Revisiting James Jones…Fast writing…

I am reading a book that has been on my “To read” list for a number of years. “The Pistol”, the 1959 classic by one of my favorite authors, James Jones, has flown under my reading radar for the past decade or so. I once located a copy in a used book shop some years ago, but was forced to put it back when I was told that the shop did not accept credit cards. When I returned an hour or so later, with the required three dollars, the book was gone. I forgot about it for a long time, thinking that the book was probably out of print, but for some reason, the other day on a whim, I searched Amazon for it. I found that it is alive and well, with both new and used copies available, as well as a Kindle download. (I opted for the Kindle download.)

If you haven’t read much Jones, or if you haven’t even heard of him, the Illinois native wrote largely about his wartime experiences as a soldier in World War II, having actually been present at the Bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. His award winning novel “From Here to Eternity” which won the U.S. National Award for fiction ten years later, is heralded by some to be the finest work of fiction to come from the Second World War.

“The Pistol” is more novella than novel, running a scant 148 pages. It is a great read about a young soldier stationed in the Schofield Barracks (Jones’ old Army digs on Oahu). The book begins with the attack on Pearl Harbor and follows PFC Richard Mast during the turbulent early hours of the War, when it was perceived that the air attack was simply the prelude to an all out invasion of Hawaii. Anyone with an interest of life in the pre-WWII U.S. Army, or in military history will enjoy this book.


“A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it again.” So said Ernest Hemingway in Stockholm, Sweden in his written (although not personally delivered), speech accepting the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954.

I venture to suggest that for most of us, simply writing what we have to say is not easy. To help improve my own writing endeavors, I went searching for suggestions on how to improve my process. In so doing, I came across a great piece by Jim Denney about “Fast Writing”. It  deserves a reblog, so you can read it here. After reading this, as well as a couple of other blogs about “Fast writing” it begins to make sense. The longer that we tweak sentences, and adjust format (something we technical writers just can’t seem to get enough of), that little voice in the back of your writer’s head whispers to you, ever so gently, “this is crap…delete, delete.”

I truly think that Denney is onto something  here and I’m going to try it, as I continue with my latest work. I will note my progress here. In the meantime if you have any suggestions for keeping your story moving forward, and out of the trash, please feel free to comment.



Climate of fear in the Sunshine State…

For those who think that life in South Florida consists of lazy days at the beach, sipping poolside Mai Tais, or partying till dawn with South Beach hipsters and celebrities, while the rest of the country shivers in the cold and shovels snow, you will be pleased to find out that there is plenty of gloom and doom here, just like everywhere else.

Giant pythons, released by irresponsible reptile enthusiasts now slither through the Everglades; African killer bees, introduced by well-intended, but sadly mistaken, Brazilian scientists, are on the swarm; and now we face the invasion of the Giant Snails. Yes, I said Giant Snails. You can read about them here. To make matters even worse, the 2013 hurricane season is only days away, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicting an active to extremely active season. The names of the upcoming storms have been posted, and one has to wonder which one (if any) will be retired in the wake of loss of life, and devastation, as have the names Katrina, and most recently, Sandy.

So with all this stuff out there to scare the beejesuz out of us, do we really need yet another government program to put us even more on edge than we already are? Apparently, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office believes that we do. The recently instituted, Community Partners Against Terrorism (CPAT) program, has been recently rolled out, complete with a sampling of the kind of behavior that we law abiding citizens should be on the lookout for. Among the behaviors we should be watching for, according to CPAT, are people taking pictures of bridges without a person in the picture.  One would think a savvy terrorist would simply deflect undo attention from his or her plot by simply placing a fellow terrorist in front of the camera.

In any case, I am starting to wonder if we really, really, need to be reminded to be on the lookout for just damned near anyone doing anything that we don’t do ourselves. A rowboat with a man lashing a package to the girders of a bridge certainly demands a call to the authorities, but to think that a hapless tourist, or student, or even some blogger like me, looking for a quick jpeg to upload for a paper, or blog, is at risk of being questioned by Sheriff’s deputies as to his or her motive is startling . And yes, I know that if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear, and I don’t necessarily agree with that line of thought. There is plenty to fear when a fear induced police state impinges on the rights of an individual to conduct a peaceful activity in a public place.

