Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Blog

Starting January 1 I'll add a second blog to my daily routine. Yes, I'll still be blogging Between Pages and plan to reach the 1000 blog milestone for this page around mid-year 2011. But for those who might appreciate a quasi-morning-devotional of a different sort, I'll be adding Todd's Ten to the mix.

Every morning, when I rise, I'll offer a 250-300 word insight on some topic or another. I'll share ten insights I have about this topic over a two week period, and by the end of the year, I'll actually have a book. In fact, I hope to use this new blog to create a book of odd, esoteric devotions.

What's up first on the new blog? Ten Ways to Approach a New Year.

You won't have any trouble finding the new blog (, but don't forget this bit of insanity either. I'll still be right here at Between Pages ( and hope to take you on a crazy office-by-office tour as we follow one of my newer book proposals from creation, to agent, to editor, to Manhattan and, eventually, back to rejection and square one. It should be a fun blog series and I hope you'll join me in January.

God bless you in 2011 . . . and don't forget to laugh!!!! Life is much richer if you do.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tax Time

Now that 2010 is nearly complete, it's time for writers everywhere to gather up those year-end royalty statements and prepare to pay the tax piper. Of course, only a very small percentage of writers actually have to worry about their tax liabilities, and when tax time rolls around, I can at least be grateful that Uncle Sam isn't going to get rich off my work. My books haven't sold diddly, and besides, I have given away all of the royalties I have received in 2010. My pockets are empty, and if the tax man cometh on April 15 asking for additional revenue, I can show him my pathetic royalty balance sheet and tell him to kiss my grits.

Not that a change of pace wouldn't be in order. In fact, I'd like to actually pay tax on my royalties one of these days. That would mean that my books actually sold copies and the publishers sent me cash in the form of a six-month-old faded check. Heck, what am I saying . . . I'd like to owe a lot of tax. I'd like for an IRS agent to audit me and ask the question: "So, Mr. Alleycat, where have you stashed the additional million you received from your book royalties?"

But as it stands now the only thing an IRS agent would ask is, "Are you really driving a 1991 Caprice station wagon with 175,000 miles on the odometer, and did you honestly go broke writing checks to Ball State and Indiana University in 2010?" An IRS agent might also take a look at my bank ledger and ask, "You call this a savings account?" There might also be a fair amount of laughter at such an audit and the IRS agent might accuse me of masquerading as a writer. Afterwards, the agent would feel sorry for my plight and buy me a beef taco.

I'm not complaining, though. I am grateful for many things, including the opportunity to write essays, articles, poems, and books . . . and a few of them actually good enough for publication. (In 2010, a very few!)

As for my total royalties in 2010, I'll just dump this chump change into my pickle jar and write a check for missions. That way, someone will benefit from my pathetic attempts, and I can return to the writing desk in 2011 with a clear conscience and a clean slate.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wild Kingdom

From the publication of his first book, Barrel Fever, I've been an ardent reader of David Sedaris humor. I've even paid big money to hear him speak. But his latest work, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, is far less than a "modest bestiary." It's just bestial. In fact, I'm not sure what these brief forays into the animal kingdom are supposed to be: morality plays? social commentary? a modern-day rendition of Orwell's Animal Farm? a Sedaris version of Aesop's fables? Call me old-fashioned, but I'm not capturing the archetype here.

I'll still remain a Sedaris fan, but I'm glad this was a "modest" book. Anything more lengthy and I would have shelved it (as I do other books that don't capture my interest or intellect).

Having said that, there were a few smoldering embers in these pages that hinted at the presence of fire, but most of these turned out to be false alarms. Dogs, cats, owls, rats, sheep . . . Sedaris takes on all forms of rodent, fowl and livestock and anthropomorphizes them into various shapes and attitudes and voices, but I'm afraid I just couldn't make the leap necessary to socialize with his wild kingdom.

I'll eagerly await his next book, but until then . . . I'll relegate this book the barn.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Jerry's Journal

After reading Shawn Levy's biography of Jerry Lewis, I felt that I had to give Mr. Lewis an opportunity to speak for himself, and so I next polished off Dean & Me, written by The Nutty Professor himself. This is Jerry Lewis's personal memory of his song-and-dance relationship with Dean Martin . . . including their incredible show business relationship (has there ever been another duo like Martin & Lewis?) and their eventual breakup.

I'm not sure if I gained any new insights about Lewis and Martin from reading this memoir-autobiographical log, but at least I gave Lewis his due.

