferno. When we arrived at Silverton, my first order of business was finding an internet cafe where, after quickly checking my emails, I learned from my New York agent that the publisher was passing on my follow-up title to Candles in the Dark and, also, that my agent was dumping me. It was a longer ride back to Durango through the flames and I felt like Dante in the seventh ring of hell.

Conducting an early-morning radio interview from a hotel room while my wife and I were on an anniversary vacation. Becky couldn't keep her hands off me and I was trying to talk to the radio host about The Best Things in Life Are Free.

After picking up Logan at the high school, I had just pulled into our driveway when my cell phone rang and I learned that my agent (my fourth in seven years) was "cutting me loose". I've been cut loose many times, but at least my wife hasn't said she was cutting me loose (yet) and, so far, I've been able to find other agents who will work with a loser like me.

Which leads me to wonder: Am I the eight ball in this mix?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Self Consciousness

A couple of weeks ago I received a supply of books via the mail. Most of these were used, hardbound copies of books written by John Updike, including his 1989, and solitary memoir, entitled, Self Consciousness. Having now read the work through once, I was struck by a quote near the end of the work where Updike writes:

So writing is my sole remaining vice. It is an addiction, an illusory release, a presumptuous taming of reality, a way of expressing lightly the unbearable.

Of course, although I feel an affinity to Updike's insistence upon the place of writing in his own life, I could never have written these lines. That is why Updike is Updike (and, oh, how I miss seeing his name in the pages of The New Yorker already!) and why I am just a slack-jawed hack who continues to turn out pages each day that don't go anywhere or say anything of import or weight. I still have my 20+ unpublished novels stacked like chord wood in my closet, mounds of unpublished stories and essays, hundreds of floppy disks loaded with articles, book proposals, manuscripts, sermons, studies and writing ideas. I had never thought about it in Updikian terms before, but I guess I could call this writing an addiction and a vice. But then, I suppose if these are the terms of the game, then most anyone who is devoted to producing a work every day without fail could be deemed an addict.

I suppose I could regard writing as a vice since there have been times I've spent most of my vacation sitting in a hotel room writing while the rest of the family combed the beach, or I've spent hours writing inside a hot car while the rest of the family walked the mall, or why I have, for years now, risen before the birds to begin a day of writing or why I have persisted through the night on cups of coffee, head spinning, while hoping that "the next one" will actually be a hit and sell some copies. Okay, Mr. Updike, I get it. My name is Todd and I'm an addict. No, I've never snorted cocaine or drained a reefer to the smoldering end of the roach, and I drink only sparingly just to take the edge of off reality . . . but I do have to write. I admit it now. I must.

And I thank Mr. Updike for saying it so well . . . a guy who worked for many years in an overhead apartment, chain-smoking as he typed page after page of excruciatingly beautiful prose and gave his books to the world.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Lineup

Yesterday I was standing in line when it happened: a woman turned to me and asked, "Don't you write books?"

Now, this is something of a first for me. I had no idea where this was heading. Did she need a loan? Was she mistaking me for a well-known author?

I nodded.

"I thought I recognized your picture," she said. I didn't ask her to explain. Perhaps she had seen my photo on the WANTED board in the post office. I wasn't taking any chances. I just thanked her. And she didn't comment on whether or not she actually liked my books, if she had read a couple.

Thankfully, my last book didn't include an author photo. I like that about publishers, when they don't worry about photographs. My name is embarrassing enough.

At least she didn't ask, "So, how do you pronounce your name?"

I would have told her, "Alleycat," just to be safe.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Premature Rejection

I will remember Monday, June 21. That's the day I received my quickest rejection . . . ever! Late in the afternoon I had sent a humor submission to The New Yorker's "Shouts & Murmurs" via email. Less than five minutes later the editors sent me notification of rejection.

Not that I'm complaining. In fact, it's rather refreshing to get feedback in minutes rather than months, or even years. And now I can move the piece along to another magazine, which I already have. Two submissions of the same piece in under ten minutes. Not bad.

