A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 10: The Basement

[PHOTO NOTE: My Basement looked nothing like this. Heck with it, I’ll use it anyway]

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: Sorry if this came a little later than when you expected it. I have the feeling that more people might read my stuff if I release it on Saturday during the day rather than Sunday at night. However, I end up usually being able to write something by Sunday given my schedule. Should I say either Saturday and Sunday night just to be safe, but I should start working on releasing more consistently on Saturdays? That might be a good writing goal for next year, a more consistent release schedule.]

This was my home for 20 years, my parents home for 30 years, and now it’s someone else’s home. Time always changes things. The basement in question was in the back.

Let’s talk a little bit about sanctuaries, especially the ones that kids carve out for themselves.

At some point in every child’s life, they have an instinct to have a space of their own, a space that is separate from their parents and the rest of their family, a space that they don’t share.

On that level, I truly have sympathy for children who live in large families, like my mother. She was one of eight kids growing up in a little modest two-story house in the northern half of La Crosse, Wisconsin. I have some (relatively) clear memories of exploring that house 30 years after she had grown up in it, during the time both of my grandparents were alive and living in the house. My mother had been one of eight children there. There was a tiny little enclosed side porch when you entered the kitchen, which I think had light green countertops. There was one restroom off the kitchen, and through the other door taking a small step up, there was the dining room and an old radiating heater sitting right off to the side. To the right of that dining room was, I had thought, a sewing room that seemed filled with odds and ends of stored things and a sewing machine. As it turns out, that had been a bedroom when my mother lived there.

Through one door, there was the dark living room that had the one television and an old black upright piano, as well as a good couch and my grandfather’s recliner. In one direction, you could walk through some swinging doors to get to my grandparent’s bedroom, or you could go up a winding staircase to get to an upstairs that had just two bedrooms there, as well as a landing that often boasted a bed of its own, a sort of open-air bedroom.

And my mom’s family lived in that place and shared it with each other, occasionally all 10 of them. The only thing I can think of is, how did they manage to have a space of their own, all eight of those kids? How did they manage to not get overwhelmed by each other, in that big house?

“You went outside a lot,” my mother says now, maybe 30 years after both she and I stepped into that home for the last time. When she and her brothers and sisters needed some space, they stepped out into the wild world of La Crosse. There were days at the local beach (LaCrosse is situated on the Mississippi River, just like my own hometown of Muscatine is), the local pool, or even the skating rink at the local park, which apparently had a warming shed. This is an important feature in Wisconsin, a state where I heard tales of my grandparents walking across the frozen Mississippi[1].

I ended up having a totally different existence than my mother or even my father growing up. My mother had her seven siblings, and my father was the middle son between an elder and younger sister. I was an only child, and my mother was almost the only one of her siblings to have just one child. (One of her brothers was childless throughout his life). So, it turned out that we three were the only members of our immediate family who would live in Iowa when I was a child. I would live as an only child while occasionally venturing out of the state to Wisconsin, primarily, where I’d meet and reunite with some of my two dozen or so cousins.

For many people, it might have been an isolated life, but it never really felt like that to me. Suzanne Louise Liegois was always there with me from the beginning. Of course, Dad (William Allan Liegois) was a strong presence in my life and we were always close, but with him working in the engineering field, it was Mom who was with me most of the time. It was her that started introducing me to letters, and I had the alphabet down when I was about 18 months old. When we visited the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, near our home in Seabrook, Texas, where I spent my preschool years, she would write words in the sand where I could read them while enjoying the surf. By five years old, shortly before we would pull up roots and come to Iowa, I was able to read the stories in the newspapers we got at home.

“You were just so curious,” she told me years later. “I mean, really, you were just a nice little boy.”

It was both her and Dad who would read to me both during the day and then later at bedtime. Eventually, I would want to start reading books by myself. It would then lead me to want to have more books, and eventually I needed a place to store those books. This began my lifelong relationship with and use of bookshelves and bookcases.

By the time we moved to Muscatine, I had accumulated a serious mini library of Dr. Seuss books, other random picture books, and Muppet books like the one where Grover wanted to keep you from turning the page because he didn’t want to see the monster at the end of the book.

There was also a set of Worldbook encyclopedias that we picked up sometime around the time that I was eight. Many kids would avoid even looking at them in the shelves, much less picking them up. As for me, I would grab the “A” volume, the “G” volume, or the “R” volume, for example, and start sorting through all of the articles that attracted my fancy. I wound up learning a lot of random things over the course of so many days.

Even though I loved the encyclopedias when I was a kid, there were some disadvantages to them. After a few years, the whole set became outdated quickly. I think we had some encyclopedias that my parents had from the late 50’s, and then got some updated ones from the early 80’s. I actually am a fan of Wikipedia myself. If it was around during the time when I was a kid, I would be checking out all the articles of the day and clicking on the random articles of the day to see what I could learn.

It was that basement that was my sanctuary when I was a kid. I remember when I first saw it, when we toured the home before we bought it. I saw the yellow, green, and brown plaid carpet across the entire floor, I saw the medium brown wood paneling along the sides of the basement. I saw the weird rooms, like the white and blue linoleum place where I wound up storing my toys, the cement block place where we put our washer, dryer, and a cement block shower and toilet. There was the weird storage room where we stuffed everything, and then there was the room off my toy room where Dad stored his tools and just about everything else and I would check it out every once in a while just to see what the tools looked like.

I loved that place. It was my sanctuary.

