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Go On

My first two personal journals, which covered the dreaded year of 1985.

My first two personal journals, which covered the dreaded year of 1985.

On December 31, 1985, I gathered with one of my best friends, his then-girlfriend and her older sister at the girls’ house to ring in the New Year.  In my 22 years of life at the time, I had never been so glad to see a single year fade away as 1985.  Just about everything had gone wrong for me.  I was placed on academic probation in college because of my dismal grades for the fall 1984 semester; then got suspended for the fall 1985 term because I still couldn’t get it right.  That prevented me from becoming a full member of a fraternity I so desperately wanted to join.  In April my parents and I had to put our German shepherd, Joshua, to sleep.  That fall I had my first sexual experience, which proved embarrassing and depressing.  In October I fell into a police trap and was arrested for drunk driving.  (My blood alcohol level ultimately proved I wasn’t legally intoxicated.)  By Christmas, I was an emotional and psychological wreck.  I’d come as close to committing suicide as I ever had that year.  But, as New Year’s rolled around, I’d settled down my troubled mind and realized my life could continue.

I realized 1985 was the worst single year of my brief existence and hoped I’d never see another one like it.  For more than three decades that pretty much held true.  For the longest time almost anything related to 1985 made me tremble with anxiety.  Nineteen ninety-five turned out to be almost as bad; instilling a phobia in me about years ending in the number 5.  Ironically, though, 2005 was a pretty good one for me, and last year was okay.

Then came 2016.

People all around me are waiting for this year to die, like a pack of hyenas loitering near a dying zebra.  Aside from a raucous political campaign – with a finale that seems to have set back more than two centuries worth of progress – we’re wondering why this year has taken so many great public figures and left us with clowns like the Kardashians.  I could care less.  This year has also taken my father and my dog and is slowly taking my mother.

Over these last six months, I’ve experienced emotional pain unlike anything I’ve ever felt before.  I’ve never endured this kind of agony.  It’s dropped me into an endless abyss of despair.  Early in November, strange red spots began appearing all over my body.  It brought with it chronic itching sensations.  I wondered if small pox had been reintroduced into society and I was one of its unwitting earliest victims.  The rashes and the itching would come and go, like million-dollar windfalls to an oil company executive.

It all shoved me back to the spring of 1985 and the odd little sores that sprung up on either side of my midsection.  They were painful pustules of fluid that I tried to eliminate with calamine lotion, ice cubes and prayer.  They finally vanished, and only afterwards did someone tell me what they were: shingles.  I had to look up that one in a medical reference.  For us cretins aged 40 and over, WebMD was a fool’s dream.  But I knew that’s what I had, and its cause was just as apparent – personal stress.  My poor academic performance, Joshua’s death, thinking my failure to join that stupid fraternity was a reflection of my failure as a human being – all of it had piled onto me.

In November of 1995 – about a week after my birthday – I woke up early one Saturday morning, stepped into the front room of my apartment and repeatedly banged my fists against the sliding glass door.  I was aware of it, but I felt I was compelled to do it.  As I lay back onto my bed, my hands already aching from pounding on the glass, I asked why I had done something so bizarre at that hour of the morning.  Then, almost as quickly, I answered myself.  I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  I was experiencing serious financial problems at the time and I was having even more problems at work.  My father had just experienced a major health scare.  One of my best friends was sick with HIV and had been hospitalize with a severe case of bronchitis, and I’d just had a heated telephonic argument with another guy I thought was a close friend over…some stupid shit I can’t recall after all these years.  So, after weeks of dealing with that soap-opera-esque drama, my mind cracked.  Stress of any kind wreaks havoc on one’s mind and body.  It’s several steps up from a bad day at the office.  This is why U.S. presidents always look light-years older when they leave office.

So, as I smothered my body with cocoa butter lotion and anti-itch cream, I harkened back to 1985 and thought, ‘Goddamn!  History repeats itself too conveniently.’  The death of another dog and more subconscious trauma.  This time, though, events have been more critical than not being able to join a fucking fraternity or falling into a drunk driving trap.

But something else has changed.  While my body reacted in such a volatile manner, my soul has been able to handle it better.  I’m older and wiser now, and with that, comes the understanding that life is filled with such awful and unpredictable events.  Yes, I’ve fallen into fits of depression.  But I’m not suicidal.  I don’t want to harm myself in any way.  In fact, I want to heal and keep going.  I didn’t kill myself in 1985 or in 1995 or in any other stressful period since then.  I really just want to keep going.

I keep a list of story ideas; a Word document amidst my electronic collection of cerebral curiosities.  When I peruse that list, I realize I may not be able to bring all of those ideas to life.  But, if I didn’t try, why should I even bother with it?  Why bother even with getting up every morning?

Something has kept me alive all these years.  Something has kept me going.  Earlier this month I noticed a cluster of irises had bloomed unexpectedly in the back yard.  My father had planted them a while back.  With Texas weather being so schizophrenic, warmer-than-usual temperatures must have confused the flowers, and they jutted their blossoms upward into the swirling air.  I had to gather a few before temperatures cooled, which they did.  They languished on the kitchen counter for the next couple of weeks, longer than usual.  And I realized their presence is coyly symbolic.  My father was telling me that, despite the heartache of this past year, life continues, and things will get better.

I still miss my father and my dog, but I care for my mother as best I can, even as her memory keeps her thoughts muddled from one day to the next.  And I continue writing because that’s who I am and what I love to do.  I can’t change what happened years ago, but it brought me to where I am now.  I couldn’t alter the events of this past year.  But it’ll all carry me into the following years.

