Friday, March 30, 2012

My March of Madness

Incredible month, this March.  Abnormally high temperatures.  Sunshine.  Shorts.  I even sat out on the back deck one day to write.

Looking back, I can see that March was also a rather productive month, all things considered.  I had two pieces published in an outdoor sporting magazine (beavers and bass) in addition to five book reviews, two essays and one longer article on grant writing--all for pay no less.  And I also had a couple of essays accepted and slated for publication, as well as two short stories, and on Thursday a publisher wrote to request a look-see at two of my book proposals.  All of this in addition to sermons, studies, blogs, and at least forty new poems.  Not bad for a month's work before sunrise.

But my best effort won't show up on this stat sheet.  I also wrote an entire church catalogue--about thirty pages worth of material--most of it in my sleep.  It was plodding work, but somebody had to do it.

I also reviewed some writing that my daughter (Chelsey) had completed, and a couple of essays written by my son (Logan).  Holy cheese-puff, Batman!  My kids can write.  I told them so.  I want to instill some confidence in them to pursue some type of a life with words.  They should not back away from it.

My son, who is excited about attending Vincennes University next fall, asked me one evening, "Do they test you much in college?"

My response was, "Probably not as much as in high school.  Sometimes, you only have one exam for a class, and the final is 100% of the grade."

"I'd hate that," he said.  "Too much pressure."

"Maybe," I answered.  "Unless it's an essay question.  Then you can ace it.  Anyone gives you a chance to write . . . let 'er rip."

Mad stuff for a March. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Working Writer

Somewhere in my distant memory I recall reading an interview with John Updike in which he noted that, as a child of the Depression, he rarely turned down a job.  And for Updike, that meant a writing job.  He went on to say that his peculiar work ethic also precluded that he would write for small sums of money, and that he felt guilty if he turned down a writing opportunity, even if it paid little.  His compulsion was to write in order to earn a living . . . and he eked out his existence early, making enough for grocery and oil changes and a small mortgage payment, but little else.  This was early 1960's.

I've never come anywhere close to making a living as a writer, but I do know what Updike was talking about.  I have always shared this guilt of turning down writing jobs--and so I rarely do.  I will write most anything as long as someone is willing to shoot a check in the mail . . . and, in fact, a larger portion of what I write ends up being pro bono. In essence I write for nothing

There are times, however, when the writing offers some unexpected rewards . . . as when I noted a woman in Starbucks the other day reading one of my books.  I didn't say anything . . . although there was a part of me that wanted to walk over and say, "Hey, lady . . . do you want me to sign your book?"

I just smiled.  And I probably didn't even do that.  I sat and sipped.

But a working writer doesn't have speaking engagements and book signings and guest appearances on high-profile talk shows.  A working writer doesn't make money from having others ghost write a book or from being on the speakers circuit.  A working writer is a stud who cranks out material every stinking day--barrels of it--and doesn't sleep until he writes his assigned pages.  His remuneration is minuscule . . . barely enough to buy a ham sandwich, and he is paid approximately one red penny a page.  Someday, he hopes to make a nickel.

A well-meaning fellow once asked me at a book signing:  "What do you do with all of your money?"  (Supposing that all writers make money.)

I told him I give most of it away, and the rest I keep to buy toner cartridge and paper for the printer.  "And sometimes," I added, "I take some of my windfall and have an Arby's night."  He flinched, scowled, and strutted away in search of a wealthy writer.

He'll never find one in Indiana.


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Handyman

Of all the books I've read and reviewed over the past six months, Super Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things, by Cy Tymony (Andrews McMeel, 2011) was the most ingenious and fun.  Although I've written a formal review of the book, I thought I would offer a few more personal (and warped) insights here.

Essentially, Mr. Tymony is a modern-day Inspector Gadget.  His series of books highlights his sweeping knowledge of paper clips, batteries, coins, rubber bands, duct tape, and a catch-all-drawer approach to creating all manner of fun toys and novelties using discarded items from around the house.  I love this stuff!

I am, however, much too mechanically-challenged or technologically-deficient to do anything about it.  Although I have figured out other uses for rubber bands (binding a bag of potato chips, for example), I have yet to attempt any of the novelties Mr. Tymony outlines.

My wife complains about my lack of handyman skills all the time.  I do remind her, however, that I am handy in other ways . . . ways that she, quite frankly, refuses to acknowledge.  While I maintain that I am, and will continue to be, her handyman . . . she merely sees a harried Hamburger Helper cook who retreats from the stove to write romance poetry (which I hand over with the romantic pick-up line:  "How about them apples, baby?!").

True, I do not know how to relight the pilot light on the water heater (although there is a button that says "Press Here to Light Pilot"). And it is true that I have not changed the oil in a car since I was sixteen years old and nearly suffocated in 40-weight.  And it is equally valid that, when it comes time to changing a light bulb, I need to ask the personnel at Lowe's to give me a refresher course on how to do it.