My main hangout was on the couch, which at the beginning of my time at that house was an olive-green corduroy couch where I relaxed and read. If I wanted to play my Atari 2600 or later, my Nintendo NES, I would skooch over in front of the fake wood and metal television that dominated the main portion of the basement that presented itself in front of the staircase that led down from the main floor. The basement was where I watched forbidden pro wrestling and morally questionable movies and where I kept my ears keyed on the slightest movement upstairs from my parents. My mother, at least, was prepared to check up on me periodically, and make sure that I was watching sensible entertainment, even though such sentiments were a lost cause. I was focused on consuming as much adult entertainment as possible and there was nothing that they could do to stop me from doing so. It was something I kept in mind when it was time to raise my own two children, who were both reasonable and unreasonable in their own ways.

To be fair, however, I never totally kept this basement to myself. My parents were welcome to come down and watch television and play Nintendo with me – I specifically remember watching Mystery Science Theater with them for the first time later in my youth and us laughing along together. I would occasionally invite friends, sometimes more than one friend, down there for video games, Legos, board games, and other amusements in the last generation to have a pre-Internet era. Of course, that was where I brought my girlfriends and eventually my future wife to so we could hang out.

But it was my sanctuary. It was where I felt comfortable to be myself, where I felt comfortable to start be creative. When I first began to jot down notes, ideas, and eventually short stories in a series of notebooks, it was in the basement where I first started to do that. And when I finally got my first desktop computer, I set it up not in my bedroom, but right in the middle of that basement. That basement was my first writing room, my first creative space. I began to treasure having it and later spaces in the years to come.


[1] I never managed to accomplish this feat myself, although I did manage to walk around and throw a football around on the frozen Iowa River during my time at the University of Iowa.

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A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 9: Movie Nights

A good portion of my life has been spent staring at screens that tell me stories. They remain a part of my experience now, and they are among some of my earliest memories of life. They also tended to have an influence on what type of person, and writer, I would turn out to be.

There are plenty of times that I went and watched movies, either in the theater or in the basement that became my sanctuary during the early years of my life. Kids, there was an era before remote controls, and I was part of the end of that era. As a result, I wound up sitting on the tartan-greenish carpet of my basement, perched just in front of the television set, wearing out the numbers on the controls located on our grand television.

Usually, I was situated right in front of the TV because I kept changing channels to watch as much as possible1. The other reason, admittedly, was that I wanted to be ready in case Mom and Dad peeked down the stairs to see me watching something that I shouldn’t have been watching. In the early 1980’s we had HBO at our house, and there were several movies that had the pre-teen me a bit too interested. (It also gave me the opportunity to watch Star Wars at least 20 times on that channel alone, helping me fall in love with science fiction even more than I had with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpses of the original Battlestar Galactica series and one or two errant episodes of Robotech. Back in the pre-Internet 1980’s, much of geek or sci-fi culture was as much rumor as fact. Nevertheless, it did make me open to reading science fiction classics like Dune and others that I took much inspiration from regarding the ideas of theme and worldbuilding. Later, after HBO was done at my house, there were other movies that were kind of chancy, especially regarding sex and violence. Pretty shortly after that, however, I discovered you could find a lot of that on other channels. Then there was my obsession with professional wrestling, which my dad never quite got and I decided not to flaunt it in front of my parents2.

As I was growing up, there were three times that I went to the movies that I had distinct memories of attending. The first show I remember attending was way back somewhere between 1978 and 1980. I have the clear memory of pulling into an honest-to-goodness drive-in theater in an open field at Mulberry and Cedar in Muscatine, Iowa, close to the high school I would attend years later. That same corner is now covered with office buildings, which is probably an improvement to the local economy but not to the aesthetics of the area3. It was a double-bill of The Blues Brothers and, I believe, Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie. I loved the anarchic humor and the great music of the first film. I get the feeling that my parents hoped that I might sleep through the second film; they were right.

Other than the multi-screen theater at the mall, during the 1980’s we would often attend the Muscatine Riviera theater right in downtown Muscatine. I included a picture of that place here on the blog. It was an old time movie-theater, converted from a live theater, complete with an old balcony, velvet drapes and curtains on the sides and front, and all of the old detailing that made you think for a second that you were actually in an old vaudeville house rather than a movie theater until you saw the white screen up front. That was where I was actually looking forward to watching Star Trek II because I knew they were going to kill off Spock after reading a novelization of the book beforehand in my local bookstore and I wanted to see what that would look like on the big screen. I never had a problem with spoiler alerts. Then I remember standing in a line around the block to watch Tim Burton’s Batman movie while wearing a black shirt with the Batman logo on it, jumping in anticipation. I remember leaving the theater excited that someone had finally gotten superhero movies right after so many hits and misses. Of course, more than three decades later it seems that’s all that Hollywood releases in the theaters now.

Obviously, so many things have changed in the years since then. The Riviera was bulldozed about 30 years ago, and the multiplex theater in Muscatine moved out of the now nearly-vacant mall to a bigger location on the highway bypass. I went there a few times before I moved away from the town. I have to say the snack selection was better and the new stuffed high-backed chairs were so comfortable that I often risked dozing off in them. However, going out to the movies has become more of an operation, and having to deal with rude movie viewers next to me and the cost usually convinces me not to go.

Some of the older people say we lost something when the communal experience of going to a theater started to die out. I’m an older person now, too, but I don’t necessarily see it that way. I love movies just as much now on a theater screen, a big screen television, my laptop, or even my mobile phone. It’s just like how it is for me with physical book reading or e-books. I take my inspiration and entertainment from wherever I can get it.

