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.

Following My Dream

Some people have the courage to pursue their dreams relentlessly. Others spend much of their lives in more mundane ways. When you get to an age where you start to see people, not so much older than you, starting to retire, move into assisted living, and eventually pass away, you start to question whether you were right to take the safe route or whether you passed up an opportunity for greatness.

Then, there are people like me, that when faced with these questions, take it as inspiration to revive their dreams and start working on manifesting them. I have been working on refining my skills as a writer. I am far from mastering them but each short story or draft of a novel that I write advances my skill another little bit.

I have managed to write a minimum of seven hundred and fifty words almost every day for the last nine years. Some days I write boring rambles describing how many words I have written and how many more that I intend to write before I am done for the day. I often write a running narrative of the boring things that are going on around me.

Sometimes, I have managed to write and publish blog posts on this site. A few of them have had something interesting to say. I try to respect my readers’ time by not publishing pointless rambles here. I appreciate their attention and would welcome their comments. Unfortunately, many of the people that register on my site are obviously just looking for a platform to hawk their wares rather than engaging in honest dialog.

Eventually, I will manage to write here consistently enough to attract a regular readership that engages in discussion. In the mean time, I will try to post articles worth reading here. This will help me improve my writing and give me a standard to hold myself to.

Goodreads: A Tool for Becoming a Better Writer

I have reconnected with a web site called Goodreads recently. It is dedicated to helping you keep track of your reading and finding new things to read and discuss with other members of the site. I had set up an account a while back and gone through the motions of identifying some of the genres that I liked to read, some of the books that I wanted to read, rating books that I had already read, and even reviewing some of them.

What occurred to me was that it was important for me to keep better track of when I started reading books, when I finished them, and to set goals for myself. So, I went back to Goodreads and took up a challenge to read 24 books in 2019. I will probably read more than that. I will adjust my goal if it becomes obvious that I have set it too low. The important thing is to get a clear idea of how much and what I’m reading.

I have learned an important thing working with engineers over the past thirty years or so. The first thing they do when they start a project is they set up goals and metrics. This helps them to understand the rate at which they are getting things done. I don’t know why it has taken me this long to start applying this principle to things I want to accomplish in my own life.

It is important for a writer to read at least as much as they write, if not more. After all, that is how one learns to recognize good writing so that one can emulate it. Keeping track of how much one reads, and for that matter, how much one writes, becomes a useful tool in evaluating ones progress as a writer.

Aside from the strictly quantitative aspect of the site, there are a number of forums that encourage one to discuss the books that they have read. This too is an important aspect of growing as a writer. I took the time to search out some of the people that I new and connect with them on the site. This allows me to see what they are reading and to strike up conversations about books that we’ve both read.

It is refreshing to find a web site that exists primarily to enrich the lives of its patrons. I’m sure they make a reasonable profit from advertising but that is how such places ensure their ability to continue to serve their community. If you’re an aspiring writer or just enjoy discussing books and discovering new things to read, check it out.

I Love My Apple Watch

I have become obsessive about closing the rings on my Apple Watch. For those who are unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, the Apple Watch has a built in application that tracks your activity. It displays your progress using three colorful rings.

The blue innermost ring tracks how many hours you have stood up for a period of at least a minute. If you do it twelve times in a day, the ring is complete.

The florescent yellow middle ring tracks aerobic exercise. If you get in thirty minutes of exercise with an elevated heart rate, you complete this ring.

The red outer ring tracks how many calories you burn. You set your goal for daily calories burned at the beginning of the week. I have settled on 820 kilocalories as my goal.

I also have a goal of getting a minimum of 7500 steps in per day. My calorie goal usually does a good job of insuring that I more than meet that goal.

The way that this works is that I go about my day as I usually would. On days that I go to work, I often complete the standing and aerobic rings before I get home. I usually have walked about 3000 steps and have burned around 600 kilocalories.

On days that I don’t go to work, I tend to get far less done before the end of the day. I do try to keep my standing every hour ring current as you can’t make up for missed hours all at the end of the day.

In either case, about an hour or two before I plan to go to bed, I go to the bedroom and turn on the TV to YouTube. I then watch YouTube videos while walking in place in front of the TV until I have met all my fitness goals and closed my rings for the day.

I have to admit, my health has improved as a result. My A1C, a long term measure of average blood sugar, is down. I don’t get winded going up and down stairs. And, I usually don’t have any trouble going to sleep after one of these bedtime workouts.

WordPress 5 Has a New Look

WordPress has released version five of their blogging software. It includes a web based editor that provides the blogger with easy, web based tools for creating an attractive blog complete with modern stylistic components. This is the first post that I’ve written using this new editor so I’m still finding my way around.

