Wednesday, October 31, 2012

When You Have Nothing to Say...

...say nothing.

That's how I've been the last few days. I spent Thursday through Sunday in Oklahoma City, helping Lynda babysit our grandsons while their dad and mom were at ministers and mates retreat. Lynda had been there for two weeks already, and I joined the party. The babysitting went very well. I hadn't seen the boys since May. Ephraim is four, and he remembered me with no problem. Ezra is just 1 1/2, and I'm not sure he remembered me. But he and I had a great time. I wound up putting him to bed all three nights and for a couple of naps. Obviously during this time I wasn't concerned with writing or developing ideas, for this blog of for anything. What limited reading I did was in some Civil War documents.

I drove home Sunday afternoon/evening, arriving at 7:00 p.m., my mind fully immersed in radio football coverage. I had a scheduled blog post for Sunday, so I knew I didn't need to write anything here until Tuesday. I mainly read and rested in the quiet house Sunday evening.

Back at work Monday, I wasn't as productive as I could be. My concentration was off. I wasn't sure why. At home Monday evening I suddenly and quickly developed a cold. Normally these things come on me slowly, over a period of about three days. This one happened in three hours. It wasn't allergies. So being sub par, I did less that evening than I hoped for. I worked on my current novel, China Tour, writing about 1,000 words in the next chapter, but didn't even think of this or my other blog.

Then yesterday I came to work. I felt amazingly good compared to Monday. The cold, it seemed, might be a very mild one that I got over quickly. I functioned reasonably well at work on Tuesday. On the noon hour I picked up more or less where I was with the novel and added 900 words. Of course, that meant I had it in two files on two different computers, with a merge in the future. But at least I felt good during the day and into the evening. I worked some more on the book in the evening, adding another 500+ words to the scene I wrote at work, thus making for three discontinuous blocks of text waiting to be merged. But, I felt no motivation to blog.

So here it is Wednesday morning. I'm at work, in my own quiet time before I start the work day. I'm feeling a little worse today, so maybe the cold isn't as mild as I first thought. We'll see if some daytime cold pills do the trick. I'll probably leave the office a bit early, go home and make a big pot of chicken soup, for me and for Lynda's return tonight.

But I still have nothing to say on this blog. No ideas have come, except to do this play-by-play of the last seven days. China Tour is almost at 5,000 words, and seems to be coming together well, though I'm moving along in scenes with less words than I anticipated. I'll give more details of that on my other blog. Meanwhile, I still can't think of anything to write for this blog. My last post, on politics, resulted in some interest, so maybe I'll see if I can develop a pre-election post or two. Otherwise, I need to develop some blog ideas.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Book Review: "The Eye of the Story"

In a previous post I mentioned how I was having trouble with Eudora Welty's book The Eye of the Story. I must report that the book seemed to improve as I got further into it. The first part, Welty's analysis of of the body of work of several writers, was incomprehensible. The second part, seven essays on writing, was not quite as bad as the first part but almost. She talked about several aspects of a story, and how to use them in fiction. Unfortunately I didn't learn much.

The third part of the book was criticism of specific works by a number of writers, including Washington Irving, Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and E.B. White. I found this part quite well done, and very understandable. Of course, I found it to have limited enjoyment, as I do most literary criticism.

The fourth part is called "Personal and Occasional Pieces". This is a series of essays about things of interest to Welty. At least, I think that's what it is. I only read the first two. They dealt with travel to Mississippi, Welty's home state. They were good, but I'm afraid right now I'm not interested in reading travel pieces from the 1950s, 60, and 70s.

So all in all, I count this book a bust, and declare the 50 cents I spent on it to have been wasted.

Although, on the chance that the problem might be my comprehension and not her writing, I'm going to stick this on my writing bookshelf. I may pull it out in a few years and read it again. For those interested in Welty's works, you might check back here in about twenty years and see if I read more and wrote more about this.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Politics of Personal Gain

I first noticed this during the 1972 presidential election, my first election to vote in. The McGovern campaign had a somewhat undefined policy they were promoting that all families in the USA should be guaranteed a certain income per year, I think it was $10,000. Teddy White described the finalization of this policy in his book The Making of the President, 1972, and did so with some criticism.