But there . . . I've read both books, and now I can move on to other titles. I've got some history to read, some novels, some humor, and a fair amount of theology and reference works waiting in the wings. By the time New Year's Day rolls around, I may have polished off the whole Christmas stack (if the reading gods smile favorably upon me and my eyesight can hold out).

Who knows. I might even watch one of those old Martin and Lewis movies.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Here's Jerry!

A few weeks ago, I procured a number of first edition volumes including King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis. I grew up watching Jerry Lewis movies and frequently practiced yelling, "Hey, Ladyyyyyy!" in the hallways at school.

Reading this bio, however, confirmed many of the notions I had about Lewis: namely that he is a difficult and disturbed individual who also happens to be a comedic genius and also one of the best comic movie writers, directors and actors of all time.

I'm glad I read about Lewis, but I'd rather watch his movies. Most often, the people on the big screen--especially the comedians--are messed up. Lewis fills the bill perfectly.

I'll just keep practicing my Lewis lines and making his faces.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas in May

For those who attend one of our four Christmas Eve services at Calvary tonight, be sure to pick up a copy of "The Memory and the Dream" . . . my Christmas gift to the congregation this year in the form of a scroll. I'll also be reading another story, "The Peddler", as my message.

Interestingly enough, I wrote both of these Christmas stories (along with two others) back in May. And if you recall, May was HOT. I wrote these four stories over a two week period sitting on the back porch at night dripping with sweat. I had to write something winterish to keep cool.

Which makes me wonder: do I need to sit on the back porch now and write about summer? I could plop down in a lawn chair in a swimming suit and see how long I could write before dropping off into hypothermia. Might be interesting.

Writing outside of the season has its own energy. I've already discovered that I've written two stories about Spring and I'm working on my Easter story, too. Snow and cold will do that to a person.

It's not yet Christmas, but I'm already past it. As my wife and I toasted (last night) another year of Christmas completed, we were already turning our attentions elsewhere toward the promise of a new year and plans for travel to some exotic location. Preferably some place warm.

I'm ready for Spring . . . and we've not yet tackled the big pile of crap under the tree. But since we don't have small children in our house any more, I've already received instructions. "Don't wake us until noon!" Amen. I'm not sure I'll be dreaming of a white Christmas. I'll just be dreaming. And maybe later, a bit of writing, too.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Travel Writing

I've done a fair amount of travel writing over the years. I like to write about travel since I do so little of it. Writing about exotic places like Akron, Ohio or Tupulo, Mississippi is a release for me, since I have no way to actually see these places. Writing about incredible experiences like alligator wrestling or photographing the red-breasted titmouse is my only way to dream about getting out of town. And during this time of the year, I begin to dream of getting out of the prison called Indiana.

There will, of course, be no vacation for my family this Christmas. We are, unfortunately, snowbound with each other, and we are just waiting for Aunt Edna to die so we can strap her to the top of the car. I have the station wagon waiting in the driveway, and as soon as Spring pops up the daffodils I'm going to get the vacation-mobile running again. We'll take a trip to Plainfield and eat four pounds of ground beef at Red Robin. I might even strap the dog to the back bumper and save on the veterinarian's euthanasia bill.

One of my proudest pieces of travel writing was published in AAA Midwest Travel. I wrote about the Hawaiian island of Molokai (highest sea cliffs in the world) and then did a second piece on ocean kayaking for a sports magazine. Earlier this year I also wrote three rather esoteric travel articles about California wine country, including the boutique wineries of Clear Lake, Amador County, and Mendocino County. I skipped Napa valley all-together (too many big names and too many people for my sensibilities). But some day I hope to get back to the lonely California hills to complete my tastings and hike the paths less traveled.

After Christmas, I'll be making my plans for 2011.

Whenever I do vacation, I make it a point to go where the people ain't. If there's a destination that includes seeing other humanity, I'll likely run the other way. I'd rather spend my vacation with a book, a glass of wine, or a hike into the hills where I have to fend off mountain cougars or wild bears. I see another person, I get really angry.

Just ask my wife. She usually stays back at the hotel and sulks.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Card Follies

To date I have probably received 100 Christmas cards. They are piled high on the kitchen table and do, quite frankly, look rather majestic. Many of these cards are filed with family photos and, often, the annual "Christmas letter" . . . wherein parents brag on their children and wherein others attempt to convince me that their lives are much more exciting than mine. They are correct on this count, of course, but they don't need to rub it in by sending me a letter about their world travels and the large company bonus they received that enabled them to purchase a third vacation home in Key West.

