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

Love, Hate and Half-baked Writing

Observation & Opinion By L.E.Taylor

The opposite of love is not hate.

The opposite of love is indifference. I heard that somewhere and after a lot of thought – and a lot of living, it made sense. Indifference means not caring. Hate is something else. Hate cares.

Hate is focused. It has a purpose, a target. Just like love. Passionate, sensual love (eros); brotherly, congenial love (philos); spiritual, selfless love (agape). All are bred into us. The Bible tells us, and I’ve had an inspired moment or two that assured me: God is Love.

Well, if you acknowledge that hate is also focused, and has an objective, then you may come to understand the problem good people have when confronted with evil. They are looking into the mirror. Darkly.

Tricky stuff when you’re trying to write truthfully and you want to keep it positive and sunny.

I found myself down this rabbit hole a couple of weeks ago when I was organizing some old books on my shelf and came upon the 1950s classic The True Believer by the magnificent Eric Hoffer.

I always play a trick on myself with a “new” book – I flip the pages without looking and let it stop at random. (Try this with your Bible some night instead of staring at X-Factor.) The True Believer is a slim little paperback, a mere 168 pages and deeply footnoted. The book fell open to a passage on page 95:  Chapter XIV, Unifying Agents. Subtopic, “Hatred.”

Hoffer was no sissy academic; he was a tough, lifelong drifter, for 25 years a San Francisco stevedore (longshoreman) of rough Middle European peasant stock, and he looked it. By 1953, his cerebral musings had brought him fame as a learned, articulate mid-century commentator on the times. Eric Hoffer wrote four treatises “in his spare time, while living in the railroad yards.”

The premise of True Believer, his most famous book, is that there is a common thread that runs through all obsessed advocates of causes, political, religious, humanitarian, revolutionary. He explores what attracts ready followers to such monsters as Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and their great predecessor, Napoleon. Common people are persuaded to surrender their freedom to the will of an angry sociopath who has provided them with something to hate.

So? What’s the point?

Lately, I’ve found myself leading a series of workshops for people who’ve stored up a lot of life and are motivated to write about it. Call it “memoir writing” or “family history”. I keep the topic simple: Great Storytelling.

Because these seasoned veterans of life are mining their own memories for stories, the product is by nature, subjective. Lots of judgments, revelations, emotions, and conclusions. No study. Just honest “remembrance(s) of things past.”

Before long, though, an honest writer finds him/herself staring at a sentence that is true, but troubling. An answer is needed. A moral resolution. As promised five months ago, this series of anecdotes and essays will not be a soapbox. But it is a forum. You are expected to comment. But…

To help make sense of what we writers are moved to send out for others to read, I believe our wits are sharpened by reading what others have written – not merely for the craftsmanship, but also to observe the spiritual wrestling match that informs quality thinking.

Eric Hoffer is one of those clear thinkers. There are countless others.

Also, please consider C. S. Lewis; among his finest contributions (beyond The Chronicles of Narnia) are Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Four Loves. Two anthologies gathered by Bill Bennett are Our Sacred Honor (verbatim letters and notes by America’s Founders); and The Book of Virtues (stories, myth, cultural lore about our moral and intellectual past).

These are not dry tomes. They are full of the juice of life. Their content  used to be taught, not only in colleges, but also in high schools, and – read it and weep – elementary home rooms across these prairies.

Look around you. Do you see a vibrant world of bravely energetic seekers? Or somewhere along the line, has the nourishment of wisdom and virtue been scrubbed from the cultural memory and replaced with tasty junk food with lots of calories and no nutrition?

Loving to read is one thing. Hating to think is part of human nature that must be defeated in order to produce writing that’s worth reading. The consequences are all around us: half-baked conclusions, drift, and indifference.

Onward.

ltaylor_signature

 

 

 

Let’s Blog

If I Should Wake Before I Die

A Warning to the Zombie Nation
Observation & Opinion by L.E. Taylor

Yesterday, I met a remarkable woman. We’ll call her B’ushka.

B’ushka is one of sixty or so amazing men and women I’ve met over the past couple of months, all of them people who’ve found their way to one of my lectures in north Texas retirement communities. The topic of these talks was originally “Memoir Writing,” but it’s found its true branding under the simple moniker, “Great Storytelling.” This one-hour talk shares what I learned about mining one’s memories as I wrote down the stories that comprise my book, Elgan and Grace – A Twentieth Century Saga.