I came across this blog posts that gives five tips for novice writers. I was surprised to find that I had already figured out four of the five tips. The one that I need to concentrate on is the last one, keep the act of writing fun. I think the most important tip he gave was to write often and read obsessively. I have learned that the only way you master any skill is to practice them.

The critique group that I participate in, the Downtown Writers Group of the Huntsville/Madison County Public Library (HMCPL) main branch, has published the second volume of short stories. This volume is entitled Librarium and comprises stories that all loosely align with the them of libraries. Volume one, A Grimm Imagination: Reimaginings of the Brothers Grimm, and volume two are now also available for the Kindle ebook reader. Full disclosure: I am an author in both volumes but all proceeds go to the HMCPL.

Long Time Coming

I’ve been reading John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, recently. This is probably because I read his book, Don’t Live for Your Obituary, which is a collection of his blog posts. I liked what he had to say. And I found that I liked the tone of his blog as it was online, with no editing for publication. There are pictures of sunsets. There are pictures of cats. Who doesn’t like pictures of cats? There are philosophical essays, comments on topics in the news and popular culture, and guest blogs from fellow writers.

I like that he has the gumption to say what he thinks and the humility
to realize that it is only his opinion. I like that he shares his
platform with other writers that don’t have quite the online following that
he has. I like that he shares the prepublication and Advanced Reading
Copies that he gets sent with readers of his blog.

I also like his fiction. I’ve read Old Man’s War and listened to the
audio book of Red Shirts. He is a good writer. I intend to read more of
his work. I hope to become a writer of the same sort as he is. At sixty three, I am getting a rather late start. But we must all have dreams to which we

Reading his blog has made me realize that one thing I could do to
speed my journey to becoming a working author is to give my blog the
attention it deserves. I may not have many readers. In fact, at this
point I have none. But if I write, someone will read it.

In the intervening months since I last wrote on my blog, Facebook has
implemented a policy prohibiting automatic cross posting by third
party apps. That means that I have to manually post a link to my blog
posts when I post them. It seems like that should be easy to do. I’ll
let you know how it goes.

I don’t know how often I’ll post to my blog. I don’t intend to let it
go quite this long again. We’ll just have to see what
happens. Whatever happens, I appreciate all that read my blog. I will
try to make it worth your while.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

I’m Back!

I survived another NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, November every year). I managed to write 52,055 words this year. I had originally planned to write a collection of short stories. I ended up writing one long, wandering story about a science fiction writer and his loyal and utterly cool agent and their adventures on a book tour punctuated by lots of fantastic happenings, for instance, genies, dragons, magic coins that make the holder invisible, etc. The problem was, as is often the case when one tries to write a story by the seat of one’s pants, neither I, nor the story, knew where it was going or why. I did get a glimmer of an idea toward the end of the death march toward fifty thousand words. It is going to take another fifty thousand words or so to get to the actual end of the story. By the time I edit all the extraneous crap out of the story, it might be a novella. But I did technically win NaNoWriMo and the T-shirt is in the mail.

I learned a lot from participating in NaNo this year. I realized that pretty much all science fiction, if not all fiction, is based on unintended consequences. Someone invents a marvelous device that is going to make the world a better place. That is until people get a hold of it and think of all sorts of perverse ways to abuse it and use it to commit horrible crimes against humanity. Our current world situation seems to be a case study in that principle.

Another thing I started to get the hang of was how to abuse my characters. No one wants to read about a typical day in the life of a likable guy. They want to read about how some poor guy gets up and before he can even get out of bed his world starts falling apart. And when things look like they can’t get any worse, they do. That’s the kind of story that keeps readers turning pages. Of course, the writer has to figure out ways for the characters to overcome the challenges they are faced with and obtain whatever it is that they desire so greatly as to set out on the impossible quest in the first place.

And that’s where the last thing I’m going to talk about in this post comes in. It is one thing to sit down and write a chapter off the top of your head. I like the spontaneity of that style of writing. It is another to think that you are going to be able to sustain a story over an entire novel without some idea of where it is going. The experiment that I tried this year was one inspired by experiences that I had in film school years ago. It was a well known fact that given enough raw footage, one could cobble together a half way decent movie in the editing room. The key was to shoot enough raw footage.

I decided to see if I could write enough scenes revolving around a few characters that I could later edit them into a novel. While I still believe it is possible, I have come to the conclusion that a small amount of planning, outlining, synopsis writing, whatever you want to call it, is far easier than writing a novel by starting cold at the beginning and writing until you reach the end.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.