The Gift

I got given an unexpected gift this week. My cousin called me. She is my dad’s sister’s daughter. She is a year and a half younger than me. She had been organizing the stuff she had cleared out of her mother’s house after she died. She found an envelope in an unlabeled box and when she opened it she found my dad’s journal. It was mostly handwritten on 6″x9 1/2″ loose leaf notebook paper. Some entries were on successive days but most were written at anything from three month to a year intervals. She mailed it to me.

The first entry was dated August 23, 1961. The last was dated July 9, 1987, the day my mother died. I was six when he started this journal. I was thirty two when he wrote the last entry. It gave me a perspective on my childhood and my father that I’ve never had before.

I never knew that my dad aspired to be a writer. I knew he wrote occasionally but mostly he prepared lectures and tests for his classes. He taught High School English, Speech, Debate, Drama, and Cinematography. He knew more about theatre and stage craft than anyone I’ve ever known. He produced professional quality plays with High School talent. He taught generations of students to appreciate literature and theatre.

His journal gave me an adult’s perspective on the events of my childhood. A perspective that I was kindly spared when I was a child. I learned that he struggled with type II diabetes in an era when the only medication for it was insulin. He had to judge how much insulin his body would produce based upon how much activity he anticipated undertaking and decide how much insulin to take to keep his blood sugar in balance. If he was wrong, it could result in hallucinations or even a coma if he got too much insulin. He felt tired most of the time and was subject to infections that took longer to heal than they would in non-diabetic patients.

He struggled to pay the bills and support himself, my mother, my little brother, and me, all on a teacher’s salary. He often considered changing professions in order to make more money but he didn’t know how to do anything else besides teach. He took part time jobs in discount retail stores. He taught English at the local Junior College.

I always thought he was a financial wizard. It turns out, he was stressed out all the time trying to figure out how to pay all his bills and debts. Any expertise he had was hard won from the experience of living with more expenses than income for so long.

At some point he did the math and figured out his life expectancy. He underestimated how long he would live by ten years. But he did come to the conclusion that he didn’t have enough time left to make any great, world shattering contributions with his writing. What he didn’t realize was the profound effect that he had had on the world through teaching the thousands students that had taken his classes.

I suspect he continued to write, he just never returned to this journal. Through a series of unfortunate mistakes that I made, much of my daddy’s papers, photographs, and other personal effects were lost soon after he died. I was unaware of the existence of this journal and it has been a rare gift to see my childhood and my daddy’s life through his eyes almost thirty five years after he died. Thank you daddy.

Imposter Syndrome, Be Gone!

When I was eight years old I was cast as an extra in a summer stock production of Stars in My Crown at Kentucky Lake in Western Kentucky. I played a pupil in the schoolhouse scene and a young native American (we called them Indians back then) in the Trail of Tears scene. I never once felt that I was not perfectly capable of the roles that I was playing. I was too young to be that self conscious. I mostly ignored the audience and immersed myself in the game of pretend that was my perception of the play.

Years later, when I was eighteen, I got a job as a gunfighter and guitar player at a western theme park. Once again, I did not feel like I was doing anything beyond my capability. I was a competent musician for the repertoire that we performed and the acting involved in the gunfights was hardly on a Broadway level. I was comfortable performing in front of an audience. I was also comfortable interacting with them in character as we were required to do between performances.

It wasn’t until I found myself in a startup computer firm writing software that I had my first brush with imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome, for those of you who don’t know, is the feeling that you don’t have the proper credentials or otherwise are not properly prepared to do the job that you find yourself hired to do. I first heard about it as such in an essay written by Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite authors. He described it as the feeling that someone was going to knock on the door and tell him that he had been found out and he would have to get a real job now.

I had two years of college when I joined the Army. The Army trained me to fix a minicomputer down to the circuit level which included classes on writing assembly level programs, the most fundamental level of programming, just slightly above the actual binary machine language that computers directly execute. In short, I knew my way around computer hardware.

I have always been something of a fanatic about small computers. At that time, I spent way too much of my time away from work reading about computers and teaching myself how to program in the various higher level computer languages that were being introduced all the time. Although I didn’t have formal training as a computer programmer, I probably had as much experience programming as most other people entering the programming job market at that time.

The problem was, I felt like an imposter. I couldn’t believe that they were paying me to write programs, something that I would be doing even if they weren’t paying me. I had no experience writing software as complex as I was being asked to but then most of my colleagues were in the same boat.

