The Big O is What It’s All About

A building where Observation and Curiosity are written in chalk beneath the industrial name of the building, Glasgow Association
“Glasgow Association of Observation and Curiosity” by Michael Gallacher

The use of original detail can be a sign of evolution for a writer. The red car becomes the 1976 cherry red Camero. Ice cream becomes salted caramel with chocolate sprinkles.

An even further evolution arises when an author interpolates those details into a reflection that not only reveals character or setting, but also reveals something about how we are as human beings. Holden Caufield, from The Catcher in the Rye, provides us with a fine example.

Let’s review.

Two sets of suitcases. Two sets of lives. Two sets of class backgrounds, one plastic, another leather. Stated with Holden’s ironic, angry but passive voice make his observation all the more breathtaking because he is so passive. (Shortly after arriving at Penn Station after escaping from yet another prep school from which he has been expelled, Holden sits in the telephone and lists out about twenty people he could call. Yet he calls none of them. This is a theme throughout the novel. Caufield says a lot but does very little.)

Salinger’s exposition on plastic versus leather suitcases carries such weight and suffering.

There is value, I think, in one expertly placed detail rather than gobs of them, which can dull a reader. I’m also reminded that Salinger does what I have not done in one of my current novel drafts. Caulfied’s observation is revelation rather than instruction. In my draft-in-progress, my characters tell each other about their class upbringings. Reading these sentences now I see how I have not dug deeper and let the character(s) reveal something about class. No. I don’t trust myself. So I have to tell you, and in the telling I opted for a passive approach: any old thing will do.

Here is how Salinger sets the scene:

For a while when I was at Elkton Hills, I roomed with this boy, Dick Slagle, that had these very inexpensive suitcases. He used to keep them under the bed, instead of on the rack, so that nobody’d see them standing next to mine. It depressed holy hell out of me, and I kept wanting to throw mine out or something, or even trade with him. Mine came from Mark Cross, and they were genuine cowhide and all that crap, and I guess they cost quite a pretty penny. [1.  I am quoting from Backbay Books/Little, Brown and Company edition (Chapter/Paragraph) (15.16)]

Then he wraps it up later in the paragraph:

The thing is, it’s really hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs – if yours are really good ones and theirs aren’t. You think if they’re intelligent and all, the other person, and have a good sense of humor, that they don’t give a damn whose suitcases are better, but they do. They really do. It’s one of the reasons why I roomed with a stupid bastard like Stradlater. At least his suitcases were as good as mine. [2.  I am quoting from Backbay Books/Little, Brown and Company edition (Chapter/Paragraph) (15.16)]

Writing well, which I define as writing in ways that give your readers pause, should rely on Observation and not simply observation. To quote from science writer Maria Konnikova (from her book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes):

Observation with a capital O…does entail more than, well, observation (the lowercase kind). It’s not just about the passive process of letting objects enter into your visual field. It is about knowing what and how to observe and directing your attention accordingly: what details do you focus on? What details do you omit? [3. A much more thorough review of Konnikova’s book.]

Konnikova is describing how to have a prodigious memory. But her words just as accurately describe our tasks as writers.

It’s not a matter of any original detail; but the right one at the right time, that reveals character or setting or plot, that shows we have some control over our material. When we are great, and we all are from time to time, our Observations will reveal a thing or two about the human condition.

Are You Creating Easy or Creating Well?

Writing well seems to me to be about all the small choices I make throughout the day.[1. See the website of James Clear. His writing and research provides strong evidence that the long term is very much determined by short term choices] I can create something that is hard, that challenges me, or something that is easy.

What is easy, of course, changes over time. (Or that is my hope, anyway.)

She stomped across the room and slammed the door is now easy, and rather pedestrian, for me. She lifted the Colt .45 and obliterated her wife’s face from their wedding picture. It ripped off her face, too. But that was beside the point. The boom from the discharge set off the car alarm and the neighbor’s dog.

This seems more interesting, somewhat more distance, with the potential for irony and humor just at the surface. A little less easy, too.

Creating anything is never simple. Each of us knows in our heart when we write shit and when we’re pulling blood out of finger tips. I can write shit every day and not get better as a writer and not feel too great about myself, either.

Or I can choose to create something that stretches me, makes me nervous, makes think, “what the hell am I doing.”

And so it is with this blog. For ten years I’ve been blogging here. The majority of what I’ve created is forgettable, entirely forgettable. Even to me it is boring. I can’t imagine what it has been like for my readers.