Nevertheless, I recoil at the thought that I am not handy around the house.  Mr. Tymony has helped me discover a few new uses for pipe cleaners.  And I also maintain that there is something handy about having a man around the house who can write a 1000 word essay about Egg Drop Soup in under 30 minutes.

I'm handy, all right.  I'd love to know how long it took Mr. Tymony to write his book.  I'll bet I could have written it in 1/3 the time.  Sometimes, when I'm in the zone and typing, my fingers are a blur and it takes fifteen minutes for my thoughts to catch up to my hands.

Handy?  I'd say so.

Next week, I plan to discover ten new uses for ordinary typing paper.  I've already started working on several origami patterns.  I've got airplane designs, too.  And, if we suddenly ran out of toilet paper . . . .

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dead Lines

A writer lives for deadlines . . . those publisher-imposed (or self-imposed) X's on the calendar that loom larger as the day approaches.  And a writer is always grateful to have a deadline to meet.  Without them, there's no work . . . and unless a writer can self-impose make-believe deadlines, the fire in the belly is often lacking.

Me?  I've got several deadlines.  And I'm grateful for all of them.  

My most pressing deadline each week is writing the weekend sermon.  This is a biggie, and I sometimes lose sleep thinking about this one.  But by the time Thursday rolls around, I'm hitting it head-on and taking notes, making an outline. 

I also have weekly deadlines now (thank God) for book reviews . . . books I must read and comment on.  These keep me up nights, too . . . though most of the time it's because I have hundreds of pages to read.  I usually sleep on a book after reading it, and write the review first thing in the morning over a cup of coffee.  

I also have monthly deadlines.  Some of these are imposed by publishers (columns, articles, essays, and now . . . even poems).  Gotta get the word out.  I also have self-imposed deadlines for books I'm writing (chapters, proposals, sometimes revisions).  Short stories and humor also make the cut, too.  

Staying on course with a deadline is essential.  Otherwise one's lines become dead lines.  The life found in writing is born of pressure, of time.  And it can also be born of leisure that uses time like a vacuum . . . thoughts and emotions sucked up into the void and then, once the clock begins to tick, are siphoned onto the page.  A writer needs them all. 

Recently, a friend asked me:  "I've got an idea for a story but I can't seem to get going on it. Any suggestions?"

Yeah, I have one:  You've got until this Friday to write a first draft . . . and if you don't do it by Friday, forget the story.  You've missed the deadline.  Otherwise, you'll never write it.

Well, it works for me.  I've been doing it every week since I was twelve years old.  These deadlines may kill me . . . but not if I kill the story first. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Although I am not "on the road" very often, it always seems that I receive my best and worst news when I am away from home. This is particularly true when it comes to writing.

For example, out of my first three agents (I'm on my fourth--thank you Cynthia!) two of them dumped me via phone call as I was in the car.  It's difficult having these types of conversations behind the wheel, but it always seems that when I'm the most vulnerable, that's when these calls arrive.  I've never been good at break-ups . . . but come to think of it, I've never broken up with anyone so I wouldn't know what this feels like anyway.  Still . . . .

Years ago, when our family was vacationing in Colorado, I was expecting an email from an agent who was going to inform me about a publisher's decision regarding one of my books.  I had been waiting for this word for weeks. A word which, I had hoped, would be affirmative, all-systems-go.  One afternoon our family (then with two small children) took the narrow-gauge train from Durango to Silverton and, as soon as we de-boarded in Silverton I had a premoniton (is that the word?).  "I've got to find an internet cafe," I told Becky.

"Here?" she said.  "In Silverton?  There's nothing here!"

She was wrong.  I actually located a small coffee shop (this was long before Starbucks, baby!) that had two computers.  For $5 I was able to log onto the net for 15 minutes.  I checked my emails and there it was, just as I expected:  total rejection.  These publishers don't want your book, my agent wrote.  And, by the way, we're through, too.  Find yourself another agent and have a nice life.

I did find myself another agent.  And I've had a nice life.  Thank you very much.

Which brings me to the airport.

Had some fascinating phone conversations sitting in those places (and I don't sit in them often).  Laguardia (NY) comes to mind, and Denver, and once in Indianapolis pre-flight.  Conversations with editors in far off lands that arrived as I was on my way to some other place, usually offering bad news. 

One of the reasons I don't travel often by planes, trains or automobiles is because of the karma.  I don't seem to fare well when I'm away from home.  Bad news always arrives in these far off places when I have a full bladder, can't find a restroom, and haven't slept well for days.  That's usually when my wife picks a fight, too.  We are not good travel companions. 

For our next vacation, I'm going unplugged.  And I plan to meet Becky at the destination.  We'll travel separately.  And I'm not answering my phone.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Fine Art of Book Reviewing

My wife was the first to ask about the pile:  "What's this stack of books doing in the middle of the living room floor?"

