Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Thinking of Mom

If Mom had lived, she would have been 90 years old today. I trust my loyal (though few) readers will indulge me as I depart from my normal format to write about her. The only electronic pictures of her are on my computer at home, so I will edit this tonight and paste one in, a beautiful childhood picture of her on a pony.

Dorothy Alfreda Sexton was born in New York, in 1918. She was conceived in St. Lucia, and her mother emigrated while pregnant, while World War 1 was on. That's another story for another post (or a book). Mom and her mom lived with her mom's uncle, David Sexton in Providence, Rhode Island. She grew up in that small household, her father absent, her mother's marriage annulled. Uncle Dave became a surrogate grandfather/father to her, and his name was frequently invoked in glowing terms throughout my childhood (a subject for another post or book). I have his name.

Mom attended public schools through 8th grade, then was shipped off to Northfield School for girls in Northfield, Mass (a school founded by Dwight L. Moody) in proper British tradition. She graduated, then went to Rhode Island College (now the University of Rhode Island) for a brief time, one to three semesters. She took a job in Boston for some amount of time, then in Providence. At some point (not sure how long after she left school) she became an X-ray technician, and worked at this job until she was married and began having children. This might have been as long as twelve to fourteen years. I remember accompanying her to Dr. Richardson's office when I was maybe 6 or 7, when she had to work one afternoon.

In January 1950 she married Norman Victor Todd in Providence, and we three children were born in 1950 through 1954. Dad was 33, Mom 31. In late 1950 Dad and Mom moved from Courtland Street in Providence to Cottage Street in Cranston. It was a convenient place for Dad to take the bus to his night job, and to walk home the four miles at 4:00 AM. It was a smallish house, on a smallish lot, but it adequately served we five.

I never remember Mom being anything but sick, deathly sick. Her kidneys were bad, and she had to fix separate food for herself since she couldn't eat protein. Eventually her whole body went bad, whether from the kidneys or lack of nourishment I don't know.

I came to the conclusion that the years of exposure to X-rays, back in the days when they didn't know the danger, was what ruined her kidneys, but now I'm not sure of that. Years after her death I discussed this with Dad, and was surprised to learn that Mom had breast cancer and had a double radical mastectomy. She was considered a cancer survivor, having lived more than five years after the operation. But I have no childhood memory of her having cancer--being sick, yes, but from her kidneys, not cancer. So my working theory now is the x-rays caused her cancer, she had the double as well as chemotherapy in the early days of what was then an experimental type of treatment, and the chemo ruined her kidneys. Just a theory, but possible and maybe probable.

On August 13, 1965, Mom checked into the hospital for the last time. She spent time in the hospital two or three times a year, but this time was different. She died about 10:30 PM on August 19, 1965, age 46 years, 10 months, 20 days. Dad was at work at his night job, we kids at home. The hospital called him and he rushed there, but he didn't get there in time.

My memories of Mom are good, although I ache for the constant pain she lived in. To give her an activity that didn't require much physical effort, our family took up stamp collecting. Both Mom and Dad had done that in their formative years, but let it go as adults. Oh, the memories of working on our collections. During the week Mom opened envelopes purchased from dealers and sorted, or soaked and sorted if required. On Saturday night the five of us sat around the dining room table, each with our albums. Mom distributed the stamps acquired, always one country per night. If she had five or more of a stamp, each of us got one. If four, we three kids got one and Mom and Dad alternated. If three, they went to us kids. After that, the stamps were put in the middle, and we all had a chance to pick one, going round and round until all were distributed and the duplicates were in an envelope. We licked hinges and put them in our albums. We usually discussed what was on some of the stamps, learning history that way, seeing other alphabets, other languages, learning shades of colors, etc. A wonderful, wonderful time.

Did working the stamp collections prolong Mom's life, since it gave her a reason to live through the pain? I suspect so. I'm a strong believer in the will to live having something to do with longevity.

Allow me to add here a poem I wrote about Mom several years ago on the anniversary of her death. I may make another post with two others I've written.

Thirty-Eight Years Ago

Crippled by years of encroaching pain,
a precious mother breathed her last.
What legacy lives on today,
as memories are fading fast?
Each year I live those days again,
and wonder if she found her way.

Friday, September 26, 2008

"Maintenance" Time

I'm not writing anything at present. The demands of life and realities of the publishing business are the cause. Continuous mental tiredness--partly in anticipation of life activities I know are coming--and perceived unlikelihood of selection for publishing are the specifics. I've discarded a few scraps that once upon a time I might have saved and made into poems. If other ideas for writing have passed through my mind (which I don't think they have of late), I have allowed them to break the speed limit upon exit.