Footnotes:

  1. I think it best to discuss my television habits later. I watched plenty of shows that had no redeeming value at all and I cannot defend my decision to watch them as youthful folly (lol).
  2. There’s probably at least one post that I could think of that might take a look at how professional wrestling influenced me or showed me something regarding storytelling.
  3. It’s been a bit of a surprise to see that drive-ins have not totally died out, but are hanging on in not that smaller numbers than a few years ago.

A Writer’s Biography, Author’s Notes Part 1: Yeah, this is turning into a memoir

Since this is about my history, this was my childhood home in Muscatine, Iowa, where I grew up and spent 19 years of my life. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

I had sort of feared that during the course of a few years online, as I slowly began to be more of a blogger and getting into my personal writing life and my experiences, that some of those blogs, which I have been gathering here under the title of A Writer’s Biography could possibly become something bigger than I expected. Before I had realized what was going on, I had compiled more than twenty posts about my past life and its relation to writing1. I had thought that might be the case, but as often happens in these circumstances, I put off doing anything about it for a little bit2.

After a while, I returned to what I had written and started considering it again. Had I, almost by accident, at first, started writing an honest-to-goodness memoir? And if I was on my way to writing an actual memoir, didn’t I have the responsibility to see it through and see what it could become?

So, I had to consider the situation. I believe that writing is like the profession of teaching. There is more than a little art in both the act of writing and teaching. Artistic considerations have to be made in both cases so that what you produce is not lifeless and missing your personality.

However, data is also part of both writing and teaching, and you ignore it at your own peril. In teaching, assessment data, when those assessments are correctly given, can give you a look at what your students know as well as if they understand the concepts that you have been teaching them.

In writing, data might not seem to be as important at first glance, but it has its place. To give just one little example, late in my journalism career I had my editor point out that I had been consistently misspelling the names of people I had written about in my stories. Once I became aware of this trend, I was able to put measures into place to all but eliminate that problem for the rest of my time as a reporter3.

Later, as I was trying to restart my writing habit, data came to be useful when trying to set my daily goals. Because of my experience with National Novel Writing Month, I knew you could write the first draft of a modest-sized book in a month if you wrote at a brisk 1,667 words a day. With that in mind, I decided that a daily quota of 500 words a day was a nice, solid number that wouldn’t require me to write like a maniac unless I was really feeling the spirit. Likewise, after I noticed how much time typically it could take me to get to 500 words, it made sense for me to say that 30 minutes of revising old writing or planning new writing would be a good equivalent quota for that type of work. And also, me looking at my past years of writing productivity gave me the idea that a 200,000-word yearly goal, as well as a 70-percent daily quota success rate, would be challenging but quite reachable goals for 2022.

As a result, I decided to apply this data crunching to this idea of whether I had enough material to attempt a memoir. In case you were curious, 5,000 to 10,000 words is considered to be the range for a short story. Such a short story could be as low as maybe 1,000 words and avoid being classified as short short fiction. A novella is considered to be in between a short story and novella, so somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 words. From my research into memoirs and their lengths by other writers, a length of somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 words is considered optimal.

Once that was done, I decided to gather all of the entries from A Writer’s Biography into a single place. As of this moment, there are 24 “finished” entries to the series. For those who haven’t followed this or haven’t been noticing it, I’ve organized the entries into three different volumes. Volume I covers my writing and reading experiences from when I was a kid, from my first coherent memories of such things to about 18-20 years old. Volume II covers my writing experiences as a young man, from roughly the end of my college years to somewhere around 40 years old. Finally, Volume III covers my experiences since that time, as I have worked to expand my writing productivity, consistency, and quality. I gathered them into a single document, threw in a short forward section, and hit that word count button.

There was part of me that was expecting the count to be pretty low, maybe 10,000 words at most. What did I remember about my past? It certainly didn’t seem like enough to be within reaching distance of a full-blown memoir, especially since I was just screwing around online.

Then I checked the word count. I did it again. I clicked it for a third time just to make sure I was looking at it right.

It read 22,736 words.

That’s a big batch of words from just screwing around online.

And that’s not even close to the amount of possible words I could put into this project. I know for a fact that I have ideas for at least four more entries sitting in my drafts folder. I think there could be many more than that if I really thought hard about it.

As I did a quick read-through of the full rough draft, I also know that several of those existing sections could be easily expanded. If I expanded every existing entry by just 500 words on average, that would get me another 12,000 words without blinking.

Well, this is no longer a theoretical exercise. I’m now writing a memoir, just because I could. I’m going to get to that 60,000-word goal. And eventually, I’ll have to publish it. If you have any good wishes, send them my way as I continue to contemplate this craziness.

Footnotes:

  1. It’s grown since then, too, with more to come.
  2. A little bit, in this case, being more than a year (lol).
  3. My system was to ask anyone that I would interview to write down their names in my notebook. I would either do that or in the case of public officials or other people, I would copy and paste their names from their official sites. After triple-checking the first use of the word in the story, I would copy and paste it whenever it was used in the article. It was a relatively simple procedure.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume III, Part 7: How Much Are Dreams Worth? A Consideration.

I was going to try and do a review of one of the publishing/writing/designing tools that I’ve been doing research on for the past few weeks. I still might do that later. However, I decided I wanted to talk about what happened with me this week.

In case you didn’t know, my current efforts to get published are by no means the first. I once managed to secure the services of an agent for a now long-forgotten young adult book. $120 and a year later, if I recall correctly, I told her thanks for her efforts, whatever those might be, and we parted ways.

