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.]

Writing Gear: 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.

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 writing. 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.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume II, Part 7: Letting the past go

I’ve moved four times in just over 20 years. It’s not gotten easier with time. You want to know what it has taught me? Owning stuff is overrated. Even if it is something you have created or treasured.

Yes, I did wind up owning that amount of books. I wound up donating about four boxes worth to Goodwill or the local library. Recently, I’ve had to become very choosy about how many books are in my collection.

It’s a funny situation.

In the summer of 2020, I wound up being the last adult at my house for a couple months. My wife, Laura, had managed to find a great job opportunity in southern Iowa. It was going to be a brave new world for me, who had spent most of my life living in Eastern Iowa, and my wife and two kids, who had lived there for all of their lives.

My wife had actually moved the fall before to our new hometown, installing herself in an efficiency apartment near her work while returning to our home on the weekends and holidays. I’m not sure I really hinted at it that much on this blog at the time, but Summer 2019 – Summer 2020 was one of the weirdest times in my life and my family’s life. I was trying to keep things together – not often perfectly – while working a job that I knew I was going to be leaving at the end of the year. Laura felt like she was missing out on our daughter’s senior year, but she was being too unfair – she had always been part of our kids’ activities and lives, and this was something she was doing for all of us. And, of course, we had COVID happen in the middle of everything and both disrupt my daughter’s senior year, delay my son’s post-high school training, and stop my lame duck year at my school district dead in its tracks.

The biggest change, and the biggest challenge for us, was the house that we had spent the last 12-13 years in. The kids had spent the vast majority of their remembered childhoods in that home. It was the largest home I’ve ever lived in. And we had to clear it out and move whatever we were going to move halfway across the state within a few months.

What we were dealing with after 12-13 years of living in one house with two growing kids. This was our basement circa Spring 2020.

As you can see, there was a lot of stuff to deal with. It included kid junk from several eras of childhood, both my kids’ and my own. It included nick-knacks on top of nick-knacks obtained on a whim for long-forgotten reasons. There was stuff stored behind other stuff and underneath still more stuff that had been long forgotten about by both myself and my wife. There was at least one big pile of newspapers filled with my ramblings about long-forgotten council meetings or interviews with fifth-string candidates in the Iowa Caucuses. Some of it was just short of trash, decorations for holidays that had been made snacks of by the occasional mouse.

All of those things we spent a lifetime collecting and keeping for “when we needed it.” Until the day came when we didn’t need it anymore.

I remembered a specific time when I was faced with a pile of those old newspapers, reminders of a career past when I did my best to let people know about their community even though not everyone read those stories. For a while, they defined who I was.

I sent that entire pile out to the trash hauler. I will tell you that getting rid of that was a massive relief.

There were many nick-knacks that I had kept over the years, items that long lost their meaning. Those went into the hauler, or over to Goodwill. There were so many clothes that I kept just to keep them and they were so far in the back of the closet that they never saw the light of day. I think I remember filling about five or six large black garbage sacks full of clothes and shoes to Goodwill. They got a lot of plus-sized clothes from me, that is for sure.

One thing that I realized:

If you don’t see it and you can’t reach it easily, it’s almost like you don’t own it.

Jason Liegois

There’s very few things that I absolutely had to keep. There are the fiction writings that I’ve generated, off and on, ever since I turned 14. Those are stored in file folders or, nowadays, on external hard drives or flash drives. There are the photos of my family, both hard copies and electronic ones, that we’ve either got up on the walls or stored someplace safe. There are the books that I kept after getting rid of… maybe eight of those boxes of books over the past four years and four of them in that last year alone. If I want a book now, it has to be either high on my list or I go the Amazon Kindle route.

If there is one thing that the move solidified for me, it’s that material things are not the best investment for me. I want to invest in my health and the health of others. I want to spend what excess resources I have on great experiences for me, my wife, and our kids. I want to help them if they need it down the line.

It’s funny, but I’ve been reading (in slow starts and stops) a one-volume copy of The Lord of the Rings. I know a lot of people connect with the humans (naturally) and the elves in that story, but it’s the hobbits that might have made the most connection to me. I can see myself as a version of them, working at a simple job, in a simple hobbit hole in the ground, and spending my time meeting with friends and family over a fire (or maybe watching soccer, lol).