During this time, I have also laid aside my reading list in favor of reading several notebooks full of previously downloaded articles. Most of these are writing helps, from websites or small e-books the gurus and semi-gurus of the industries have produced. When writing is an exciting thing, these look and sound good. When writing sours, these only take up shelf space. So I'm reading them and sticking them in a recycling/reuse pile. At home, that pile is about 10 inches high. At work, I'd say about two reams of paper. Both are still growing, and the end is not yet.

At home, most of these papers are related to fiction: how to write it, how to edit it, how to sell it, how to market it. Most of it is all good stuff. I had read about half of it and kept it. Now, on second read, I realize keeping it is not needed. The other half I may have skimmed, but never read. Now on first read, I realize keeping it is not needed. I'm keeping a few things, on book proposals and query letters. I suppose a spark of hope for future gumption still exists.

At work, most of it is related to poetry: how to write it, what makes it good, how to properly use metaphor, figures of speech, etc, etc. Most of this I read upon initial download, and saved for some footling reason. All of this is going. The notebook I'm working on does not contain a thing I could not access again from the Internet, nor is any of it that essential to my poetic development. So into the recycling box it goes, emptied weekly and thus irretrievable should I change my mind.

Another thing I'm adding to the home recycling/reuse pile is old copies of Doctor Luke's Assistant. One of these is an early version, the one I gave to my first beta readers. The other is the next-to-last version, the one with hand-written edits that I made just before submitting to an agent and my most recent beta readers. When I began discarding this last one, I turned the pages to see if the edits were really done, evidenced by being yellowed-out. Most were, but I found a few to which I had not applied the marker. So I went to the computer, pulled up the official copy, and began going page by page. I found a few things that actually had not been typed. These were not typos, but rather improvements in wording to eliminate passive voice, wordiness, repeated words, modern contractions, etc. And, I found a few places where I could made a new improvement. Why bother, I don't know, but I made them. I went through about a hundred pages last night. After I complete this, that paper version will go as well.

I kept all these past versions of DLA based on the advice from David Morrell (author of First Blood and creator of the Rambo character). He says to save everything: every hand-written scrap, every typed draft, every edit, and when the book is written and published (yeah, right), box them up and keep them as a record and for posterity. I don't think I will be following his advice in this regard any longer. Why have to move a box with about fifteen reams of paper next time we move, simply to create a record of how I wrote a book that was never published?

All of this is somewhat releasing, dare I say exhilarating. I'm not experiencing a bit of sorrow in the process, other than for the trees I must have killed in the original printing.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Book Review: Writing To Be Read

At some thrift store we visited during our travels in August, I picked up Writing To Be Read by Ken Macrorie [1968, Hayden Book Company, LOC no. 67-31284]. I paid 69 cent for it, so figured I couldn't go wrong. In mid-August, when I sorted all the books in reading pile, I decided to put this one second, trying to mix fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and writing help books.

The book wasn't bad, but it also was not as helpful as I hoped it would be. I suppose the stamps on the book's edges, one for Gonderson High School in San Jose, CA, and one for Steinbeck Jr. High, should have clued me in. That and the age, and the fact that the book was barely read. Either this was an extra copy that rarely was assigned to a student or the students who had it had better things to do than read it.

The main problem with the book was the slant toward journalism, as opposed to other types of writing. Almost every example of both good and bad writing came from publications--more newspapers than magazines--than any other. Very few examples came from fiction. Most of the examples were from student newspapers in the 1960s. Quite a few came from the writings of Henry David Thoreau. A few came from 20th century American poets. The writing exercises were mostly journalism type things.

I don't mean to say the book had no value; it did, probably enough to justify the cost. The chapter on effective use of repetition should be valuable for me in both prose and poetry. The chapter on maintaining flow was useful. The chapter on finding an angle seems more slanted toward journalism, but may give me a few things to consider on other writing.

I have one chapter plus two pages to go to finish the book. I'm not sure I'm going to. I rarely do not finish a book I start. That's just a thing with me. If I paid for the book, even if it cost me money to go to the library for it, I feel like I must finish it to get my money's worth. On this one, with a chapter and two pages unread, I feel that I justified the expense of 69 cent.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Change of Heart: No Documenting America

After hemming and hawing about this for a long time, I've decided to abandon (for now) any attempts to market my Documenting America newspaper column. The amount of work required each week is the main factor: fear of commitment.