But I sent my Christmas letter out a couple of weeks ago and, like all the others, it was filled with gross misrepresentations and, yes, outright lies . . . but our family letter did, I feel, at least convey the gospel message of Luke: a long and arduous year's journey to nowhere; worries over taxation; smelly animals that poop wherever they please; and sufficient pain and anguish as my wife and I "pushed" ourselves unmercilessly this past year while trying to give birth to hope.

Looking back on my Christmas letter, I also discovered several oversights. I should have mentioned in our letter that we did manage to take a family vacation to Michigan this past summer to a place where no one was happy and where the most frequent question was, "When can we leave?" Our van was also recalled for repair, and it's never come back (thank God), and my 1991 Chevy Caprice wagon has been stalled in the driveway for the past two months with a dead battery. If I can get it started again, it will still be our best car in 2011, which will be important, because we still have a long flight to Egypt to make. And finally, I said in my Christmas letter that I did not have any books published in 2010. But I forgot about The Ultimate Christian Living, which was indeed published in March.

I'm sorry about those oversights. I just can't keep all of these exciting details fresh in my mind. After all, as you can see, our family is far more exciting than YOURS. And in 2011, we are going to be even more exciting as a family. We've made a pledge. In 2011 we are expanding our menu to include Tuna Helper. And I can't freakin' wait.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


There's a great deal of humor to be found in Christmas if one looks closely enough. In fact, some of the most beloved Christmas tales, such as Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" and Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas are actually morality tales with some dark humor at the center of them. Even the gospel rendition of the Christ birth could be interpreted with a humorous sidekick. Shepherds as witnesses and no vacancy signs have their degree of levity when you think about it.

But the chestnut tradition, in Christmas, is one of those that no one has been able to explain. Sure, there's the song (love the Nat King Cole rendition best), but chestnuts? Last I checked, chestnuts were a close cousin to buckeyes, and these nuts are poisonous. Chestnuts? Really? On an open fire? Give me a break. I've never seen one. Never eaten a chestnut. Don't want to. It's too nutty.

Otherwise, I love nuts. I'm nuts for nuts, actually.

But I've never read a single Christmas letter . . . ever . . . where a family told me they enjoyed roasting their chestnuts on an open fire. And lived to tell about it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The 2011 Blog

In case you're one of those oddballs who just can't get enough of my blogs (oh, but YOU have a life don't you?) . . . Beginning January 1, 2011, I'll be writing a second daily blog. I'll still be writing this warped piece of humor, too, but for those who also crave a more serious bent or something more "devotional" you may find it at It's up now, so check it out.

This blog, "Todd's Ten", will be a top-of-the-morning devotion of 250 words aimed at giving you a fresh start to the day. But my observations will be unique and unlike any devotion that you've probably read.

For example, in January I'll be writing first on "Ten Ways to Look at a New Year".
I'll then write on "Ten Ways to Look at a Problem".

Get the picture? Ten observations on common or ordinary things. Each day, Monday-Friday a single observation for your consideration and enjoyment. Sometimes poignant or introspective, sometimes didactic or esoteric . . . I'll try to offer some great writing on every day experiences.

During 2011 I also hope to offer devotions on:
"Ten Ways to Look at a Piano" and "Ten Things We All Learn in High School".

Anyway . . . hope you can make Todd's Ten a part of your morning. Two minutes and you've got something to think about.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Weekend Update

Weekends are often dicey when it comes to writing. But these past two days I've spent the bulk of the evenings making strides on book proposals and essays I intend to place in 2011. It's not much of a life, sitting at home on a Friday night hunkered over a 40-watt bulb making revisions to a 35-page manuscript on a 14-year-old computer monitor that often sparks into flame (literally). I blow out the monitor like a candle flame and keep working. For some reason, the monitor just keeps chugging along. I fully intend to eek one more book out of it. Just one more!

I also wrote my agent (I like saying "I wrote my agent") on Saturday morning, assuring her that, yes, help is on the way and I am intending to give her a pile of new books in 2011.

Looking back on this year, I didn't have a single book-length manuscript published--an anomaly for me in the past 12 years--but who knows . . . in 2011 I might have several books to produce.

Until then, a writer must write. A writer must produce. Every day. Even on the weekends.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Good Sports

Last night I began reading The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick. Sorry to say, but I get the impression that Remnick chose a great many of these sports pieces to pay homage to the late Roger Angell (who was sports editor and one of the oldest fixtures to be found in The New Yorker offices), and, much like an old catcher's mitt, Remnick picked up these thirty-two essays based on name-recognition (there are no rookie writers tossing words in these pages). Angell, Updike, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Ian Frazer, Ring Lardner, Martin Amis, Calvin Trillin . . . all the veteran New Yorker contributors are here. And Remnick even calls John Cheever and Don Delillo out of the bullpen to pitch an inning each. Don Delillo? Okay, but this is a ringer. How can Delillo pitch while carrying his Pulitzer Prizes?

