One More Time

Observations on cashing in or cashing out, by L.E. Taylor

Every accomplished writer knows the principle of re-writing. No work of art is born whole. Classical painters were, first of all, draftsmen; all the greats are admired as much for their notebooks and folios of sketches that preceded their grand-scale works as they are for the murals and canvases that adorn, centuries later, the walls of time.

Refinements come with each iteration of an idea. So do fresh insights buried dormant in the preliminary noodling that passes for first drafts. Early in life, we are impatient with the notion that our first attempt at anything is nowhere near its potential. Only as the brain matures, and we continue to work, are our skills honed to mastery.

Practice, man, practice.

Today, it seems that anyone who can make an angry mess on a cheap canvas board or spout puerile obscenities on a stage or movie screen is an “artist.” (For reference please consider recording artists, then go to your Webster’s and look up “travesty”.) Generations ago, artists devoted themselves to apprenticeship for years of their often short, sometimes hungry, lives. Mentored by master practitioners, they learned their craft. Talent is God’s gift for each of us to develop. It cannot be taught. Craft is the language of talent, without craft talent is stillborn. However, un-accompanied by talent, the mastered craft is still a craft, a valuable set of skills and acquired taste that can carry a person far.

As a mentor to novice writers, both young and old, one encounters as many diversions of personality and aptitude as there are pupils. Varying degrees of student talent and readiness to work frame the teacher’s challenge. And lure the teacher’s hope.

In my own experience as a self-taught artist, as an athlete, and as an ever-maturing writer, all of this has been borne out. So my view of the process is neither a selfish bias nor an observation worth arguing about with tyros. In recent years, I’ve also seen the model played out among people who’ve enrolled in my workshops.

Some students, with meager writing in their past, or brief attempts abandoned for want of craft, have made remarkable gains in both fluency and content. They arrived eager to learn and with an appetite for enjoyment. In a matter of one or two sessions these diverse women and men began to take charge of their gifts and use them to enrich their own minds.

Others, with the same potential – in some cases, even more in the way of life-adventures and searing experience – arrived doubting. Not doubting the instructor or the drill, but doubting themselves. Pity. I am reminded of an old quote: If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, either way, you’re right.

Does it come down to an unwillingness to edit and refine one’s writing? Hardly ever. Yes, it’s work, but the fuel for all toil is the belief in a worthy goal, and the rejection of doubts about yourself.

Have you ever said, “Oh, I’ve read Huckleberry Finn – in high school,” and used that as reason never to go back to it? Think about it; you were a kid. Go read it again. After decades of maturing, you may appreciate Mark Twain’s insights as an adult writer and commenter on America. The same is true of beloved music or drama. How many times can you enjoy My Fair Lady, or La Boheme, or Macbeth, or your Frank Sinatra collection? Just once?

Consider your Bible. After long respites of time and troubles of the flesh, many adults return to Scripture. One may discover a depth and a new spiritual banquet un-savored years before by the fidgety teen you were in catechism or in Sunday school.

“Review” is a good, solid English word that factors into the intellectual growth equation. When we re-view (that is, “see again”), we change. Our perceptions gradually modify with experience. But a youth of any era cannot grasp the notion that it may be in our very nature to evolve into another person.

A few years ago the drug-stoned Hollywood actor and notorious sixties rebel Dennis Hopper was interviewed by Rolling Stone (or Mother Jones or somebody). The interviewer mused that Hopper was once the epitome of drop-out anti-establishment anarchy. He asked the middle aged actor how he’d emerged now, in the 1980s, from years of wild excesses as its opposite: a TV spokesman for American Express, and a registered Republican. Hair neatly slicked back, clad in a trim dark suit, with white shirt and striped silk tie, Mr. Hopper replied, “Hey, man, I grew up.”

Onward.

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The Youthening Brain

Our “choose life!” option – an observation, by L.E. Taylor 

“I don’t have any stories,” Brenda insisted. “Certainly not any happy ones.”

Brenda had been badgered by her Red Hatter friends for months about joining them in a memoir-writing workshop that they’d been attending since last year. Red Hatters is a national association of women, 55-and-over. Their mission is to enrich the lives of their members through myriad activities, cultural adventures, and supportive sisterhood.

