Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Outstanding! A Profane and Unvarnished Portrait of the Horror of War

Although I rarely do reviews, this book deserves one.

To Hell or Richmond is a fictionalized version of very real battles on Grant’s drive to break Lee’s forces and destroy the mystique of one of the most admired military leaders in the annals of American military history.  The tale is peopled with historical figures who led men into battles that took a terrible toll on soldiers of both the Federals and Confederates.  From the impetuousness of the Chief General of the Army, Gen. U.S. Grant, to intellectual commander of the Army of the Potomac, Gen. George Meade to the fiery zealotry of Col. Emory Upton, and even to the earthy soldiers from Pennsylvania’s canal district, the portrait of men at war is stripped of glory and gentility.  Lee is portrayed in a more human than iconic manner, plagued with self doubts, infirmities, and at times confusion; Ewell as overly cautious, but competent; while Johnston, Cullen, Ramseur are resolute, but reactive; and yet J.E.B. Stuart maintains his image as the dashing southern cavalier, just the way he would have wanted it.  All are caught in the fog of war, making and recovering from strategic and tactical errors, all the while inflicting enormous casualties on one another in the most brutal fashion imaginable.  But that is the nature of war and in this realistic narrative, details of its horror are not spared.

From the griping of privates to the acrimony and strategic disagreements among the generals, this story rings true in a way that romanticized versions of Civil War campaigns fail to achieve.  To be sure, individual acts of bravery and cowardice, tactical genius and stupidity, politics, and just plain human foibles all are woven skillfully in the telling, adding to the brilliance of this tale.  Whether languishing in the commanders’ tents as they discuss grand strategies, or slogging through the mud with the men of II Corps, or behind the abatis and earthworks of the North Carolinians and Alabamans, it all just feels real... slaughter punctuated by spates of humor, malaise, boredom, and just plain exhaustion.  Through it all, one comes to appreciate that sheer industrial might and numbers will wear down even the most brilliant strategist and devoted army.  From the Wilderness to Spotsylvania, to N. Anna’s Creek, to Cold Harbor, and on to Petersburg, Hell or Richmond is a book no Civil War buff will want to miss. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What I Learned From Papa Hemingway and John Steinbeck

From childhood I have done a lot of reading.  Early on I found that great writing can transport one to exotic places and different times.  Words, in the hands of a master, transcend the page and create images in the mind.  This is not simply excellent writing mechanics.  It is a product of life, an accumulation of experiences, and an uncommon perception of the human condition that makes writing compelling.

Ernest (Papa) Hemingway and John Steinbeck were and are two of my favorite writers.  Both are icons of American literature.  Each has a different style of writing.  Papa Hemingway wrote with an economy and clarity of words that was unique and often, but not well, copied.  Steinbeck painted scenes with a broad brush, but focused on characters with a fine point.  Both men won Pulitzer prizes for fiction. They came from different backgrounds, different places, and yet they shared something very important in common.  They lived life.  They were not mere observers.

In their books, it is the grittiness of the human condition that comes to full flower.  The loves, the disappointments, the hardships, the victories, the horror, and the beauty that touches it and leave indelible marks on the human soul.  Only by living, really living, can a writer understand that.  The writer who is immersed in life writes from experience and, provided a facility with words, conveys the substance and captures the essence of life.  Writing simply by observing life lacks substance.  That is not to say a writer is not, or should not observe life.  The fact is, a good writer is a consummate observer.  What a good writer cannot be is only an observer.

Hemingway had great powers of observation, but more importantly he lived and how he lived was, in many respects, extraordinary.  Simply reading his works, one cannot escape the feeling that Papa pursued life like a lion pursues prey; that he lived in the moment without losing sight of the future; that he loved and hated with equal passion; and he did it on his terms.  In his biography, Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir, A. E. Hotchner quotes Hemingway as saying, “Every man's life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”  How he lived was integrally entwined with how and what he wrote.

Steinbeck also had unique, some say a holistic, powers of observation.  He understood that life is not a series of unconnected vignettes, but a web of events and environment that cannot be separated.  Those powers of observation, however, would never have borne such ripe fruit as The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and even Travels With Charlie, had he not worked as a laborer, interacted with people, and developed a deep understanding of the human condition, particularly of the Salinas Valley where he was raised.  As with Hemingway, how Steinbeck lived was integrally entwined with how and what he wrote.