Gradually, as I successfully completed one assignment after the next, I became more confident in my ability but the feeling of imposter syndrome never quite left me. I always felt like I was in slightly over my head. Even after earning a B.S. in Computer Science, I still felt inadequate.

Then, quite recently, I found a TED talk on You Tube. A fellow named Mike Cannon-Brookes explained how you can use imposter syndrome to your benefit. He explained that many successful entrepreneurs were afflicted by imposter syndrome but that if you just pushed through the feelings of inadequacy and did your homework you could figure out how to do the things you were feeling inadequate to tackle.

I realized that this was what I had learned to do, without being aware that I was doing it. It had become so much a part of my approach to my assignments at work that I didn’t know any other way to do it.

Which brings me to my latest challenge. I’ve decided that I want to learn to write fiction. I have been actively working on it for over ten years now. In the last seven years I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo as it is affectionately called by the community). For the past four years I have participated in a writer’s critique group sponsored by the library. We have published three anthologies of short stories to which I contributed a story to each.

I have been doing the work to become an author. To make a distinction, a writer writes. I am already a writer because I write every day. An author publishes his writing. I am an author, in that I have published stories in the library anthologies and I have published essays on my blog for a number of years. But I am not a professional author, in that I have not been paid for my writing as of yet.

You can see my progress as a writer by reading the stories in the anthologies. But I am still struggling both to master the medium and to shake the feeling of imposter syndrome. Advice like that given by Neil Gaiman and Mike Cannon-Brookes helps. So does putting in the work and seeing my progress. But I long for the lack of self consciousness that I had when I was young.

Exploring a New Genre

Every year my writers group publishes an anthology. We select a theme to tie the stories together but we are careful to pick one that will accommodate a wide range of different genres. I usually write Science Fiction or Fantasy. This year, I decided to try my hand at a sub-genre of Horror called New Weird.

As August Derleth popularized the genre known as Weird fiction by publishing the works of H. P. Lovecraft, M. John Harrison coined the term New Weird in his introduction to China Miéville’s novella The Tain.

I have read Lovecraft and Miéville but I felt like I needed to investigate the characteristics of New Weird further to insure that I understood the definitive attributes of the genre. I also felt I could learn from studying more examples of it.

Before my research proceeded very far, I was reading John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, (part of my daily routine) when I found a surprisingly relevant entry. John often lends his platform to other writers in a feature he calls The Big Idea. In this particular instance, he featured Jess Nevins talking about his book, entitled Horror Fiction in the 20th Century: Exploring Literature’s Most Thrilling Genre, coming out on January 31, 2020.

The Big Idea of Nevin’s book was to explore the overlooked writers of the genre, in addition to the ones widely known and read. Not to steal his thunder, but the thing that he said he found that intrigued me most was that the genre was much bigger than most people think. In particular, he found that far more women had written horror than he was aware of. That was in addition to people of all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

I’m glad when I find things like this out. Not only does it reveal the universality of the genre. It also points me to a whole new group of authors writing stories in a genre that I enjoy.

Will it have a direct bearing on the short story I’m writing? Maybe not. I’m a slow reader. I won’t have time to read much of the exciting new corpora of horror fiction that has opened up to me before my deadline pushes me into finishing this story. But it will affect my reading in the future. And for that, I’m grateful to Jess Nevins and John Scalzi. 

A Year of Weekly Blogs

I’m firing the first shot in the salvo of 52 weekly blog posts that I’m planning to write this year. I am going to post them on Monday so that I have the weekend to write them and give them a quick copy edit. I’m also going to try to get a bit of a head start on it by writing a few standby posts that I can roll out if I have a hectic weekend.

I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to write about. If you read some of my older posts you can get a feeling for the type of things I’m interested in. I’m working on developing my fiction writing skills so it is a good bet that I’ll talk about writing craft a good bit. I’m also a connoisseur of computer languages. That will probably also be a frequent topic.

I got a new iPad for Christmas. I am writing this post on it. I also got a Logitech Keyboard/Case and an Apple Pencil for it. I am going to see if I can learn to draw with it. I doubt that an Apple Pencil will make that much difference when sixty years of pencils/crayons and paper haven’t done the job. It will be fun to try anyway.

I also got a new Apple Watch. I have a Series 3 that I’ve had for two or three years. It didn’t have the EKG, the sensor that detected falling, or the compass sensor. So, I wear the new, Series 5 Watch during the day and the Series 3 Watch at night to analyze my sleep.

I guess there is a theme emerging here. And, full disclosure, I’m an Apple stock holder. Not that I own that much but considering it has more than tripled since I bought it, I’m happy with not only the products but the stock as well.