I may still do some of the activities related to the column. I love reading and analyzing those old documents, and so will continue to do so. I enjoy developing a 700-800 word column from those, so I may continue to write them, and accumulate them in anticipation of a future date when I might change my mind. More likely some day in the future, when I assume room temperature, my executor will find these in a file/folder/box, have a good laugh at the stupidity of it all, and discard/recycle them. If I don't do it first.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Some Moments

Pamela Tudsbury, in Herman Wouk's excellent novel The Winds of War, said, "Some moments weigh against a life time."

I have found her (or rather his) words to be true in life in general and in my life in particular. Those moments probably are not recognizable at the time. Well, some are. Death and destruction, such as the 9/11 attacks on the USA or the death of a loved one, are obvious, but other moments aren't. In the novel, Pamela and Victor Henry were talking about a moment that had happened some days or weeks before.

On Wednesday I may have had such a moment. I recognized it instantly, though I'm waiting to see if I'm right or not. Consequently, I may be silent here for a while.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Ex parte Milligan"

Last night I went to work polishing the Documenting America files I will need to do the marketing. I took another look at the query letter--probably the 50th time--and couldn't find a word to change. Then I pulled out the critique group comments for #0006, and went through them. I had already gone through the critique group comments for the query letter and #0001.

Some of the comments required that I double check the original document quoted in the column, to check for errors, and to make a better reference in two places. So I pulled the volume off the shelf at home and re-read it. The subject matter of this particular column was a Supreme Court decision in 1866. Designated "Ex parte Milligan", it was a decision that determined that trial by military court was inappropriate where civilian courts were functioning and where war was not present nor anticipated.

I hesitated, a couple of years ago, to choose this as a topic. Who am I to examine, extract, and comment on legal issues before our highest court? But I found the issue fascinating, studied it, and determined I could give a "layman's" view of it, and did. Today I decided to do just a little more research, and so Googled "ex parte Milligan". To my surprise this resulted in 28,800 hits. Yikes! This may be an obscure court decision for the layman, but obviously not for the legal professional. This once again caused fear of error to rear up. Layman or not, I'd better be sure I know what I'm talking about for the limited commentary in the column.

As I did this work last night, I skimmed through the table of contents of the volume and found other documents that appear good items for future columns. I read one of them, marking with pencil the parts I will likely quote. Two or three others I marked for columns based on the topic and a very quick scanning of the text.

All of this, between yesterday and today, took about two hours. Two very enjoyable hours. Two hours where I felt I was in my element. Two hours where I was able to stick to business, not including some time dreaming of success in this endeavor.

Ever closer, ever closer.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Getting Closer

Closer to a decision, that is, on whether to market Documenting America as a self-syndicated newspaper column. Today I went through the critiques of the Spavinaw Writers on my query letter and on two prototype columns (no. 1 and no. 6). I have to admit that, after I made a good number of the suggested changes, all three documents are better.

I also gave some more thought to the calling of the writer. At a writers Yahoo group to which I belong, the question came up "how do you know if God is calling you to be a writer?" I posted on that before on this blog, stating that God never seems to talk with me directly, so I have to base my assessment of my calling on grace, gifts, and usefulness evidenced in my life. I thought back to feedback I've received on DA, and realized it has somewhat stacked up on the side of doing it. The work tonight on the three pieces let me to believe that maybe this is the direction I should go, even if it means foregoing other creative writing for a while.

I'm going to give it another day or two and, if I pull the trigger, do it on Friday.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Health Concerns

Among the many things making for a crowded life is trying to improve my health. For too many years I paid lip service to this, exercising a little, eating better than many of my peers but not good enough, always putting off to another day the things I need to do to improve my health.

About the first of July I finally did get serious about it. I increased my walking for exercise, decreased my overall food intake and especially of the bad things, found small things I can do during the work day or while driving to burn a few extra calories. The result at my annual physical on August 19th was a pretty good report: weight at a two year (almost a three year) low; cholesterol down; blood pressure down; all other blood work good except for blood sugar, which crept up a little. The extra effort worked, and the time taken from avocational pursuits was well spent.

Then came the last three weeks, a whirlwind of things going on and the wife being gone and...well, I didn't do so well. Cut back on my walking, went off the wagon on both volume and types of food, and my weight is up. I won't say how much up, but it's up.