Brenda’s two ‘Sisters-in-the-Hat’ had derived pleasure from their writing sessions and assignments, and more, they had begun to enjoy their storytelling adventures in fellowship with others. Finally, tired of the good-natured hassle from her pals, Brenda had given in and attended a class.

The class turned out to be more than wistful gabbing (and complaining) about old times and a little half-baked noodling on note paper. The classes were disciplined and literary. The very term “memoirs” is daunting to any writer; for sixty-to-ninety-year olds, it ranks in appeal up there with pole vaulting. But this class was not about fancy book-writing; it required nothing short of – or for that matter, beyond – skilled storytelling. And it started, no-nonsense, with the Truth.

What is it about aging that seems to dope men and women into a stupor of passive audience-mode? It wasn’t always so. A century ago men worked until they couldn’t; what else was there to do? After all, we were not born to loaf, but to till God’s garden. And women beyond child-bearing age, were finally seasoned to wisely shepherd the responsible rearing of grandchildren.

Old fashioned? Male chauvinism? Fine; show the soul-satisfaction that accrues from a steady regimen of The View, The Ellen Show, and bunko games. Or for that matter, non-stop billiards or geriatric duffing about in electric carts.

It came to light in the first class that Brenda was not only a self-reliant seasoned woman who’d grown from childhood poverty to determined accomplishment as a seamstress, but she was also an attractive, youngish seventy-year old with a wonderful sense of humor. And, by the way, she was defying mid-stage cancer.

When Brenda had learned of her affliction, well before she joined the class, she’d consulted with herself and decided what she would do to save her life and what she would not do. For a time, she endured the rigors of aggressive chemo, survived it, and now with medical supervision, has put her mind and her spirit to wellness.

Brenda has been in that storytelling workshop with her Red Hatter sisters for a couple of months. Her writing, from day one, has been excellent. It has never even touched upon her health issues. On her fourth active week in the workshop, she strode to the podium and read her remembrance of childhood on the family’s hard-scrabble farm in Minnesota. The title was “The Wood Workers”. It began:

Maude and Charlie took up more than their share of the barn, or so it seemed to me as a child. They were a team of huge work horses. Bred to pull heavy loads…

The simple prose, through the eyes of a nine-year-old farm girl, progressed through four finely crafted paragraphs and the essay concluded…

Like many other work horses, Maude and Charlie outlived their usefulness and were sold. They were replaced by tractors and other equipment and a way of life was gone.

God bless those among us who choose to use their brains and share their spirits until there is no more. It was His intent.

Onward.

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Right There in Black & White

Memories of an ex-munchkin among young women and summer breezes, by L. E. Taylor 

The diversions of television and Internet notwithstanding, we who have more life in the rearview mirror than through the windshield often find ourselves drifting off the road and into the past.

Recently, I found myself stock still in the living room with a glass of merlot in one hand and the TV remote in the other. Then I was gone.

The year was 1942. It was summer at my old Auntie Kane’s house on the Canadian shore of Lake St. Clair. I’d been sent across the river and into this bucolic yesteryear by my parents to protect me from the annual hot weather curse of cities: polio. Infantile paralysis, it was called, and it loomed over every household, in every neighborhood.

My Auntie (actually, my “great aunt,” my Grandma’s sister) was a widow whose only asset was a two story summer home built in 1912 by her late husband Will, a nineteenth century British emigrant, speedboat whiskey runner, illegal Detroit saloon proprietor, real estate speculator, and family character. Because the Kane’s had lost it all, as the saying goes, in the 1929-30 Crash, Minnie Kane was dependent for income upon a parade of family members and friends from the old days, and the pals they brought along for weekends in the cooling breezes off the blue lake.

That first year, 1942, was a test to see if I could handle June, July, and most of August on the lakeshore and permanently away from my mother and father, my baby brother, and my neighborhood chums (I could). Also, they needed to see if they could handle it (they could, too). So, summers during the War came to mean Canada for me. Not only did I meet a lot of interesting adults of all types and humours, but also (young men being away on urgent business, in uniform), a good portion of these folks were women. Young women.