Happy New Year’s 2017 to all of you, my followers, and to all of my fellow bloggers!

Irises that bloomed in our back yard earlier this month.

Irises that bloomed in our back yard earlier this month.

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Filed under Essays

The Alphabet of Me

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A is for adamant.  I have a certain view of how my life should function and I refuse to relinquish it.  It’s how I’ve survived all these years without going crazy and killing myself.  I don’t impose my ideals on others, though.  I’ve had that done to me and sometimes I’d obey; thinking if I did what others thought I should do, they’d like me.  It never worked!  So I stopped doing that shit.  Other people’s rules don’t apply to me.

B is for barrier.  I’ve placed too many barriers in front of me; impediments of my own making; excuses to prevent me from taking unnecessary risks and possibly hurting myself.  I’ve told myself I can’t do X because of Y.  Or worst, because someone else told me I can’t or shouldn’t do it.  So, I’ve finally learned to knock down those barriers.

C is for curious.  I’ve always been curious about the world around me, even if I feared it most of the time.  I’ve wondered why hurricanes form and why dogs move in circles several times before laying down.  I wonder why most people are assholes and refuse to get along, when the alternative is constant yelling and fighting.  When I get curious about human nature, I become frustrated.  So, I start thinking about dogs and hurricanes.  At least they have a reason for being the way they are.

D is for depression.  It’s one of the ugliest words in the English language.  It’s been a constant, demonic companion in my life.  It’s robbed me of life’s simple pleasures more times than I can count.  It’s held me back from taking the chances I needed to move forward.  It’s kept me in bed or drunk, when I should be out doing something good for myself.  It’s almost killed me – several times.  It’s still there; lurking in the back of my psyche like a dormant flu virus.  But I finally stood up to it and beat the fucker back down into the gutter where it belongs.

E is for education.  I feel this is the single most important factor in any civilized society.  Odd, considering I dropped out of college in the late 1980s and didn’t return until almost 20 years later to earn my college degree.  But, I did it.  And, my education didn’t end when I finished that last class.  It continues.  I’m still learning.  I’ll always keep my mind open to new experiences and different things.

F is for fear.  There it is again – fear of the unknown; fear of people; fear of taking chances.  Fear has been the other unwanted companion that just won’t leave me alone.  It’s taken almost my entire life to learn to smack that thing down into oblivion.  Still, on occasion, it extends a grimy finger upwards and points at me.  It still tries to intimidate me.  But now, it’s all been turned upside down.  Fear is scared of me.

G is for glaring.  The truth about people and things is often glaringly obvious to me.  Why don’t others see the various and sundry colors of the world, instead of just the grays?  Some folks look at me like I’m crazy.  But I just have my own unique view of my surroundings and the people who occupy it.  More importantly, I no longer expect people to think and feel exactly as I do.

H is for health.  After seeing an aunt battle with cancer in the late 1980s and a friend ravaged by AIDS just a few years later, my physical and mental health became paramount.  Few other things matter as much.  For years, however, I had a handle on my physical health.  I lifted weights, jogged regularly and did some basic calisthenics almost every weekday morning before heading out to work.  It took a while longer, though, to get a grip on my psychological welfare.  I know my body will grow tired, as I continue to age.  But I refuse to get “old.”  That’s more a state of mind.

I is for introvert.  It used to upset me so much.  I had such a hard time making friends.  I just couldn’t get too many people to like me.  I felt, for so many years, that I was defective.  Something was wrong, I kept telling myself; something wrong with me.  But now, I embrace that attribute.  It’s me; it’s who I am.  I am just quiet and insulated.  I’m a reader and a thinker; not a showman.  I don’t have to make a spectacle of myself anymore to feel important.  That introverted attribute generates a slew of story ideas and compels me to write and to read.

J is for jaded – as in cynical.  You get that way after a half century of experiencing life’s bullshit; enduring years of being shoved around because you won’t conform to others’ expectations.  I’m jaded as in bitter; bitter that it took me so long to realize I’m important and have much to offer this world.  But, at this point in time, that jaded personality has given me a more clear view of life.

K is for kill.  If I killed everybody who pissed me off, I’d be the world’s worst serial murderer.  Then again, who wouldn’t?  Part of being introverted and jaded is that I don’t like people much.  I’ve always said the more I get to know people, the more I like my dog.  Animals are cool; most people are assholes.  But, I couldn’t waste my time killing anyone.  I don’t want to spend that much gas money driving out to secluded locations to bury the bodies.  I have stories to write!

L is for lost.  Growing up so shy and timid I often felt lost in a world of bullies and cool kids.  Now, I feel lost in a world of idiots.  So I get lost in my world of reading, writing, music and good wine.

M is for meticulous.  I’m a very detail-oriented person.  Some people like that about me, especially at work; others find it annoying.  People don’t have a certain place in society, but objects do.

N is for nearby.  I keep the memory of long-gone loved ones close to me.  People who helped raise me and had an impact on my life reside in my heart and my soul.  I won’t let them drift away.  I can’t.  I can’t turn my back on them just because they’re no longer physically present on Earth.  They’ll be the ones to come get me when my own life expires.

O is for ordinary.  As difficult as I am to get to know – this, according to my own parents – I consider myself rather ordinary.  I’m not handsome and I don’t have the perfect physique.  I certainly no a genius, but I’m intelligent and well-educated.  I do consider myself a very good writer, so on that level, I’m somewhat extraordinary.  Writing is the one part about me in which I’m 100% confident.  Otherwise, I’m an ordinary individual trying to live a relatively ordinary life.