"Oh," I said, "that's my book review pile."

"Well," she countered, "better start reading them and writing the reviews, I'm tired of tripping on them!"

Okay.  I get it.  I'm slow.  But it takes time to read books--and there is a fine art to writing a good book review (especially when one is getting paid . . . which adds another layer of responsibility and obligation).  I want to do it right.

I also subscribe to the "if you can't say anything nice" philosophy of book reviewing . . . which is to say, if I don't like the book, I don't write a review.  I simply write my editor and tell her I haven't got the stomach to slam someone's blood, sweat and tears.  That's not to say that I can't write some pointed critique or analysis of a book I enjoy.  No book is pure.  A writer expects some give and take.  But I'm not going to pan a book entirely.  If I have to do that, I opt out.

I've also taken book review tips from my wife, who excels at critiquing me.  She is fond of reviewing my attire each morning and often greets me with the unsettling word: "You're not going to wear that, are you?"

Actually, the thought of wearing swimming trunks and a Hawaiian shirt had crossed my mind.  I was nearly out the door.  But Becky was certain that I should wear my black suit and a white shirt to the funeral.  She was probably correct.  She usually has a better fashion sense about such matters.

My wife also corrects my cooking miscues.  She is quick to point out that I used too much paprika, or that I overcooked the chicken or under-sizzled the fish.  In response, I tell her what bus line she can take and where she can get off and where her destination is and we call it a night.

Book reviewing is like a marriage in this regard.  I don't want to hurt a writer any more than my wife hurts me.  If I've had a bad day in the kitchen, I don't want to take it out on some newbie from Fresno who has just written a first-book entitled, The 60-Day Prune Diet: How to Dump Your Way to a Slimmer You.  I can't stand the thought of hurting some recent college-grad who has written a book entitled, How I Turned $150,000 in College Debt into a Low-Paying Job in the Fast-Food Industry.

You see what I mean?

My wife needs to take it easy on me.  I'm doing the best I can.  And toward that end, I'm leaving those books in the middle of the living room floor.  My wife is still nimble.  And I know she can jump.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Travel Logs

Family travel is tough, and it's made even tougher when one is a writer trying to gather information for travel essays.  This was Calvin Trillin's dilemma during the many family trips he chronicles in his humorous title, Travels with Alice.  (Alice is Trillin's beloved and late wife.)

I enjoy Trillin very much, and this book reminded me of the many trips I have taken where, while trying to balance family fun, I have also taken the excursion to gather information for magazines.  Trillin's travels have carried him much further--even to the coasts of France and England--but his ability to find humor in family dinner conversations and vacation planning knows no borders.

Trillin writes with an eye toward the funny in the mundane, and he can laugh at himself as he hoists a slice of pie or attempts to rent a car while using his limited French vocabulary.  And, as he puts it so bluntly, his daughters are not always certain if they are going to be written into his essays or, if in some unsuspecting moment, they will be quoted by their own father.  "When, exactly, are we off the record?" they want to know. 

I've faced the same questions . . . though not as often. 

Years ago, when our family traveled to Hawaii (four islands) I spent the better part of our return trip home turning my notes into essays and our conversations in quotes.  I sold a few of these to travel magazines, including an essay on the Island of Molokai' (my favorite island!).  And when my wife hiked The Grand Canyon, I sold her down the river and turned her photographs and excursion notes/quotes into a paying gig.  More recently, our trip to the Pacific Northwest was another one of my attempts to turn our hikes, our photographs, and our mom-and-pop conversations inside the rental car into publishable forms.

"Why do you always do this?" Becky wanted to know as we were hiking the slopes of Mt. Saint Helens, gasping for air.

"Do what?"

"Try to turn every vacation into a writing opportunity?"

Hey, it's what I do. I'm still turning tricks.  Still working the streets.  Still looking for angles.  I make a mental note of everything my wife says. 

And some of our conversations end up in magazines and books.  I can't make this stuff up.  It's too funny.  And with my ragged wardrobe and my wife's nagging . . . there is humor to be found everywhere.  Even on vacation.

Ask Calvin.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sleep on It

My wife was the first to notice.  "You look tired," she said.  "I feel tired," I admitted. 

She suggested I take a break from my writing assignments. 

Well, okay.  It's difficult writing when one is exhausted . . . I admit it.  But I've written entire books while in a stupor.  I've written whole novels with screaming infants on my lap.  I've written without eating; I've written in the heat; I've written in the rain.  And I've also written a great deal of material without sleep.

Still, I am tired.  And I'm sleeping on a great many projects right now. I'm letting them brew.  I'm covering them up and in a few days I'll dig them up again and see if there is any life remaining.

Last night was tough, however.  I have several writing assignments under firm deadline, and I could have worked well into the night on several, but I didn't.   Instead, I ate popcorn, told a really corny joke to Logan, and then hit the sack early.