So, it is back to the program of walking every noon hour (I did so today; walked 10 laps in the parking lot = 1 1/9 mile); eating right (one slice of buttered toast this morning, the healthy kind of bread; left over cabbage and corn for lunch with celery and carrot and an apple for dessert); and will begin some indoors exercises on the apparati we have which has barely been used for the last year. I next go to the doctor in mid-November, and I'd like to be down 13-15 pounds from August. That is certainly in reach.

What all this will do to my writing, research for writing, and genealogy habits I don't know. But I'd better get back to treating this seriously.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Everybody’s Busy

American life is an incredible journey of rushing from one good activity to another. At least, that’s the whirlwind I’m in, and the one others are in based on my recent attempts at making contact. I suppose the greatness of America has something to do with it. We are blessed with incredible freedom and abundant wealth, both augmented by the world’s most advanced technology and relatively cheap transportation (even with gasoline at $3.559).

Because of that, we load up our lives running here and there: activities, trips, and travel--hopefully good things that will enhance our lives and the lives of those within our reach. That includes the whole world nowadays. So when a new, good activity comes up, it must be denied access to our schedule, or something else must give way, be it sleep or relaxation or whatever.

If an old friend from school days contacts you, offering re-acquaintance, what to drop to add that? If long lost relatives discover you, how do you work into the schedule time to build new relationships? If someone you mentored decades ago goes out of his way to find you and attempts correspondence, how will you respond? Interesting questions, for which I have no ready answer.

For me, what gives first is the mundane household chores: balancing the checkbook, paying the bills on time, planning next month's finances, replacing a light bulb, replacing a broken lamp globe, sweeping the driveway, timely washing the dishes, filing the ridiculous number of papers all my activities seem to generate, etc. Next comes a shortening of quiet and devotional time, and leisure--avocations are not always leisure. Shortening may eventually become elimination.

For others, what gives might just be the new activity, for the comfort of current routine ultimately trumps change for most people.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Who Am I?

Yes, who am I to think I can be a writer of an op-ed column? I have no credentials. I never took a political science course in college; never worked on a political campaign after some high school volunteering; never ran for office or even contemplated doing so; never covered government or political-economic-cultural issues for a media outlet. Well, I did function as a contract city engineer for eight years, but it was for a small city, with limited staff although with booming development. And, during that time, I did work on writing city ordinances (i.e. laws and regulations) and then worked to enforce them in my limited capacity. I did get to observe the roles of mayors, councilmen, planning commissioners, and city staff up close.

But, that is a far cry from national issues. So why should I think I can write the column “Documenting America” and self-syndicate it to newspapers? I’ve been thinking of this for almost five years, more recently as a platform-building activity for launching a writing career. But is this possible? Could I sell the column, and myself as the best person to write this?

The status is this:
1. I have developed the concept for the column: taking some document from America’s past; excerpting it; explaining it; showing its importance in America’s growth and development; and tying it to a current issue, if possible.

2. I have completed eighteen columns, and have a good handle on where the sources of documents are; what the copyright issues are; and how long it will take me to research, write, and polish a column. I’m sure I can produce it weekly.

3. I have to some extent researched the market, and have developed a marketing plan for selling it to newspapers, most likely smaller, weekly or daily papers, but never the big national ones. The actual marketing of the column awaits, so I don’t actually know if it will sell or not.

4. I have taken a number of the columns to two different writers critique groups, and received good feedback and suggestions for improvement. I’ve also workshopped one of the prototype columns at an on-line workshop, again with good feedback. To the same two real-life crit groups I have submitted a query letter to newspapers, and received help on how to make it better.

5. I have shown a few of the columns to people I would describe as my target audience, and received positive feedback: without exception they would like their newspaper to carry it and would read it.

It’s ready to go, and has been for close to a year. All that remains is to pick some newspapers, send them a query and some samples, and see if they will buy it.

So why haven’t I done it? Why haven’t I pulled the trigger? Fear, as I blogged about before, but also the thought that I have no standing on which to sell this column. Why would any newspaper buy it from me, hire me to fill ten to twelve column-inches every week?

This post is long enough right now. Possibly I’ll expand on this over the next couple of days. I’m off to find a couple more beta readers for the column.

September Writing Goals

Given my personal workload, my writing goals in September will be modest, as they were in August.

