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Thoughts on Writing

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What is a writer?

Well, the simple answer is, a writer is someone who writes. Easy enough to explain something by citing its definition. Bricklayers lay brick, dancers dance, musicians make music, and writers write. Simple.

But why do writers write?

The answer to that question is a bit more complex. It is, as they say, a whole other ball o’ wax. The reasons people choose to write are as varied as the writers themselves. I could list all the reasons for writing by it would take up more time that I’m prepared to spend on this post. For those interested in exploring the topic, l suggest you pick up a copy of Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With the Dead, A Writer on Writing. She offers an extensive, although by no means comprehensive, list of reasons why writers write; some of them surprising, others not so much. One reason that appears elsewhere in Ms. Atwood’s book, although not among the listed reasons for writing, is that it’s a comparatively easy thing to do. There are no prerequisites; no intellectual or educational background is required beyond a certain facility with one’s native language. That, and the determination to see the process through from beginning to end. After all, it is, as Neil Gaiman is supposed to have said, simply a matter of putting one word after another on the page until you’ve finished saying whatever it is you want to say. Simple, right? Not really.

There’s a small addendum to Mr. Gaiman’s description that’s worth noting if one aspires to be a published writer. (Not all of us aspire to that lofty goal, but I’ll get to that in a bit). The addendum is, that along with putting one word after another on the page, a should be able to put the right word in the right order after another on the page. Makes this ‘writing thing’ a bit trickier, don’t you think?

Ernest Hemingway once described the act of writing as, “You just sit down and open a vein.” Ironic, considering Hemingway did a lot of his writing standing up. I’ll confess that Hemingway’s description is a bit more strenuous the Mr. Gaiman’s, and anyway most writers – not all, but the majority – manage to confine their bloodletting to the page. Suffice it to say the actual process of writing lies somewhere between the two extremes. I, myself, picked writing because it was one of the few things I was suited to that didn’t require an inordinate amount of time trying to dislodge the dirt from under my fingernails.

So, what’s it like, being a writer?

For the most part writers live pretty much to way everyone else does. Most of us have ‘day jobs’. We get up, get the kids ready for school, go to work, attend PTA meetings, grocery shop, pick the kids up after school, get the car washed, the tires rotated, go to the barber or the hairdresser, maybe go on vacation when we can afford it. Pretty much the same thing everyone else does, except when all the other stuff is done, we write; usually late at night or early in the morning, and sometimes on the weekends if there are no soccer, baseball or football games, or piano or ballet recitals to attend. We’re just like everyone else. We’re kind of like witches in that respect; you can’t tell just by looking whether we are one or not.

Writers also tend to be avid readers, and we read across a wide variety of subjects and genres. I’ll give you an example. My own small library contains books on history, biography, memoirs, religion, business, art, writing, cooking, science and politics. I have thrillers, literary fiction, classics, philosophy, occultism, humor. books on photography and crafts, wine and winemaking, books and book collecting. And these, in one way or another, inform my own writing, as well as the way I tend to see the world around me. By reading how others viewed their world, I gain insights into my own world, and how it came to be the way it is. It’s also a handy how-to for using words, a turn-of-phrase that, with practice, helps me improve my writing.

Writers have always experienced a peculiar, Janus-like relationship with the non-writing public. Being among the ‘creatives’ in society, we are encouraged, even celebrated, in our ability to provide entertainment for the masses; to allow them to slip the bonds of their work-a-day lives and enter realms where good and evil battle endlessly for supremacy, and where good doesn’t always prevail, at least not until the next installment rolls off the presses. Then the god smiles on the writer, and the critics praise his efforts and lament the dearth of creativity in society, and presses roll out another spate of how-to books exclaiming, “You, too, can be (or become) more creative!”

Writers – and this applies especially to journalists, whether they write books or newspaper and magazine articles – have also always had the responsibility to “speak Truth to Power”, to expose, whenever possible, the misdeeds of governments and corporations, and provide the public the information necessary to combat the abuse of power. Then the god frowns on the writer, and governments and corporations berate him or her for the “misleading information”, “the lies”, “libels”, “unfounded accusations” and “unsubstantiated rumors”. These centers of power and influence have always viewed the writer as suspect, unreliable, and possibly subversive. Writers who continually joust with those in power have often been described in stereotypical terms; alcoholic, drug-addicted and mentally unbalanced, all to discredit those who question authority; and not only those who currently challenge authority, but those who would do so in the future.