As I get older, I start wanting to simplify things more and more. Leaving some of the things a younger man bought was one of them.

Author’s Note: I debated whether to make this part of the Volume II (my life as a young adult) or the Volume III (my life since I rededicated myself to writing, also known as the present time). By a narrow margin, I decided on titling it in the Volume II section since the things I was getting rid of came from my younger self.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 8: The Old Mississippi

I recently completed my move from Muscatine, Iowa, where I’ve lived for more than 30 of the fortysomething years I’ve lived, to Chariton, Iowa, in south-central Iowa. In many ways, I’m excited about the move – it has been a great professional opportunity for my wife, a good financial move for us, and a good change of pace for me. Being closer to Des Moines might even be helpful for me as far as writing goes – more writers, more people to network with. My wife even has suggested that I start a Chariton or Lucas County writer’s group, but I have to admit that I have no idea how many writers are out there or what type of writing they might do. I’d be open to the idea, however.

It’s going to be the river, however, that I’m going to miss the most.

For more than forty of my years, I have lived a couple miles or so from the Mississippi River. That has been something that I truly treasured. I remembered when I was a little kid, reading something in a National Geographic book about how the Mississippi/Missouri/Ohio river system was the third biggest river system in the world, topped only by the Amazon and the Nile. Heady stuff for a little kid.

I want to describe what this river meant to me, then and now. Doing justice to the subject is a little intimidating, to be honest. I haven’t done much looking at other people’s writings about rivers or the Mississippi in particular.

When I talk about this, I need to be honest. It wasn’t like I was some river rat, hanging out on the shore every weekend or even every month. If I wandered down to the riverfront once every week it was an uncommon occurrence. But the fact that the river was there was reassuring to me. It was a living, breathing river and passageway to me, a place where I could lose myself if I had the chance.

Since I learned that we were going to be moving to South Central Iowa, I’ve been thinking more about my feelings about the Mississippi, some of the ways that I have experienced the river. My old writing group back in Muscatine did a lot of poetry and a lot of writing about our region. I decided to finally try my own hand at poetry, which turned into my current Project C.

So, I’m thinking that maybe a poem might be a good way to maybe get at the way I feel. This is the first time I’ve shown this – be gentle.

NO-MAN’S ISLANDS (A River Story)
2.2019
The thing that The River has over other rivers and streams
is its own land.
Usually, it’s just a dirt road of two-lane blacktop of muddy water
or a four-lane at best.
But The River has its own land, right there tucked in the channel.
Carved and molded and rounded-off by the ever-shifting waters
with no shape but overwhelming mass and motion.
These are the No Man’s Island’s.  
Temporary Sentinels guarding the river for as long as they’re around.
They are for no one for everyone that has a boat
or strong enough swimming stroke.
Some are bare sand, all but ready for a rise in The River
to send it away.
Others are thick jungles, oaks and maples cluttering the interior
and hanging off the banks like a daredevil hanging from a bridge.
They’re perfect for parking your boat,
and getting some sun quota for the day.
You hang out with love behind the trees and bushes
obscuring the view of the jet skiers and party boat passengers and barge crews.
It’s their own little fiefdoms away from the cares and stresses
On Shore.
At least, they are until the snacks and beers in the coolers run out.

I’m planning on trying to do more of that poetry with river themes, as a way of keeping those memories alive with me and keep creative.

There’s no rivers the size of the Mississippi around here. There are some sizable lakes around here, including Lake Rathburn and some others within decent driving range. However, I do have an active railway not a block away from my house. I’m actually living on a highway for the first time in my life, as well.

Maybe its time to try out some train and road poems.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume II, Part 6: My obsession with soccer

Honestly, there’s been more than a few hints that I’m obsessed with soccer/association football/football.

The origins of the obsession come back to me, in fits and spurts. You have to understand, those of you who only remember 21st century America, that if you were ever transported to late 20th century America, you would find much of it to be familiar, yet there would also be some profound differences. For the purposes of keeping on topic, I’m going to only stick to what it was like for those who had an interest in soccer.

By the time I was growing up, soccer already had a century-plus history in the world under the rules and regulations that had been started up in an English pub around the time of the American Civil War. I knew none of this history growing up. I knew soccer was a game where you kicked the ball and used everything but your hands to move it, but that was it. There weren’t any games I could either watch on TV or hear on the radio, and the first match I ever saw live were the YMCA youth games I played in.

