In Pursuit of Completion – Reflections on NaNoWriMo

Ernest Hemingway

You just  have to go on when it is worst and most helpless–there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is to go straight to the end of the damn thing.

–Ernest Hemingway

I was not going to write anything about NaNoWriMo this year. I told myself that a month ago, as the November 1st kickoff date for the event loomed. After all, the blogosphere is filled with commentary about NaNoWriMo, which for those of you who don’t know of it, is an acronym that refers (awkwardly) to National Novel Writing Month, and it takes place in November of each year – all 30 days of it. I was all set to move on to other topics, ignoring NaNoWriMo entirely, until I ran across the above quote from Hemingway. The quote is an excerpt from a letter that Old Hem wrote to Scott Fitzgerald back in 1929, presumably to prod his friend on to literary success (it obviously worked). And, since nothing inspires me to put fingers to keyboard more than a quote from Papa, and this one seems so perfectly tailored as an intro to a NaNoWriMo blog, here goes…

First off, NaNoWriMo is a challenge in which participants attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. To get some idea of the size of a 50,000 word novel, think The Great Gatsby at 47,180 words, or Slaughterhouse-Five which clocks in at some 49,459 words. In both cases, Fitzgerald and Vonnegut (respectively), would have needed to beef up a couple of chapters in order to complete NaNoWriMo successfully. Conversely, Faulkner would have handily picked up his NaNoWriMo award had he uploaded his 56,787 word manuscript, As I Lay Dying, to the NaNoWriMo server prior to the November 30th midnight deadline.

So, considering how large a 50,000 word manuscript really is, it is easy to see why completing such a large amount of work in such a short time period is a daunting task to say the least. It requires dedication, perseverance, and above all, hours of hard damned work. But the world has no shortage of aspiring writers. According to the NaNoWriMo website, the 2012 competition attracted 341,375 participants, and since its humble beginnings in 1999, 250 novels, birthed in NaNoWriMo have been traditionally published. I would venture to say that many, most, or all, of these novels would have found their way to publication without NaNoWriMo, but I can’t say for sure. Most were probably planned well before November, fleshed out during the competition, and then subjected to endless edits post-NaNoWriMo. But that’s just my feeling, so if you have taken a novel all the way to traditional publication and attribute your success entirely to NaNoWriMo (Jeez, one blogger is right, that acronym is damned annoying to type), then please feel free to comment here and flame the hell out of me.

There you have it. If you are ready to get your novel down on paper, or in the electronic can, head on over and sign up – just be aware that in order to complete NaNoWriMo, you’ll have to write a consistent minimum of 1667 words per day – 7 days per week, each day of the entire month. So what could possibly be controversial about a quarter million people or more, spending time writing novels? Seems like an innocent pursuit, right. Well, there are a good many people out there who do not share the love when it comes to NaNoWriMo.

Do a Google search for ‘nanowrimo sucks’, or ‘i hate nanowrimo’ and you will see what I mean. NaNoWriMo has haters. And many of them make very good points, one point being that the competition is totally about word count and finishing the work in the allotted 30 day period with total disregard to quality. Technically, Jack Torrence, Stephen King’s tortured writer in The Shining, could have submitted his ersatz manuscript wherein the words, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” are repeated endlessly, filling each page from margin to margin.  As long as Jack’s manuscript reaches the 50,000 work mark (and he has an electronic copy available for upload), he can walk away with a certificate of NaNoWriMo completion. This rankles some writers who believe that the world needs far fewer bad novels, and far more good novel readers  – a point that I feel has great merit, but not enough for me to come down hard on NaNoWriMo. I think that the advantages of competing in a challenge that encourages finishing a project to be admirable, and I have no unkind words for NaNoWriMo participants.

And will I be participating in this year’s competition?  No, I will not. This year I’ve other priorities. But I shall be thinking of you all as the clock approaches midnight on Thursday evening, and I shall see you in my minds eye with nervous fingers tapping the keyboard waiting for the race to begin…good luck to all.