Well, sharing is part of it, yes, however the point of the one hour talk is not to brag about my book, but to assert that we all have stories to tell – and here’s how to do it.

These folks arrive, twenty-to-forty at each event, most in their seventies and eighties, writing materials in hand, to see if it’s true – that they really might reclaim a time and place where the first scenes of their own play were performed. That’s the hope: to grasp a tiny moment between thumb and forefinger, gently retrieve it from a dead past, and bring it back to life by writing about it.

They want to bring it back for many reasons.

B’ushka speaks with an English accent. But when she first spoke to me, I recognized the hint of a more exotic dialect. I will not divulge what she’s already confided in me, except to reveal that at the age of two, she was living with her parents in a Soviet gulag. The rest is a tale that must only be told by B’ushka. I’m willing to help her, if she wants me to.

These weekly blog essays are not merely some self-indulgent adventure in narcissism. They’re part of my own late-term commitment to choosing life. The storytelling lectures and workshops are another. They are all part of the process that began twenty-six years ago when I found myself disgorging a fragment of family lore onto a yellow pad. Soon I was transcribing it onto a tiny computer screen. I was hooked.

The mysterious process led to longer narrative, then in a couple of years it became a novel. It might even morph into a movie. But first, I had to set aside the reasons I couldn’t do it, and just… write.

How many among us go through life in a trance? Not doing the very things that can reveal a new life waiting to be lived. Look about you. A fog of mediocrity enervates a lot of people we know, and they opt for the easy cynicism of defeat.

Why is one’s potential rejected when the alternative is death?

Consider the evil plague that has snuffed out the great City of Detroit. Just a few decades ago my hometown was a world-class paradigm for industrial, financial, and cultural civilization. Today, we’ve seen the evidence of political corruption, lazy greed, and moral sloth. How many among us see this destruction and hideous waste, and just wring their hands? They aren’t angry, they are “sad.”

I have other words.

The amazing place once called Detroit is a main character in my book. But its historic truth bears no resemblance to the corpse that molders in its place. I am not sad; I’m furious. Old Detroit didn’t die; it was murdered. How do I know? Because I remember. I choose to remember.

Living a life of passive dissatisfaction cannot be the cosmic plan for anything with such astounding creative ability as the human mind. Consider the root of the word “inspiration” – spirit, the very breath of life.

But the stamina of our society seems to be slumbering away. Numb between the ears, slumped for decades staring at the TV or the Xbox, people remain mute members of a zombie audience. No ambition to mount the stage or take the field.

Or to get out of the gulag.

I remember the first little prayer I was taught by my German grandma:

Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

It was comforting, I guess, to an Old European world of fear and short lives. That always seemed to me kind of grim for a child’s last thought at bedtime. It still does. Too soon for that! Wake up! Whether you’re six or ninety-six, wouldn’t you rather choose life? Me too.

Just wait till you read B’ushka’s story!

Onward.

ltaylor_signature

 

 

 

 

Let’s Blog

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

The Kindest Cuts

They call us “story tellers”, tellers of tales.

But what’s a story? For some of us, telling a story well is a daily struggle against that old Puritan demon, self-indulgence. Left to our sinful ways, we’d bang out lyrical riffs of purple prose, redundant stretches of turgid dialog, and run-on sentences that may parse, but are not worth the trouble. (Like this one?)

By training and through serious reading, writers get to know a lot of words. And by temperament we fall in love with many of them. The French language has about 43,000 conversational words. English, our magnificent hybrid tongue, currently books about 1.02 million. It’s not easy sitting here and avoiding that ol’ shibboleth of ‘painting word pictures’.

We face the risk of assembling two or three inspired words, or even a couple of good sentences in a row, and surprising ourselves in ways that seduce us. But if the verbiage doesn’t advance the reader’s journey, we can save it in a file somewhere if we must, but it’s our job to cut it ruthlessly out of the narrative.

Okay, I’m a purist.

Like all writers, my blind spot is leaving in stuff I love for its cleverness or its beauty just because I wrote it. Continue reading