Then there has been the recent publication of my book, The Holy Fool. I have nothing but thanks to them for giving me a chance to get published, and even if I’m not the biggest bestseller, at least I got farther than I have before.

During my recent research into self-publishing and related systems, I came across the radar of a company that provides services to self-publishing authors. I will not name this company here. Suffice it to say that through my research and investigation of the company, I was convinced that they were a legitimate company that truly believed that they could provide resources that that could turn me into a better-known author that could make a living at writing.

It was because of that I found myself on the phone last Friday evening with a representative of this company to discuss the plans I had for a possible series based on a project I have already written.

The discussion was quite amicable, informative, and to the point. During our conversation, it was clear that he had researched my book and its success as far as being widely known was, to be honest, extremely modest. I established that I knew little of book cover design and also little of search engine optimization and keyword usage. He gave me a couple pieces of advice and some complimentary research materials.

Eventually, it came down to cost. It always does underneath these circumstances, when a company approaches a person rather than the other way around. In this case, $6,000 for full services, or perhaps three payments of $2,400 every three months. After a few pleasantries and sincere thanks, we ended the call.

What sort of price do you put on a dream? How do you justify spending that amount of money on something when, until very recently, being able to scrape together just $1,000 on short notice without resorting to a loan was not a guarantee.

“There’s got to be a less expensive way to do all that,” was the thought of my wife Laura after the meeting. I’ve stayed married for 25-plus years because I tend more often than not to listen to my wife.

And that wasn’t even the biggest amount I would have paid to a publishing company. Another company that will not be named seriously quoted me a number of $20,000 for a full service package. Again, however, how do I justify investing that much into my art when I have a life and family to maintain?

That’s not even touching on how this conversation made me think about the difference between writing as a business and writing for writing’s sake. If my experience with fan fiction has taught me anything, it’s that I can find artistic validation and satisfaction totally absent a profit motive. (That question might be worth its own entry.)

So, anyway, I’m back to where I was, investigating future possibilities. Might my path be perfect and lead to fortune and fame? It might not. However, it will likely be something that I can manage to afford, and I am hoping it will be totally mine.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume II, Part 8: Regarding My Pretensions About Word Processors and My Unrequited Love Affair With The Alphasmart Neo

The words pretentious and writer seem to go together quite a bit. The first word is often used to describe people who title themselves to be the second word. That’s probably not a surprise, considering that many consider writing as an intellectual exercise (which it is to a point) and something that only an elite few ever do, much less do well.

f I ever believed that, teaching writing cured me of that belief, at least.

However, as a younger man (say, of the Volume I or even Volume II era), I would have to say that I had at least a few of those pretentious attitudes myself. At one point, I confess that I considered myself to be a literary writer and had fantasies of putting together a future Pulitzer or National Book Award winner. I spent years of forcing myself to read Jonathan Frazen and David Foster Wallace and trying but failing to force myself to like their work. I eventually realized that there was no way I would ever be a literary writer if I had no interest whatsoever in reading that type of work. So, I’m a genre guy through and through, trying thrillers, sports dramas, and now dipping my toe in fantasy.

I’ve had pretensions about other aspects of writing, however. Just a little while ago, I mentioned how much attention I paid to notebooks. I’m shocked that I’m not someone who was into collecting fancy pens, even though my dad got me a few of those when I was younger. I think part of it was it was always a pain to try and get refills for those pens, so they’d often stay dry. And although you can always keep old notebooks around and revisit what you wrote in them, used pens don’t have any equivalent value.

But if you think I was pretentious about that, wait until I get into keyboards.

I told you before about how I was obsessed with typewriters as a kid. I’m the years since, I’ve gotten to be more comfortable with the electronic medium because it is a lot easier to revise and edit without having to rely on whiteout and correction tape. Plus, you don’t have to have access to a copy machine to make more than one copy of your manuscript.

It was when I was making my one serious attempt to compete in National Novel Writing Month when I first learned of the Alphasmart. I had bought Chris Baty’s book about the competition and he had talked about the Alphasmart in his book as an alternative to a traditional desktop computer or a laptop.

The more I started reading about this machine, the more I fell in love with it. A word processor that only needed three AA batteries to work? A simple on-off switch that would have you up and typing in a second? A machine that automatically saved your work as you typed? A word processor that wouldn’t distract me with games or the Internet, but I could download my work onto a PC? Something that helped me fight my lifelong battle with procrastination? I was hooked, readers.

So, I bought my Alphasmart – actually an Alphasmart Neo – in the mid-auguts. It immediately got a workout as I used it for my pitifully modest freelance journalism work for some Eastern Iowa/Western Illinois newspapers. I used it once or twice for my burgeoning teaching career. I even used it to actually write some stuff, but at the end of my “young man” portion of my life, I took a long hiatus from any fiction writing. Honestly, I think I suffered more than a little mentally by taking that break.

By the time I had finally begun to try and pull my head out of my rear and begin to take writing seriously again, my poor, durable Neo was no longer among the living. It had gotten some screen damage and was, sadly, unusable. And I was despairing of getting another. The last Alphasmart in production, the Neo 2, was discontinued in 2014 and its parent company, Renaissance, no longer provides services for it.

However, the machine never left my mind, and there are a lot of them out there on the used and resale market. A few weeks ago, I found this honey online and… well, reader, I had to have it.

My Alphasmart Neo 2 sitting in my breezeway. Photo credit: Me.

It’s as nice as I remember it. I got a USB cord to download stuff from it to my current laptop. I’m trying to treat it with kid gloves because… well, I want to keep it going for a long while this time.