P is for past.  I’ve dwelled on it too often.  I always wanted to make things better – things that happened a while back and can’t be altered now.  I’d spend – waste – so much time thinking about the past.  You do that a lot, when you grow up shy.  People always seemed to take advantage of me and get the best of my mind and soul.  So, even though I finally stopped doing that to myself, I occasionally have trouble breaking free of the past.  Pulling my mind away from way back there and keeping it in the here and now.

Q is for quiet.  Teachers and other adults always said I was quiet as a child.  I’m still somewhat quiet.  Now, it depends more on the situation than on my desire to stay out of trouble.  If I’m quiet, that usually means I’m listening; sometimes plotting.  What’s wrong with that?  No one needs to be loud and obnoxious.  Those who feel the need to be that way actually need to be smacked.  As a writer, I relish the quiet; the solitude; the isolation.  I’m quiet because I’m observing the people around me – and trying to figure out how their personas would fit into one of my stories.

R is for rebellious.  Yes, I’ve always been quiet.  But, I’m also rebellious.  Quietly rebellious – as oxymoronic as that sounds.  I don’t like to make a scene, unless I become enraged.  It always startles the crap out of people when that happens.  But I’m generally a silent rebel.  My parents wanted me to study computer science, or anything related to computers.  I wanted to be a writer.  They equated that with being a bum; thus I started studying computer programming in college – just to please them.  But my inner self said no; that’s not who you are.  You’re a writer.  Now, I’m a technical writer by day and a creative writer by night.  Ironically, I’ve had to become a computer aficionado to engage in both tasks.  Either way I’m still a writer.  I rebelled against my parents’ desired plans for my future – quietly.

S is for smart.  I’m smarter than I look.  I like to read, so I know a lot; a lot of different things.  Things like arctic hurricane is the formal name for a blizzard.  Things like Polynesians in the South Pacific sometimes have blond hair, not because some European sailor got shipwrecked on an island 300 years ago and then got lonely, but because there’s a genetic trait among them that produces fair-colored locks.  I’m smart because I understand human nature, even if I don’t like people that much.  I’m smart because I know the environment is worth saving and not from a politically correct standpoint.  I’m smart because I’ve been around and listen and observe more than I talk.

T is for tender.  I have a good heart – physically and emotionally.  My disdain for human beings notwithstanding, I still have compassion for people in general; mainly children and the disabled.  I certainly have a tender spot for animals.  Yes, that’s kind of odd to hear from someone with a leather fetish and a taste for vodka.

U is for underappreciated.  Once more, growing up in a cocoon of timidity, I always felt underappreciated.  It also means underpaid, and the two are usually interconnected.  Showing someone respect is showing your appreciation for them.  For example, I always try to remember people on their birthdays.  To hell with Christmas or Valentine’s Day!  Those are easy to recall.  But, if you really want to show someone you care about them, or at least acknowledge their presence on Earth, wish them a ‘Happy Birthday.’  They’ll appreciate that more than ‘Merry Christmas.’

V is for various.  I like a variety of things.  My blog, as well as my writings, reflect that.  I like different foods, different genres of literature and different styles of music.  I have definite opinions on various subjects; some of which seem contradictory.  I urge people to vote, for example, but I despise most politicians.

W is for weird.  I’m a writer.  I’m just weird.  They’re symbiotic elements – ying and yang.  They just go together.  Only other writers will understand.  But, whereas I once cringed at the mere hint of being dubbed weird, I now celebrate it.  Actually, it’s pretty normal for me.  Other people are the ones who think I’m weird.  They just don’t understand.  And, that’s fine.

X is for X-ray.  Sometimes, I’ll expose my true self to people, so they can see who I really am.  Those who think I’m weak will see the strength deep inside me.  Others who think I’m cold and calculating will see the clown figure that lies beneath the rigid exterior.  That’s not a common occurrence, though.  I rarely let people get inside me like that.

Y is for yes – as in a restrained yes.  I won’t say yes to just anything.  I’m too cautious.  I’ll say yes to saving an injured animal; yes to good vodka; yes to dancing to my favorite music.  I reserve my yeses for the most important elements of life.

Z is for zeal – a zest for reading and writing.  Well, I guess that’s two words for this one letter.  In case you haven’t figured it out yet, though, my passion for the written word is boundless.  We writers have to possess such an innate desire to sit down and drop words onto paper or a computer.  It can be exciting and rewarding, but quite often, it’s frustrating and disappointing.

 

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Filed under Wolf Tales

Booked Up

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Hi, my name is Alejandro, and I’m a bibliophile. And damn proud of it, too!

Yes, of all my curious habits, book collecting is the most pronounced. A gatherer of literature; a captive of scribes; a hoarder of tomes. Don’t try an intervention on me, though! Your picture might end up on a milk carton.

My fascination with books goes back to my toddler years, when my parents bought a slew of children’s literature – mainly the classic “Little Golden Books” – and set me down in front of them. Their determination to instill a love for reading in me stemmed from their own upbringing. They come from a generation where a high school diploma was enough to get through life. But, while it took me more years than I wished to complete my own formal education, that love for the written word was embedded into my brain at that young age and has never faded. I still have all those “Little Golden Books.” They’re aged and crinkled – practically falling apart – but they’re mine. And they’re just as valuable as the rest of my vast cache of reading material.

I recently did a comprehensive inventory of my books and have counted 459. This gallery doesn’t include my equally grand collection of magazines, such as “National Geographic.” Some neighbors, a childless couple, bought my parents and I a gift subscription for Christmas 1975. I fell in love with the magazine and have maintained an annual subscription ever since. Over the years, I’ve collected a number of older “National Geographic” periodicals; some dating back to the 1920s. Other magazines include “Archaeology,” “International Artist,” “Smithsonian” and “The Sun.”