Rested?  Hardly.  But it was good to let the words steep for a bit.  This way, they'll be much stronger when they hit the page.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My New Column

I've never thought of myself as a columnist . . . but recently editors have been biting on my offers to write regularly for their magazines.  One editor, in particular, has noted my "prolific abilities" and has suggested a separate page for my satirical poems.  We are still working on a name and a first-date.

Writing a regular column is an awesome responsibility . . . especially a bi-weekly commitment like this new one.  I've got to produce.  And in the course of a year, I've got to write 100+ satirical pieces (mostly poems) that must continue to draw readers back.  A columnist cannot afford a runt in the litter, but must be able to give birth to a bouncing baby every few days . . . and the baby has to be healthy and pink and crying out loud.

I believe I can do it . . . otherwise I would not have said "yes".  I will, however, have to keep a closer eye on the news and I'll have to be at the ready to take notes and scribble whole poems as they come to me, even if I'm asleep or I'm five hundred miles from home or if I've got measles.  A columnist must write.

Here's the way I see it:  a column is like another blog or an essay.  I write these every day.  So I should be able to write a column every few days.

I've been a regular contributor before.  First, years back, at The Wittenburg Door (the world's pretty-much-only religious satire magazine . . . a magazine I miss horribly since it ceased publication!), I wrote beside Mike Yaconelli and Skippy R. and Joe Bob Briggs.  And during the 90's, I wrote a column for For the Bride magazine entitled "Malebag".  I write a column for Together magazine, and I also write regularly for mags like YouthWorker, Preaching, and Rev!.  In short, I guess I'm more "prolific" than talented . . . and as one editor noted years back, I can be "counted on to produce."  I ain't any good . . . but I'm dependable.

So . . . I produce.  I meet deadlines.  I stay the course.  I don't look back.  But I'll be danged if I can be pigeonholed. 

Once my editor friend and I decide on a name I'll get back to you.  You can read it here first. 

Satirical poems?  I can't wait to dig in and poke fun at someone.  And I'll probably make myself my first order of business.  

Monday, March 19, 2012

Signing Contracts

Since January 1, I've signed at least a dozen writing contracts . . . primarily for magazine articles and essays, but a fair number for poetry, too.  Most of these contracts are standard fare (I never read them).  I just sign.  For all I know I may be taking out a second mortgage at 10% or agreeing to paint the editor's bathroom with a one-inch toilet brush.  Regardless, it's still the standard method for getting into print and I'm grateful for these opportunities to entertain or enlighten.

For those who have never signed a writing contract, it might be helpful to offer here a few tips.

Tip #1:  Never sign a contract while you are drunk or have just finished eating a heavy meal (mashed potatoes, gravy, etc.).
     In general, contracts and alcohol do not mix.  Drunk signatures are easy to detect, as a writer's name usually comes out looking like xylkeu*l bl,y)*vc or Robert the Bruce.

Tip #2: Never sign your wife's name.
     Believe me, I understand the temptations.  Your wife might be more photogenic or have a really swell name with initials like G.J. Lovely or B.B. Beautiful or Her Royal Highness.  But remember . . . if you sign her name she will be getting all the recognition and she will never let you forget it.  She will say things like, "When are you going to get off your duff and make us some money?" or "Did you realize you dangled a participle in that last piece on whaling?" or "I'm thinking of buying a new wardrobe and if you don't write two more books by year-end I'm going to start dating Tony the C.P.A."  She may also make faces at you behind your back--really gross faces with her eyelids pulled down so you can see that blood-red sliver that makes you gag.  No!  Never sign your wife's name!

Tip #3: Always enclose chocolate or mixed nuts with your signed contract.
     Do I really have to explain this? 

Tip # 4: If you are tempted to read the fine print . . . don't!
     Fine print is for wimps.  Sure, you might be granting the publisher exclusive rights to your basement or granting him access to your Swiss bank account, but so what?  You're getting published and this, and this alone, should be the impetus for signing your name.  Even if the publisher slips some clandestine line into the contract like, the writer hereby grants said publisher his firstborn as well as two weeks sublet to the writer's time-share in Maui or if the writer signs his name to this contract he is a freaking idiot and has no right to complain if the publisher shows up at his house on a Friday night in December and raids his Christmas tree (unless the publisher is Jewish, at which the publisher shall then be entitled to the writer's fine cutlery and his supply of kosher pickles and homemade noodles) . . . even then, don't read the fine print.  You don't really want to know what you're signing away. 

Tip #5: Sign your contracts in purple ink, thereby making them null and void.
     This puts the onus back on the publisher . . . but the accounting department won't catch the purple ink until long after you have been paid and the work has been in print for four months and the reprint rights purchased by another firm in Yugoslavia.  Other ink colors you might try could include: green, pink and chartreuse.