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Canoeing on the Delaware with Christine

Last night I dreamed one of those dreams,

the kind that doesn’t go away when you wake up,

it was early autumn,

and there I was: drifting down the Delaware,

in a rented canoe, with sweet Christine,

a girl who loved to canoe,

and sail, and play badminton and lacrosse,

unlike myself – fresh from office servitude,

a cube dweller,

an indentured servant to a chair.

I study her closely from behind,

and watch in wonder, as she dips her paddle,

so gently into the great Delaware River,

like she is afraid to hurt the water.

We’re heading south, mid-stream,

a mile or so past Dingmans Ferry,

“on to Washington’s Crossing,” I yell,

“here’s to the father of our country,” she shouts back,

“a merry old soul was he,” I shout out to no one in particular,

we’re throwing caution to the wind,

I notice the stencil on the back of her seat,

NO ALCOHOL ALLOWED ABOARD THIS VESSEL

” what’s up with THAT shit?” I say,

she laughs and

then I tell her she looks just like Pocahontas,

from the back that is,

with her black hair pulled back,

Christine: “Aye Aye Captain Smith,”

I steer us deftly around a rock,

dodge a log, put my back into it,

Pocahontas doesn’t break rhythm,

my heart pounds – my back aches,

“You having fun back there, Jake?”

she says that just to taunt me,

she knows I’m trying to find a beer in the cooler,

with my free hand,

but then she is gone,

so is the river,

so is the canoe,

I’m staring at a white ceiling,

right leg busted in nine places,

strung up like a Christmas goose,

pins and plumbing running every which way,

pans and pulleys,

morphine drip and a nurse from hell,

a doc with no manners at all,

let alone bedside ones,

but, I see the face of my sweet Pocahontas,

as I drift away again,

so glad to see  her face,

instead of the face,

of the bastard,

who cut me off on the I-80 overpass.

Another day – like yesterday

It’s Tuesday around noon,

I find a place at the bar,

At the Big Endicino Casino,

The one on the reservation,

Ten miles outside of town,

I dangle a wayward twenty,

Above the hungry mouth,

Of the video poker machine,

A queen winks at me,

Like an old hooker:

“hey guy, wanna have a good time?”

Jodi, the bartender,

Pours a coca cola for me,

In a frosted highball glass,

With three ice cubes and a lemon twist,

I give her a five, then,

She points (wistfully) at the Bacardi bottle,

“On the side?” she asks.

I shake my head. I need a steady hand,

The jacks and queens call to me,

From inside the electronic box,

They need to eat they tell me,

I’ve been away too long,

So I feed the creature,

Lights flash, like demon’s eyes,

The ones you see before you fall asleep,

In the early morning,

After an all-nighter.

A full house on the first play,

Three of a kind, four of a kind,

Inside straight – fill it – don’t stop,

Hammer it,  in spite of the odds,

Soon I’m sweating, the tide turns,

I worry about my future,

I consider my past due phone bill,

Jodi half smiles at me,

I know she wishes I was drinking.

A skinny guy with a goatee,

Wearing a Korn t-shirt, and a Caterpillar ball cap,

Sits down beside me,

He lights a cigarette and pumps twenty,

Into his own little monster,

“Shit” he soon says,

He pounds his fist on the bar,

And then stomps away,

I shake my head – an amateur that one.

You gotta THINK before you play,

You can’t be too reckless,

I slide another twenty,

Into the hungry little mouth.

At one thirty, the bus from Kansas City rolls up,

Retirees on oxygen and social security totter in,

Jodi comes by and asks if I need anything,

Another eighty five bucks, I tell her,

After that I go outside to call the office,

Boss asks how the meeting went,

I say it went just like the one yesterday.

Hunting the perfect moon

Paul Bowles

“…because we don’t know [when we will die] we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” —Paul Bowles

Readers of this blog will recognize the quote above, from Paul Bowles’ 1949 novel, “The Sheltering Sky,” as having previously appeared here at EEOTPB. It is one of my all time favorite quotes, and I keep a copy taped to the whiteboard above my desk at my office, alongside a weathered printout of Shelley’s “Ozymandias of Egypt”, and the classic villanelle by Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night”. But it is Bowles’ quote that I read most often, and I also keep an electronic copy on my phone, although I could probably delete it as I know it well by heart.

