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.

ltaylor_signature

 

 

 

LETs Blog    

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.

ltaylor_signature

 

 

 

 

LETs Blog    

 

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.

ltaylor_signature

 

 

 

 

LetsBlog

Wake Up! Wake Up, You Sleepyhead…

It was pointed out to me last spring that my experience with written storytelling might benefit others if I cared to go on the road with a how-to show-and-tell. My novel Elgan and Grace was in fact, a collection of such stories, albeit with editorial massaging and continuity. Did I want to share my “secrets?”

Several Dallas area retirement communities wanted their folks to hear about it, and now, in August, at the Senior Center in Richardson Texas, I would walk before a classroom of budding writers with lots of life in the rearview mirror, and plenty of free time.

It was about noon-thirty when I arrived at the Center on Arapaho Avenue. As a writer, my mind never stops, so I’ve become a functioning insomniac. My brain writes twenty-five hours a day whether I’m at my desk or shopping or cooking or restlessly pillowed in search of a few hours of REM. I’m often getting to sleep just before sunup. So, dopey with a sleep deficit, I began setting up my white board, arranging my notes for the podium, squirting Visine into my puffy, blood-shot peepers, and slapping myself across the face.

People began to arrive in some numbers. Every performer knows a good audience will feed you all the energy you need. All you need to do is know your stuff. Continue reading

Water the Flowers, Not the Weeds.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was hurting. Younger than I by a dozen years, he appeared to be older. “Davey” (not his real name) was nearly crippled by diabetes and its side effects. I made it a point to visit him at least five days a week to go for a drive or to get groceries, to sit in the park and talk about baseball, politics, or nothing. I would call Davey around noon to ask if his afternoon was free. Deeply depressed by his infirmities and by his loneliness and by his apparent failure to ‘get a break,’ Davey would reply with the same lament, “I’ve got no place to go and no way to get there.”

He was also broke.

One day he told me he’d made a list of all his damages as a way of determining the size of the mountain he must climb.

That seemed a poor investment of time and effort. But I’ve learned that sermonizing from a lofty position of apparent stability serves little benefit for one afflicted with misfortune, nor does it help a friendship. So I’d just listen and nod. Continue reading

Movies for Boys Who Would Be Men

Part One:  Curriculum 101 – Eleven Good Ones

Recently, after seeing trailers for the post-modern re-boot of The Lone Ranger, I had to reflect on my personal experience with the 1930s radio origins of that classic American myth.

More than a few followers of LETs Blog responded, not all on this blog site (more on that later*), but all voiced strong opinions about the moral and intellectual sludge that passes for quality entertainment in this Age of Corruption. (If you think I’m just a grouchy old man, you’re only half right; I was also a grouchy young man.)

As I visited with these cultural compadres I recalled a list of movies I’d cobbled together a few years ago for my very young grandsons (who ignored it). They are older now, but the list has remained largely intact (and still ignored). A few titles have been removed, because they were redundant or didn’t age well. Others have been added or shifted about, because I’m smarter than I was.

These are not what I call “Bambi” movies. (No offence to baby deer lovers, but you get my meaning.) They represent the types of stories that informed my understanding of virtues which define a civilized person. These films feature no zombies, no vampires, no robots.

There is also no P.C. And no B.S.

Because reality is harsh for many youngsters in any era, the messages that resonate with them are not dry sermons or syrupy treacle. The images and ideas that stick in the mind are rooted in ages-old experience of risk, failure, loss, cruelty, and sometimes victory in spite of it all. But none of it comes without a price.

This article offers only a partial list for beginners. I call it Curriculum 101. It is for boys at least 12-14, depending upon their ability to sit still. For perspective and without reservation, though, be assured that each of these gems will deliver satisfaction for men and women of any age. As they have for me. And still do.

Now… Ready projection! Lights out please… And… ROLL ‘em!

LET’s Curriculum 101 (age12+)

1. The Shootist; (Manliness, pain, boy/man conflict. John Wayne)

2. Twelve O’Clock High (Valor in real wartime. Gregory Peck)

3. The Cowboys (Under stress, boys become men. John Wayne)

4. Chariots of Fire (Moral conviction, perseverance, Olympics.)

5. Rudy (boy’s perseverance, collegiate football.)

6. Red Badge of Courage (Cowardice, heroism, Civil War. Audie Murphy)

7. Black Beauty (Heroism – boy and valiant horse)

8. Jeremiah Johnson (Mountain men, 19th century. Robert Redford)

9. Field Of Dreams (Baseball fantasy, father/son. Kevin Costner)

10. Bad Day at Black Rock (Loner battles bad men. Spencer Tracy)

11. Wind and the Lion (Powerful adventure. East vs West. Sean Connery)

 

This is just a taste. Any suggestions? I’m open. *Speak up – talk to each other!

 

Onward.

ltaylor_signature

LETsBlog

 

References.