New York City, perhaps numero uno in the list of likely terrorist targets, and undeniably the site of the most tragic terrorist attack on U.S. soil, is home to some of the most photographed bridges and buildings in the world, as is San Francisco, Boston and Chicago.

Perhaps in the wake of the tragedy in Boston earlier this year, we are all a bit more on edge, at least at public events and in public places. A week or so after the Boston Marathon bombing, I was at a large South Florida shopping mall. It was lunch time and the food court was filled with people. I couldn’t help but notice a young man rushing through the mall lugging a backpack. A half dozen people stopped what they were doing and  watched him pass with eyes riveted. One lady looked absolutely terrified. Suspicious? I thought not – but then again,  his activities were probably as suspicious as some guy taking a picture of a bridge. Here’s the non sequitur – young men with backpacks were responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing, therefore young men with backpacks are terrorists – that’s paranoia setting in.

A short time later, I spotted the young man with the backpack riding a bicycle, turning onto the campus of Florida Atlantic University, a mile down the road. Obviously, he was a young college student late for a class and had to stop at the mall for something or other. Since bicycles do not offer a secure compartment into which one can lock ones valuables, the young student was therefore forced to lug his backpack through the mall.

So there you go, and that’s what I am thinking about today – at what point do the vigilant  become the paranoid? I am thinking of other things too, but I don’t want to come off too grumpy. I think the early arrival of the rainy season is affecting my mood, so enough for now; dark storm clouds are on the horizon, and I have got to go prepare for Hurricane Season.

Stay alert – stay safe – stay sane.



A death at the Super 8

I have always felt that we need to do more for the men and women who have served our country. Or at least we need to do more than we are doing. Some years ago I wrote a poem about a vet that I knew. He was a Vietnam vet who came back from that war with a purple heart and little else. He was a friend, and his story touched me deeply. I wrote a poem about ‘Roger’ (full disclosure – not his real name).  Because this is Memorial Day weekend here in the United States, or ‘Decoration Day’ as my granddad, a World War I vet used to call it, I want to post this poem in ‘Roger’s’ honor.

A Death at the Super 8

Roger died at the Super 8, out on the edge of town,

Nobody left to bury him, his family long since gone,

His friends had all abandoned him, since he’d started talking strange,

Muttering about conspiracies, and weird lights out on the range,

Someone killed the Kennedys, and it ain’t who you’d think,

He told me in a local bar, after I had bought him his third drink,

Lots of things are going on, and the Feds are in the know,

Murders and black helicopters, drugs and UFOs,

He told me he heard people, whispering in his ear,

About the second coming, and it was happening next year,

He spoke in tongues, slept in the rain, and turned a ghastly pale,

A couple times he scared some folks, and ended up in jail,

The people who were close to him, all started to get scared,

So they started to avoid him, and they forgot they ever cared,

The welfare folks they finally found, a place where he could stay,

So he moved into the Super 8, and made the county pay,

But me and seven other guys, from the local Legion hall,

Turned out to see him buried, on a windy day last fall,

An Episcopalian preacher, who’d known him all his life,

Said Roger was a gentle man who’d always loved his wife.

He said it started years ago, when he couldn’t pay a loan,

A banker came down from Des Moines and took away his home,

His wife she moved to Keokuk, his son lives in Moline,

I heard he has a daughter too, but for years she’s not been seen,

He said he’d fought back demons, but now God would settle up the score,

And take away the agony of a man, who’d gone to war,

That night from fitful sleep I rose, and poured a shot of rye,

And drank a toast to Roger, and strange lights up in the sky.

On the writer’s desk…

Recently, I lamented the sad, but understandable fact, that hard copy reference books, like the Dictionary and Thesaurus are becoming as extinct as ashtrays on the desks of today’s writer. The electronic medium has consumed these books alive, and I have got to confess that I too turn to internet search engines for precise word meanings and spellings. Although in my home office, I still have a four inch thick copy of Webster’s taking up shelf space, my office at the “place-where-I-go-to-make-money-writing” holds no such tome.

On my first day, on my first job, as a Technical Writer (more years ago than I like to admit), I received a very fine dictionary from The Company that hired me. It came packed in a large box of supplies that were handed out to new employees. It was packed  along with an assortment of pens of various colors (primarily red), a tightly bound pack of yellow legal pads, and an Xacto knife (for stripping line drawings into galley copy). There was also an ashtray, a very large ashtray with the seal of the U.S. Department of the Army embossed upon it. The ashtray was, of course, every bit as necessary as the dictionary as the very nature of the work (long hours pouring over electronic schematic diagrams and disseminating the intricacies of circuit flow onto the long legal pads), practically required a Technical Writer to burn through 20 to 40 cigarettes within the course of an 8 to 10 hour day – or so it seemed.

