A Writer’s Biography, Volume III, Part 2: On nonfiction writing and abandoned projects

I was going to tell you a story, right? But, I got distracted by explaining some back story. Honestly, though, I probably needed to explain that back story to understand some of it myself. Apparently I’ve been writing a memoir for just over a year and I didn’t realize it.

(OK, that’s it for the hyperlinks. 🙂 EDIT: Sorry, lies. (see below))

I’ve had experience writing nonfiction as a journalist. I think that I’m doing well as a writer of fiction, and I’m a fan of writing book-length works.

However, when faced with the opportunity to write book-length nonfiction, I considered it for a while. At the time, it seemed like a great idea for a book.

In the end, though, I wound up walking away from the project for more than just one reason. Even though that project was not a story I eventually wanted to tell, the story behind that story might be worth a post.

Continue reading “A Writer’s Biography, Volume III, Part 2: On nonfiction writing and abandoned projects”

A Writer’s Biography, Volume II, Part 5: My time in journalism

Last week, I met with an acquaintance at my house. The guy, Dale, was picking up some old files from me for a writing project that I was dropping and he was passing on to another writer.

As I asked about the writer, I learned that he’d worked at the same newspaper as Dale had years back. That was more than a few years back, “before the buyouts.” And just like that, for a few moments we were swapping stories back and forth – the buyouts that had hollowed out Dale’s former employer, the cuts at the hometown newspaper that I used to work for that left it more of a zombie publication than a living, breathing institution.

I was flashing back to my time as a journalist. I call myself an old retired journalist, even though I’m 20-40 years younger than most of the people who claim that description as their own. In years past, I would have been in my prime as a journalist, with honors aplenty and years left to go in my career. Now I’m retired from the profession, with no foreseeable way to return to it, or any real desire to do so.

Continue reading “A Writer’s Biography, Volume II, Part 5: My time in journalism”

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 7: The Old Library

Yesterday was the last day that I checked out books from the library of my childhood.

 

It’s not like my community (Muscatine, Iowa) is losing a library, like too many others have in this country and others. In about two weeks, the current location you see above will be closed for four weeks. That’s why I decided to stock up while the getting is good – and got all of my library fines forgiven, as well! Classy move from the librarians. (I admit I am an inveterate book hoarder who has been fined by libraries in four different Iowa counties.)

Afterwards, the Musser Public Library will reopen as the HNI Community Center and Musser Public Library. (HNI makes stuff like office furniture, so if you work in a cubicle you might be sitting on or working on something they made.) This is what it’s going to look like:

HNI Musser Public Library

I mean, it looks classy, at least. HNI had an old headquarters building that was just sitting around and said why not let the city have it, since the older place was getting a bit run down. Here’s some info on the project if that kind of thing interests you.

I think there were things like roof issues, foundation issues, and some other things that required the old place to get retired. They first built the library that I used nearly 50 years ago. I mean, it looks ultramodern and slick from the outside, but it was built in the past century… like me.

Musser isn’t like a nickname for Muscatine or anything – it was the name of one of the old families here in town beginning in the 19th century that were some of the first to make some money – I think in the lumber business. The original library, build around the start of the 20th century, looked like this:

img_5423

If I went to libraries in Illinois and Texas when I was a young child, I do not remember them. I remember the first school library I had at Grant Elementary, a modest room overlooking the parking lot where I first started sorting for books. Central Middle School had a third-floor library, tucked away from everywhere else. I managed to plow through all the books they had of interest before I left.

The library of Muscatine High School, where I spent four years, was an ultra-funky layout that spoke to the building’s 1970’s origins. It was and is located in the center of the main building, on a mezzanine level between the ground and second floors. Back in the days when I went to school there, the sides of the library were open to the walkways of the ground floor below. A few years after I had graduated. apparently some students had thrown some smoke bombs from the library down below into those walkways to cause some consternation among the faculty. Well before the time I returned to the high school as a substitute teacher, they had walled off those open areas with paneling to prevent that from happening again.