But it’s the myriad of books that harbor the essence of my cerebral interests. I don’t have enough shelves for them, so – as you can see from the photos below – I’ve merely stacked them wherever I can. Among my prized tomes are first editions of Edna Ferber’s “Giant” and Jacqueline Susann’s “Once Is Not Enough.” I have a 50th anniversary edition of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” from the Folio Society and “The Multi-Orgasmic Man.” (No, it’s not erotic fiction.) I have the complete works of both Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov; Leonardo Da Vinci’s notes compiled into a 3-volume set; almost every Agatha Christie murder mystery; and Geoff Mains’ “Urban Aboriginals,” a comprehensive guide for leather fetish aficionados.

Two items from Taschen, “Circus Book: 1870 – 1950” and “Magic: 1400s – 1950s,” go beyond qualifying as coffee table books – they practically are coffee tables! They’d also qualify as deadly weapons and – in a state like Texas where education is virtually an elective – I might be committing a crime in owning them.

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It’s not unusual for me to be reading two or more books at once. Currently, I have three going: “The Orphan Tsunami of 1700,” Robert Ludlum’s “The Aquitaine Progression,” and Tom Bianchi’s “Fire Island Pines.” “The Orphan Tsunami of 1700” is so called because of a mysterious series of tsunamis that struck Japan’s eastern coastlines in January of 1700; an orphan in that no local seismic activity had been noted. Scientists finally made the connection between that “orphan” and a powerful earthquake that rocked what is now the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

My love for dogs matches my love for books. The two merge in Catherine Johns’ “Dogs: History, Myth, Art,” Bruce Fogle’s “New Encyclopedia of the Dog,” and “Dogs: Their Fossil Relatives & Evolutionary History.” The latter is very much like a text book, but it’s the best one on the canine species I’ve ever read.

My collection ranges from the practical – Charles Schwab’s “Guide to Independence” – to the whimsical – H. Jackson Browne’s “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” the smallest-sized item in the group.

Although I’m no longer a practicing Roman Catholic, I have Steven Runciman’s “A History of the Crusades,” which is a triptych piece: “The First Crusade,” “The Kingdom of Jerusalem” and “The Kingdom of Acre.” “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” is an in-depth analysis of the possibility Jesus Christ survived crucifixion and went on to get married and have children. Conversely “The Day Christ Died” is Jim Bishop’s intimate retelling of Jesus’ purported final days before his death. Malachi Martin’s “Hostage to the Devil” is an account of five cases of demonic possession the late Irish-born Jesuit priest attended. Martin gained notoriety several years ago when he claimed Satanism had been practiced within the Vatican. I once offered to lend Martin’s book to a close friend, but he vehemently refused. “That’d be scary to read something like that,” he told me. He’s the only person I’ve ever known to be terrified of a book.

Anyone who knows me wouldn’t be surprised that my preoccupation with the macabre and supernatural manifests itself in Ann Arensberg’s “Incubus,” as well as “Ghosts,” a collection of short stories compiled by Marvin Kaye, and Mary Higgins Clark’s “Where Are the Children?” But I also like to view the so-called supernatural from a practical lens, as is evident in Nicholas Roger’s “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night.” Before my parents saw “The Exorcist” at the theatre, my mother read William Peter Blatty’s book of the same name. We had moved into a house in suburban Dallas more than a year earlier; an area that had once been farm land. Displaced mice and scorpions often turned up in the home. Reading “The Exorcist” one night after I’d gone to bed and my father had returned to work for a short while, my mother was startled by faint scratching sounds coming from within the walls. (If you’ve either seen the book or read the movie, you know what I’m talking about.) ‘We need to get this house blessed,’ my mother thought, as we were still devout Catholics. But an exterminator later told us the noises came from confused mice, trying to get out. Or – so he said.

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My fascination with Earth’s natural elements shows up in Erik Larson’s “Isaac’s Storm” and R.A. Scotti’s “Sudden Sea,” each about two of the deadliest hurricanes to strike the United States in the 20th century. The National Geographic Society’s “Realms of the Sea” is as much a study of the world’s oceans as it is a photographic collage. Simon Winchester’s “Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded” details the 1883 eruption of the notorious Indian Ocean volcano that altered the planet’s climate, even into the 20th century, and became a synonym for all types of global cataclysms.

History has a firm place in this array: Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century,” Edmund Morris’ “Theodore Rex” and A. Scott Berg’s “Wilson.”   I believe Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” and “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” should be required reading in schools. Together they explain a lot how the world has come to exist in its current condition. Neither is told from a strictly Euro-Christian viewpoint, so that would be the first obstacle to overcome in getting them into the hands of grade-school students. But it’d be worth the trouble.

I’m also not the only writer in the family. One of my first cousins, Richard De La Garza, PhD., co-authored “Cocaine and Methamphetamine Dependence: Advances in Treatment.” A guide for psychiatrists specializing in drug addiction, it’s just one factor in Richard’s ongoing efforts to mitigate the damage caused by substance abuse; mainly cocaine and methamphetamine.