Today, thankfully the ashtrays are gone, the air is breathable, but the reference books are gone as well. So what is on my writer’s desk? On my desk, only four volumes remain. I thought that I might detail them here:

1. “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. While this book has been around for over forty five years, I have shelved my previous editions in favor of the Penguin Press illustrated version (2005). This book is a necessity for anyone who writes more than their name on a check. I have found this book to be indispensable, my favorite chapter being the “Approach to Style” chapter. Here you’ll find advice on topics like: how to “write in a way that comes naturally”, “revise and rewrite”, “do not overwrite”, and “do not overstate”.

2. “The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers, Fifth Edition” by John J. Ruszkiewicz; Christy Friend; Maxine Hairston. Upgrade to a newer version if you want, but this version has served me well, and the good stuff doesn’t change much anyway. With just short of 1000 pages stuffed into a one inch spine, this brick of a book contains damn near everything you need to write like a real frigging professional. You will probably not find a more comprehensive (to the point of being exhaustive), book on the mechanics and rules of writing anywhere. The art of writing a draft, how to revise, edit, and proofread, sentence structure, grammar, how to begin a research project, it’s all here.

3. “Between You and I – a little book of bad english” by John Cochrane. This little volume was given to me by a friend (possibly one who thought I could use it). It has remained on my writer’s desk for several years now, and is the most entertaining, useful book about word usage that I have ever discovered. The book contains an Author’s Preface, followed by a Foreword by British radio journalist, John Humphries. From there the book takes off on an alphabetical listing of some of the most likely misused, misunderstood, and most often massacred words in the English language. Anyone interested in resuscitating what is left of the language should pick up a copy.

4.  “Ernest Hemingway on Writing” edited by Larry W. Phillips. Like “Hemingway on Hunting” and “Hemingway on Fishing”, and who knows what others, this book was probably manufactured to wring a few more dollars from this literary icon’s name. Still, the book offers some of the best and most inspirational writing antidotes to be found anywhere.  Starting with “What writing is and what it does”, this book contains Papa’s sage advice to all writers on such perpetually important topics as what to write about, work habits, proper use of obscenity, thoughts on other writers, and politics. What more do you need to know.

“It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.”

-Ernest Hemingway in a letter to Maxwell Perkins 1945

That’s all for today,



Rainy Thursday Afternoon

After my shift ends at the bakery I walk uptown.
It is early afternoon.  I stomp up Front Street in flour stained boots.
Eventually, I kick off the bread-dust.
I ignore the burn on my left hand – it is of my own doing.
In time, I shake off the day and the bread too.

It is half past two, and a storm is racing in from the western slope.
So I have three hours to kill – Leah is still counting parking tickets downtown.
She works at the Department of Revenue, and she is busy extracting coins.
She takes them from yellow envelopes and puts them into grey bags.
She accounts for those who have paid their debt to parking society.

A guy I know named Pearson – a man who hasn’t worked in many years,
But who is truly a good soul, calls to me from the doorway of the Timberline Tap.
He says because it is so early, I should come in and drink with him.
I tell him that I can’t today – Aunt Olympia must remain bound and shackled.
He laughs. I tell him I have errands to run, but that is a lie.

Further up, I stop at a market and I buy green grapes from a man named Carlos.
He knows it is Thursday, and I don’t work on Thursday afternoons.
He asks me about the bakery and if there is any work there for a grocer.
He says I have flour under my nails and he wonders if it ever goes away.
It is a matter of time and money I say, and he smiles like he knows.

Up at the Bellevue Bookstore, the Russian owner – I don’t remember his name,
Barely looks at me when I enter the store. I move past him.
I hurry past the ordered shelves:  I head for the mess in back.
I shun the shelves of paperbacks, and the weighty, and the out of print.
I turn left at the “Native American History” section.

In the back, by the window that faces west, I find the poetry section.
The shelves are barely as wide as I am. I look at the books, afraid of commitment.
I select a narrow one – the slimmest one. I pull up a wooden stool.
Fresh drops of rain from the mountains peck at the windows above my head.
I eat green grapes and read from the slim volume.