I was at the University of Rhode Island at the time, and I remember my fellow students talking about it. I was working at the Burger King in Wakefield RI, and I remember my fellow burger flippers and fry dippers taking about it. In general, everyone was in favor of it. A guaranteed income, less pressure to work hard to get ahead. College student, working high school grads, and young parents working the second job all seemed to think it was a good idea.

Fast forward to 2008/2009. Soon after Barack Obama's election, people were saying than goodness, now I won't have to pay my mortgage any more. Their vote had been for the candidate that they saw as being most likely to give them stuff, which one was most likely to make their life "better" as they defined better. This is more or less what I wrote about in The Candy Store Generation.

Over and over I have seen people making voting decisions based on "What's best for me", and I cringe at the thought. What would be best for me? That the government would give me a grant for $100,000 and I could take a couple of years off to whip out four or five novels, and have time and money to promote them? That they would forgive my son's college debt, making him more financially secure, which would help me in a certain way? That they would cover more costs for lower income families, which would help my daughter's family and indirectly help me?

Those would all make my financial life more enjoyable, but what would it do to the long-term health of my country?

We get this at work, too, on a more local level. We are an engineering company that depends on people getting ready to build things for our existence. So whenever a vote on taxes is on a ballot, we get bombarded first by our organizations then by upper management, "Vote for the tax increase; it will mean more work for us." That's the politics of personal gain, voting for something because it's "best" for us, not because it's best for our nation/state/community.

The politics of personal gain is a short-term approach at the expense long-term benefits, something else covered in The Candy Store Generation. It's better for me to have $1000 in my pocket tomorrow rather than to look to the future and have $20,000 in my pocket in three or four years. So we make short-term decisions to get beer money at the expense of our retirements. This attitude has, to some extent, been the downfall of many manufacturing unions, including the one my dad belonged to.

A long-term approach says put off that gratification in favor of something bigger than yourself. So I want to vote in national elections for what I perceive to be best for America, and in State elections for what I perceive to be best for Arkansas, and in local elections for what I perceive to be best for the City of Bella Vista and for Benton County. Because, when you think about it, the long-term view says that what's best for America is what's best for me. More long-term financial stability means a brighter future. More liberty means a happier future. At all levels of government.

In Arkansas this election we are voting on a statewide, 1/2 percent sales tax to allow the state to issue highway bonds for road and highway improvements. The bombardment from organizations and management has been going on. But I plan to vote against this tax increase. What's better for me? I suppose that not have to pay another 50 cents on a $100 purchase would be marginally better for me. Certainly better roads—and more of them—will be better for me. But I perceive that it will be better for the State of Arkansas not to increase their debt. Ultimately, what's best for the State is what's best for me. In a long-term sort of way.

The politics of personal gain. I reject that, except for how a more stable nation/state/community means a brighter future for everyone, including me.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Carlyle on Carlyle

It’s been a while since I wrote anything about my studies into the works of Thomas Carlyle. That’s because it’s been ages since I even looked at them, or at least looked at them enough to find something to draw from them.

Last Friday, at a moment when I just didn’t feel like working, I went to the Carlyle Letters Online site and browsed. I looked at the year 1826, which was before he gained notoriety. I probably should have gone back to 1823, since that’s when he was probably working on his first major work. I forgot the chronology when I began looking.

But TC didn’t disappoint me in 1826. In a letter dated 31 July 1826 to William Tait, Carlyle talked about his then-current work, a translation of some German novels, but with lots of biographical information and commentary added. He was talking about this in letters in January that year, and every month down through July. On January 7 that year he said this about it to his fiancĂ©e:
Tait the [book]seller is writing to Germany for more matter: I expect to be very busy for the next three months. I pray Heaven the thing were off my hands; for it is a sorry piece of work at the best, and written nearly altogether for the “lucre of gain.”
Having read a hundred or so of Carlyle’s letters, trying to pick the times when he would have been busy writing a major work, I can say that for every book he seemed to have this hate affair with it. He said the book marred his health. He said the book was not going well. He said he might not finish the book. He said the book probably wouldn’t sell even if he did finish it. He said, as he neared completion, that he was glad to be about rid of it. I want to scream out, “Hey Tom, if you hate writing so much, why do you do it?”