However, it was the Musser Public Library that soon became my home. It’s a little difficult for me to recall how I first started getting there. I have to assume that my parents were willing to take me there as a child, to drive me there. After all, the location was catty-corner from the building where my engineer father spent the vast majority of his professional life as an engineer.

What I remember about those times, both before and after I started hauling myself to the library on a moped and then in a car, was how every topic I wanted to read about was there, open for me, at the library. That was where I was able to indulge my love of Stephen King, and, years later, Richard Laymon. I started learning about how good biographies could be, and how a book about building a castle could keep my attention until it had finished explaining how such a structure could be built. That’s where I learned about tourism guides and how they could become useful tools in my research. I believe that’s also where I learned about young adult writers like Julian F. Thompson, on Koertge, Paul Zindel, and others. I also got into Michael and Jeff Shaara and more historical fiction than I could shake a stick at.

I also remember the big comfy chairs, either over on the side or in the new additions area, where I hunkered down and started reading stuff. I would spend hours there, and had to make sure that I had enough quarters there to feed the meters or I would have to pay paring as well as book fines. (That didn’t always work out.)

That library was one of the main influences on wanting to write. I wanted to see if I could create something that could sit on the shelves along with all of the other works. I still might manage that.

 

A Writer’s Biography, Volume II, Part 4: Reviving An Old Writing Project

As a kid, I took my music seriously.

When I was into rock and roll, I really dived deep into the history of the music, especially Sixties and Seventies rock. I grew up as a little kid starting to hide my interest in heavy metal and punk from my mom, who thought the music just a little harsh for a kid my age to get into.

By the time I was off to college, the alternative rock and indie rock surge was all around me and I truly got into that. Nirvana was one of my biggest bands and I still remember driving in a car when they announced Kurt Cobain killed himself. One of the things that I did admire about Kurt was how he promoted and discussed his musical influences, the musicians not only from the Sixties and Seventies, but the underground rock acts of the Eighties that helped pave the way for bands, like his, like Black Flag, The Minutemen, Husker Dü, The Replacements, Dinosaur jr, and many others.

In the years since then, I’ve expanded my musical interests into many other genres and styles, but I still appreciated music made by people who believed in authenticity and emotional honesty. From that love of the music started to come the origins of an idea.

What if I wrote about a fictional band from that 1980’s era of underground rock? What if I was able to put together a whole fictional history for that band, make it my version of some mix of Nirvana and Sonic Youth? And like Sonic Youth, what if that band had overcome personal and professional adversity to make it to widespread fame by the 1990’s?

So, I started writing a book, several years ago (closer to the beginning of this decade than the end of it). I got into the origin of the band, spouted off a lot of word salad about the meaning of music, and the effort petered out after I got somewhere around 35,000 words. I’ve talked before about how I used to work; that was one of my creative casualties.

So, after I got finished with the first draft of The American Nine this year, I was sort of puttering around and decided to take a nervous look at what I’d produced and see if there was anything worthy of getting on with. My verdict:

  1. I was very happy with the characters I’d produced, especially the band members. All of them had different personalities and had different reasons to come to the music, but that mutual interest and respect drew them together.
  2. It was way long-winded, back in the days when I never worried about word counts except for the time or two I tried to do NaNoWriMo. Managed to cut down what I had to just over 30,000 words without too much trouble.
  3. Even with those cuts, I think I’m still going to have a book that’s not going to be able to fit under the 100,000 mark. I have the feeling it might fit more into a series – a trilogy, actually. If I do a trilogy, the ending of the first book will have to take some planning, but I think the rest of it is coming together.
  4. I think this is something that could work.

So, that’s my initial impressions of the new project. The advice that I would give you today is that even a project you think didn’t have potential might look better after some time away from it. Don’t ever throw away mistakes – you’ll never know when they’ll be, as Bob Ross once said, happy accidents.

 

Poem: The Inertia of Me

This came out of me juuust as I was thinking about getting more serious about my writing. Decided it might be a good way to start off the new year.

 

The Inertia of Me

10/4/2012 Muscatine, Iowa

Late night drizzling consciousness as the digital ticks creep the night into the morning without dawn.