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Aside from “Giant” and “The Day Christ Died,” one of my oldest books is Lareina Rule’s “Name Your Baby,” published the same year I was born. I’ll search through it sometimes, as I name the characters in my stories. I still have some actual reference and text books, such as Reader’s Digest’s “Family Word Finder,” which I still use religiously for my writing; the always indispensable “Chicago Manual of Style (6th ed.)”; and Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think,” a guide for the Internet age. Of my three dictionaries, “The Living Webster: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language,” is the oldest, as well as the largest. It wouldn’t qualify as a coffee-table; it’s more of a small-lamp end-table type. One of my mother’s work colleagues had bought it for me as a birthday present in the 1970s. That woman knew I liked to write stories and felt it would make the perfect gift for me. She was right. My mother had said the woman’s son had been killed in Vietnam and had become so distressed by it that she’d periodically tell people at the office she needed to call her son…before realizing he was dead. Now I watch helplessly as my mother’s own memory keeps faltering. That mammoth dictionary still ranks as one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

I’ve tried to share my love for reading with other people. In July of 1998, I was surprised to get a notice in the mail from some friends announcing the birth of their daughter. I rushed out to buy a gift certificate and a large book of children’s nursery rhymes. In 2005, my then-supervisor and his wife adopted a baby boy from Guatemala. I did the exact same thing: bought a gift certificate and a large book of children’s nursery rhymes. Get that kid into reading as soon as possible!

I’ve heard more than a few people say that reading is a waste of time. To them, I politely say, ‘You’re an asshole.’ More directly: an illiterate asshole. Many of them are the same ones who consider TV guides and beer bottle labels reading material. Others have told me the Christian Bible is the only book they’ve read front to back or are reading at that moment. In that regard, I consider Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire” on equal grounds, since it’s also filled with violence and erotic imagery. (Yes, I have that one, too, and find it more plausible than the Bible.)

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If people spent more time reading, they’d learn more about the world around them and wouldn’t have much time left for fighting or fucking. Fewer people would get killed and / or get sick.

Literacy is such an integral part of civilization I can’t understand why someone would find it boring. Societies with high rates of literacy and education generally have lower rates of violence and are more politically and socially stable. Nations such as Australia, Israel, Japan and Norway boast some of the highest standards of living in the world, which correlates to their equally high rates of literacy – almost 100% in each case. People who can read and write spend more time contemplating the mysteries of the universe and how to make the world better for everyone. Yes, sometimes they misuse that knowledge to harm others. But, then again, there are people who view education itself as dangerous; a detriment to the structure of the society they’ve carefully designed for themselves. An educated populace is composed of people who can think for themselves. They have the audacity to question authority and wonder aloud why things have always been done a certain way. Such boldness upsets the oppressors, but it’s a measure of true spiritual freedom. For me, freedom comes in all shapes, sizes and colors of the written word.

Top image courtesy of “Must Be This Tall to Ride.”

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Filed under Essays

Worthy Words

Writer-at-work

Last month writer Wil Wheaton received a request from the Huffington Post to publish an essay, “Seven Things I Did to Reboot My Life,” that he’d just published on his own blog. Until his follow-up essay, I wasn’t aware contributors to HP aren’t paid for their work – except in that most traditional of literary reimbursements: exposure. I believe most every freelance writer has encountered the ubiquitous “we-can’t-pay-you-but-you’ll-get-tremendous-exposure” line. It’s supposed to make us feel comfortable, hopeful maybe, that – in lieu of much-needed financial resources – an untold number of readers will see our work and that someone in that vast crowd will be awestruck enough to offer us a paid job that, in turn, will lead to our long-held dream of being a successful (affluent) scribe. But I’m surprised at this revelation, considering HP founder Arianna Huffington is a proud progressive who champions free speech and worker rights.

Wheaton didn’t fall for HP’s offer and declined it faster than a Hollywood celebrity dropping a gluten-filled sandwich. Meaning he politely told them to stick their “exposure” ruse up their ass. I couldn’t stop laughing out loud when I read that. My dog surely thought I’d finally gone over the edge, as he grabbed his rawhide bone and scurried into the den.

Good for you, Wil!

Myths about writers persist. It’s not a profession; it’s more of a hobby. We like to suffer for our art. We’re so desperate for notoriety we’ll give it away whenever we can – like drug addicts needing a fix. As with any tall tale, there’s some measure of truth to it. But most of us writers take our work seriously. It’s more of a calling than a profession; a passion for the written word and a desire to spread our thoughts and ideas in the best way we know how. Yet we also like to get paid for our time and effort.

Writing isn’t like a sneeze; building up quickly, before exploding forth. It takes time and energy. Ideas may pop into our heads during the most unlikely of literary activities – eating, showering, having sex, stalking the last publisher who called your writing crappy – but turning those sparks into full-fledged and long-lasting flames is cumbersome. Some scribes can pound out a story in a matter of weeks, while others take years to write an award-winning tome. Whatever the length of time, it’s not an easy task.

But what is it that makes some people think writers don’t mind working for free? What is it that compels some publishers to believe “exposure” is a sufficient replacement for monetary compensation? But, then again, how much is a single word worth? If a rap singer can spit out a foul-mouthed, yet otherwise incomprehensible “song” and earn millions, why should a freelance writer have to produce 500 words for fifty bucks? I can see the insanity in such questions, but I know too many others just don’t get it.

In 1988 the Writers Guild of America – composed of West and East branches – drove home the importance of writer compensation with a strike that practically brought the U.S. entertainment industry to a halt and almost bankrupted the state of California. The WGA started as the Authors League of America in 1912; an entity devoted to protecting the financial and creative rights of writers. Its first president was Winston Churchill – not the famed British prime minister – but a former member of the New Hampshire State Legislature and a novelist and playwright. President Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the Copyright Act of 1909 on his last day in office, served as the Guild’s first vice-president.