Finally, have fun signing your contracts.  Experiment.  Sign some contracts in the shower or while taking a bubble bath (writers always take bubble baths . . . and if the writer is male, he takes his bubble bath with his wife, and both of them wear two-piece bathing suits).  Sign other contracts while you are driving down a country road littered with potholes.  Sign in pencil. Sign in catsup.  Be creative, and before long, you'll be famous.     

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Fine Art of Duke-Hating

Yesterday I purchased The Duke Basketball Bluebook: a Guide to the 2012 NCAA Tournament for my Kindle.  I've since read it and, quite frankly, I'm disappointed.  I can't give this little tome (and I do mean little for $9.95) high marks.  In fact, the book seems to be a ploy to glean money from unsuspecting and naive Dukies like me.

My wife, of course, has been pointing out my gullibility for years.  I am, after all, the same man who once purchased "sea monkeys" from an ad in the back of a comic book, as well as the guy who shelled out $9.95 to Charles Atlas, who promised me that I would grow muscles and no longer be the wimp on the beach.  I have also ordered items from the Home Shopping Network, supported Ronco Products for years, and I came dangerously close to asking for a Snuggie and a ShamWow for Christmas last year.

I should know better . . . especially with my M.Div degree from Duke, where I studied under the illustrious tutelage of professors who were world-renown in their respective disciplines and who warned me about the evils of attending basketball games at Cameron Indoor Stadium.  

Back in those days I had season tickets (no waiting), and the early returns on Coach-K's 2nd season was that he would soon be a demi-god.  We studied about him in our seminary classes.  However, there was not yet any Coach-K campground or Coach-K Court and the Cameron stands were not yet filled to capacity (and its a SMALL arena) . . . a guy like me could stand courtside next to the bench and actually talk to the players between timeouts.  I did get to see Johnny Dawkins though, arguably the best player to ever don a Duke uniform (take a look at his stats or listen to Coach K talk about the top players and you'll see what I mean).

The Duke Bluebook, however, is left wanting.  And it's easy to see why so many people hate Duke, now that folks are publishing Duke's scouting reports and using Duke basketball analysis to discuss the other teams.  But the Bluebook needs to give me more than just a Duke report card and a few paragraphs on the other ACC teams in this year's NCAA tournament.

Okay, but I did learn one thing I didn't know about the Duke BB team this year.  One stat.  This Duke team led the ACC conference in 3-pointers-made by the widest margin in conference history.  This team shoots a bunch of 3's.

And they will live or die by them.

Some team this year will either love that about Duke, or hate them for it.  And stats show that if they hit 10 or more in a game, they win. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Man Stuff

In the past month I've taken on the task of writing a number of essays and articles for men (and essays about women).  I've written articles focusing on men's health issues, work safety, and even a donut article that could be appreciated by either sex--though I have a feeling that men, more so than women, are avid donut eaters.

I've written for outdoor magazines, youth journals, and have churned out a fair number of essays that will require rather unique placement in magazines with names like, "Not Yo' Big Momma's Mag" or "The Strangest Rag You'll Ever Read".  I am also working on an article about fraternities . . . and I've never belonged to a fraternity in my life (and who would pledge me, anyway?).

No, I'm just detailing man stuff right now.  And once I get on a roll like this one, I don't usually stop until I've exhausted every possible man angle my mind can conceive or appreciate.  And I've still got a load of essays about ancient Greek philosophers and Latin poets that I sent out last night . . . Viva la Avianus!

I don't know how much of my man stuff will find paydirt . . . but I'm optimistic.  I was once a monthly columnist for a women's magazine (back when I knew about romance and sex and actually practiced both and could remember how to do it) and during that time I also wrote periodically for Conde' Nast publications--one of the New York biggies that used to love on me in my younger days, but now ignore me in my advanced age when I need to pay for a daughter's college education and wedding.

It's difficult to write man stuff as an old man.  Young editors see me as past my prime.  And women editors simply make fun of me or send me curt emails like:  Who told you this? or You're not married, are you? or I'll bet you were a troubled teen and now have difficulty holding down a full-time job in the fast-food industry . . . am I right, Howie? 

Writing about men and for men is a tough gig. One of the toughest.  Believe me, it's much easier being a woman writing for women.  Men don't read, for one thing.  And women simply want more Oprah.

In a few weeks my man stuff tangent will run out and my eyes will be averted toward other scenery . . . astro physics, perhaps, or how an incandescent light bulb is manufactured.  I might also expand my repertoire to other pastries and begin work on three of four new books. Some of these books will have titles.

But until then . . . I've got to be a man.  And a real man works.  That's man stuff.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


An editor at an outdoor sporting magazine recently handed me the following assignment: to write about fishing for smallmouth bass.  I completed the assignment late Monday night.

Again, my wife was skeptical.  "What do you know about fishing for smallmouth bass?" she asked.