I was thinking of this quote last Friday, October 18th, as I was making my way north on I-95 from my home in northern Broward County, Florida to my office in Boca Raton. It was 6:15 AM (or thereabouts), and there was a full moon hanging low in the western sky.  But this was not just your ‘run of the mill’ full moon. This was the kind of moon that you very seldom see no matter how many times you try. This was the kind of moon that only sheepherders tending flocks at night and astronomers perched in mountaintop observatories get to enjoy seeing.  Certainly not the kind of moon one generally sees as one is maneuvering down the fabled New York to Miami, balls-to-the-wall, flip-em’-off, lay on the horn and hit ’em, main drag, known as Interstate 95, on the cusp of rush hour.

It was such a perfectly beautiful moon that I would later note it in my daily planner: “Beautiful full moon this AM over Boca – tried to get pic but too low.”

So that is what happened. I wanted to take a picture of the moon, but at 75 mph with a tractor trailer half a car length from my rear bumper, snapping a picture was out of the question. In the interest of public safety, I waited until I pulled into my office parking lot at around 6:35. I parked my car and quickly jumped out, giving a lady that I recognized, but really don’t know, a bit of a fright as she was unloading her bag out of the trunk of her car.

“I’m just taking a picture of the moon,” I said to her, as I rushed across the parking lot, my laptop computer bag in one hand and my cell phone camera at arms length in the other.

“Oh, that’s nice,” she said, as she nearly ran away from me toward the safety of the building.

I hurried on across the parking lot, trying to get a shot of this perfect moon before it dropped below the trees that border the parking lot, but no matter how hard I tried, something was in the way – a light pole, a tree – something, and then finally the perfect moon withered away, into something less than perfect. I watched until it dipped below the dark outline of the buildings in the adjacent office park, and then finally it wasted away over the Everglades, and then on out over the Gulf of Mexico, and out of my life forever. Ah well, I’ll get a shot of it next time…

So after that, I went into my office and sat down and read Paul Bowles quote again. Somehow I felt a little better for it.

Considering Facebook

A colleague of mine, a very technically savvy guy, a gentleman some years younger than myself, told me last week that he did not have, nor had he ever had, a Facebook account. Even though his own wife, his 75 year old mother, and his two teenage daughters, all had Facebook accounts, he was resistant, and when I pressed him for why he’d never opted for an account, he told me he didn’t have time for such foolishness. What I wanted to say was, why is your time so much more valuable than that of your wife, your mother and your very own offspring, but before I could say that, he was gone, leaving me standing in the proverbial dust contemplating my own relationship with social media, Facebook in particular.

Having been a semi-faithful user of Facebook, almost from the start, I confess to having a love/hate relationship with it. Actually, love/hate is far too strong of a term to attribute to an online social networking service – maybe “like/don’t care so much for it” is better. Best not to give too much power to the relatively insignificant. In any event, for those readers who happen to have come of age after Al Gore laid down the information superhighway, let me briefly outline the way life was for us before we all became so interconnected.

During our elementary/high school/college years, and on into the work world, we made friends (or we tried to make friends). Sometimes we made friends that we stayed in touch with for the remainder of our adult lives, and in some cases we even married our friends, but in many cases, we lost touch with them. Upon parting with our friends, we would exchange telephone numbers and addresses, and say to one another that we would write and call, but lots of times that never ever happened. Life became hectic. People moved, and telephone numbers changed. Sometimes a letter to an old friend would be returned as undeliverable, or a call to an old friend would be made to a disconnected telephone.

As years ground on, with no word from our old friends, we would reminisce about them over coffee, or cocktails. We would think about so-and-so, and we would wonder if she ever made it into medical school, or if he ever wrote that novel, or if she ever opened that organic restaurant in the Catskills, or if he/she had really ever married that guy/girl that he/she dumped us for…

We would wonder such things, and occasionally we would find out the answers. Sometimes, we would get a card around the holidays from an old friend who had somehow unearthed our address. Or, perhaps late at night, we would get a call from the truck stop up on the Interstate. An old friend, having recognized the exit for our town had pulled off the road, and after finding our number in the local telephone directory (the one that was bolted and chained to the phone booth), had called us and we’d chatted for fifteen or twenty minutes about old times until he/she ran out of change.