And it is useful. Writing on an old Mac would seem to be a disaster in waiting. I’m also not going to be like Frazen and remove my modem from my computer – I need to update the thing sometime. So, I want to preserve what I have.

Then again, I went online and saw this new device, Freewrite. It looks so sweet, and they’re still making it…

Sometimes, old habits are hard to break.

[I was debating whether to call this a Volume II or Volume III post. For those not following along, my Volume I posts cover when I was a kid, Volume II when I was a young man, and Volume III is about middle-aged me now trying to be consistently serious about my writing. Since what I’m about to talk about began during my young guy days, I’m deciding this post gets a Volume II designation.]

A Writer’s Biography, Volume II, Part 9: Writing Gear and Notebooks

OK, finally getting to this. If there was someone actually waiting me to write this throughout all Labor Day today you have my deepest sympathies. (Joke.)

I might have mentioned previously that I was probably a member of the last generation of Americans not to have access to a computer or the Internet growing up. When I first started to get ideas for writing, I put them down into what I had – notebooks. Basically, collections of paper with a waxed cardboard or maybe a leather cover if someone is lucky that you can use to write down ideas with.

The ones I had access to and made use of were the same spiral-bound, 8.5 by 11-inch notebooks kids buy every year for school and which I still see in my own classroom. Most of the abortive tries I made at fiction now reside in several such notebooks tucked away in plastic totes for safe-keeping.

For me, it was just what I had available. If I was able to get my hands on a typewriter for my room, I would have been all over that. I remember reading about L. Ron Hubbard using two electric typewriters at once to write a book and he would be using one while the other went to the typewriter shop for maintenance. (That was years before I knew anything about Scientology. And no, this is not going to turn into a Writer’s Biography piece.)

Anyways, that was just what I had, so I used it. It would be many years before I started getting desktop computers and laptops to finally start putting my writing together. I eventually strayed away from the pen world, except for when I used to take notes during my journalism days. Occasionally, I would use a small spiral-bound notebook similar in construction to those old school notebooks, although unlike them, they could fit into a hand. With that and two pens or mechanical pencils, I was set.

Occasionally I would work for an organization that would provide their own journalist notebooks that were double the size of the regular ones. They were steady, but a bit unwieldy to carry around with you. Of course there were tape recordings or digital recordings, but you never wanted to rely only on technology to carry you through in the field. If you could get it down on the page, you were safe and not have to worry about missing information.

Years after those journalism days I started wandering through a Barnes and Noble when I found Moleskine notebooks and fell in love with them. Shoot, if they were Earnest Hemmingway’s favorite notebooks, I didn’t see why they couldn’t be mine. I loved the construction of their leather covers, those nice little ribbons you could use for page-holders, and the elastic that kept them closed. Just good enough for a minor writing snob like me (a Moleskine devotee but one who is more into genre writing and sci-fi/fantasy than “mainstream” literature).

I guess I like the classic design best, but I’m also a fan of the really small ones they make as well. Those I can tuck into my pants pockets or even the breast pocket of my shirts or t-shirts. That makes it really convenient to use.

Of course, I don’t write novels with those notebooks, but I often write down ideas for those stories, or on the rare occasions that poems come to mind. Despite my love for new technology (I like the idea of making multiple copies of my works and words) it is nice to have something not reliant on electricity to make it work. So, I have those options always available for me.

That is, when I don’t get on my phone. I’ve got an iPhone 11 mini right now. That one fits in my pockets well, too.

Wow, It Has Been Four Years Since I Started This Blog

Another stylized self-pic because I hate taking selfies and this looks cooler.

Although technically, I started this blog in late June 2017, I always consider this post on 7.2.2017 as the official start of this blog. Since then, it has been my home base on the Internet.

I apologize if I mentioned this sometime in the past, but I did try this blogging thing for the first time about… not quite 20 years ago, back sometime in the mid-Aughts. I know that blogging was the cool thing to do and I had just heard about a new browser called Mozilla Firefox. I decided to join the other anonymous keyboard warriors and put up my own personal blog on Blogger (I think Google had just acquired that company by that point).

I designed it myself, wrote under an alias and wrote about everything – politics, culture, anything that caught my fancy. That was back in the days when I had plenty of great ideas but hadn’t even begun to sort out how I would consistently bring them to life.

I was having fun… for about four months. Then, as with most writing projects in my earlier years, it got abandoned. Procrastination was always an issue for me, but I also think there were two other factors involved. First, there was the fact that I was writing anonymously. I started to get a little nervous about that idea of being too revealing about myself online. The other issue was that the topics I covered were basically a grab bag of what I found interesting, and I didn’t have a good focus about what the blog should be about. Without that focus, I just floundered.

Again, I might be repeating this part of the story, but anyways… the first seed of this web site actually happened around 2014. I had essentially come out of retirement from journalism to work full-time at my hometown newspaper, the Muscatine Journal. During that time, I was making good use of social media to try and keep up to date with readers and generate story ideas. To separate my personal social media and my “professional” social media, I set up a Facebook page to use and interact with people as a journalist. I did the same with a Twitter handle.

All good things come to an end, however, and my brief journalism comeback ended by the fall of 2015 when I returned to teaching as a special education teacher. However, I had these social media accounts, and I felt like I wanted to make use of them. I decided that they would be the focus of my interests in writing – posts about writing, sharing my thoughts about writing, reposting other interesting stuff about writing.