"Look, sweetheart," I told her, "I grew up around fish.  Some of them I knew by name.  I've got fishing in my blood."

"You haven't fished for years," she reminded me.  "And if you tried to cast a line now, you'd throw your back out of alignment."

"Nevertheless," I said, "I'm writing the article.  And I'm going to convince people that I know what I'm talking about.  For example, did you know that the smallmouth bass has a smaller mouth than the largemouth species?"

"That's all you've got?"

I've got more, of course.  I've got quotes from folks at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, from local fishermen, and information gleaned from the vast reservoir of knowledge I've obtained from reading comic books.  This article on smallmouth bass fishing is plush.

"So, what's next for you?" my wife always wants to know.

I could always write about the latest developments in chemistry, or woodworking, or even women's cosmetics . . . lipstick, perhaps.  But I'm open to ideas.  And if anyone has a pressing matter that I should address, I'd be more than happy to write about it.  Provided, of course, that I can at least be paid in coupons to Starbucks.  I've got to stay awake.  My nights are brief.  And I've got pages to complete before I can turn out the light.  

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


This past week there were two people who asked me pointed questions about writing.  And, since it's been awhile since I answered these and other pressing concerns, let me address them one at a time.

How do you find time to write?
I make time to write.  A person trying to "find" time to write will never find it.  Toward that end, I've discovered that it helps to rise long before the birds begin to chirp.  Likewise, I write in the gaps (always carry a pen and paper boys'n girls), and yes, I actually do compose some writing while I drive, but most of these travel pieces tend to be about stop signs, or road kill, or running from the cops.  Sometimes I compose during my sleep and write these pieces down as soon as I rise, but these instances are rare, and most of this writing turns out to be gibberish.

How much do you get paid for your writing?
I ask my agent to command a million dollars for a major project (book, screenplay, etc.) but my average pay per project is $7.83. I prefer Wendy's value menu to McDonalds and, for some of my poems, I also get valuable coupons that can be redeemed at participating Exxon stations.

What are you working on now?
I'm currently working on a memoir, several short stories, scads of poems, and a mountain of essays of such eclectic variety that I would be hardpressed to tell you about them all.  Next week I will begin writing a cookbook based entirely on protein shake recipes that one can create from discarded items around the house and I hope to complete a book about marriage by year's end that is to be entitled:  Eleven Cleaning Tips to Keep Your Wife Motivated and Encouraged on Saturday Mornings When You Finally Get to Talk to Her (And Why It's Just Talk and Nothing More)

Do you really have a rotten marriage or are you just joking?
The marriage is great . . . it's me who is rotten.  From my perspective, everything is fine.  But you'll have to ask my wife what all the screaming is about.  I do write love poems, but I usually tell the editors who publish them that I am writing them to a lonely woman in Topeka, Kansas. These editors feel sorry for me and send me small checks that, usually, I must cash within 24-hours.  My wife loves me for my ability to bring home the bacon, and I just brought some hickory smoked home last night and plan to fry it this morning.

Who were some of your early writing influences?
Well, I influenced myself quite a bit when I was young, often grabbing myself by the seat of the pants and forcing myself to write. I also had conversations with myself at dinner, which forced my parents to relegate me to the front porch during meals.  Writing is a solitary affair, as I can attest, and I agree with my last statement.

Have you ever lost your marbles?
As I write this response I am actually looking at my marbles right now.  They are sitting atop a shelf in the kitchen.  I am also looking at my appendix and tonsils, which are each in their respective jars next to it, and at a slice of petrified toast bearing the image of St. Ignatius of Loyola that I inherited from my grandmother.  I count my marbles daily and have not lost a single one since I was married in 1984.  Sometimes, however, my wife's marbles get intermingled with my marbles and we have to sort things out.  My jar has the larger marbles.


Monday, March 12, 2012


Kay Ryan was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2008-2010 and The Best of It (Grove Press, 2010) is certainly representative of her lifetime achievement in poetry.  I was fortunate to procure this first edition last week and have been carrying her poetry with me as I've ambled from place to place and been busily engaged in my own compositions of comfort and joy.  She writes sparingly, but precisely, and most of her poems have a philosophical air about them that are at once accessible and deep.  Ryan is also a master at the metaphor, the double-meaning, the oxymoron.  And this collection is enough supply for anyone looking to gain an appreciation for a poet at her zenith.

I like Ryan because she also writes of domestic affairs:  the nuances of daily living; tapestries of relationships; the dichotomies of love. 

Looking back on my own poetic output (thus far in 2012), I considered these expressions of love and all the poems my wife has not read (that's most of them).  I thought I'd pick one from my own romantic slush pile and try it on for size.  Here's one about growing older.  Slowly.  With enough time to think about it.

Time Was 

Time was when I saw time
As all the time in the world
     As time to ignore such hours
     As hours slip golden by
     And a dark hush swoons
     Across the sky.