Old Friends From Out Of The Blue (OFFOOTB), that’s what I called them. And on the flip side of it, we too were OFFOOTB to others, dropping in and out of old friends lives sporadically and when we did so, we were always on our best behavior, always wanting to put our best foot forward.

In those days, the following conversation would NEVER have occurred:

Phone rings. I answer.

“Hi Ed!”

“Hi.”

“It’s me, Ralph. Ralph Thornwhistle.”

“Oh, hi,” I say, trying to remember if I owe anybody named Ralph any money.

“You remember me, right? From Mr. Bricker’s 3rd period biology class – 10th grade.”

“Oh hi Ralph. What’s it been, 42, 43 years now?”

“More like 45 old pal. Hey – do you want to hear the top ten reasons why Obamacare sucks…”

Ok, so maybe my example is a little extreme, but similar encounters seem to happen often online. I mention it here to illustrate how I am starting to view Facebook – I now know far too much about people that I’d almost forgotten about. And it’s not that I don’t care about maintaining contact with friends and family scattered afar, because I do. If there is one thing that Facebook, as well as other social media like Twitter and LinkedIn are doing very well, it is changing the entire dynamic of how we interact with each other on a long term basis. And if I had, in fact, stayed in contact with (fictitious) Ralph Thornwhistle for the past 45 years, I probably would not be as put off by his political views as I would be if they were suddenly dropped on me from out of nowhere, after accepting him as a Facebook friend. If he and I had kept up with each other over the years, maybe we would be friends in spite of our differences (always the best), or perhaps not.

Marriage counselors, family therapists, as well as pastors, priests, rabbis and anyone else who is in the business of listening to peoples marital woes report a surge in infidelity brought on by people who have hooked up with old lovers thanks to Facebook. And I suppose there is something to that, as it is hard to hook up with those we can’t locate, and Facebook has changed that. I know of two marriages that ended due to cheating spouses who ‘found ex-lovers’ on Facebook. Personally, I feel it is unfair to blame an online social networking service for marital discord. After all, people tempted to cheat have been doing so for…maybe 10,000 years.

But sometimes I do find that I would rather have just remembered some friends the way that I remember them, and not as I find them today. I also imagine that some of them feel the same about me.

Autumn leaves

The first leaves of autumn

Gather under the empty, grey, park benches

That are arranged so neatly

Beneath the one hundred year old oak trees

In the county courthouse yard.

I ask the waitress at the cafe on the corner

Where they’ve all gone –

The old men who used to sit out

On the now forsaken grey benches

Every day that it didn’t rain

They were there until the first snow

The ones who still wore overalls and work boots

Even in retirement – in less than perfect conditions

The ones who carried pocket watches on Brockway fobs

And smoked pipes packed with Prince Albert

Or Muriel cigars or Lucky Strike cigarettes

As they discussed…

the drought and the flood

the County Attorney and the last election

the heat and the cold

the John Birch Society and the N.F.O.

the Warren Court and Richard Nixon

the checkout girl at the Save-a-Lot

the Chicago Bears and the price of gas

the price of haircuts, and Kaiser-Frazer cars

the good war and the bad war

the new war and next war

the wife they’d lost to cancer

the son they’d lost to drink

the daughter they’d lost to Jesus

the friend they’d lost to carelessness

the farm they’d lost to the bank

the life they’d lost to toil

the dreams they’d plowed under

…those men…

the waitress shrugs

and says that nobody like that has sat on those benches

in over thirty five years.

Cheap imitations

Roy, the guy who mows my lawn on Wednesdays,

Comes around on Thursday, and tells me,

He’s come by to trim the date palms in the back yard,

I’m sitting by the pool writing a book about bicycles.

I tell him to be careful because dangerous things,

Lurk in date palms, but Roy is unafraid.

“Spindle a…bolts to sprocket lifter b…”

I tap it out on the laptop and I wonder if it’s right.

Roy comes around later and asks if I have cigarettes,

I tell him that I quit ten years back,

Then he asks if I have beer and I direct him,

To the fridge on the porch, and tell him to bring me one too.