All the movies on this list are available on DVD, for purchase or for rent.

  1. Amazon www.Amazon.com
  2. Turner Classic Movies www.TCM.com
  3. Blockbuster www.blockbuster.com
  4. Netflix www.netflix.com

In Your Face: Part Two

Observation: By L.E. Taylor

It’s been said that we end up with the face we’ve earned.  It’s also true that too many people not only deny the notion, but are so obsessed about it that they pay huge sums to have surgeons remove the evidence.

Be that as it may (or may not be), there are some excellent old kissers around that reflect wisdom, honesty, kindness, and hard-won battles with sorrow. And so much of it is beautiful. No, not the same skin-deep ‘beautiful’ that wowed ‘em forty years ago, but a refinement that says, ‘a life has been lived, and a price paid.’

Toward the end of his life, the movie star John Wayne made overtures to all kinds of people who’d disapproved of his Red-White-and-Blue politics, and of himself personally.  He was invited, sarcastically, to come to Harvard University to receive an “honor.” He accepted. When he arrived on campus, the sponsoring leftist student group supplied the vehicle in which he was to enter The Yard: A WWII vintage Sherman tank. Wayne laughed and climbed aboard. Moments later, having run the gauntlet of taunts, the sick and haggard “Duke” arrived in the lecture hall and mounted the stage where he took questions.  He handled the first pointed political thrusts with grace and intelligence, then the floor-mic was handed to a young fellow who asked bluntly, “Do you look at yourself as a great American hero?” A twinkle came into the old man’s eye and he replied, “Son, I don’t look at myself any more than I have to.”

The map inscribed upon The Duke’s face was beyond help from any lighting expert or makeup genius. But the sparkle in his eye won the day even in the camp of a hardened foe.

Going through my family archives for photos to use in these blogs, I came upon one of myself, at least forty years ago.  I was a Midwestern version, then, of what came to be known in this next century, as a Mad-Man. (Madison Avenue “ad man”). Hmm. So later I sidled up to a mirror and was jolted. Who’s that?

I remembered the John Wayne story. Life has done its job on me. We don’t stay the same, but guess what:  We do keep our souls. Maybe you’re still movie star handsome, and maybe it’ll survive. But trust me, you will ripen. Or you’re well along the way right now. Good for you. Good for us.

Go have a look at the old photos. And the looking glass, too. And don’t be sad. Don’t regret. Return to the moments that still live. And be thankful.

Onward.

ltaylor_signature

LETsBlog

 

Practice, Man.

Opinion: By L.E. Taylor 

There’s an old joke that has an out-of-towner stopping a fellow carrying a fiddle case on 6th Avenue, and asking, “Uh, pardon me. Can you tell me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

The guy answers, “Practice, man. Practice.”

The advice is not merely colloquial. Nor even artistic. It is universal for all of us – professional, amateur, and plebeian. If we seek to enjoy life in full, we must expose ourselves relentlessly to what’s been accomplished by the doers – to standards of excellence, and ultimately, courageously, to our own flawed selves as works-in-progress.

The point is not only to humbly acknowledge our momentary limitations, but also to reveal our unexplored potential.

Decades ago, I read an autobiography by Charlton Heston, An Actor’s Life. It was based upon a diary he’d kept over his first twenty years in Hollywood. Among many lessons I took from the book was a simple truism, “The more we do a thing, the better we get at it.” Heston also remarked upon how “easy” he had been on himself in his shortcomings, and how he would change that, given the chance.

About the same time in my young manhood, I was preparing to travel to New York City to consider moving into a life of what would be called, these many years later, the “Mad Men.” Translation: 1960s Madison Avenue and all the sin-and-sizzle it implied. Before leaving the Midwest, I was given words of advice by an experienced advertising CEO from my home state. He said: “Don’t sell yourself short; you are better than most of the people they see; remember, talent recognizes talent.”

Then he said, almost to himself, “What’s ‘good’ may be subjective, but there’s a common thread: Taste is educated perception.”

I can’t remember the man’s name, but I didn’t have to look up his admonition; it was seared into my brain before the waiter brought the luncheon check.

I’ve poured thousands of hours into feeding my ‘perception’. Now four decades later, my worldview is seasoned by experience in combat. Bloodless corporate combat, certainly, not the heroic D-Day kind. But in its time-and-place, it was urgent mundane struggle, nonetheless. We who strive know about exposing oneself to failure. Whether it’s playing the piano, or playing rugby; or hitting a curve ball, or raising a heifer and a crop of corn to feed her, you won’t fully appreciate it unless you’ve tried to do it.

The same is true of writing. Except for one caveat: when you sound a sour piano chord or fan on a fastball, the evidence is there for all to see and you’re the goat. But with a lousy page of writing, you can get away with it unless someone who knows better is there to read it and to tell you it stinks.

So practice, kid. Practice. And don’t take it easy on yourself, just work.

Onward.

ltaylor_signature

LETsBlog