Now I was only eight when the parade began, but as summers advanced, so did my curiosity about adult ways. I learned a lot. When the adults were relaxed on holiday at Auntie’s, they spoke freely among themselves – about politics, business, sports, sex. Well, the man-woman thing didn’t have a word connected to it then, but the phenomenon was present, always. My parents and their circles of couples would play gin rummy or poker indoors or Indian dice out on a sunny blanket; the men would go golfing; everyone swam in the sandy shallows of the clear lake; meals were always uproariously entertaining and the humor was always ironic and irreverent and full of salty information for the only kid there.

And he was certainly there. Always right there, not missing a syllable or a nuance. In fact, he wrote a book about it.

Many of the long forgotten bits of information little Larry absorbed in those four summers came from the brides and girlfriends of absent young warriors. The military men were my heroes, especially the Marines and the fliers. One of Auntie’s summer girls was married to an Air Corps pilot named Burton, which fascinated me. Her name was Pat. Then there was Mary, and Peg, and Ruth; these three only had boyfriends who were overseas. They were always gabbing, joking, and sometimes one would retreat into herself. They were all lonely. They masked the loneliness with an edgy gaiety that would come in bursts and then disappear like a summer lake squall.

And I was always there.

One day, they were talking about a movie that made a big impression. They settled into a serious conversation about it. Its title intrigued me. I asked what’s it about? Pat did a double take as though to say, “What? Are you still here?” Mary said, “It’s about a homely girl who meets a handsome man who’s engaged to a pretty woman. He goes off to war and comes back with his face all scarred up and ugly. When others are around, they are both ugly, when they’re alone in the cottage you see what they see, two beautiful people.”

Well, I never saw The Enchanted Cottage, but it did show up sixty-nine years later in my living room in Dallas Texas.

Black and white. Good movie.

Onward.

 

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Coming soon, essay: When Movies Didn’t Need Color.

 

 

 

The Whittler

Allegory: Dedicated to my student story writers, by L.E. Taylor

The forest floor welcomes its seedlings each spring. Most are consumed by animals or smothered in decay and added to the loam. A sprout will reach for the light above and, though rarely, if enough sunlight flickers through the great-grandfather’s greening canopy to its wee place, it will become a sapling. It will continue, season by season to strive for the sun. Fewer and fewer of the saplings live to full tree-ness. As great-great grandfathers go the way of the Great Plan, the rare chosen sapling still drinks at the earth’s breast, gains height and grows closer to the nourishing golden Source of Life. In time men arrive and select which of the trees would serve them. The sapling had grown to grand-fatherness when the men chose him. Before they could take him a great storm came, the season was spent, and they left.

Many years before, a young man had built a house high on a hillock at the edge of the forest. He’d built a plain little house for his bride. They farmed the land down near the stream and then built more rooms as their family grew. A barn and a corral, a shed, and a good, deep well made life nearly complete. One year, the not so young man built a railed porch across the front of the house. With the forest behind and the whole valley spread out beyond the stream as far as he could see, the place had become a good home. At day’s end, with work done, the family would gather on the porch for supper. Sometimes they would read aloud, the children would play. Sometimes they would retreat into themselves and watch the sun set across the river, beyond the valley.

The change did not come all at once. It never does. A baby died. The daughters grew discontent; one married young, the other wanted college and got her way. The eldest son was a strong worker and loved the farm, but modern times required proper education even for a farmer and one summer he left for the state college. Soon after, the youngest boy went off to war. When the man’s wife took ill, it was the first time in forty years, and it became the last. Each day the man walked his hillside in loneliness and grief. One morning, strolling a path through the woods, his way was blocked by a heavy branch, thick and fully leafed, split from its parent-bole in the night’s violent storm. It emitted a freshness of life. For no reason known to the grieving man, he headed for home, dragging the massive branch behind.

And so it was, he found himself at the side of his sturdy porch, with an over-size tree branch. And a jackknife.

The old man dreamed of his bittersweet past and he puzzled over the terror of his destiny, and aimlessly he began to winnow down the leafy father branch he’d drug home with such effort and so little reason. Next day, he walked around the great twisted limb and he began to whittle.

Hour upon hour, at first uncertainly, then with sinew, he pared away. As a Renaissance sculptor divining some mystic masterpiece within a  block of dead granite, he carved images. Alone and in the company of only his honed knife blade and the oaken tree limb, he whittled. Days gentled into nights, and again into days. Weeks became a seamless, restful eternity as the dead branch became what God had made it for.

And the old man became young again.

Onward.

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