Antioch, the yellow tabby who sleeps under my sling chair,

Senses confrontation and heads for cover.

Kerouac died drinking a Falstaff he says to me,

Then he asks: Did you know that? I shake my head.

We should be safe with Coors, I tell him – at least for this afternoon,

I tell Roy that I’ve always been an admirer of Kerouac,

And he says he’s read ‘The Subterraneans’ seventeen times.

We toast Jack, and Roy asks what I am writing about,

I tell him, after which,

He says he probably knows more about bicycles than I do,

No offense intended – none taken,

So we leave it at that and the conversation trails off,

Antioch rubs against my leg, glad that things are going well,

So I’ll see you Wednesday he says, taking a beer for the road,

I ask him about the date palms and he says that,

Only Phoenix dactylifera are true date palms,

Mine are just cheap imitations.

Page count in the age of Obamacare

Some years ago, I prepared a computer programming book for a demanding IT manager. The manager insisted that the book must not exceed 500 pages. For an entire weekend I toiled over the electronic copy, squeezing, tweaking, compressing, rearranging – using every trick that I knew of to get that book cut down to a size that my client would accept. When I left the office late on Sunday afternoon, I was frustrated and exhausted, but I had managed to hammer the animal into what I had hoped would be an acceptable 502 pages. On Monday, the manager came to work early and had already performed his review before I arrived. I found the draft manuscript on my desk with a yellow sticky note attached: “This is looking great! Cut 3 more pages and ship.” That is how much of a stickler he was about page count.

As a technical writer I think a lot about page count, usually in the context of “are there too many”. Overly written technical documentation is often as useless to an end user as inadequate or erroneous documentation. Over explain a topic and valuable information may be lost in text. Under explain a topic and the product user may not be able to perform his or her task. In either case, poorly written documentation will always result in the inaccurate depiction of a product, a product that might in all other ways be perfectly wonderful. In extreme cases, erroneous technical documentation has contributed to the injury, or even death of a user (a technical writer’s absolute worst nightmare).

Unfortunately, clear, concise, tightly written, documentation is not the province of legal and legislative documents, which tend to suppose an audience comprised primarily of ivory tower law professors, and the occasional political science PhD. Perhaps used as a tool to control the masses by the educated few, legislative documents are always a chore to read – especially by we laypeople to whom the phrase, ‘passing the bar’, means missing the entrance to O’Grady’s Pub.

All of which brings me to the subject of the Affordable Care Act, or if you prefer, Obamacare. The number of pages in this famed document has been bantered about for the past two years, by the network talking heads, radio talk show hosts (and their callers), in the halls of Congress, and on the Presidential campaign trail. Once purported to exceed 20,000 pages, or a stack of paper 7 feet tall, the document today is nowhere close to that size, but it is still a hefty piece of work. And why not. It covers a lot of ground.

But the frantic hand wringing over the size of the Affordable Care Act document is, I believe, somewhat exaggerated. The point of such hand wringing being:

A.  The document is so long that it is probably filled with all kinds of legal double-speak that is designed to bamboozle us into thinking that it is something that it isn’t, and…

B. Who the  hell could ever slosh through that many pages, and…

C. Short and simple always trumps long and complex. When it comes down to what is good for the common man or woman on the street, Dr. Seuss is always better than Marcel Proust…right? Or so it seems.

Curious as to the size of the Affordable Healthcare Act document, I went looking for it, and I found it quickly. A quick Google search followed by two mouse clicks was all that was required to call up this important piece of legislation that is impacting us all. For your convenience, I shall post a link to the document here.

Officially known as Public Law 111-148, The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is available to anyone with a computer, and I urge everyone (well, at least those of us here in the U.S. where the crap is really hitting the fan right now), to bookmark the document and peruse parts of it at your leisure.

Should you be endowed with an endless supply of printer ink, paper, and time, the printed version of the Affordable Care Act will run a printer-over-heating, 906 pages. A big document to be sure, but far short of a 2000 page document that one hears mentioned on TV and radio all the time, and not even close to the 20,000 page behemoth it was touted to be a year and a half ago.