I’m sure I probably looked up the encyclopedia article for soccer at some point, but the first proper book I remember reading about soccer was a small one published by the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). I forget its name now, other than it was a little green book that went over the rules and general positions for soccer. (They still had the kids line up in a 2-3-5 (Pyramid) formation 30 years after it was obsolete.

It also talked to me about some of the legends who played soccer – Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, and Shemp Messing and Kyle Rote, Jr. (Americans playing soccer? Impossible). It talked about their exploits in America, in the old North American Soccer League, even though I didn’t know and the book didn’t say that the league was at that moment dying a quiet death.

Pele became my first soccer idol, even though he was retired from playing and I never saw any of his games as a kid. He was just that good, right? I did see him in a World War II movie directed by John Huston called Victory where Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone (what???) were Allied POWs who were challenged to a soccer match by the German National Team in occupied France. Stallone was the goalie and actually looked passable in the role – I learned years later that the former England keeper Gordon Banks had helped coach him. Pele was on the Allied team – they had to make him someone from Trinidad because while Brazil was on the Allied side during WWII, they never sent troops to Europe during the time in history.

Then there was my own limited playing experiences in YMCA soccer. I loved the freeflowing nature of the game, how improvisational you could be with the ball and how you didn’t have to be built a certain way or have a certain look to be successful with it. To be honest, I was a pretty limited player even as a kid – a defensive left back with a good right foot whose main defensive weapon was “get to the ball before the opponents and kick it as hard as I can.” The old English managers would have loved me.

I remember seeing a article in People magazine during the mid to late 80’s, a lifestyle story about Diego Maradona. I was fascinated about him being so small and yet so dominant in soccer, and intrigued about the wild lifestyle the article just hinted at. He became my first soccer antihero.

I vaguely remember there being a World Cup, but I really didn’t get into it until the USA hosted it in 1994. That was the first time I remember the entire tournament being on TV. I specifically remember visiting my then-girlfriend, now-wife, at her mom’s home and randomly turning on the TV to see how the US v. Columbia game was going on. When I saw we were already 2-0, I jumped up shouting and everyone in the house wondered whether I was nuts. I was a fan of the US men’s national team from that moment forward. I guess I was technically a US women’s national team fan from then on, too, but not really until the 1999 Women’s World Cup, when I saw them work their magic.

Ever since then, it’s become easier and easier to feed into my soccer fandom, with better coverage of the game in America and overseas, especially the English Premiere League which I have been addicted to since they began broadcasting those games regularly on American television. It’s been fun to find teams to root for in the different leagues, even ones in Mexico and Germany, among others.

And now, that passion for the sport has bled into my writing world, the Project A that I’ve talked about. I have a great main character from America and it’s been a blast dipping him into the world of soccer, though I think that this character in particular would be interesting no matter what he was doing.

However, I’ve put him in the world of soccer. That’s because, in part, I’m always up for seeing what happens during a good game.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I debated whether this was going to be a Volume I (childhood) entry, a Volume II (young adulthood) entry, or a Volume III (middle age and onwards) entry. I first learned of the sport and played it as a young child, my soccer fandom started as a young adult, and I didn’t complete the main project I’ve been working on for the past couple of years. It was a roll of the dice, but I settled on Volume II because that’s when the obsession really started.

Anyway, I’m publishing this not on the weekend, so I can still call it a midweek post and keep my word to everyone, lol.]

[AUTHOR’S NOTE #2: [AUTHOR’S NOTE: The pic I used for today’s post comes from a photographer I found out about from the blog In Bed With Maradona. If you are massively into football ⚽️ culture, you need to check it out. The photographer’s name’s Jurgen Vantomme and he does some great stuff. This comes courtesy of this collection, and you can check his web site out here.]

 

A Writer’s Biography, Volume III, Part 4: On Leaving an Author Behind

There’s always been discussion about whether to separate artists and their behavior in real life from their art. This debate has grown exponentially given the political climate over the past two years, but that is just a reflection of the conflict that has gone on for many years before.

It may be strange that I’m posting this as a Writer’s Biography blog, but I’ve long held to the belief of Stephen King and others that reading other people’s work is nearly as much a part of building a writer as the actual writing process itself. So, something having to do with what I chose to read in the past, present, and future is part of building me as a writer moving forward.