Many things in life are, of course, much better in quick time. Fast food wouldn't be nearly as good if it were slow food. Ever eaten a cold slider? Or how about those phone conversations with sales reps? I'm always appreciative when the voice on the other end of the line strikes quickly, and tells me exactly why they've called, instead of opening the conversation with, "Have you got a couple of hours to spare so I can tell you about a little product that will change your life?" Well, actually, I don't . . . and what makes you think my life could be any better? I always tell these reps, "Actually nothing can improve my life. It's that bad. There's no product that can keep me from going gray worrying over a 16-year-old nincompoop, no product that can improve my already stellar love life with a woman who is now taking motorcycle-riding lessons, no product that can improve my memory or keep me from falling into a deep chasm of depression.

No . . . just give me the facts. Make it quick! Let's pretend this is Dragnet and I'm packing heat. I love role-playing!

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Longest Sermon

Before a recent television interview (I hate these things!) the host asked me: "What's this I read about you preaching the longest sermon in Indiana history?"

"Well," I said, "I don't actually know if it was the longest, but it was a 12-hour attempt, and to my knowledge, there's no sermon in Indiana that has been longer."

"Fascinating," he said, "and how did you hold up?"

"My throat was raw at the end," I said.

"Are you going to do it again?"

"Never," I said.

It's funny the things that media folks can find on a person--particularly since the 12-hour sermon was nearly 6 years ago. But, most never ask me about some of my truly spectacular accomplishments, and so, toward that end, I hereby provide this list:

* I helped to pay my way through college by painting houses, dorm rooms, and natural gas wells.
* I paid my way through seminary by serving two churches, working as a hospital chaplain, writing, and working a campus job to boot (and with a full load of classes).
* I once ate a 20 foot black licorice whip (man vs. food, single sitting).
* A week later I had hemorrhoids from eating the licorice whip (man vs. bathroom).
* I have purchased jewelry for my wife on anniversaries and birthdays.
* I once leg pressed 1200 pounds (1 rep), 1000 pounds (3 reps), and 800 pounds for 40 reps (I could not walk the next day).
* I wrote a 200 page book in 24 hours.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Christmas in June

It is strange writing about Christmas in June . . . but that's the nature of thinking ahead and submitting ahead of the curve. Publishers (particularly magazines) anticipating Christmas stories and submissions for their December issues will be looking for material soon. And this means that writers can't wait until September or October to submit Christmas material. Writing, in many ways, also involves looking into the future, thinking ahead, and beating the curve.

So . . . June has been a month of Christmas stories--and some great ones this year if I do say so myself. I hope there will be a few editors out there who will receive my work with a smile and say, "Hey, now there 's guy who is ahead of the curve. A Christmas submission in June. What do you know about that?"

Which makes me wonder: what do I need to be writing this fall?

Friday, June 18, 2010


Recently I noted a statistic that showed that 85% of Americans have not downloaded a single book in the past year. About 10% of Americans, on the other hand, have downloaded 1-10 books in the past 12 months (primarly women . . . since women buy and read 90% of published books).

Now, I'm no Luddite, but these changing stats are slowly changing the face of publishing in America.

About a month ago, I had the opportunity to change over several of my out-of-print titles to downloadable Kindle format, but I declined. I made the decision to support traditional publishing, with the publisher offering my titles in print and digital formats at the time of publication, with royalties attendant in the two versions. Still, I am amazed how many people do download my titles--though print is still far stronger. (I don't make any money in either version, but that's another story!)

Me? I don't see myself buying any of the new gadgets any time soon. I am still one of these old foggies who views the book as an object of desire, not just an information source. I see the book as an object, a piece of art, a commodity of style, a tradeable item that can be shared with someone else after I've read it, an item I can donate to a library or a need overseas. Downloads cannot play in ANY of these stadiums (lest one violate copyright laws). What would I say? I just read this great book . . . here, why don't you steal this digitalized information out of my handheld and read it for yourself? No thank you!

I'm not against downloads, it's just that I don't see the death of the hardback bestseller quite yet, nor the death-knell of the trade paperback or the mass market grocery store novel. I still read the newspaper every morning--though I can get the news from that same paper online every morning for free.

Keep on publishing Mr. Publisher. I'll keep buying!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Interviewing With the Stars

A few hours ago I completed a television interview via Skype . . . the new (now rather old) free service that allows people to talk and view each other live via satellite. In lieu of travelling to Pittsburg for this interview, I sat at home in my underwear (wearing a dress shirt and sport coat up top) and chatted away with the show's host, James, about my newest book (which is now an old book). Being able to do a television interview in my underwear is a great bonus for me.