The Russian comes by pushing a load of used books in a cart.
He says his favorite writers are Russian, and he tells me about his father,
Who was a great reader, as well as a good communist.
But his father was dead and his mother too and even his own wife.
And the Bellevue Bookstore was all that was left of a capitalistic experiment.

He thinks I look like the Bohemians he knew in Seattle,
In the days he lived there with his wife, before he bought the Belleview.
And he says I should take my own wife and go away while I still can.
He thinks that a man of my years should live nearer the coast.
Too much mountain air thins the blood.

I nod, but I have no desire to move away – but I don’t tell him.
Trotsky, the bookshop tabby curls up at my feet – strange how I recall his name.
Rain pounds at the windows and I settle back against the wall.
I am content with my slender volume of poems, just for Thursday.
I am content with my grapes, content with Leah and the rain.

No more predictions of doom from me…

Unless it is my own death, I am through predicting the death of anything. Recently, I have written here about the forecast demise of poetry and the short story. As a result, I have received some really great commentary from readers who have convinced me that both mediums will probably outlive me. Thanks to all for your comments. I also read an interesting piece about the impending death of classical music, although I can’t seem to find that article right now, but if I do locate it, I will post it later. Since my musical knowledge is practically zilch, however, I don’t feel the least bit qualified to write anything on that subject anyway, so there you go.

Reference books are another matter, because I know something about them, having been a faithful user for many years. I am talking about real hard-core reference books like the dictionary and the thesaurus to name two. At one time I thought I heard the death knell of both, as words are so easily looked up online, but now I think I was being a little hasty. For all I know, the kids of today will have grown tired of electronic gadgetry and will have gone back to writing with quill pens and relying on town criers for news reports – but I doubt it.

A noontime visit to the last remaining bookstore in my area (or at least within lunchtime driving distance), has convinced me that at least one reference book – if not the ultimate reference book, will survive any event short of Armageddon. I am talking about the cookbook. I know, you can get any recipe known to man online, but I have a feeling that cookbooks are still going to survive, if not thrive. Cookbooks appear to be selling well, a fact that has been attributed to families eating at home more often due to the slouching economy, but I don’t think that is the reason at all. Families in financial distress do not often have $34.99 to plunk down for the 2013 edition of The Twenty Minute Mediterranean Gourmet. To the contrary, I would think that families feeling the economic strain would tend to look toward online sources for recipes on the cheap.

Cookbooks tend to have long life spans, often being handed down through families from parent to child. They have tattered pages, with smudges left from long dried smatterings of tomato paste and egg whites. Sometimes the faint scent of garlic wafts off of the pages when they are first opened after being closed for a long while and a careful inspection of the cookbook might reveal a calcified flake or two of ground marjoram in the page crease of the “Cornwallis English Turkey Stuffing” recipe. Most cookbooks have beautiful pictures of the expected resultant dish on the left hand page, and details on how to prepare it on the right –technical writing at its purest form.

There are usually lots of bookmarks in cookbooks. Torn out recipe pages from magazines work well for this, so even if you don’t know exactly where that recipe for “Aunt Madge’s Eggplant Rollatini” is – the one that your mom clipped from the June issue of Better Homes and Gardens back in 1968, you know that it is there somewhere in the cookbook, perhaps flagging the page for “Ben’s Mountain Home Chili”.

Unlike dictionaries and thesauruses that are used in the den, or the office, for stodgy tasks like preparing school papers, compiling work reports, and composing formal correspondence, cookbooks are used in the room that is closest to the human heart, the kitchen. Even if we know that recipe by heart (because we’ve made that dish five hundred times), do we really feel comfortable trusting dinner to chance? Of course not – it’s best to consult with Betty Crocker just to make sure that we don’t over-salt the pickled beets. So you will find yourself digging out the cookbook from wherever it is kept. Likely you will find it atop the fridge, above the spice rack in the pantry or on the back porch shelf flanked by the potted geraniums.

Wherever your cookbooks are stored, they will probably be stacked and not shelved, and everyone knows that books that are stacked have a longer life expectancy than those that are shelved. My Chilton auto repair manuals are a good example, having been stacked on a corner of my workbench for the better part of a decade.

But as I said at the beginning of this, I won’t be forecasting the death of anything from now on. There is too much other stuff to talk about, and it is already May.