I did that relatively inconsistently for about two years. I still have both of those accounts – I crosspost both all the blogs you see here on both pages as well as some odds and ends I find on the Internet every once in a while. (On the Facebook page, I recently liveblogged watching an episode of the Ernest Hemingway documentary by Ken Burns.) I am particularly ambivalent about Facebook nowadays and if there was a better place to be on and reach people I would shut that down. Currently, however, there is not.

So, I was having some fund with those little posts, when I said to myself, “wait one minute. It would be cool to have something where I could write longer pieces about writing, about myself as a writer. I could even put out the odd poem, story, or excerpt of something I was writing as well. Plus, I might not be tied to a larger company (or at least a megacompany) for my online presence.

Wil Wheaton is a guy that I have admired for a while – we’re of about the same age and I grew up watching him in Stand By Me, Star Trek TNG, and other projects. (He looks a lot better for his age than I do to be honest.) I also really admired how he had gotten into writing and recast himself as a creative person. In looking over his blog back in 2017, I noticed that he was using WordPress as its platform.

I wound up getting an account, started toying around… and the result is what you see here, with a few small modifications to the look and feel of the place.

This was likely the first image I used on this site. In case any of you wondered what it was, this is the Norbert F. Beckey Bridge, which carries Iowa Highway 92 across the Mississippi River in my hometown of Muscatine, Iowa.

There’s been a few changes in my life since I started this blog. I continued my career in special education at several school districts, and I will soon be starting at the fifth school district I have ever taught at full-time. My two kids graduated high school, moved out for college and/or full-time work, and promptly moved back in due to COVID/real life stuff. We moved from Muscatine on the mighty Mississippi to the little community of Chariton in South Central Iowa… and it’s a nice little community. After a year of living here myself, I’m starting to get a feel for the place, as well as getting to know fellow writers in the greater Des Moines community.

One of the water towers where I live.

Finally, I wound up becoming a published novelist for the first time in my life. Although sales have been extremely modest to say the least (I think in part due to COVID and having to move), but it has been a tremendous experience that for a long time I did not think that I would ever achieve. It’s made me hungry for more success and more progress along the writing front.

The cover for my book…

So, what is next? I think that I want to continue to develop this blog more, to more consistently produce some good content for my page, and not just report on my writing totals for each week (even though that will continue to be a big part of this site, because it has helped me to stay consistent with writing and increase my general writing productivity). I want to try new techniques to promote this page and do things that might get people interested in it. Even though it will always be a writing blog, I want to get into a variety of writing subjects that I might not have touched on before or not discussed for some time. There might be some other ways to use this page to both promote my past and future writing projects and reach more people.

I’ll leave it at that for now and wish everyone a great weekend. Writers keep writing and everyone keep safe.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume III, Part 6: The importance of writing groups

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: My deepest apologies for releasing this blog Monday rather than sometime civilized on Saturday. Still getting used to the new schedule.

[SECOND AUTHOR’S NOTE: OK, it’s at 12:10 p.m. rather than 12:00 p.m. Still pretty close to what I promised, right?

[PHOTO NOTE: This is not my actual writing group, past or present. This is the first image that popped up when I did a Pexel search for “writing group.” And, there you go.

If you would, permit me to make a small detour into the world of politics.

It was in the middle of running for his second term as president in 2012 when Barack Obama got into a minor controversy over a statement he made on the campaign trail. At a campaign stop in Virginia, he was trying to make the point that rich people don’t become rich just because of their own efforts, but from the help of others, the help of government, and good fortune. He said in part:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

Barack Obama

I bring up this statement not to debate its value (I personally agree with it) nor to explain why it is so. I wanted to compare this idea with another idea that has long been popular – the idea of a writer as a singular artist.

This is an idea that, if it cannot quite be classified as a cliche, maybe could be considered more like a trope. I can remember so many scenes in films, television, and (yes) books as well, scenes of serious, dedicated writers hunched over hand-held notebooks, legal pads, typewriters, or word processors. They’re always so serious, aren’t they, their isolated rooms echoing with the scritch scratch of pens or pencils, the slamming thunk thunk of typewriter keys or the tiki-tak tiki-tak of word processors. Those scenes burned into my brains so much I’ve worn out keyboards for the past 25-plus years. Wasn’t it Sean Connery in Finding Forrester who said “Punch the keys, for God’s sake!” Oh, I lived that idea for many years. It is the reason that all of my spacebars on my keyboards have some worn-off parts, as well as a few other keys.

A writer lends a person so well to being a solitary artist. Not quite sure an idea is going to work out, or if somebody else likes it? Who cares, nobody is going to stop you, right? You are the final say over your story except for those sorry brothers who agree to collaborate with one or more writers. No worries about how much it would cost to render a scene for your reader, no worries about filming budgets or payrolls for actors and crew – you can build any world you want, any characters you want, for the cost of your imagination, your time imagining, and the cost of a workable computer or typewriter if you have a real 20th Century mentality. Especially if you have a nice little writing space, you can shut everyone out and everything out except you and your imagination. You would be the classic, mythical rugged individualist as artist.

However, as Barack said at the start of all this, “You didn’t build that.” Sure, you did build those worlds, those fascinating characters, those wonderful stories. Those are your words on the screen or the page. But, you didn’t get to that point on your own.

If we look into ourselves and understand the real writing process, the real ins and outs of how literature comes to be, we know that we are not just lone gunmen spewing our stories into the ether. There were so many that got us to the point where we were able to tell our stories and share them with the world.

There were other people that helped us to be able to share these stories, these writings, with the rest of the world. It is the same for all you writers out there just as much as it was for me. For me, I admit, I relied on my fellow writers to get me to where I have gotten to today.