The ALA’s mission was simple and straightforward: “to protect the rights of all authors, whether engaged in literary, dramatic, artistic, or musical competition, and to advise and assist all such authors.” In 1921, it metamorphosed into the Authors Guild, when playwrights, composers, and lyricists left to form the Dramatists Guild of America. In 1933 the Screenwriters Guild formed in Hollywood.

The 1988 strike wasn’t the WGA’s first, but tellingly, each protest arose in response to cultural and technological changes in the entertainment industry. In 1960 the WGA launched a 21-week strike against film studios seeking compensation for movies shown on television. In 1973 they struck in favor of increased wages and health benefits. The 1981 strike was for cable and home video revenue. And, just three years before the 1988 event, the WGA protested over royalties from videocassette sales. The 1988 strike actually began late the previous year, when movie and TV producers demanded that writers accept sliding-scale payments on residuals from works that are re-broadcast after their original air dates. The producers claimed that syndication prices drop, so writers shouldn’t expect compensation identical to their original payments. The writers didn’t dispute the concept of syndication; the matter concerned the amount. Negotiations commenced, but stalled. And the result was the longest-lasting writers’ strike in U.S. history; costing the entertainment conglomerate roughly $500 million.

The 2007 WGA strike was, as before, a response to emerging technology. This time, it was a digital issue, and, as before, producers tried to utilize the new gadgetry to get around paying writers a decent share. The increased presence of the Internet and other devices, such as I-phones, allowed for greater dissemination of content. Recalling the 1988 mess, movie and TV producers listened two decades later and worked quickly to end the drought.

The angst of writers resounds clearly with other artists. In 1999 two teenagers, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, launched an online company called Napster, where people could download and share songs – for free. Using a then-innovative technology called file-sharing, users simply had to log onto their computers and – for lack of a better term, but calling it what it is – pirate their favorite tunes for personal usage. From a technological perspective, it was ingenious. From an artistic viewpoint, it was flat-out theft. The music industry quickly took notice, and – after much legal wrangling – Napster was forced to shut down in 2002.

The same issue arose again with musical streaming. It exploded into controversy last year when singer Taylor Swift pulled her entire music catalog from Spotify, one of the largest musical streaming companies in the U.S. Spotify and others offer users a desktop application for a nominal fee through which they can download whatever songs they want. The companies earn a hefty profit through ads and other sources. And the artists earn…a few dollars. Literally. Singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash dubbed musical streaming “dressed-up piracy.”

My paternal grandfather was a carpenter. One day, in the 1930s, a local woman called him to help get a window in her house unstuck. He examined the window briefly, before taking a hammer and lightly tapping on either side of the frame, thus dislodging it. When he charged her $10, she balked; asking why she should pay him for “tapping a little bit here and a little bit there.” He promptly told her the fee wasn’t for “tapping a little bit here and a little bit there,” but for knowing to “tap a little bit here and a little bit there.” Knowledge is worth something. So are words.

How much someone’s talents are worth will always be a matter of debate and is often subjective. On an episode of “The People’s Court” a while back, a performance artist sued a student videographer she’d hired to capture one of her stage shows; she wasn’t satisfied with the quality of the final product. Apparently she could only afford one camera, so the young man could only focus on a limited area of the stage; instead of videotaping the entire panorama. He could have brought in an assistant to work another camera, but the artist said her budget wouldn’t allow it. When Judge Marilyn Milian asked why she was so upset, she pointed out she was frustrated with the limited scope of the videotape. There were several people on stage, but the videographer only managed to catch one or two at a time. Milian reminded the plaintiff she’d hired a student videographer, not a professional, and queried why the woman just didn’t pay to have a second camera. Her budget wouldn’t permit it, she reiterated – whereupon she answered her own question. Case dismissed.

Anyone who thinks writers must accept the “exposure” concept at face value should consider this scenario. Imagine you’ve spent the bulk of your professional life in the food service industry. You’ve worked for a variety of outfits – restaurants, hotels, country clubs – before you finally decide you’re tired of slaving over other people’s hot ovens and decide to open your own catering business. You encounter a couple who wants to hire you to cater their daughter’s wedding reception. They want a certain amount and variety of food for a large number of people on a particular day and at a particular time. They then tell you it’s not in their budget to pay you up front for all the food and your time and energy in preparing it and setting it up, but emphasize that with so many people expected to attend the reception, you’ll get great culinary exposure; which means that someone will surely find it so delicious they’ll want to hire you for something else at a later date. Do you think a caterer would go for that? Why should a writer?

Last year I finally decided I needed to hire a professional editor to review my novel manuscript. I selected Leslie Silton, a Los Angeles-based editor who has worked with a variety of writers. After going through my novel, she found a number of minor things that I’d missed; elements that ultimately would have made me look unprofessional. It really does pay to get an outsider to review your work. At no time, however, did I expect Leslie to work for free. I never dreamed of telling her, “Look, I can’t pay you, but I have about 200 followers on my blog, 300 Facebook friends, and 250 Linked In contacts. I intend to publicize my novel on all those sites, and when they see what a great job I did, they’ll also see your name.” I would have gotten a dial tone the second I finished that sentence. As a Bostonian, though, I’m certain Leslie would have provided some colorful verbiage to go with it. If you produce work for one site, just for the “exposure,” what makes you think someone who sees it and – given that they like it – won’t expect you to be satisfied with the same type of “payment”?

In one of my Linked In groups a while back, this very subject came up. A freelance writer mentioned that she was frightened when a client expressed dissatisfaction with her work; therefore, she lowered her fees to avoid any impending damage to her professional reputation. I told her that she shouldn’t have felt bad enough to lower her fees, just because one particular client didn’t like her final output. “Your work is worth something,” I emphasized.

