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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And Worth Every Penny

Shared opinion about “free advice”.
Observation & Opinion By  L.E.Taylor

When I first addressed the notion of writing a weekly article and then actually posting it for public consumption, I was daunted by the responsibility. And the risk. The whole idea, for me, was not for narcissistic exposure, but was simply an exercise in thinking and writing. In that order.

I finally decided it would be good practice, sort of like daily finger exercises for a pianist, so why not?

Of course, I’d be writing about things I care about subjectively, so as always, I drafted some guidelines in the form of a note to myself. Here are the top five:

  1. No partisan politics. There’s already a glut of more heat than light on that important, but often counter-productive, market.
  2. A forum. Encourage thoughtful conversation among readers. Some of these would be friends, or would become friends; some would appear as sojourners, moved to reach out in good will.
  3. Worthy content. Comment on cultural matters – e.g., the arts, especially writing and film; societal issues that would benefit from congenial banter; remembrances of my personal experiences; and random observations for amusement and stimulation.
  4. Keep it brief. I started out trying to limit my scribbling to four hundred words. Good luck with that.
  5. Humility. Respect the intelligence and perspectives of a universe of readers who arrive with whole treasuries of their own, derived from histories no less interesting or valid than mine.

And so on.

Regarding Point Five – this cautions against imposing free advice. I have learned the hard way that such a commodity is often worth every penny. But there’s another side to it.

Recently, I have been notified my two separate friends (actual “friends,” not the Facebook kind) that their households have been invaded by the terrifying specter of cancer. This is a delicate matter. And I do know a little about it. However, much of what I “know” is the result of personal experience and the digging I’ve done as a layman to learn about new  alternatives that might complement excellent mainline medical practice.

What should I say to tormented people I care about?

My first response is to offer prayer through my network of “Prayer Warriors.” These are believers of multiple Judeo-Christian denominations, as well as a number of good people with no formal religious traditions at all.

But I also have opinions. In particular, leanings that inform the age old question, “WWLD?” (Get it?) What Would Larry Do?

Well, there are certain things that I’ve already done. And others that I’ve witnessed; some that worked, others that have not – in traditional medical practice, and among the “alternative” regimes. Both.

So, just this morning, I came across an interesting essay by a gifted young investigative writer, Rebecca Furdek. She suggests that the matter of giving colloquial advice is a free speech consideration.

Understand, Ms Furdek is not in favor of muddying the waters with a lot of half-baked palaver; in fact, she points out it isn’t necessary – the professional options are out there for all seekers to access for informed decision-making.

No need to volunteer advice over the back fence about treating cancer, or investing in gold, or how to cure male pattern baldness. The issue, she says, is not whether conversation is in order or misguided. The worry is, instead, a pernicious regulatory “creep” that is placing quasi-legal constraints on even talking about such matters.

Have a look at her fascinating findings at Townhall.com. That is, if you want to. I’m just going to say my prayers and shut up about it.

Onward.

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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

A Boyhood in Detroit

Remembrance; Commentary – by L.E.Taylor, author of Elgan and Grace

In the Eastside neighborhood where I grew up there was an understanding among families: When the streetlights come on, the boys go home. Enforcement was the job of parents; no-nonsense reminders by adults on street corners were not uncommon.

Within a couple of generations after the new century dawned, Detroit had drawn a flood of laborers from farms and mines in the South, from Canada across the river, and from afflicted peoples beyond our shores. Quickly, the town became a city of homeowners. (By mid-century, at well over 70%, it had far and away the highest per capita home ownership of American cities.) For most, the homes were their first, mortgaged on the strength of dependable employment in the planet’s greatest industrial metropolis.

Inside the homes that comprised each neighborhood lived a family. A tiny nuclear corporation, headed by a father and a mother. Their property was precious beyond its financial worth. Continue reading

In Your Face

Observation: By L.E. Taylor

A hippie hottie once told me, “You have a very old soul.” She said it soulfully of course.

I knew the Seventies argot, so I took it as a compliment. She was saying I was not superficial. Or something. I don’t recall a clever reposte. In fact I don’t remember anything except how it added to another languid day at the Art Fair. I think.

The remark came back to me last week as I riffled through my archive of family photographs. Many of them go back to the nineteenth century (18 hunnerds, y’all). There’s my wonderfully tough-minded maternal Grandma, Helena, ramrod straight in her impossibly starched Victorian getup and penz-nez specs. And that’s her husband Fred (my mother’s Papa), in Sunday finery and a handlebar moustache, looking nothing like the circa 1915 Detroit shop mechanic who’d been taught to read by Grandma. Advancing through the folders and envelopes, I mused over the changes in my own mother and father over the years, years that I’d been witness to. Decades of hard work and risk and success… of losses, too, and of searing pain. Still, the images were benign, reassuring.

My own photos are more jarring. Not merely the usual transformation from plump undistinguished babyhood to early teen goofiness and then to another character altogether. In those maturing years, something else showed up. I’m not going to tell you what I saw, except to say it was unsettling. I may write a book on it. (No, not the Dorian Grey thing.)

But for now I suggest to you, fellow blogger – as we grow to know each other, that on some rainy afternoon, when you have nothing to do but watch idiocy on The Box, you take out your old photos, all of them. Take your time. Try to hear your Mom speak to you again. Jostle again, in the byways of your mind, with your kid brother or big sister. Be small again peering upward to a tall world. Listen to your young thoughts. Smell the fragrances of the kitchen, of the fresh mown lawn, of the lilac or musk scent you first slapped on when you were thirteen. Relive that instant with the family all together by the Christmas tree… or be surprised by a long-lens grab-shot a lifetime ago at the Art Fair.

Then behold that photograph of yourself. The young one. Not a class portrait, but a snapshot of an instant of gaiety, of innocent, dumb, existential mindlessness. I did. I was way more handsome than I remember. And am probably way more ugly now than I think.

What happened? Life.

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To be continued… next time.