Afterwards, Becky and Logan were standing in the kitchen with some guacamole and chips.

"How did the interview go?" Becky asked.

"Okay," I said. "I hope I didn't sound like an idiot."

"Well," Logan answered, "you look like one! What was the name of the television show?"

"I don't know," I said.

"Who's going to see it?" he asked. "Was it live?"

"It was live. I don't know who will see it. Whoever watches that network, I guess," I said.

Eventually I was able to hang the shirt and tie back in the closet and eat some chips at my old computer, which doesn't, by the way, have a camera. Thank God. Now and I can write in peace and not have to worry about what I'm wearing.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Shore Enough

Reading John Updike's Hugging the Shore is an experience everyone should have who enjoys the fine details of word selection, sentence construction, and otherwise great writing. This collection of Updike's (mostly) book reviews and essays from (primarily) the mid-1980s shows him at the height of his powers. At the time JU was writing a book review per month for the New Yorker, and most of the reviews in this collection are from those years when Jonathan Raban, Saul Bellow and others were in full swing in the literary limelight.

I read collections like this (which would be "dry" to most) precisely because one can study the nuances of the craft of writing and gauge the context of thought inside carefully chosen language.

These collections give me enough gumption to admit where my deficiencies are and try to correct them. I find myself asking questions like:

Do I need to work harder?
Do I need to rise earlier?
Do I need to stay on task for a longer period of time, and write fewer pages to produce better work?
Do I need to cut off a couple fingers and collect insurance?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What's Up?

I had no less than a dozen people last week ask: "What are you writing these days?" Some of the folks actually seemed interested, too.

So, let me explain.

First, I have several book proposals that have been cycling around New York this past month, including one about the dead American presidents--a kind of historical work that will feature pithy information and historical insights that I hope would be illuminating in a variety of ways. It will be a great book if I can get it picked up by a publisher, and one that will take me several years to write . . . but making the jump to historical works (as far as many publishers are concerned for me) is like asking Mr. Sulu to "push it to the limit" and asking Scotty "for more power!" Many publishers regard me as a Klingon. I'm not the type of species they desire to work with.

Okay, but I've got more, including a book about gospel in sports that I'd love to write, and another book on lesser-known Bible stories. These are all books.

On the essay front, I've been writing scads of humor lately, and if I don't mind saying so, some of the best stuff I've ever created. The New Yorker, McSweeney's, and MAD continue to be the recipients of my off-the-cuff insanity. Eventually I'll strike a nugget with one of these.

And I've also been writing letters. Stuff like:

"Hey, Becky, you forgot to pick up bread at the store yesterday. What am I gonna do for sandwiches?"


"Please disregard the dirty socks. I'm gonna wear them again this week so we won't have to do a laundry and waste detergent. And I can always buy more at Goodwill . . . ."

Monday, June 14, 2010

Reading from the Back Row

I look several books with me over the weekend and managed to read them from the back row, including Novel Preaching. This little book was interesting, as it promised to have insights gleaned from novelists and story-writers, but I was a bit disappointed in the lack of connections the author found with writers. The quotes were few and far between, but I did get her points and found her overviews helpful.

But, of course, I would much rather have read any of the novels in question or quotes, which is why I also brought along John Updike. More on him later.

Reading from the back row of the conference also gave me a fascinating perspective (the author of this book says that preachers need to be first and foremost observers and listeners).

Well, I observed plenty, and I didn't say a single word in the plenary. But I did note that some people (particularly one lay gentleman) seemed enamored by their own voice and kept returning to the microphone to make, what he believed, was a vital point of order. (How does this guy return to conference EVERY year? Don't we want to spread the goodies around in our churches?)

I also noted that most everyone outside the BAR tried to vote (don't they know that votes in the upper level don't count?). I also witnessed several pastors returning from a golf outing (the spiked shoes were a dead giveaway) and several who, like me, preferred to read.

One final observation, I'd never had so many people walk up to me and say, "Hey, aren't you that guy who writes the column in Together? I really like that column!"