Time now as time defines
The broken circle breaks
     As time in distant history
     As hours fleeting hurled
     And yearning for time's love
     In the weak arms of the world.             


Friday, March 9, 2012

Bird Ball

I ran across a used book this week which I snatched up and have stashed on my shelves:  Bird on Basketball, by Larry Bird and John Bischoff.  Although I am an Indiana State alumnus and was caught up in the "Birdmania" of 1979, I've never met Mr. Bird, but John Bischoff and I spent much time together when I was in Terre Haute, and a great deal of this time was spent shooting hoops and discussing this book.

This was back in the days when I could slam dunk, and also weighed in at a lithe 185 pounds, but John Bischoff was a friend of Larry's and could shoot the lights out on the dimly lit court in the parsonage yard where we often played.  I was elated when he finished this book with Larry Bird, and John and I often discussed the book following choir practice while we shot hoops and trash-talked.  After reviewing the book again this week, it's obvious that this title could still serve as a textbook for any basketball team in the country.  In these pages Larry Bird describes the nature of the game and breaks it down into understandable components (dribbling, shooting, rebounding, etc.).   It's old school, but that's not necessarily a bad thing these days.

It was a joy discovering this book . . . again.  Brought back many memories for me.  Makes me proud to be an ISU alumnus. 

The book almost makes me want to pick up a ball again, just in time for March Madness . . . if only my shoulders and knees would cooperate.  The only thing I can do these days is carry the water bottles.   

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Me and My Dog

Photo: The author and his dog, Tippy. December, 1963. Robinson, Illinois.

About two years ago I began writing a memoir centered on my childhood dog, Tippy.  I've since written about 10,000 words on the piece, collected photographs from family photo albums, and otherwise been engaged in an assortment of other projects that have taken me off-task time and again. This past week I reviewed the project with my agent (thanks, Cynthia) and now have a clearer direction for how I should proceed with the book.

But memoirs are tough.  Especially humorous ones.  And my childhood and adolescence was nothing short of laughable.  I've got stories that I could never create in a million years, and some of them will curl your nose hairs.

Tippy was an incredible dog.  He became my dog on my first birthday and was with me until the age of fourteen, when, one Fall day after arriving home from school, I found him dead in the barn.  I buried him myself before the rest of the family arrived home (I was always first off the bus).  He was my dog, and we had a kind of spiritual-affinity that I have never experienced nor shared with any animal since.

When Tippy died (he lived to sixteen), he left the world with three legs, one ear, and half of his torso-hide missing.  He was a lover and a fighter, a jackrabbit and a sloth.  He followed me everywhere . . . fishing, hunting, hiking, bike riding, to the basketball courts and to the swimming holes . . . .

Tippy was a rare dog.  I loved him.  And I know he loved me.

I'm not sure anyone will want to read about my dog . . . but I've got some side-splitting episodes from the 1960's and early 1970's.  Tippy was there throughout. 

Sometimes, I still dream about him.  And, although it's a dog's life, he made my childhood tolerable.  Now all I have to do it write the book, and I trust my agent can do the rest.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My Romantic Expertise

Yesterday I learned that I am a romantic expert.  Here's how it happened.

I was sitting on the couch at home last night, talking to my wife about stewed prunes while I picked my nose, and suddenly I received a Facebook message from an editor who informed me that he wanted to include my oldest book (Before You Say "I Do") in the bibliography of a romance guide for married couples.  I was skeptical--in much the same way Becky is skeptical when I tell her that I have made plans for Friday night--but I shot a message back.

As it turns out, the editor was wanting to use my book as a "give-away" on a "romantic network" and has been using my book for some time to help couples talk about marriage (rather than a wedding).  It's all on the up-and-up, a Christian organization, even--and I was glad to be of service and will be sending him more copies in the mail.

But beyond the books themselves, I'm glad that someone finally recognized my romantic prowess.  I am, after all, the husband who invented Wendy's date night and pillow talk during Gomer Pyle reruns.  Believe me, if my wife can be turned on while Sergeant Carter is screaming, you can do it with a bottle of wine and soft music.  I've even worked my magic with Aunt Bee and Opie (and sometimes Otis Campbell).  Furthermore, when I do take my wife out to a fancy restaurant like Taco Bell, I blow her mind. 

We discussed this last night.

"What do you think of me being chosen as a romantic expert?  I mean, I'll be providing advice to millions of couples who are looking to have a marriage like ours!" I said.

"You're no Jack Kennedy," she said. 

"But think of it," I continued, "the accolades, the cheers, the book sales."

"I'll believe it when I see it," she told me.  "When are you going to start this romance?  We've been married twenty-seven years and all you've done so far is cook up Hamburger Helper . . . and most of the time, you serve it cold."