Wheaton offered a logical response to the Huffington Post “exposure” offer: they earn a considerable amount in advertising revenue. More importantly, HP itself is valued at something around $50 million. Too many writers fall for that “exposure” bit – and suffer the blatant disrespect that surreptitiously goes with it.

As writers we’re worth something. And exposure doesn’t quite cover it.

Image: Cullen Communications.

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Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2015

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“Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action – though often trivial in isolation – are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”

George Orwell

 

Today is the 34th Annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer, sponsored by PEN International.

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National Banned Books Week 2015

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Today is the official start of “Banned Books Week” here in the U.S.; the annual counter-assault against the angry and the self-righteous who dare to tell the rest of us independent thinkers what we can and cannot read. It’s a relentless battle.

This year the theme is “Young Adult” fiction. YA fiction, as it’s more commonly known, is the newest fad among adventurous scribes who want to help teenagers cross the troubled bridge into full-blown adulthood; the period of life where people learn the hard way that they aren’t the center of the universe. Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy is one highly successful example. Despite its popularity, it has garnered its own share of conservative protestors. I really can’t understand that. Within the context of American mythology, “The Hunger Games” has everything: violence, racial exceptionalism and plenty of bad luck. I mean, people getting shot down like wild animals. What’s more American than that?

One of the more curious books being challenged is Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman, born Loretta Pleasant in Virginia in 1920, who died of cervical cancer in Baltimore in 1951. It’s not her brief life or tragic death that is necessarily so compelling. It’s not even the fact she died of cervical cancer. It’s what resulted from her death, and the variety of ethical challenges her situation posed. The type of cervical cancer she developed was unique; something oncologists at the time had never seen. Shortly before Lacks’ death, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed two samples of the cancer – without her knowledge or permission. They ended up in the laboratory of researcher Dr. George Otto Gey who noticed the cells were unusually durable. Gey isolated and multiplied some of the cells, producing a line he dubbed “HeLa.” The HeLa line would go on to assist cancer researchers in the ensuing decades.

Perhaps the most famous outcome was the cure for one of humanity’s greatest scourges. Jonas Salk used the HeLa line to develop the polio vaccine, which was approved for general use in 1955, after only three years of testing. Immediately thereafter, other scientists began cloning the HeLa cell line; since then, over 10,000 patents involving the HeLa cells have been granted.

The Lacks Family didn’t learn of these advances until 1973, when a scientist contacted them, wanting blood samples and other genetic materials. For them and many African-Americans, this scenario reminded them of the infamous “Tuskegee syphilis study;” perhaps the most egregious and blatant example of medical racism in the U.S. The tale of Henrietta Lacks is nonetheless a compelling study of medical research and medical ethics. But one idiot in Knoxville, Tennessee has a different view: she calls it pornography. Parent Jackie Sims found Skloot’s book inappropriate for students at L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville. The term “inappropriate,” of course, means: ‘I don’t like it, so no one else should have access to it.’ Sims apparently equates gynecology with pornography. The term “cervical” surely sent her frail mind into a tizzy. Her precious on was given an alternate text (maybe something along the lines of a Disney coloring book), but Sims – like the typical self-righteous curmudgeon – wants Skloot’s tome to be banished from the entire school district. Fortunately, district authorities haven’t backed down, and – as of this writing – the matter is still under consideration.

For a complete selection of this year’s frequently-challenged books, check out this list. Then go out and buy, or download, one of them and read it, if you haven’t already. Remember, true freedom begins with the written word.

Banned Books Week on Twitter.

Banned Books Weeks is partnered with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.

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Writing Lives

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Think about what it takes to create a writing system from scratch. Imagine the intellectual aptitude of someone who draws an image on a rock, in the sand, or anywhere and declares that it represents something – a word, an action, a single sound. What is required of somebody to actually sit down and do that?

Not long after I began walking and talking around the age of 9 months, my parents started teaching me to read. The books were those simply-worded “See Spot Run” types, but I took to them with an uncannily inborn sense of ease. Whenever my folks became engaged with some task around the tiny two-bedroom apartment where we lived, they made sure I was either asleep or sitting on the couch with one of those books. Many of those colorful little pre-school tomes were “Golden Books,” the classics of childhood literature that helped to educate the young masses. I still have scores of them stored away neatly in boxes; surely they’d be collector’s items by now.

By the age of 5 – even before entering kindergarten – I was writing stories. Although I could speak in complete sentences and use seemingly grown-up words (my parents never “baby-talked” to me), putting those thoughts into written form became my primary means of communication. I’ve been reading and writing ever since.

My precociousness wasn’t always viewed with admiration. As a first-grader at a Catholic parochial school in Dallas, me and my fellow students were required to look at our name plates before carefully copying our names onto sheets of paper. I looked at mine once and, upon the second time I had to write it, I simply did so from memory. Proud of my accomplishment, I displayed the sheet of notebook paper to the nun teaching the class.

Her reaction was harsh. “Don’t ever do that again!” she chided.

It didn’t seem to matter that – all of 6 or 7 years of age – I successfully reprinted my name after having looked at the plate once. So I sauntered back to my desk, feeling humiliated and dejected.

Bitch!

I recounted the incident to my parents that evening at dinner, and they beamed with pride. My father reassured me I did nothing wrong and told me, from that point onward, just “pretend” to look at my name plate. I followed his advice, confident in my new-found ability. I never again looked at that stupid name plate; neither did I try to impress that decrepit nun. I surmised some time later that a vow of poverty, coupled with a life of celibacy and a cardboard headdress, must have a nasty impact on a woman’s cerebral capacity.