I always give the same answer, "No, that's just someone who looks like me."

Friday, June 11, 2010

Writing from the Hot Seat

Today, while at annual conference in Muncie, I decided to do some writing from the front seat of my decrepit 2000 Windstar (109,000 miles on the odometer). Needless to say, it was hot sitting there in the idle van, my shirt growing dark with sweat rings, my brow dripping away the five hundred milligrams of salt I had consumed in my french fries at lunch.

Still, when a guy has to write, he has to write . . . and as the old joke goes: Where do writers do it? Answer: In the front seat of a hot van. And yes, I was writing so furiously the van was oscillating. (If this van's a rockin', don't come a knockin'.)

But writing in a hot van, my attentions were attune with the temperature and I found myself writing parody poems of the great "Poet of the Yukon" Robert Service. I was dreaming of snow and ice, and considering how some of Service's poems may have been lost and unpublished, like this one stanza I completed before I passed out from heat exhaustion:

The man who thrives
And not simply survives
Is not the one who might know
How to make lots of money
Or work while it's sunny
But can track his pee stains in the snow.

Of course, I'm still in the process of refinement, as you can tell. But I'm a lot cooler now just thinking of snow.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Annual Conference Poem

As I ready myself for a weekend in Muncie, I couldn't help but wax a bit poetic in my expectations of annual conference.

The Annual Conference Poem

It's a frightening matter
When all clergy gather
Inside a confined space like a fence,
For it's then you can tell
How bad they all smell
When it's time for their conference.

Yes, out there in the world,
With their faith flags unfurled
Their preaching might actually make sense.
But cooped up one room
They're a package of doom
When they come to their conference.

Oh, some clergy for sure
Like to sit and demure
And lobby with women and gents
On one measure or other
(But really, why bother?)
It's only a conference.

And others, like me,
Look forward to tea,
And dreaming of other weeks hence
When the final prayer's said
And I'll be in bed
With my wife after conference.

And yes friends, I know,
Some consider it low
That I hold this up as defense,
But the fact still remains
There are far greater gains
To be made after conference.

But in case you are one
Who has lots of fun
I hope that you won't take offense
When I mention how lame
It all seems (and the same)
When we gather for conference.

As I round out the score
I intend not to bore
When I tell you it's no great suspense,
That I shed not a tear
After Muncie each year
When I drive home from conference.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Reading From the Back Row

I am now making my plans for annual conference . . . and this includes taking along a copious amount of reading material. God knows I need something to do while sitting on the back row in the balcony at Emens Auditorium.

Among the titles I'm bringing this year are:
William Randolph Hearts: The Uncrowned King (still working on this one after three weeks)
Novel Preaching
John Updike: The Interviews

I must also not forget to bring my reading glasses. I am now nearly helpless without my reading specs. Even large print is difficult to see unless I have magnification and light.

Even writing this blog is a labor of love, as I must constantly retype lines and make sure I am not typing incoherent blather.

And, with my reading glasses, I cannot see anything far away. This makes going to annual conference a great joy, as I won't be able to see anything on the stage. I'll just have to ask the person sitting two rows away: "Hey, is that Betty White on stage?"

It won't be, of course. Nothing at conference is ever that exciting!

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Joys of Book Promotion

There are several events, dates, conversations, and appearances that have been lined up for me of late . . . all designed to promote and otherwise spur books sales. Oh, the joys of it all.

One recent attempt to contact a book marketer landed me in voice-mail purgatory where, after days (yes, days!) of attempting to contact the person in question, I finally gave up and left an otherwise frustrated message that said something like: "Here are the three best ways to reach me . . . now, catch ME if you can!"

We have yet to make contact, and the event date is closing fast. Personally, I don't think we are going to make a connection. It's like giving a bad bid on the Price is Right. Ain't nothin' right about any of this, and as a writer, I got better things to do. Anyone wants one of my books, they know where to find 'em.

Later this week I am also slated to do a live interview via Skype . . . and I am actually a bit eager and nervous to see how this will come off.

At the end of all things, I'm not so sure that any amount of promotion and marketing makes as big a difference as word of mouth. People like books that other people are reading and talking about. I know I do.