I specifically remember the late Aughts of 2007 or so in regards to myself. I was returning to my hometown (Muscatine, Iowa) after a 10-year stay in Clinton, Iowa, and what felt like an equally long hiatus from writing. (I was writing off and on, but in no way consistently at all). In fact, initially I just sat and stewed for a while, which I might have attributed to entering the teaching profession and getting adjusted to that. But another part of that was the fact that I was writing in a vacuum, with nobody I could turn to for advice or guidance.

It was then that I remembered a local writing group called Writers on the Avenue. There were many differences between me and the other members. I was generally younger than most of them. Many of them preferred to work in poetry or mainstream literature, and I was the crazy kid writing thrillers or sci-fi/fantasy. We had differences of opinion on a lot of things about life. But we all had writing in common.

I went off and on between not participating in the group to at one point serving as club secretary. However, the feedback I got from them all about writing was invaluable.

They helped shape what eventually became my first published novel, The Holy Fool. They also provided critiques of my other novel projects as well. It was through them that I was able to network and get in contact with groups such as the Midwest Writing Center, where I learned a lot from the seminars and critique groups they had. I was able to network with other writers and get ideas about expressing myself through writing that eventually led me from repurposing an old Facebook page I had used as part of my past journalism career to creating the blog that you see here. I even got into poetry because I kept listening to their work and finally decided to try my hand at it. Some of those poems you can find here.

One of the real downsides of moving to South Central Iowa (Chariton, to be exact), is that I’m not able to meet with those groups on a regular basis. I’m glad now that I have started to settle in and get to be part of groups such as the Iowa Writer’s Corner. I’m hoping to get together with some other writers in the Des Moines area and continue my progress as a writer.

And who knows? Since Zoom has become such a thing, maybe I can get together with some of my old Eastern Iowa writing friends without burning too much gas.

A Writer’s Biography, Author’s Note: Is this beginning to turn into something… bigger?

[PHOTO NOTE: The featured pic is a 1913 picture by Oscar Grossheim of downtown Muscatine, Iowa, courtesy of the Musser Public Library’s collection. Since this is about my past, I decided to add an old photo of my hometown. It sort of fits, even though I didn’t move there for another 60 years or so after that was taken.]

It’s a bit freaky to me that it was almost four years ago since I wrote this blog entry. At the time, I wasn’t thinking too much about it. I was just thinking of the basic idea that I had to write about writing and my relationship to it over the years. In that post, I was talking about when I was a young kid first getting into the written word and starting to ponder the idea that I might be able to tell the type of stories I had been reading about.

Well, a couple of posts about the type of stuff I read as a kid turned into a few. They were coming hot and heavy for a while, but then continued, in dribs and drabs, throughout the lifespan of this blog. I finally put out a couple more of those posts after a seven-month hiatus. That prompted to me to wonder – how many of those have I actually written?

Well, I went ahead and looked at all of the posts I’ve now written under this Writer’s Biography title, and did some counting… and I have twenty different posts. With this post, that number is now twenty-one.

Those are about twenty different posts of me talking about myself and my life as a writer. Of those posts, 8 of them I have labeled as Volume I (covering my time as a kid and adolescent). Another 7 posts I’ve labeled Volume II (covering my time as a young adult). Finally, there were 5 posts labeled Volume III (covering things that have happened as I began to write again in middle age after an extended series of hiatuses). All of those stories were centered around either my writing or the influences of my writing (what I read). So, I didn’t think too much about it… until now. And now, there’s this story that you are reading now, when I finally sit down for a moment and contemplate what’s been happening.

To look back and see that I had been doing that much writing about myself… that was a bit of a surprise.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

I’m not sure, but I think that this is, without any particular initial intent, becoming something more than just a few blog posts. I think I’ve somehow wound up with something that is approaching… a memoir.

There are more than a few old pieces of fiction and some of the columns I wrote for newspapers that would indulge my youthful, quixotic dreams of being a famous newspaper columnist that wind up being at least semi-autobiographical. I remember reading Charles Yeager and Miles Davis’ autobiography and was impressed by their stories. I loved Andre Agassi’s Open and thought it was brilliant, but I totally understood he needed a co-author to make it work. And, it was a great job that they did.

But me trying to write an autobiography? Why?

First, it’s not like I have that interesting of a life to talk about. I was an only child in eastern Iowa who read a lot of books, watched a lot of television, and played a lot of video games. I got into sci-fi geek culture, or as much as I could find out about it in the pre-Internet Midwest. I got married, had a couple kids, kicked around a few newspapers and got into teaching. I never did wind up getting arrested or had any major tragedies happen to me. It’s been a relatively quiet life.

And secondly, I always thought you had to remember a lot about your past. There’s not too many memories, or fully formed memories, of when I was a kid, at least not enough to fill an entire book. Likely, they wouldn’t be enough to fill in one of those self-published books of memoirs you see in local bookstores or fairs. I really related to how David Carr of the New York Times, when he wrote a memoir of his time as an addict, he wound up interviewing people in his life because he didn’t think that he could be relied on for the accuracy of his recollections.

It turns out, however, that I might have more to talk about than just a few stories. The series is turning into something of its own creature, something that is happening in spite of itself. I’m honestly not sure about whether I’d ever consider turning it into an actual book, or where it might lead.

I do know I still have more than a few of those types of stories to tell, however. So keep checking in – you’ll never know what I might remember next.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume III, Part 5: The Writing Environment

You get a certain level of comfort writing being in the same room for a while. That’s not to say that certain place is the best place to write, however. Ever since I turned 18, I have had about six or so spaces that I considered to be my exclusive writing space. I made all of them work, even though each of them had certain disadvantages.