Energy ebbs as the seconds and minutes tick away.

Bobby Layne said he’d never lost –

he just ran out of time.

I know what he meant, but maybe not how he really felt on those days.

Bobby could make a minute last, could make it work for him.

Usually, I find myself asking seconds and minutes and hours

to take the day off.

Falling into the well-worn patterns, the easy highways of the mind

rather than getting my brain’s centurions

to build new good Roman roads serving

citizens over millennia.

My ambitions reach toward the Rhine,

the Danube, and the British wall, but my output has stuck to the Seven Hills above the Tiber.

Is the Eater inside me talking me into thinking writing is work?

I’m not sure, but my superego knows different;

every time I create something, I get

the joy of building, of forming, instead of just consuming everything.

I’ve come to realize that I’ve located my willpower at the base of my spine;

it’s a AA battery that gets used up

and replaced at the start of each day.

If it runs out at 4 p.m., too bad.

So, I have to plan like a Roman,

using the latest techniques and technologies to eliminate my threats like they used to kill off the crazy skyclad woadclad Celts of the mists.

All it comes down to is, I need to write.

Now I’m finally figuring out how to do that.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 1

I’ve been trying to pinpoint when I really started to become fascinated with the idea that I wanted to be a writer. I’ve always been impressed with all of these biographers who are able to recall what they did during particular years or certain times in their lives.

For me, there are certain bits and pieces that are clear – just individual scenes, mental film clips, so to speak. On that note, I admired David Carr’s admission in his memoir that he interviewed many of the people in his life because he couldn’t remember many of the events of his life clearly. Most of that had to do with all of the crack he was smoking at that point in his life. I never had a similar problem, but then again, I was drawn to writing fiction, not memoir. I didn’t think there was going to be a test on personal history halfway through my life. But, I think now that I want to see where I have been on this writing journey to get an idea of where I need to go next.

Dr. Seuss is the first author I remember getting into. By the end of my early childhood, I not only had well over a dozen of his books on my bookshelves, but also several audio recordings of the books on vinyl. A particular memory was hanging out in my basement, laying on a couch there, turning off the lights and listening to the records on my own courtesy of a 70’s turntable. For me it was a more intimate experience than hearing it in the light with others. But, I still liked reading them – loved the pictures, so expressive and inventive for such simple art.

However, if you tried to pin me down regarding which adult book first captured my imagination and made me think about what it would be like to create a book, that goes back to somewhere around when I was 10 years old. It was around that time that my parents gave me a book called Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. At this point, I’m not sure how I found out about that book, but that once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop.

Within the first three chapters the world ended and then it went off to the races from there. I loved the language from Adams, the wit, the random brilliance about the human condition filtered through the experience of aliens. I understood 30 percent of the jokes after the first read, 60 percent of the jokes after the first 10 readings, and maybe 98 percent of the jokes 25-plus years after the fact. It was the first book I couldn’t put down, the first book I had to read over and over. I remember bringing my creased paperback cover Hitchhiker’s copy with me during a family camping trip with my parents and aunts and uncles one year; it was the thing that kept me sane when I wanted to return to civilization but we had to stay in tents and play UNO until sundown (not that I don’t dig the game). It was the first book where I really fell in love with the language, the voice of Adams, where I fell in love with the absurdity of human existence. It was the first book that made me think, “My God, I would love to write something like this.”

So far, I haven’t gotten anywhere near Adams’ level of writing. I’ve also acquired several other idols of writing that I’ve looked up to (more on that later). But for now, I’ve tried to produce material that I think would be up to his level, even though it might not be something that he would undertake.

I’ve also struggled with the idea of actually sitting down and writing. I was surprised to learn just this past month how Adams actually struggled with putting something down on paper and the computer screen. It made me realize that I was not alone and that my idol struggled with the same issues that I did. It is something that motivates me even today as I want to continue my writing.

Learning about this was a massive motivating force for me. It made me realize that I was not alone in procrastinating and wasting time, even though time is much more precious than the ordinary person thinks. My mission now is to write down as much as I can in the time that I have. Wish me luck, everyone – you might even see some of it on this blog.