But my name isn't Smuckers . . . and with a name like Outcalt, I'm not so sure that anyone is going to remember me.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


A few weeks ago a friend posed the question: "Where do you get ideas for your writing?"


Well, one in respect this is easy to answer, but in another respect, difficult. On the easy front . . . I've never lacked for ideas to write about. In fact, I have entire notebooks (like dozens of notebooks) scrawled with outlines of ideas for essays, articles, and books. Some of these are one or two words, or a few sentences. And other ideas are more expansive, sometimes consuming dozens of pages, with outline, chapter headings and such.

But while ideas are easy to come by, great ideas are a bit more elusive. Most ideas don't generate enough heat to warrant my tossing a handful of kerosene words into the mix.

However, in case anyone is interested in where some of my recent ideas have come from, here's a few of the pieces I am currently writing, or will soon be engaged in writing--along with the genesis of each.

My next column for Together magazine will be about summer weddings . . and the ideas here were recently generated on Facebook when some of my other pastor friends began back-and-forthing about their padded honorariums and wedding horror stories. I can't pass up an opportunity to weigh in on some of this banter.

I have three new humor essays I'm working on--each of which I intend to send first to The New Yorker for Shouts and Murmurs. One of these will be entitled, "Sanitized for Your Protection" (my humorous thoughts on motel toilet seat usage), another will be entitled, "Objects in Rearview Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear" (this is rife with driving humor) and the third, "Football Chaplain", is a piece I am reworking from twenty years ago . . . a humor piece which was, by the way, rejected by Roger Angell at The New Yorker who told me in a handwritten rejection, "This is quite good . . . hope you will submit again." It's one of the few rejection letters I've kept nearby. Well, Mr. Angell, it's twenty years later, and I'll be sending it again!

And, most recently I've also written essays about beavers (idea: from kayaking down Whitelick creek), President Benjamin Harrison and the American flag (idea: generated from wondering how the Indianapolis Monument Circle, and the proliferation of American flags during Harrison's administration, might be related). I'm also gathering information about R. F. Outcault, one of America's first comic strip creators and an ancestor, and I've been reading a profusion of books about turn-of-the-century New York newspapers and biographies of Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, and others in order to gain a greater depth and clearer perception of those times and Outcault's role in the rise of American journalism.

Finally, I have, during the month of May, written three very good Christmas stories (don't ask me why May was the month for this . . . .) My daughter, Chelsey, will be painting a cover for one of these stories which I will share with the congregation on Christmas eve, and I've submitted two of these to publishers for consideration as children's books. Where did I get the ideas for these? From the Bible. From my imagination. From the air around me (?).

Where do other ideas come from? From conversations, overheard conversations, imagined conversations, from television snippets, from reading the newspaper, from Facebook, from books, from more books, from the Bible (yes, it's a wealth of ideas!!) and from sitting in silence at four a.m. with a cup of coffee, or sitting alone at midnight on the back porch listening to the call of the coyote and wondering, where does the coyote sleep during the day?

Ideas are everywhere. But the secret is writing them down . . . condensing and distilling them. And then maybe, perhaps, possibly . . . I sit down to write about one of them.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Take One . . . It's Free

Last night, while eating out at P.F. Changs, my wife reminded me (as she always does!) of how large a failure I am as a writer, and how little I have to show for 35+ years of slaving over words and sentences and getting paid for my efforts. She even reminded me that I have given all of my paltry royalty earnings to those in need, and that when I have books on hand, I give them away liberally (even though I had to purchase them myself and have gone into debt doing so).

Well, I couldn't argue her points . . . not while eating Moo Goo Gui Pan, anyway. But I did have to remind her about some interesting "gifts" that I have received from people when I have given away my books.

One of the most heart-warming took place at a Chinese restaurant in Southport about ten years ago. I had just learned that my book, Candles in the Dark, was going to be translated and published in Chinese, and so I went online and somehow managed to purchase five or six copies of the Chinese edition. I sent some to Chinese friends at various universities (again, with my compliments) and one or two to Chinese churches in Indianapolis. And when we went out to eat one night, I brought along another copy for the owner of the Chinese restaurant. Our exchange went something like this:

Me: I wanted to give you a gift. I am a writer, and this is one my books. It was recently translated into Chinese and I wanted you to have a copy. I hope you will enjoy it.