That’s what it means to be a writer. It’s just like any other job or avocation. You have your good days and your bad. Like my mother used to say, “You pay your money, and you take your chance.”

In the end, I guess, it really doesn’t matter what type of writer you are (or become); whether you labor in the public eye like Stephen King, John LeCarré, or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, or you labor in secret like Winston Smith, the reluctant hero of George Orwell’s 1984, or even if you write a single word. It doesn’t matter what you do, what matters is that you do it. But if you’re human, and I’m betting you are, sooner or later you’ll give in to cacoethia scribendi, “the itch to scribble”. Just be warned, if you scratch that itch once, you won’t be able to stop.





Don’t Hide History — Show It, Share It . . .all of it

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An article in Sunday’s paper from Reuters caught my eye and I thought I’d like to write something about it.  For those of you not familiar with my blog, let me just say I’m a big fan of history, any history — big, small or in-between, I’m a fan of history.  So it was only natural this particular item caught y attention.

A statue which once graced a pedestal in front of the Queens Borough Hall has been “transplanted” to the grounds of the Green-Wood cemetery.  According to the article, two years ago the statue was deemed “sexist” and “offensive” by some group or individual (the article never says who) with little taste in sculpture and a less-than- healthy amount of time on their hands.  The statue, created in 1922 and titled, “Triumph of Civic Virtue”, features the figure of a nude male of imposing stature (and a strategically placed sash) standing in a defensive posture with a group of “supposedly virtuous” ladies huddled at his feet.  I’m not exactly sure what is “offensive” about the statue, unless you add the “sexist” sobriquet: doubtless, some lady or group of ladies found the idea of a woman in need of having her virtue — civic or otherwise — defended (by a man, no less) to be both “sexist” and “offensive”.

I suppose, in today’s world, where women have the advantage of “equal protection under the law” (well, not exactly equal) and a host of laws enacted to ensure that protection over the years since this statue was created, offense could be taken, and there is, I guess, a valid argument to be made on those grounds.  But such was not the case in 1922 when the statue was installed.

A similar brouhaha is presently attending another statue, this one New York’s Central Park.  A memorial honoring James Marion Sims (who the article notes, is revered as the “father of modern gynecology”) has come under fire because it was recently revealed the “good doctor” experimented on female slaves (the memorial was erected in 1892).  Yes, slavery was and is a terrible thing and unwilling experimentation, whether perpetrated on slaves or anyone else, is anathema.  But we have even more illustrious historical figures, men with a host of “skeletons in their closets” which are not causing the outrage surrounding this one memorial.  Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States, was known to have waged a genocidal war on Native American tribes.  Jackson’s face adorns the $20 bill.  I don’t hear anyone demanding we burn all our twenties.  Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence, was an acknowledged slave owner (and according to an article in Smithsonian magazine, devised a slave-breeding program to increase profits.  Jefferson’s visage graces the $2 bill.  (Of course, there are a great many people who’ve never even seen a $2 bill unless they frequent their local racetrack.)  Haven’t heard any demands to burn $2 bills, either.

Make no mistake, I’m not trying to lionize these men and ideas.  I’m trying to point out (and doing a poor job of it, at that) we should not destroy these memorials or hide them away, lest others see them.  These memorials and ideas should be held up as “teaching tools” so the next generation (and the generation after the next) can see and hear what it was like for different segments of our society before the walk-ins, sit-ins, marches and out-and-out riots forced the government to enact laws that led to improvements for those segments of society who suffered (and died) as a result of bigotry, hatred, intolerance and just plain stupidity.

In his book, 1984, George Orwell wrote the following:  “The frightening thing — the frightening thing was that it might all be true.  If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened — that, surely was more terrifying than mere torture and death. . .And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all the records told the same tale — they the lie passed into history and became truth.  “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”  And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered.  Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting.”