"What about that time I took you to Acron, Ohio to the National Walnut Museum?" I pointed out.  "And what about those white hot nights during that three day power outage in Noblesville?"

"That was twenty-two years ago," she said.  "And I was pregnant."  


I don't want to hear any more talk about my romantic expertise.  It's going to my head.  That's why I've been stepping back from the brink for the past twenty-two years.  I don't want to get too romantic.

My wife couldn't handle me. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Over the past 48 hours I feel like I've been working inside a blender.  But writing can feel that way . . . or at least it can for me.

I have, for example, whipped up the following in the past two days:

A sermon (which I ended up memorizing and offering without notes)
Two memorial/funeral messages
A study outline for a Psalms study
The beginnings of a ministry brochure for Calvary
A grant report
Several blog posts
Four poems
Scads of phone messages scrawled on scrap paper
Revisions of several short stories
Several hand-written letters mailed Monday morning
A query letter mailed to the editor of a Men's Health magazine
A humor piece about ageing
An article on fishing for smallmouth bass (what do I know about smallmouth bass?  See previous blog about beavers!)

Yes, I stay busy.  But sometimes the blender effect threatens to spin my brains out of control.  I sometimes have to take a step back and ask, "What am I working on now?  What's the tone of this piece?  Have I fully engaged "the voice" I'm trying to convey in words and does it work?

As for other voices in other rooms (that's a veiled reference to a Truman Capote work, by the way!) I often hear my wife's voice calling out to me in the darkness, sometimes well past midnight . . . wondering . . . when are you coming to bed? 

And sometimes I hear another voice calling back, almost not my own, saying, "Just give me another five minutes."  Let me punch the "puree" button on the blender.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Reading Homer

During the Duke-UNC basketball game on Saturday night, I found myself reading Homer (The Odyssey, Robert Fagles translation) . . . which was a much better option than the game, as it turned out.  Fagles's translation is a remarkable achievement, rendered in a predominant pentameter that his highly-readable and immensely enjoyable.

Most scholars agree that The Odyssey was written after The Iliad, and Homer (whoever he was) is shrouded in enough mystery that even the most marginal of readers will understand that this is a work for the ages. At more than 12,000 lines, The Odyssey is not a work that one reads at a single-sitting, and so I chose to read about Odysseus and his encounters with the Lotus-eaters and the Cyclops.
I won't go deep into the modern-day implications of either of these encounters, but most everyone can identify one or two "drugs" or "habits" that have a proclivity to pull us away from our life's purposes and goals or cause us to become complacent or lost in ourselves (the Lotus).  And as for the Cyclops, well . . . we all face giants that threaten to eat us alive, that hurl boulders at us, and that claim connection to larger powers that we cannot easily overcome.  (Poseidon, the god of the sea who pursued Odysseus relentlessly, was father of the Cyclops.)

Obviously, Duke could not overcome UNC on Saturday night.  Their giants were too many.  And after reading my fair share of The Odyssey during this disastrous game, I set out afterwards on an adventure of my own, dredging up more words and paragraphs and pages.

I hope soon to set them free on the waters of the Aegean.  May they find their home in Ithaca, and may an editor embrace them, someday, with open arms and a paycheck.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Sleeping In

Word was my wife would be arriving late from work on Thursday around 11:30 p.m. (don't ask) . . . and so I decided to make a late night, a VERY late night, of catching up on some writing.  I pulled out an old folder littered with stories of various style and variety, and began re-writing with the intent to improve where I could (using brutal and painful self-criticism, which is a great Lenten practice) and throw out what could not be redeemed (creative damnation).

Long past midnight I ended up with seven . . . count 'em . . . seven new-and-improved stories that I subsequently either attached to email or printed and posted for shipment on Friday.  Some great stuff here, if I do say so myself.  Two science fiction tales, a couple of mysteries (one hardboiled), a romance, a literary slice of life, and even a modern western.  All told, I was 30,000 words into the mix--and that's a bunch of pages for one evening.

It's been quite a while since I wrote this long and this hard toward daylight, and by the time my wife returned home and had said "Goodnight" I was still going strong, and ended the session by jotting down a dozen new ideas that I want to get at some day . . . some day.

First chance I get.

By the time I scooted into bed I felt like I was drunk on words.  I get that way sometimes.  I'd had too much to write. 

But I dreamed a love poem.  And I plan to recite it to Becky over the weekend.

If I don't fall asleep.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Groundhog Day Diary

Here's another excerpt from my daily poetry journal . . . this one written on Groundhog Day.  Actually, I'm not sure the groundhog saw his shadow this year, it would seem that winter has already turned into spring. Or is this just me?

Groundhog Day

Can the groundhog really name
The winter or the spring
Or having seen
It's shadow proclaim
Its instinct?
And if we accept the views
Of rodents, what more might we
Believe if we emerged from our
Own skins to stare,
Full Bore,
Into the sun?