I must confess that I did use the "fast forward" button last night and read ahead in the assignments. I read Ian Frazer's football team lineup (featuring members of his own family) and Martin Amis's "Tennis Personalities"--both decent parodies, but not so much what I would call great sportswriting. I skipped over John Updike's "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu", as this one is included in at least two of Updike's own collections and, well, I've read it at least twice between other covers.

It wasn't until I read Ben McGrath's "Project Knuckleball" that I began to feel like I'd stepped onto the playing field. Now here is a great human-interest piece on the weird and wacky world of knuckleball pitchers. Tim Wakefield (Boston RS) heads the lineup here, but there are some great stories about the all-time knuckleballer greats like Charlie Hough, "Knucksie" Phil Niekro, and Wilbur Wood (the last major league pitcher to start both games of a double-header, 1973, and he lost both games). This is the type of writing I paid money for and I'm expecting more of the same as I get into the late innings of this book.

But as it stands now, I think I was an incredibly good sport for purchasing this book outright, with no prior knowledge of how the game would be played. I'll give Remnick the managerial nod for now, but the team he's assembled better put on their rally caps and come through. Lord knows these big name writers are getting paid enough to win (they are getting paid aren't they, Mr. Remnick?).

Until then, I'll be looking for the pieces that bring back memories of sandlots or pick-up basketball games. My knees are shot, but not my mind. And, unlike the book's title suggests, there are, indeed, other games in town. I've got a lot of other unread books in my library that need coddling if this one doesn't feed my need for sports romance.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Editing My Wife

This past Tuesday, my wife completed yet another semester of administrative study through Indiana University. For the past four months I've been serving as her editor-in-chief, reading her research papers, blogs and insights related to leading a public school. She has another year to go, but the end is now in sight.

Still, I'm not good at editing my wife's material. She always asks, "Does this paper make sense? Do I need to change anything?"

Heck, I'm not good at reading her papers. Papers with titles like, The Vomit Comet: Leading the Public School Through Flu Season or Going Old School: Using Whips, Leather and Chains to Restore Discipline or If You Can Read This, Thank a Teacher: And Ten Other Reasons Why Teachers Should Be Paid More Than the Legislators Who Make the Damn Laws. You see what I mean?

About the only thing I've been able to do well is line edit for mistakes (of which my wife makes few). And when it comes to offering criticism, I must tread lightly, for my wife also criticizes some of my writing, too. Most of her criticisms are much to the point: "This stinks!", "You're joking, right?" or "You don't actually believe anyone is interested in reading your blog, do you?"

But I endure.

And now that my wife has a short break, we can concentrate on more important matters on the homefront, like waxing floors, scouring sinks, and getting to know each other again. We're going to use eHarmony to find our level of compatibility and figure out if we have a future together. Both of us have lied on our profiles which, if course, bodes well for us. We'll be the only two sickos and I'm sure our profiles will find each other. But if not, we can always re-edit and try again.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

My Agent Called

My agent called. I like the sound of that. I like saying it. The phrase rings so Hollywood and Big Apple, don't it? My agent called. The three words roll off the tongue like apple butter and, every time I hear 'em, I think, "I hope my agent doesn't discover how truly inept I am, how utterly devoid of redeeming qualities. I hope she doesn't figure out I'm from Indiana and that I read mostly comic books."

My agent called. It's a fact. She called to tell me that yes, she did take my latest book proposal all the way to New York and run up and down the streets of Manhattan screaming You gotta read this! She called to tell me that people tossed rotted fruit in her direction and to survive, she had to toss my manuscript into a subway gutter and ask a pencil salesman for a loan so she could call me collect.

My agent called. She called to tell me that, holy guacamole, she did love my latest novel. It's a humdinger and could I send her another'n? Yes, I told her, I can send you another'n, and another'n, and another'n. How many do you want and how often do you want 'em?

Of course, when my agent calls we do talk about important things, too. I ask her about the cold front coming in from the west and what the forecast is calling for in New York and would she ever want to meet me in Indianapolis for sushi? She doesn't. She just tells me to keep writing, to do what I do, and to keep doing it better. She tells me that, yes, someday soon (before the next millennium) she's going to sell a wheelbarrow-load full of my work.

Until then, I write. And wait. Wait until the next phone call.