What am I getting at?  Consider this a piece of advice for young writers.  Live, don’t simply exist.  Dare, don’t just watch.  Get your hands dirty.  Get your heart broken.  Do something dangerous.  Live on the edge a bit.  Put down the video games, turn off the TV, and don’t Google it.  Experience the rhythm of life... and let your writing reflect it.  Your work will be better for it.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Extemporaneous Writing - A Blog Revisited

Some years back, my wife and a few of her friends on Multiply (an old social media and blog site predating things like FB, Blogger, etc.) started a "Chicken Tuesday" set of blogs.  Originally, it was intended to share recipes for that venerable staple of the world's table, but then people like me got involved. A lot of people.  At one point a national morning show even started saying something like, "Have a great Chicken Tuesday."

I'm not one to disparage recipe sites, but on the other hand there is so much one can do with them in a humorous bent that I sometimes can't resist temptation.  Since parody is one of my favorite forms of humor, I created a "news" piece for their consideration.  I did it extemporaneously, which is a great exercise to sharpen one's writing skills.  Just for giggles, I thought I might re-share it here.

The Daily Crow Tuesday March 4, 2008
Chicken Tuesday
by Bantam Aurucana

United Peepers International (UPI) reported earlier today that Chicken Tuesday, purportedly an innocent and fun internet blog effort, is, in fact, a front for Kentucky Fried Chicken.
UPI has received reports that the Colonel has been spotted with Elvis visiting chicken roosts in Arkansas and elsewhere.
The Colonel, long believed to be dead, is apparently alive and well and looking to spice things up in the restaurant business.
The office of Farmland Security has raised the threat level to red during this extreme crisis, cautioning all of Cluckdom to take extra precautions for the foreseeable future. If possible, fly the coop and seek shelter in a forest.
All of our readers unable to fly the coop are cautioned to remain indoors if approached by any humans, attempt to make yourself look undernourished, and stay clear of large crowds.


Johnny Brown Detained
by Rhoda Red, Stringer

Johnny Brown, son of Farmer Brown was detained by police on Monday night for allegedly “choking the chicken.
Details were sketchy, police say this was a private matter, and young Johnny is still a juvenile.
The irrepressible Johnny, however could not be silenced, leaving this reporter somewhat mystified by his parting comment, “I wouldn’t choke it if I could pullet!
Master Brown will be arraigned before a Kangaroo Court Conviction and sentencing is expected to be swift. 

Roosters Shanghaied by DST
by Buttercup Cornish

“We were caught completely unaware by the news,” sputtered Rocky Strutter, head of the local AFL (Affiliation of Feathered Loudmouths).
“Absolutely preposterous,” agreed CIO (Chicken International Orators) spokesman Herman Frizzle. “Usurped by a clock alarm! Indeed... and an hour before sunrise!”
The two local labor leaders were commenting on the news that, once more, their morning chore was going to be replaced by alarm clocks due to the implementation of Daylight Savings Time.
Both leaders threatened a strike, however the AFL/CIO International Headquarters issued a statement calling the point “Mute,” yes, that’s “mute” not “moot,” since all union members are required to stay in bed, fast asleep until the eastern sky begins to brighten.
“There’s just very little we can do about it,” a Union spokesman declared. Crowing before dawn is just unheard of.” He downplayed threats of empty nests. 
He was heard muttering, “Talk about your Shanghaied Roosters...” as he walked from the podium.


Bwaaack Obama Set to Win Texas
by Gimmizah News, Chief Poultry-itical Reporter

Latest polls are giving the edge to Bwaack Obama in this chicken nation’s race to see who will be the chief executive clucker.
Bwaack is easily outdistancing his liberal ticket opponent in the primary, who is reported to be madder than a wet hen and is now employing barnyard tactics to sway the vote in her favor.
Remember... get out and vote... ‘EM ALL OUT.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Disciplined Writer

Life and a long career have taught me a thing or two.  One of the most important of these lessons came early and has proven valuable regardless the direction of my endeavors.  That lesson is discipline.  I’m not talking about punishment, counseling, or any of the myriad of other ways authoritarians impose their rules and their will on people.  I’m talking about mental discipline.  When I read blogs or comments discussing motivation, procrastination, writer’s bloc, interruptions, distractions, and similar writers’ complaints, my first thought is, “Are those folks disciplined?”  Probably not, or at least not disciplined in their approach to working at writing.