Over the past several days, I have made several visits to the online version of the Affordable Healthcare Act document. No, I have not read it all, not even close. But I do have two initial impressions that I will pass on here.

First, it would not be impossible to read this thing in its entirety, and I assure you that it has been read by many. The legalese language makes for a difficult slosh, but it could be done. Comprehension of the material it contains is another matter, but I feel I might have a better chance with this document than perhaps the U.S. tax code document which I understand exceeds 13,000 pages.

Second, understanding the contents of this document is not as exceedingly difficult as we have been led to believe, and some parts are downright interesting.

So, if your copy of Infinite Jest, or Atlas Shrugged is waiting for you on your nightstand, and you are planning on starting one of these doorstop tomes this evening so as to be able to remove them from your extreme-reading list, I urge you to lay such copies aside for a few days so that you may focus on the Affordable Healthcare Act document. There is no time like now.

In so doing you will not only become a more informed consumer (and voter), but you will come away with a feeling of great accomplishment.

In any case, think of how you will feel at the next cocktail party, or backyard Bar-B-Q when that loudmouth from Purchasing denounces the Obamacare legislation as being overly complex, and put together at the behest of a far-left, Nazi, Communist, Moslem, President who cannot prove beyond a shadow of doubt that he is a U.S. citizen…yes that President. You will want to say something, but don’t…not yet…wait for it. Wait until he gets to the part where he asks with that smug look on his face, “well…have YOU read it?”

At which time you may step boldly forth, perhaps quoting from section  6114, titled: “National demonstration projects on culture change and use of information technology in nursing homes.”

Then you may watch his jaw drop…

Tight lines…

–Ed

The Victory Cafe

Forty minutes before the bus from Omaha rolls up,

At five oh five AM, I crack the first egg,

On the grill at the Victory Cafe,

The owner, Gracie, she’s owned the place since 1943,

She stares at me from the register – a freshly lit Bel Air in her lips,

But I am responsible and I know my eggs.

“It’s Kool inside” says the sign on the front door,

Two farmers walk in, in tin cloth coats and four buckle boots,

They order the morning special and talk about oats,

They talk about the price of hay.

They smoke Camel cigarettes and they order up…

Three more eggs hit the grill – and half a slab of bacon.

I light a king sized Viceroy.

A trucker from Missouri takes his place at the counter,

He’s fresh off an all night run to the River, and he wants coffee,

He orders a tinfoil pack of No Doze and tells Rita the waitress,

That he makes two hundred fifteen dollars a week,

And if she ever wants to leave her old man – that silent pacer,

The usher at the Antioch Baptist Church, and run away,

To Saint Joe, where she could have such a fine life raising babies,

And raising hell in the shadow of the Missouri River,

That she should say so.

Not to beat around the bush.

But Rita is quiet and she’s a shy girl,

She hasn’t the need for the Missouri River wild life.

She is quite fine at the Antioch Baptist Church.

One more book by Norman Mailer

I should read one more book,

By Norman Mailer – I think,

As I sit in my office perch on floor 19,

In my New York City cubicle,

Doing New York City things,

And I watch the cursor blink,

On a blank computer screen,

At eleven thirty PM –  I say to myself,

What would Norman do?

The fucker would write…

Finally, hands of the desk clock point up,

To twelve midnight, and there is  hell to pay,

I say it out loud – to the thieving bastards.

Not a sound on the floor.

So I think of riding to work on a fall day,

Years before, in my apple picking years,

On an old International bus,

Fifty miles north of Kalamazoo,

To the old Henderson Orchard,

A girl named Kelly is on my bus,

She’s a fellow apple picker from Duluth,

But she hasn’t a talent for apples,

But she wears bib-overalls on her first day.

She tells me that she cut her hair short,

The day that they sent her to Reform School,

And now, she prefers it that way.

At noon I sit in the shade of the bus,

I am reading a book and eating the peach I brought for lunch,

And she comes by and sits down – asks what’s it about,

She points at my book.

A murder I say.

Oh yeah, she says — did they catch the guy?

I tell her the man was executed, shot.

She laughs at me,

Should have been my old man, she says.