But, I suppose it wasn’t writing he disliked; it was the process of turning research into a finished product that someone would print and others would buy and read. I’m not sure I can relate to that, but I can sort of see where he’s coming from. It’s not my experience, but could well have been his.

So in the July letter to Tait, Carlyle wrote this.
I this morning send off the last eight leaves of Ms. for our German Book; and as the Printers have only about ten sheets remaining to compose, I calculate that the whole matter will be off my hands in a few days.
I am happy to tell you that this work, which has given me some unexpected trouble, also gives me some unexpected pleasure, and that at the present moment I am far better satisfied with the general structure of it than when you first proposed the business I could even hope to be. What its fate with the reading world may be you are better able to predict than I; but at all events, I think we may offer our Book to the Public as a thing fulfilling what it promises; giving real German Novellists, the highest to be found in that country; and on the whole offering a considerably truer and more comprehensive glimpse into German Literature than any other yet offered in England.
So it seems, by the time this work was down to checking the galley proofs, that Carlyle found something to be pleased about. I’m glad of that. I would hope that most writers, when they come to the end of a work, will be able to say they can look back and feel it was a worthwhile project and something they can be proud of.

Me? I'm at the beginning of a project. The last seven days I started three novels, not really knowing which one I'm going to write next. I also thought I might start one non-fiction book and put that beside the novels, pick one project, and run with it. But whichever one I do next, I don't believe I'll ever regret writing it, or even express to another an exaggerated claim of wanting to be done with it. All things I have written so far have come closer to thrilling me, rather than wearing me down. May it always be so.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Charitable Discourse: Human Sexuality

Some would say that a frank discussion of human sexuality doesn't belong in church. But as our pastor, Mark Snodgrass, proved yesterday, the topic can be handled with grace, dignity, a bit of humor, and a call to action for the church.

Preaching from 1st Thessalonians 4:1-6, he showed what God's plan is for sex: monogamous relations between a man and a woman. He brought out many good points from Dan Boone's book, A Charitable Discourse. He showed the consequences of not sticking to God's plan: how casual sex is really creating and breaking bonds, with each breaking having an impact on a person's life. It might be possible to suppress those impacts for a time, but not forever.

Mark talked about a friend he was close with who for a time remained a virgin, saving himself for his future wife. But then he had sex with a girlfriend, and it wasn't long before he was hopping from girl to girl, from bed to bed, never fulfilled, each time with a diminished life. Mark told about counseling he and his wife have done with those who succumbed in this area. And he said, "No one has ever said to me 'We're sorry we waited until we were married to have sex,' and I never will. That's the final word on the subject as far as I'm concerned.

I don't watch a lot of network television. I tend to watch news programs, some sports between September and January, some educational programs on the History Channel or A&E, crime show re-runs on Ion Television or Headline News, and once in a while some movie that I've seen before or somehow missed when it was out. Recently, however, I watched a couple of network shows, and was astounded by the commercials for their comedies and other dramas. From these trailers it would appear that the only reasons those shows are on is to present sexual situations. Why would I want to fill my mind with that.

I appreciate Mark's sermon, and his undertaking this series. We also had a great discussion on the sermon in Life Group immediately after. I'll miss next week's, on homosexuality, which I would really like to hear. Maybe, for the first time in my life, I'll download a podcast and hear it that way.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Common Struggles of Doyle and Faulkner

A Conan Doyle, before he gained popularity with the skills of Sherlock Holmes, struggled with both finances and obscurity. As I wrote in a previous post, Doyle wrote about his struggles with money. He was primarily a physician during this time, in 1882-83. He had left his native Scotland and set up a practice in Southsea, on the south shore of England.