1. Attend critique group once (it meets every two weeks), and present the next chapter in my work-in-progress novel.

2. Blog 10 to 12 times. I'd like to do more, but will settle for that.

3. Update my submissions log. I filed a few papers last night, and discovered I haven't entered in my log the last several submissions I made. That may be important come tax time.

4. (If I finally decide to market it) Submit Documenting America to about twenty newspapers as a possible self-syndicated column.

5. Work on, and complete if possible, the proposal (with four sample chapters) for the Bible study requested by the editor.

6. Wait (patiently) for a response on the two projects I currently have out with an editor and agent.

7. Continue to work on my reading list, the writing help book and the next one, whatever it is.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The August Report

As per my developing habit, I set some writing goals at the beginning of August, and will report on them now. Here's how I did.

1. Complete the book proposal, requested by an editor, on the Elijah and Elisha Bible study, and mail it. I failed miserably on this. To turn in a proposal I had to convert my weekly handouts into book sample chapters, at least four. Plus, since I decided to add one chapter that preceded the study as taught, I started on this. But I became bogged down in writing this chapter, and didn't finish it. I made fair progress for a couple of days, then decided to let it sit. Consequently, I didn't work on any of the other sample chapters nor the proposal itself.

2. Complete the planning phase of my next two Bible studies. I don't know if I can claim completing these, but I did work on them. The one on Israel becoming a nation is very close to being fully planned out. The one on Peter's life is less so, but is fairly far along.

3. Complete the research I need before undertaking an on-line poetry workshop in September (may start in late August). It is a workshop I will lead at the Absolute Write poetry forum, with a limited scope. I began the research, but have very little completed. Since this is a volunteer thing, it will probably be low priority for this month. Still, having committed to leading it, I'd like to get it done.

4. Attend one critique group meeting; present the prototype for the Documenting America newspaper column. I did this. The group was very positive about the column, and gave some good suggestions for the query letter and the two sample columns I shared with them.

5. Read in some writing how-to books. I started this--one book, not "books". It is one I picked up at a used book store, and appears to have been a high school text, though I'm not certain of that. I will likely finish this book in September and report on it.

6. Wait for the editor and agent to respond to the two proposals I have out right now. Ah, this was the easiest goal of all, waiting on an editor and an agent to get to my submitted material. As I blogged about this previously, I am waiting patiently, resisting the urge to contact the two, and trying to concentrate on new works-in-progress.

That's it. I had relatively few goals for the month, as I knew I would miss time for our road trip and then helping people move. I accomplished those non-writing things, but still would have wished for a little more productivity in writing.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Book Review: The Christians as the Romans Saw Them

Today I finished reading The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, by Robert L. Wilken, 1984 Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-03627-2. Make that Dr. Robert L. Wilken. He is a retired professor of Early and Medieval Christian History and Thought at the University of Virginia. I did not find a biography of Dr. Wilken. You can find a summary of the book contents here.

I would not add this to my list of favorite books, but I did find it useful. Wilkens took the writings of five Roman critics of Christianity during the first three hundred years after Christ: Pliney the Younger, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate. These men cover the years 110 AD to about 363 AD. Wilkens chose, rather than to survey the entire body of Christian criticism produced in this period, to focus on these five key critics. Each one represents a different era in the life of the church.

During Pliney's time as governor of Bithinia, Christians were still a tiny minority in the overall empire. By the time of Julian, Christianity was the State religion, embraced by Constantine a few decades before. Of the five, only Julian was raised a Christian and so had personal knowledge of the religion. The others were mainly doing their criticism from study of Christian texts and observation (or reports) of how Christians lived.

I found the book difficult to read. Part of this was the editing. Paragraphs in the same chapter, presenting close to the same infomation, often did so without awareness that the other paragraph existed. It was as if the author wrote these paragraphs at different times, maybe working at the end of a chapter then at the beginning, inserting and deleting through the revision process, then forgot to delete something that was no longer needed. I especially noticed this in the chapters on Porphyry and Julian. In addition, this read more like a college textbook (which perhaps it was intended to be) than for casual reading.

One thing that struck m was now each of these critics became aware of Christians or thought of the need to be a critic of them. It was always because of the lives of Christians, not because of their writings. The Christians lived as a people apart, taking no part in government or politics, shunning the State religion, but otherwise living exemplary lives. In this I found a lesson for today.

Should you read this book? I cannot recommend it. And I probably would not have finished it except I almost always finish any book I start, and I thought it might be additional research to add to Doctor Luke's Assistant. I don't think I will add it to my permanet library. Anyone want it? Cost of postage, only.