Isn't this a lot like dating? And I don't date.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hitting the Wall

There are some who may not believe this: but I sometimes hit a wall when it comes to writing. Take this past week. I wrote several nights straight, sometimes after church meetings even, and subsequently rose early the next morning to pick up where I left off. I can often do this for some days in a row. But then I hit a wall. Or, I should say, the wall hits me.

I'm at a wall now. I've got my list of chapter headings, essay themes, story topics and more . . . all staring at me, mocking me. "When are you going to pay attention to me?" they are asking. But I tell my writing list: "First I must pay attention to my wife. She needs to be cuddled, comforted . . . smooched, even. I need to cook her a meal. She also requires that I clean the toilets and bring her caviar on a cracker. She is my soul mate and back in 1984 I told her I loved her and intend to say it again some time in 2011. And if I play my cards right, she might give me an early Christmas present."

I think of these things when I hit my writing wall. I hate to have these conversations with my writing list, but Becky must know the truth.

It's a good thing, seeing as how I wrote my writing list on the back of the grocery list. I see I've got to pick up some nutmeg, baking soda, and cat litter. Lord . . . we have a cat?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Holidays on Ice

For those desiring a completely demented approach to the season, you can't overlook reading Holidays on Ice, by David Sedaris. This book is so zany and reprobate I wasn't sure I could stomach it, but, of course, I wish I had written it.

The opening memoir of Sedaris working as a Macy's elf is alone worth the price of admission. I had been saving this book for months, letting it soak up some of the cookie aromas and vanilla extract before opening its pages. Now I can shelve it under my "have read" section and let it air dry until next December.

Funny Christmas memories? We all have them. It's just that Sedaris makes a habit out of stepping in manure and calling it art; he's got the bad mojo of a hundred pound sumo wrestler and his self deprecating humor, if it were not so laugh-out-loud funny, would be borderline depressing. It's difficult for me to believe that so many bad things happen to one man, and in a way that he can write about.

Now I can go home and fix myself some hot chocolate and get to work on my own memoirs. My life is not nearly as funny . . . unless, of course, I tell you about the year we stuffed and mounted the family dog.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Writing Toward Christmas

For some reason, December continues to be one of my most productive months for writing. Perhaps it is the "long night" phenomenon: shorter days compute to longer periods of darkness and, thus, more extended hours at the writing desk. Or perhaps it is psychological. As the year inches toward a close, I feel compelled, insatiably-driven even, to complete all of my projects and transfer everything that is inside my head onto the page (which may not be so difficult, come to think of it).

After a lunch party on Sunday with good friends, I came home, sat down, and began writing. I've been writing ever since and plan to continue into the wee hours of the night. In fact, if I can continue until 2 a.m., I can get a full 12 hours in . . . haven't written that much in a long time.

My goal today? To complete a thirty-five page book proposal that I hope to toss into the cold, literary winds of January.

I can also write with abandon today because Becky is also writing . . . completing a final paper for her IU administrator's class. I'm well-fed, drunk on coffee, and hanging words on the page as if they were Christmas lights on a tree (which we don't have yet).

Becky has reminded me that we need to get a tree this week, or else we should forget it all-together. I vote for the latter, but even so, I've got pages to write before I sleep.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Family That Reads Together

A friend recently suggested to Phil Gulley (on Facebook) that he should write a book as a Christmas gift to his wife. Gulley wrote back admitting that his wife doesn't read his books and that, in fact, his family is rather oblivious to his writing endeavors.

I'm a witness, too. And most of the writers I know readily admit that their spouses and children have no interest in reading their works.

About two weeks ago, for example, my son was working on a school paper and began asking me about parables. "Wow," I said, wanting to be helpful, "I've written a book about parables that would be perfect for your paper. Go into my library and take a copy. Read a few pages and then let's talk about it. I can give you a lot of background and help you with the project. Wouldn't that be great, son, to work on a paper together? This could really be a bonding experience!"

My son's response was: "You've written a book?! You have a library?"

Now, I try not to take such things personally. But it's tough. It's sort of like having the person you love tell you, "You know . . . you'll think I'm crazy, but I've never really noticed you before! Do you actually live here?"

Take my wife . . . (yes, please take her!). Last night I attempted to give her a wonderful gift! A new "love" poem that I had written especially for her. A real humdinger. But she told me she didn't have time to read it right then, and, well, she'd read it later when she had more time and her eyes were rested and she could turn off the lights and not have to look at me while she read it. I noticed it's still sitting on the bedroom nightstand gathering dust. By tonight she'll be using it for scrap paper or as a paper towel to clean the toilet lid.

Most writers, in their own homes, are like Rodney Dangerfield. I'll tell you, we don't get no respect.