I’ve written before about authors I’ve admired in this series, as well as authors that I’ve fallen out of love with for various reasons. However, I’m finding myself making more decisions regarding what authors I choose to read and what authors I choose not to read.

Basically, more and more new authors are coming out with more and more new stuff. Since I happen to be a newly published author myself, I have made the decision that I want to do what I can with the financial resources that I have to support these types of authors, especially those whose work I admire and/or those who have been a support to me now and in the past.

There are a lot of authors out there to choose from. So, as far as I’m concerned, I’m not going to devote my time to any authors that I think are problematic for whatever real life reason. Some that argue the opposite way would say that to do that would ignore many great works of writing. My counterargument to that is, there are plenty of authors out there who are good people. Why force yourself to make moral judgements when there are plenty of great alternative authors and writing out there? It’s too much work and I don’t want to support people like that financially or with attention if I can help it.

One example of this cropped up with me last week, and one particular author. I’m not going to name the author here, but he’s active in the entertainment industry as well as being an author. I had the chance to read a memoir of his, and I thought it was some great writing about his experiences in the industry. It was definitely one of the better books I read during the past couple of years.

However, I was on social media and I found him making some profoundly unfunny jokes about people, and it was apparent from other posts and information that he’d turned into some sort of right-wing crank. Within a half-hour, that book was no longer in my personal library and I put him out of my head. It was that quick.

I regret that the guy turned out to be someone I couldn’t approve of, but I don’t regret my decision. You may have to work with and live near people whose personal philosophies you disagree with, but there’s no requirement to have to rely on them for entertainment and reading joy. Both reading and writing are my passion, my escape, and my art. I have no problem having what I read reflect my passions and views just the same as my writing does.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: For a while on my blog, I’ve been posting stories about my past that helped build and mold me into the writer and person I am today. You’ll be able to find these (and a couple of other stories) in the Biographies category section of my blog. Here’s a direct link, too.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume II, Part 3: Procrastination

There could be epic poems written about the concept of procrastination. Despite my best efforts, I would not classify myself as a poet. So, this will be about the best effort to do this that I can muster.

I have been an expert at wasting time for as long as I can remember. My natural state is to be at rest, and now in my 40’s, I have the physique that indicates that. But exactly what distracts me is a little harder to place.

What I have found is that I don’t believe that there has been any one distraction that has kept me away from writing. Anything that has distracted me from writing, has also distracted me from other opportunities as well.

Those distractions, as I’ve said, have been varied and changed over time. Reading and movies have been big time sinks over time, but I also sincerely believe that reading is necessary for a writer to help develop their vocabulary and tools. Video games used to be a big time sink, but has faded over time. Right now the biggest game I wind up playing is Football Manager on my mobile phone.

Here’s the question that’s been lingering around my head for, what, 10 years or so?

Am I an inherently lazy person?

Whenever I think about that, it reminds me of job interviews where they ask you to mention what you consider to be your weaknesses. Who ever wants to be considered lazy? Isn’t that supposed to be a sin, Christian or secular, in this world?

Not to stray too far away from writing here, but I think this fear about being called lazy fits into the American dogma of how individuals can always improve and better themselves through hard work alone, no matter what the circumstances. As for me, I have seen enough science fiction and current events to ponder what the advent of artificial intelligence and the Singularity will do to this culture. I believe that it will leave a lot of people in the world, much less America, out of sorts.

How do you change procrastination (or being lazy, if you’d prefer that term)? For most people who can’t afford extensive counseling or life coaches like a Tony Robbins, I think the only answer to that is very slowly. Sometimes you just grow out of certain behaviors, like what has happened in recent years with the author Tucker Max.

For me, the situation has become more that I’ve gotten tired of not accomplishing anything. I’ve gotten tired of talking about being a writer and not actually writing. The whole point of this blog has been not to showcase the brilliance of my writing (it might do that someday), but to get me into the daily mode of being a writer. Have I fully accomplished this? Not at all. Maybe I’ll never fully accomplish it, whatever that means. But I am getting better.

[NOTE: Doing this forced me to pull out some of my old journals, etc. I may have to do a few posts regarding what I wrote in recent years.]