Another incident at that same school a few years later, however, made me question everyone in the education field. A lay teacher arrived at the school in the fall of 1976 to teach English. She and I got along nicely at first. But my impulsive audacity to question certain things apparently made her head hurt, and she’d stare at me from behind those gigantic 1970s-era glasses (the kind that now would qualify as motorcycle windshields) and seethe with frustration.

Other students in the class loved when her and I got into those “fights,” as one boy described them. That teacher certainly didn’t enjoy it and used every opportunity she could scrounge up to humiliate me in front of my classmates. Then, one morning, things came to a head between us over a single word: llama.

Because it’s a Spanish-language adaptation of an Indian term for the only draft animal to evolve in the Western Hemisphere, I knew it was pronounced “yama.” In Spanish, a double “L” bears a “Y” sound. The teacher shook her head no and insisted it was pronounced “lah-mah,” with the “L” clearly enunciated. I didn’t budge. I knew I was right.

Yet our constant linguistic tennis match finally made a few of her precious brain synapses explode, and she literally yelled at me to shut up and pronounce the word the way she saw fit – with that Anglicized “L” sound.

A near-deadly pall enveloped the room like a tsunami accosting a beachfront. Everyone fell silent, and the teacher ordered me to remain after class. My heart sank, and my stomach felt hollow.

After my fellow students departed, the teacher stuck a well-manicured fingernail into my quivering face and told me never to question her authority again. “Do you understand me?” she growled.

A weak “Yes, ma’am” tumbled from my lips. That evening at dinner I recounted the entire episode to my parents. This time they didn’t offer any coy suggestions for me to remain quiet. Arriving at school the next morning, both of them promptly entered the building with me and demanded to speak with that teacher.

The principal, a feisty and intimidating nun named Jean, told them they either had to make an appointment or wait until an upcoming parent-teacher conference.

My father, who was growing increasingly disillusioned with Roman Catholicism altogether, leaned forward onto the paper-cluttered desk and said, “Jean, get her in here now, or I’ll go find her and drag her ass in here myself.”

Sister Jean’s eyes widened, and her self-righteous demeanor crumbled faster than a Ku Klux Klansman accidentally entering the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with a suitcase full of Christian bibles. The lay teacher arrived, and, as I waited outside by the secretary’s desk, she tried to explain her side of the story. My parents had always been renegades, but they were also fair. I don’t know what all was said amongst them, but my father made it clear that she was never to yell at or humiliate me in front of the class. He and my mother also made that teacher realize my pronunciation of the word “llama” was correct. Technically, everything was settled, but she still gave me a “B” for that spring semester. It didn’t matter. I graduated from the school shortly thereafter and was more than glad to get the hell out of there.

Neither of those situations diminished my love and passion for the written word. I’ve remained an avid reader and writer. And, just like I resisted the demands of those two teachers to think and behave differently, I’ve resisted any attempts to downgrade my intellect or circumvent my literary aspirations. As we stand on the threshold of this pioneering electronic medium called blogging, I think of the countless writers and poets who simply wouldn’t give up on their dreams to describe the world as they see it, or to tell the truth as they know it. I’m a strong advocate of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees free speech. But the power of the written word transcends that.

Writers have always been at the forefront of social and political changes. Powerful elites have tried to silence us; lest the truth gets out to the otherwise loyal masses who then should dare to forget their places in a carefully-structured society – places designated by those same powerful elites. Education and literacy are the best tools against tyranny and oppression. Once someone learns how to read and write, they start to think for themselves. And, while that’s good for society as a whole; for some, it forebodes danger. It’s why, for centuries, the Catholic Church tried to keep books out of the hands of commoners, especially women. It’s why, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, some Whites tried to do the same with the freed Negro slaves.

In more recent years, a number of journalists have been murdered in México, as they covered that nation’s ongoing war against the drug cartels and linked some of that violence to government and law enforcement officials.

Of course, composing short stories for my blog or recounting skirmishes with haughty nuns and teachers doesn’t constitute a battle against repression. But, from the moment some six millennia ago, when an unknown individual in the Sumerian desert carved the emblem of a human head in conjunction with a fish to indicate eating, writing has been an essential and inescapable attribute of our existence. I observe, from the comfort of my suburban home, the battles between police and drug lords in México and wonder if any of them are aware that a form of writing arose in the central part of that country around 600 B.C. Do they even realize how significant that is, not just in México’s history, but the history of the world?

I swing my attention to the mountains of landlocked Afghanistan and question if any of the men training to attack Europe and the U.S. in the name of Islam realize their ancestors corresponded frequently about such matters as the possibility of an afterlife and how birds stay aloft. How did that area reach the 16th century and become stuck there?

I remain passionate about literature and education, even in this increasingly digital world where cell phone text messages have become the norm. I have no less than 400 books crammed into my home, placed neatly on shelves or stacked atop one another. They cover everything from art to political science. Moreover, I have scores of magazines: “National Geographic,” “International Artist,” “The Sun,” “Indian” and the “Smithsonian.” And I keep adding to my repertoire. My only hope is that I get to read them all before I die, and even then, maybe carry them with me into the afterlife.

Regardless of what happens anywhere in the world, I know we writers will win the ongoing battles against ignorance and arrogance. Whether we have to stay after class for daring to question a teacher over the pronunciation of a single word, or stand before a hostile government that only wants so much of the truth to get out into the world, writers will always win. Even if we have to die for it.

Image: Mr. Dowling.

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