As I look back on 2010, I did some mental calculations last night and came to the following depressing conclusions. In the past year I have written:

* Six full length (average of 30 pages) book proposals, some of which my agent is still "shopping" around
* More than 250 blog postings
* About 50 sermons
* More than a dozen short stories
* A dozen short devotions (some of which were published)
* Nearly 300 poems (some of which were/will be published)
* Hundreds of letters, many handwritten
* Nearly twenty essays on various topics ranging from historical, to science, to writing, to ministry, to personal.
* A new novel, complete at 250+ pages
* Rewritten/revised a novel originally written two years ago

And here's the kicker. Outside of a few poems and some bits and pieces of essays my wife has read, I've been as lonely as the Maytag repairman in all of these endeavors. I've written all of this before sunrise (some it long before sunrise!) and most of it after the rest of the world and my household has gone to sleep.

It's been an incredible year of writing for me really. Perhaps, one of these days, my son will actually realize what I've been doing downstairs in my office late at night and why I drink all that coffee.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Briefs Boxers or Books?

The pact is still intact. My mother and my aunt have asked for my Christmas "book list" along with my usual boxers or briefs selection from Goodwill. Thank God, I'll take books. Goodwill is within walking distance of my house and a package of Goodwill undies is just ten cents.

So, what's on my book list this year?

Well, I guess I could use a book about underwear. The Boxer's Guide to Boxer Shorts, by Mike Tyson comes to mind or 101 Brief Encounters: My Life Between the Cotton Waistband, by Fruit of the Loom, Inc.

But among books that I'd love to read in 2011:

The Best American Short Stories, 2010
The Best American Mystery Stories, 2010
The Best American Essays, 2010
Squirrel Meets Chipmunk, by David Sedaris
Orbiting the Giant Hairball (a leadership book)
The Library of America: Novels of Saul Bellow, Vols 1 & 2
W.S. Merwin, The Second Four Books of Poems

Well, but I truly don't want anything for Christmas. My wife and kids won't be getting me anything. But I might find a book or two under the tree if Santa visits.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Problems With Spell Check

I use my computer's built-in spell check feature. So do you. So does everyone. But there are disadvantages to this cute little piece of technology. For example:

* Laziness. I find that the more I depend upon my spell check, the worse I become at spelling. I'm always yelling at my wife. "How do you spell carbuncle?" I might ask. "Is that the same thing as a hive or a corn?" Even though I have spell check as a crutch, my dictionary and thesaurus are always close at hand.

* Wrong words. The more I lean on my spell check, the greater the frequency with which I discover that I have, indeed, spelled a word correctly . . . but it's the wrong word. Case in point. A few nights ago I was writing an essay and typed in the word plate. I mean to write plait. But both are words. The spell check hurt me. Had I been forced to lean on my own sense of correctness, I would have caught this. It was only after a third reading that I discovered the error. This happens often with me, and spell check doesn't help.

* Closed mind. What I love about using the dictionary is that, whenever I open it up to look up a word, I usually end up learning a new word. I've discovered many words this way. Incredible words that I use in my everyday vocabulary like assonance, disassociation, and numskull. I've also found words that I can use to woo my wife. Words like momma, hootchie-kootchie, and oingo-boingo. She hears these quite often, along with words like hot chocolate, hot pads, and lovey-dovey. I would not have won my wife's heart without these words. And I never would have discovered them without the dictionary or Billy Ward (he was the nastiest kid in town and taught me everything about love).

But I'm happily married. And Billy is in prison. Something tells me Billy stopped reading the dictionary.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Keillor Christmas

After reading Garrison Keillor's A Christmas Blizzard (to gut-wrenching laughter) I took pause to reflect upon those times when I, too, was stranded by snow. Those were the days.

Only people my age or older can remember the Indiana blizzard of 1978. That year, in January, there was more than 30 inches of snow that fell to the ground. I was in high school at the time. To the best of my memory, our little high school in Sullivan county missed two consecutive weeks of classes, in part because there was also a coal strike that year and there was not enough "fuel" to heat the buildings. I do recall playing one varsity basketball game in the gym (unheated) where you could see your own breath and we were instructed by the coach to "not stop moving" after we had worked up a sweat. The beads could actually freeze to the skin. People were sitting in the stands wearing parkas, scarves, and covered in blankets.