His main correspondent at the time is his mother. Or at least most of the letters included in the book I'm reading are to his mother. I suppose he could have written many others that the editor didn't include. He constantly tells his mother "Don't worry about us [his younger brother was with him]; we have everything we need." In the next sentence he will then say he doesn't know how he will make the rent, or the life insurance payment, or the grocer or butcher bill, etc. Then he goes on to say how he bought some new piece of furniture or painting for the room where he sees patients.

His income during this time was about equal between his medical practice and his writing. Both started growing during 1883. More patients began coming to the new doctor. More editors began accepting his work, including at magazines that paid pretty well. He wrote short stories, not novels, because short stories could be placed relatively quickly and payment was quick too. He spent time working on novels, but the length of time to write, plus the time lag in publishing and payments, meant he would earn no income from them, at least not in a timely manner. So to short stories he went.

That's all a fascinating read. It seems that American author William Faulkner went through similar struggles. Now I need to confess that I've read little of Faulkner. I remember reading a couple of his short stories, one in school and one in adulthood. I suppose I may have read a couple more. But I really know little about his writing other than he has the reputation of using long and complex sentences.

Eudora Welty writes about Faulkner in two reviews in her book The Eye of the Story. One of those books she reviewed was actually a volume of his collected letters. In her review, she made extensive quotes from those letters.

It's interesting to see the parallels between Doyle and Faulkner. The letters quoted by Welty show a Faulkner whose income came only from writing, and who struggled with money. He wrote short stories because they were quick and could be placed quickly and payment came quickly. Yet, in his letters, he complained about late payment from editors. He complained about having to write short stories at all, when he would prefer to be writing novels.

Unlike Doyle's genteel language to his mother, Faulkner used strong language with his correspondents, with frequent use of mild four-letter words. I realize I'm only reading excepts selected by Welty, and that she may have cherry-picked those with the most curse words. I shall have to read all the letters to see what the totality of his correspondence looked like.

So Doyle struggled with money, and Faulkner struggled with money. I'm fortunate to have a good day job that keeps housing, food, utilities, transportation, etc. well supplied. So I'm able to write what I want, at the pace I want, without constant money pressure. Of course, just like sea pressure and a grain of sand with an oyster, pearls are made under stress. Who knows but that the stress of money worries is what drove both those men to greatness, while the lack of that pressure is a missing ingredient toward moving me on to the next level?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

On Baseball Slumps and Rained-out Games

Those few people who have read my baseball novel, In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People, know that the almost super-human feats of Ronny Thompson, ace pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, depends in part on rain delays. By the time the playoffs come around, Thompson seems to be the only Cubs' pitcher who can win a game. His normal rotation is to pitch every fourth day, but his manager bumps that up to every third day in the playoffs.

That begins in the NLDS. He pitches game 2 in Atlanta, then due to a rain delay he gets to pitch game 4 in Chicago to even the series at 2-2. After a day of travel, someone else is going to pitch game 5 in Atlanta. But, instead of a rain delay, it turns out major vandalism (terrorism?) had rendered the lights inoperable, along with the back-up system. Thompson then pitches the rescheduled game 5, and wins, propelling the Cubs into the NLCS against St. Louis.

Part of what Thompson and the Cubs are facing is a slump by their two best hitters, and a series of poor performances by their best relief pitcher, the man who usually comes on in the 9th and closes out the game. What has caused these slumps? Are they the natural result of the ebb and flow of any athlete's abilities? Some days you're hot, some days you're not? Or is it a case of bribery? The New York mobster who has bet against the Cubs is becoming more desperate, and he has associates more than willing to do his bidding. Bribing a few players is like old-time gangsterism. The Cubs' manager has a decision to make: Does he bench the slumping players?

The New York Yankees are experiencing this now. The slump by four of their starting hitters is deep, deeper in fact than the slump that the Cubs' stars sink into in the novel. And yesterday they experienced a rain delay. Now the manager has an extra option on the table as far as his starting pitcher tonight in the rescheduled game. Does he have an ace available tonight who wouldn't have been available last night?