I’ve made various spots my writing dens over the years. When I was a kid and had my first desktop computer for college assignments, etc., I decided to use a small rolling desk designed especially for keyboards and desktop stacks. It wasn’t too private, but not too many people went down in the basement, and there were only three people in the house (Me, Mom, and Dad). So, I made that work.

I had that for a few years, and then, when I moved into my own apartment, I fit it into a second room of the two bedroom apartment right after I got married. I have to admit now, after the fact, that I was not doing as much writing as I aspired to do back in those days. It was a lot easier for me to call myself a writer rather than actually write. I’ve talked about that instinct in some previous Writer’s Biography posts.

That was during a 10-year stint in a town called Clinton, where my job had brought my wife and I there. (This would be the last time any job of mine moved us anywhere, and that was likely the best for me and my family, looking back.) We eventually got a nice older house, built in the late 1940’s, which became the first house that my kids ever had.

Although I don’t happen to have any photos of the place readily available, I remember the first house that I owned quite well, and the place that I decided to claim as my writing space. There was a back room to the house that appeared to be a former four seasons room turned into an interior sun room. There was a patio on top of the room that was connected to my son’s room, and he occasionally liked to amuse himself by running out there undressed. (In his defense, he was… four? Five? Something like that.) Sometimes the room leaked by the door when it rained really hard, but I was able to fit a couple of desks in there for both me and my wife’s laptops, and an old couch and television besides. There was a television in there, as well, and I always wondered if the television would be too much of a distraction for me, as it had been in my first basement lair of my youth. (These were more innocent times, before YouTube and YouTube TV meant that I could watch more or less whatever I wanted while I typed on the same screen. It’s not a home theater experience, mind, but that was never something that I was desperate to experience except for watching the biggest scale movies.)

Again, I got some writing done in that cozy, sunlit little room, but not as much as I wanted to. It was at that point, however, that I started to think that I needed to rededicate myself to writing.

This was my workspace and my room between mid-2007 and up until mid-2020 – about 13 years. The first time I entered this house – the biggest house that I had ever lived in up to that point – I found this room up at the top of the staircase and instantly decided, “This is the place.” I picked up the tiny corner desk you see below, filled the place up with bookcases, and called it my home office.

Yes, it really got dusty sometimes, and it got cluttered, for sure. But, it was mine, and a good place to write.

There were some disadvantages to that room. It was easily the warmest room in the house, and the air conditioning register was stuck underneath my futon. At one point I think I had something like four fans in that room to help with the circulation there. The carpet in there wasn’t in the best shape, and it didn’t get much better in the 13 years we spent there. And, I have to admit that I could have done a lot better job picking up the place. It started getting cluttered there with various papers and notes and various debris. There were plenty of little cracks and crevices in that room that didn’t get cleaned, either. (That was a bit of a mess on our final moveout day.

Due to different circumstances, I would often sleep in that room, too. I think that can be problematic for a writing room, because you tend to either overestimate the amount of time you have to write or it becomes immediately easy to procrastinate there. Once we decided to move to the new place, I determined that I didn’t want to have that as my sleeping place as well, so I stuck to that.

So, last year, we moved to my new home in Lucas County, Iowa, in a 100-year-old home that felt nice and cozy compared to the old place. We made some changes to the place to update it and began to settle in.

For a brief time, I had an office space in the spare front room of our new house. It was somewhat similar to what I had before, except for the hardwood flooring. I was able to get most of my bookcases in there, the old desk, and it seemed pretty settled.

My old desk just before I realized it was time for the trash heap. Oh, well.

Of course, as things happen, things in life happen. My wife and I had anticipated that we would be here pretty much by ourselves when we moved here. My son had moved to the Iowa City area for work in the HVAC field, and my daughter decided to study chemical engineering at my old school, the University of Iowa, also in Iowa City. However, COVID-19 eventually meant that my daughter moved for the next several months back in the room we had reserved for her for online learning. Then, due to other circumstances, my son needed to move back in with us and found some HVAC work in our town. However, he would have to take over our only remaining spare bedroom… which happened to be the same room that I had lovingly converted into my office.

Whatever disappointment that I might have felt with the loss of my writing den eventually became counterbalanced with the urges that had been fueling me for the past several months to simplify my life. I had the chance to further simplify it even further, which appealed to me. Thus, I moved forward with my next step.

So, I now present to you, my new writing hideout.

With our children’s two rooms below, the third bedroom, which my wife and I share, is tucked up into the attic of the house. It’s located up at the top of a twisting, narrow staircase that might worry me a bit if I thought we were going to be living here for the next 30 years. At the top of the staircase, there’s a small little landing that has just enough room for two bookcases, a chair, some storage, and my wife’s old-fashioned desk that she once used for her own business and now has generously lent it to me. I’m also glad for the carpeting, since that makes me slightly less nervous that I might sometime fall down the staircase going a little bit to the left.

There are a few disadvantages, of course. All rooms always have them. There’s no door to shut and I can hear any commotion downstairs, but you would be surprised what earbuds can cancel out. It might get a little warm in the upstairs, so I’m looking forward to replacing the window air conditioner we have up here.

But on the other hand, the staircase means that I get few people bothering me when I do write. I’m surprised that I have just enough space to work and not too much to get sloppy. It’s cozy, it’s intimate, and it is mine. And I do write things in here.

When it comes to a writing space, that’s the most important thing in the end.