Owner: What? You wrote this? You write Chinese?

Me: No! I didn't write it in Chinese. I wrote it in English, but this is the Chinese translation. I want you to have a copy.

Owner: Me? You wrote this for me?

Me: Well . . . for you to read. Enjoy it.

Owner: (Large tears forming in his eyes, cupping my little, insignificant Brokeback Mountain book to his chest.) Thank you! Thank you! I bring dinner! Yes, I bring dinner!

Minutes later, and quite unexpectedly, the owner shows up at our table porting the largest plate of orange chicken I have ever seen. "On the house," he tells us.

And so . . . last night I reminded my wife when I received the P.F. Change bill for $50: "You see, it pays to give books away and to go into debt! Just look at this bill!"

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Out of Print . . . Again

Last night I began perusing the internet for some out-of-print books written by favorite authors. But what I didn't expect to find were more of my books relegated to the out-of-print category, many of which could be had for the low price of $1.00 or less.

Being relegated to "out-of-print" status also means that any royalties that I would have earned from these books are now impossible. Out-of-print for the author means "out of work", "out of time", and "not even a snowball's chance of earning that whopping palm-full of pocket change the publisher calls 'payment.'"

An author experiences grief whenever a book (bearing the author's name) goes out-of-print. It is a form of loss, and this loss can also be accompanied by depression, a period of restlessness, or "the munchies." In my case, I've eaten four two-pound bags of potato chips in the past twenty-four hours . . . and most of these were at breakfast. I have subsequently spent eight hours working outside: cutting wood, mowing grass, and cursing at mulberry trees. And my work in the gym has been downcast, but inspired: I even screamed before I completed a two hundred and seventy pound bench press this morning--my best effort in months.

And today . . . well, I've finally shaken myself out of the writing doldrums and I have made a new commitment to getting some manuscripts back into circulation and writing a couple of new essays before I leave for Muncie in a week. (What's in Muncie, you ask? Answer: Other than Ball State, all of my money, and two thousand United Methodists . . . Nothing!)

Now that most of my books are out of print, I guess I can concentrate on writing haikus again . . . or perhaps some comedy sketches. I hear there are people in Mudville who are yearning for a laugh.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Book Party

At a recent party--a wild affair replete with balloons, bottomless glasses of lemonade, and gray-headed people who were, in lieu of death, marvelling at the weather--I struck up a conversation with an acquaintance who told me, with some aplomb and pride, that he liked to read books and would never purchase "one of those electronic devices that are now all the rage." He ended his thoughts with the idea that he wanted to help preserve traditional book publishing.

"I'm glad you read books," I said. "Do you buy them, too?"

He seemed perplexed by my question, as if saving books and buying books were, somehow, unrelated.

Ah, but herein lies the problem--and many people are now weighing in on the great, sweeping changes that are now tossing publishing houses and bookstores into uncharted waters.

In the summer fiction issue of The Atlantic Monthly, author Paul Theroux offers some excellent insights about the e-book vs. the paper book and deftly manages to navigate these two oceans that seem, on the surface, to be in different hemispheres of thought. But one reality looms large in the discourse: publishing is changing . . . and rapidly. On the one hand there are those who regard books as either an entertainment or an information medium. And if this is what a book is, then it doesn't matter how that information is conveyed. Digital is faster, easier, and more readily accessible. One doesn't need paper and ink to get information. And on the other hand there are those who regard books as entities, as objects, and not just information crucibles. The book itself is a form (with first, second editions, etc.) and without the form we lose the ability to appreciate the medium and the art.

I see both sides. But one thing is certain. Paper and ink books (and bookstores) will go the way of the dinosaur if people don't buy books . . . in bookstores. That's true of any medium. The movie industry cannot survive (screenwriters, producers, actors) if people do not go to movie theatres to buy tickets. If the movie industry is reduced to DVD and Blu-Ray rental, it will soon collapse (and is, in fact, showing some signs of collapsing). The same is true of art and any creative act. If creation is reduced to a pop-up on the computer or as a screensaver, no art, cinematography, photography, painting, or writing can survive for long.

Still . . . the conversation needs to continue. And I'm still waiting for my friend to tell me he is actually going to buy a book instead of just being a reader.