Baseball is a good game for these kind of strategies. It's interesting to see the situation I wrote in the novel coming true in real life this playoff season.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

My Sunday Book

No, I'm not talking about the Bible. That's my everyday book. I don't read great quantities in it, but I read some every day.

No, I'm talking about the book I read a few pages in on a Sunday afternoon, after church. It might be while I'm eating lunch, or possibly after lunch. I have, for several years, kept a book or two in our sun room. This is an unheated, un-coolled room off the back of the house, elevated with a deck beneath it. It gets quite hot in summer and cold in winter. It actually has some heater elements installed, but I'm sure they are way too expensive to run.

But when I'm ready on Sunday afternoon, I fix a mug of coffee (maybe not in the heat of summer), and pick up one of these books. They are generally writing type books, either writing helps. My current read is Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters. As I've written here before, I love letters. And I love letters by writers. I have to confess that I have read very little of Doyle's work, though I've been accumulating them and they are definitely on the to-be-read list. But I knew something of his life, from reading it somewhere, and so his letters interested me. I picked the book up off the remainders table at Barnes & Noble a couple of years ago, and have been reading it on selected Sunday afternoons.

I've been reading in the chapter "Struggling Doctor", covering the time when Doyle had completed medical studies, and either worked for other doctors or set up his own practice. He finally set up shop at Southsea, in the south of England. While he looked for an office/residence, tried to get customers, struggled with money, tried to join some social circles, etc. All the while he was working on his writing. In letters to his mother during this time (1883-1884) he talked as much about writing as about being a doctor. He spoke about his struggles with money, how he extended credit to patients and had to pay his bills with credit as well.

In 1883, he earned about as much from writing as he did practicing medicine. He wrote mainly short stories at that time, on a variety of subjects, submitted them to a number or literary magazines, and then waited for an answer. Since he had no money to hire a scrivener to make copies, he sent off the original and hoped it didn't get lost, and hoped the magazine returned it to him if they rejected it.

I find this period in his life fascinating. Doyle was in his twenties, unmarried (having once been informally engaged but the woman broke it off). Sherlock Holmes and the fame that would bring him are a few years away. His delving into spiritualism are a couple of decades away. Right now he's sort at the point of his writing career where I am in my writing career. A big difference, of course, is I have a job that I'm well-established in, and don't lack for money to pay for necessaries and even some unnecssaries.

I normally read about 10 pages on a Sunday afternoon. I started the day at page 210. I looked ahead and was reminded that it's a 700 page book, and that if I didn't still want to be reading it in late 2013 I'd better pick up the pace. So I read to page 233, which was the end of the chapter. The next chapter is titled "Cracking the Oyster", which I assume will be where the axis of his life shifts much more strongly to literature. I'm looking forward to next Sunday.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Discussing the Difficult Topics

Today our pastor began a new sermon series at church, titled "A Charitable Discourse". Based on a book by that name published by our denominational publishing house, it tackles some difficult topics.

When I first head the title of the series, I thought it would be about doctrinal issues. But this morning, preparing to teach the Life Group lesson based on the first sermon in the series (we hear the sermon at the 9:30 a.m. service then discuss it in Life Group at 10:45 a.m.) I learned it would be about social issues. For the next four weeks we will have sermons covering:

- human sexuality
- homosexuality
- politics and religion
- alcohol

The book has a few other topics, I believe, but our pastor likes short series and frequent turnover, so we are only covering the four. I'm thinking of buying the book and seeing the full version, rather than the clipped version they are giving the Life Group teachers. There's also a video series that goes with it.

So why is pastor Mark doing this? He said because he loved us too much to allow all of our conversations about this to be in the context of the office water cooler.

This week the sermon was actually not from the book. Pastor Mark set the stage for the next four weeks by making sure we understood what a charitable discourse was. Using Ephesians 4:1-6 and "speaking the truth in love" as a basis, we need to learn how to tackle these issues in love. The three guiding principles pastor gave us were:

- in the essentials, unity
- in the non-essentials, charity
- in all things, love.

Today we talked about how to do this in love. We talked about what are essentials, what are non-essentials.

It's going to be interesting these next four weeks. I teach two of the four classes.