That was also the year my friends and I went sledding every day instead of going to school. We drove miles into the country (frequently getting stuck) but we would pull our cars out with chains and muscle. We sledded in the old strip mining camps (which was illegal and very dangerous) on top of car hoods. I'm talking major drop off, very fast, and scary. Looking back, I'm amazed we survived that winter. We could have died in a car crash, hit a tree on the sled, or perished in some other form of teenage idiocy. Of course, our parents had no idea we were doing this, and the snow was so thick, and the coal strike continuous, the mines were empty. We just walked into the mines and sledded.

Of course, one of the reasons I have faith in God is because I am still alive. If anyone survives adolescence they should drop to their knees, eat a licorice whip, and thank the Almighty for mercy.

Keillor understands this, too. He wrote about it.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Terrors of Christmas

Each year I gather around me a breviary of Christmas or holiday books that I read in December. This year I began my booklist by reading John Updike's The Twelve Terrors of Christmas. This is a quick read. Less than five minutes. And among John Updike's lesser-known works, this book is a humorous side glance at the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas song and the traditional St. Nick poem. In short, it's Updike's take on his own holiday dislikes.

Of course, we all have of our own. Or, at least, I have mine.

Among my terrors are:

* Wal-Mart. Am I really going to stand in these long lines inside America's #1 retail store in order to save a few dollars on Christmas gifts like Pepto Bismol (for my mom), Milk-of-Magnesia (for dad) and Pork-n-Beans (for uncle Phil)? I don't think so. I'll be making scarves this year out of plastic bread bags, or using refrigerator lint balls and dog hair to weave a majestic afghan for my aunt. These gifts are preferable to shopping at Wal-Mart. Sorry Sam. I'm staying home.

* Tube Socks. I've instructed me wife and children (actually commanded!) that they are NOT to buy me any Christmas gifts this year. And this year I mean it! Don't make me get out of this chair! Don't make me come over there and open that package of tube socks! I mean it. Let me sleep in. I mean it. I don't want anything. And if there's one package under the tree with my name on it . . . .

*The Tree. When I was a kid we used to steal our tree each year. Oh, that we might return to the good old days. What's the deal with paying $100 for a dry, brittle twig? Can't stand the thought of it. This year, I'm requesting we decorate one of our floor lamps instead. And no lights. Just two bulbs (one green, one read) dangling from the 60-watt bulb. I think it would be beautiful. But I'm still working on the concept.

I'm sure I could think of other terrors. After all, I'm nothing but a living, breathing cornucopia of neuroses, psychoses, and fears. But for now, these are the only fears I can name. I'll have to ask my wife to remind me of the rest.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


On Monday I received a copy of the most recent issue of The Christian Century. The issue contained one of my poems and I promptly placed it on the kitchen table, opened up to the page in question, so that Becky would see the poem when she came home from her night class at 9 p.m. Naturally, after an exhausting day she didn't see it, tossed the magazine into the trash, and I have since, unknowingly, hauled it to the recycle bin.

Oh, well. Not a problem. I lose most of what I write anyway. I often have to go in search of an essay, a story, or a proposal (sometimes even whole books or chapters). I have no filing system, no personal secretary or assistant, who can keep track of all of this stuff. I've even got piles of tear sheets and magazines, but after thirty-five years of writing my guts out, I can't begin to remember where most of this writing goes to die. It's just lost.

Is this a normal life? I ask you.

As for lost writing and what makes for a happy marriage . . . best to forget the past and move on. There's always more to write. And I can always remind Becky of her many faults another day.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Case for the Comma

About a month ago I had a piece of writing accepted for magazine publication. The day after I received word of the acceptance, the editor called to discuss "a comma." That's right. A comma. Not that I'm complaining. In fact, I was impressed. This was one tenacious woman and I was elated to command her attention.

I began our conversation by apologizing for my inexactitude. After all (unlike this blog, which I write quickly and which contains many typos and errors) I pride myself on submitting perfected text for publication. I want every sentence to be exact in expression and intention, and God-forbid, an editor would discover a typo, a misspelled word, or a dangling participle in anything I submit.

But the question for this day was the lack of a comma. "I think you need a comma in the first paragraph," she said, "after the word slipped." I dredged up my text and studied her suggestion. "I think you are correct," I said. "I'm sorry I overlooked that. There should be a breath there, a pause. You are right."

Now, I wasn't trying to earn brownie points, folks. Not in any way. This editor was spot on. Later in our conversation, she asked about a second comma I had inserted in another paragraph. "I'm not sure about that one," she said. "Tell me about it."

I made my case for the pause, for the intake of air, the tiny stillness--which is what the comma represents--and she considered it. "Yes, a comma is warranted there," she said. "I see your point."

So, I batted .500 on commas recently.