If we, as a people, continue to hide our history, if we continue to refuse to acknowledge both the good and the bad of our past, no matter how painful, sexist cruel or offensive, we will effectively erase that history. It well be as though the evils our predecessors fought never existed, as though the rights and privileges they secured for us were always with us,  The old adage, “Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” carries with it another, simpler truth:  If you have no history, you can’t learn from it.

Senators Mitch McConnell (R-SC), Robert Menendez (D-NJ) . . .(and George Orwell)

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 A 1984 commercial for Microsoft’s new MacIntosh personal computer promised  “. . . 1984 won’t be like 1984”.  They were right.  1984 wasn’t like 1984.

In his classic novel, 1984, George Orwell presents us with a totalitarian dystopia, Oceana, in a state of perpetual war with the two remaining “superpowers” in the world, Eurasia and Eastasia; siding first with one then the other of the two, but always in a state of war.

It is now 2013 and we may be on the verge of realizing Orwell’s nightmare.  Two United States Senators, Mitch McConnell (R-SC) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) are planning to introduce a resolution urging the United States government to support Israel militarily, economically and diplomatically should the Jewish state be compelled to attack Iran.  Basically, what this resolution is saying is, “Go ahead.  Attack Iran.  It’s okay with us.  We’ll even help.”  We wouldn’t have to start another war; we can have our “ally” do it for us.  The United States would be obliged, for a number of reasons besides this resolution, to go to war with Iran.  Essentially, we would find ourselves at (or very near) a perpetual state of war (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are “winding down” but they’re still being fought); a war started, not for “our way of life” or “to defend our freedom”, a war fought for profit.  There’s a great deal of money to be made in a war, apart from oil and the territorial spoils.

Defense contractors like Halliburton will provide men (security contractors — read “mercenaries”) and material.  Arms manufacturers, airplane, tank, troop carrier manufacturers will provide weaponry and transportation; clothing manufacturers and makers of body armor will provide support.  Armies need to be fed; food suppliers like Sodexo will see that the army is supplied with food and fed.  And all of this will be provided at rock bottom inflated prices (can’t be too cheap where “our boys” are concerned).  Back home, someone has to make all this stuff, so there will be jobs, lots and lots of jobs (at rock bottom rates, to be sure).  Think this is a little far-fetched?

Another feature of Orwell’s nightmare vision was “Newspeak“.  “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotee of Ingsoc,” Orwell explains, “but to make all other modes of thought impossible.”  Politicians, especially conservative politicians (neo-cons), have been using a form of Newspeak for generations.  We think of it as “the usual political b.s., but it’s more than mere b.s.  It’s not only a language, and for most of us a foreign one, it’s a way of thinking, often contrary to demonstrable facts.  Sound familiar?

But what about the people, you say.  Surely they can vote these jackals out of office and stop this insanity.  Right?  Presently, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) is before the Supreme Court (see my blog post, Justice Scalia & SCOTUS . . .(W-T-F, Tony?!).  It’s being challenged as unnecessary in today’s society.  There are people alive today who remember why the VRA was created; to afford people (people of color) who were previously prevented from exercising their constitutional right to vote the opportunity to vote, free from discrimination and coercion.  It took a very long time and a great deal of blood to get the Voting Rights Act passed into law.  This happened nearly 50 years ago and those who took part in the battle (and those of us who saw the dogs and truncheons and fire hoses used on those who fought for civil rights (and their lives), both black and white) are aging and the benefits which, in many cases, allow us to continue are in jeopardy.  When we pass from the scene, who will be left to remember?  A society obsessed with its youth and an increasingly irrelevant pop culture and the ever-expanding technology which allows them to access it without interacting with it.

If a law ceases to be, it is as though it never was and if all the records tell the same tale, as Winston Smith (Orwell’s “hero” in 1984) observes, then they pass into history and become the truth.  So much for a voting population.

We are, as we have been at various times throughout history, at a crossroads.  Are we to become a nation “at peace everywhere in the world”, as President Jimmy Carter once observed.  Or are we to become like the Oceana of 1984; perpetually at war and powerless to do anything about it?

Scared yet?  You should be.  (I told you in my previous post it would be interesting!)


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