Being disciplined means being organized.  Mentally organized.  It’s okay to have a messy desk, provided it isn’t so messy you can’t find things you need to write, like notes, references, and so on.  Why is mental organization necessary?  Simple.  It means you organize your thoughts and approaches to getting things done.  Organized thoughts are easier to retrieve.  Think of that as a mental hard drive.  If documents are randomly stored without a proper file system, you will spend a lot of unnecessarily wasted time trying to find the one you need to access.  As a matter of fact, one of the tools to gaining mental organization is to organize your documents into files on your computer, laptop, or tablet.  Like mental organization, you will find that it is far easier to start with a fundamental filing system and grow it than it is to try to build one after accumulating years of documents. 

I can hear all of the creative procrastinators right now as they look at their unfiled documents.  “I need to write, I’ll get to this tomorrow.” No they won’t, but this is where the discipline part of organization comes in for those who want to kill the procrastination bug.  Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.  If you haven’t done any file organization, here’s a simple approach for filing word processing documents in descending order.

Writing [main file] - This separates your writing files from all other files on your computer.
Title [sub-file] - This separates your work by working title.
Background [sub-sub file]
Research [sub-sub-sub file] - This separates supporting documents gathered on the Internet of scans specific to this title.
Notes [sub-sub-sub file] - This is where the writer’s general notes, plot lines, devices, etc. go.
Draft [sub-file] - All drafts and edits go here. If there are illustrations or pictures, create a sub-sub file for those under this sub-file.
Final [sub-file] - The final submission document goes here.  If you have designed your own cover, include the final version in this file.
Conversion Files [sub-file] - e-book converted files go here.

Some writers use programs to help them organize their thoughts and writing.  Scrivener® is one option.  I recently purchased this program and when I finish the two books I’m currently working on, I intend to give it a try.  That isn’t procrastination, is it?

Alright, now you have your files organized.  Ahhh, done, right?  Not so fast.  That’s only part one of the approach to discipline as a writer.  Remember all those other issues... motivation, interruptions, distractions, and so on?  There is a way to minimize those using a disciplined writer’s approach.  Organize your day.  That’s right, create a schedule and stick to it.  This will vary on an individual basis, and depends on one’s personal circumstances, but if a writer is serious about the desire to complete and publish their work on a consistent basis, this is a job.  Perish the thought!  Journalism is a job.  Writing is creative art... writing is passion... writing is... I’ve heard them all, and while true, if the writer intends to profit from that creative art, this is a job.

Jobs, even joyful ones, run on a schedule or they don’t get done.  Schedules, however, can’t be inflexible.  Sometimes another of life’s priorities takes precedence.  Family emergencies, for example, can’t be predicted, but I will guarantee you they will trump a writing schedule every time.  Personally, I don’t consider a boo-boo on Johnnie’s little finger an emergency, but others are.  For example when my oldest child at age six decided to open a cheap pocket knife someone had given him, cutting himself in the process, I took a break from the schedule.  It wasn’t that the cut was so bad, but the running around and hand shaking in the breeze made the walls he passed look like a murder scene.  That’s an emergency!  Barring those sorts of things, stay with the schedule, it will serve you well.

Since I can’t write a schedule that will fit everybody (one size does not fit all), let me lay out mine for you.  Mind you, I work on multiple projects, and my actual schedule is complex, so you get the simplified version.  My start times aren’t included because, well, I’m semi-retired and they change from time to time.  I’ll provide durations, though.  Let’s assume I have risen and eaten breakfast, and done all the other things one takes care of in the morning.  Here’s how my typical day works.

1. Review email and take care of phone calls.  1 hour.
2. Review social media and read and respond to comments.  1.5 - 2 hours.
            Phone off.
3. Editing (includes others' works).1- 2 hours.
4. Meal break. 1/2 hour.
5. Writing/researching (own works) - 1-4 hours - varies with deadlines, but never lower than 1 hour/day actual writing.
            Phone on.
6. Family time and “me” time.

My typical “work” day lasts eight to nine hours.  Part of that is old habit, part is necessity.  Still, I have enough flexibility to work only half days when the mood strikes me.  For me, this is an everyday schedule.  I only abandon it when I go on vacation, and even then, I tend to write in the evenings on my laptop.  Writing is a passion, yes, but it is also a discipline, and the serious writer is a disciplined writer.