Now, in the event this blog entry is absolutly boring you to tears, let me here offer a quote attributed to King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. "My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse." Or, as another proverb states: For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse, the battle was lost.

In case you don't understand the proverb, it is about small things that add up to big things. And in the case of writing well, everything matters. Especially commas. Tiny marks on the page. Word selection. Verb tense. Proper structure. Spelling. Without the details in working order, writing is little more than marks on a page.

So, as I learned again last week. Details matter. Editors notice. They are paid to notice! And that's why I spent four hours on a Thursday night reading over all of the work I have produced in the past month . . . writing that I want to inspire to perfection. I read every essay. Every story. Every poem. Every book proposal. I read every sentence again. Every word. Studied over the structure and semi-colons and the periods. Even the commas. Especially the commas.

I'm not making that mistake again!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why Write a Book?

For some reason I continue to receive copious numbers of phone calls, brochures and "pitches" from various "marketing experts" and publishing gurus who claim to possess the secrets that will catapult my many mid-list book titles to the bestselling stratosphere. All for a price . . . of course. I am a target, I suppose, because I now have a number of books to my name, and a quick glance at my sales history demonstrates that I am, indeed, a loser. I'm a writer who needs help, and my books go out of print faster than my wife rejects my advances.

Still, when people call me, I do like to have fun with them from time to time. Hey, a guy has to have some entertainment once in a while.

A few days ago I received a "pitch" from a guy who claimed to have the five "secret" keys to getting my book (which one?) on the best seller list. He began by telling me that, first, it was important to understand why I wanted to write a book.

"Why do I want to write a book?" I asked him, feigning interest.

"A book can be your path to fame and fortune," he told me.

I listened as he regaled me with a long list of best selling titles (as if I were supposed to be impressed by his knowledge of a quick check of The New York Times Book Review or He claimed that all of these books were best sellers, and that their authors were quite famous, because all had used his patented "secret" keys to success.

Never mind, I thought, that most Americans don't even read one book per year, or that, outside of Stephen King, most Americans couldn't name a single literary figure. Famous writers? Writers who make a fortune from writing? Sorry, Charlie, such a thing doesn't exist outside of the top 1/2 of 1% of writers. The fact is: most writers starve . . . and even highly successful authors who sell books usually earn a living in some other way . . . like selling aluminum siding or car wash coupons.

I know why I get these calls, these brochures, these mailings and these "pitches", it is because as Mr. Barnum once said, "There is a sucker born every minute." And there must be enough suckers answering these calls and sending hard-earned cash to chase a dream.

I can dream with the best of them. But I also know there are no short-cuts or secrets to writing a book. Writing has always been, is, and always will be hard work. Difficult work. Important work. And anyone who claims to know the secret short cuts or the "real reasons" why writers should write aren't writers. They should stick to what they do best. Like selling ShamWows and Agent Orange Carpet cleaner.

And yes, I've tried these products, too. And believe me . . . they don't work on cat pee.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Do You Watch Book TV?

I've never commented on C-Span's Book TV . . . the show that features boring authors reading from their boring books in front of even less interesting audiences. I'm sorry, but even though I write books I just don't see how anyone who has a pulse (i.e. is alive!) could actually watch any of these book readings and discussions. I tried to watch once, but my wife called 911 because she thought I had died on the couch. My eyes had rolled back in my sockets and I was drooling. I mean, it was that boring, folks!

Sorry C-Span, but for the love of Job's Turkey, have you ever considered inviting an author onto this show who hasn't just walked off the movie set of Night of the Living Dead? Most of these authors sound like my grandfather . . . and he died five years ago. (May he rest in peace by watching more C-Span Book TV.)

And the book titles? Who really cares to read a book or hear a lecture about Adolph Hitler's Hummel Collection or a title like, Toenail Trimming in the Middle Ages? I swear, every time I watch for even a few minutes (and I frequently do watch for just a few minutes) the book titles are so esoteric and weird, they must have been published by some University Press run by drunk nuns or edited by ex-drummers from AC-DC. Is someone really going to purchase Candied Apple Recipes of the Ming Dynasty . . . and the Transvestites Who Eat 'Em?

I think not.

Let's have some life in this show, pleeeaaaassseee! How about booking David Sedaris? How about some Malcolm Gladwell? How about the Heath brothers?

Or better yet, how about me? I could bring my licorice collection. Lots of great stories there. And I'm pretty good in front of a live audience if C-Span would book me when I'm sober or not hungover on the high alcohol content in the day-old coconut donuts I consume by the boxes. Give me a subject, I'll address it.

Heck, I won't even stand behind that podium that's been greased with the fingerprints of all those boring authors.