Upgrading My Life

In January 2015 I hand wrote on the back of an old business card, “I want to upgrade my life in 2015.” Here I am in August and upgrading my life has come to mean that I must do something harder and with more effort on this blog, something that I want to learn, something that terrifies me.

So with sweaty palms and no clear vision for the end, I am changing the focus (or pinning down the focus?!?) of this blog. What interests me most now is how to get better as a writer. One way to do that is to write about the practice and craft of writing here. Blog entries will focus on the many tools available to us in English that can make our writing deeper and make the process of writing more rewarding.

I need to do this for me. With no formal plans to attend an MFA program, I must create my own, airy, light, writing workshop and hope that others will join me. Yes, please do!

I vow to post every Monday and Thursday to my email newsletter first. Then I will post that content to the blog. Part of upgrading my life is becoming someone I believe is reliable. So I must act in a reliable way to myself.


I will also include my own writing in my newsletters. The only way I can encourage others to share with me is to share first, and share often. This may cause you to roll your eyes in disgust. If so, the unsubscribe button is always near at hand.

Vulnerability entails going to the edge and jumping. For me to jump means writing more fiction and sharing it and writing badly and sharing it.

I know I won’t create well every time I create. But I can strive to always create better.

My fervent hope is that you will join me in this new workshop I hope to create. You may sign up here.




How I Got More Out of My Writing Process

Cogitating Is Not Procrastinating

I’ve tried every cure for consistent writing I’ve read about.

The lure of quality has satisfied me enough, at least for this long while. Why bother writing everyday when I can produce decent quality on short notice?

I’m just someone who doesn’t write every day, I said.

The truth is I have always thought myself a writing fraud, though lazy better describes better my self-assessment. Why work hard when writing has never been that difficult for me? I’m not procrastinating, I’m cogitating!

Right. Quiet as kept, the cogitating ate into my self-esteem and played right into my fears of ignominy. You know the one where you dream people will be reading your words 200 years into the future? That was me. But since I was cogitating and not writing,  no one would read what I wrote in the future.

How could they? Statistically I gave myself no chance. My output had been too low. That connection – between output and wider recognition -was lost on me. I was just someone who didn’t write every day.

[Cue baby’s wail here.]

More is More

Recently I began lifting weights. Again. For like the upteenth time. A desire for a  revision of my top surgery motivates me. I want to have as big and lean a chest as I can. This will be my last surgery, and I want to make it a big one.

[Cue forehead hitting the desk.]

Big Ones happen by doing Small Things frequently. That is to say, I achieve a fuller, leaner chest by working out x times per week for x weeks. Each workout is small. But over time the result is the Big One.

More muscles = more weekly work-out sessions.

This time the working out led me to the realization that writing is no different.

More writing = more output.

Regardless of the quality, my productivity goes up.

In the world of goal vs process, the process of little steps every day leads to big goal outcomes. For example, writing 1,000 words 5 days a week (because writing is, after all, a job) for 49 weeks results in 245,000 words per year. That’s a lot of Big Ones. Like a novel or three; mucho blog entries; newsletters, etc.

The Little Becomes the Big

How I failed to grasp this reality is beyond me. Perhaps I just wanted to continue to feel shitty about myself. The old self-fulfilling prophesy thing, etc., etc. The whole thing is now so simple. I can write about 1000 words a day, five days a week. Easily.

I exert no mental pressure as to what I will write about. As a lifelong opinionated blabber mouth means I rarely lack for anything to say. There is still no pressure. I write what I write. Even when I don’t feel like it.

That’s another amazing thing. I finally understand why motivation and will power are terribly shifty friends, ready to flee when I most need them. It’s easier to show up and write than sit around wailing about what a loser I am and why my writing sucks and blah. Blah. Blah.

On the days when I haven’t felt like writing, I’ve told myself to just write one sentence. And it works! The words start to come.

I may not every produce anything of merit. My self-esteem though has begun to solidify. It’s like, “Yeah. I’m a writer. I write like it’s a job. Five days a week.”

Each single, little day strung together is making for some big gains and realizations. I’m getting more out of my writing process because I’m putting more into it, a little each day.





A Confederate Flag Flew from a Northern House

On a recent daily morning walk, Ms. H. and I discovered a house around the corner from us flying a two-sided, U.S./Confederate flag. We live in a tiny town in southeast Michigan, a state that outlawed slavery in the 1830s and fought on the Union side during the Civil War.

At this point, I am supposed to point out that the confederate flag is a symbol of racism, particularly Jim Crow. And it is, of course. But as I reflected on how to begin this piece, I realized the double-sized nature of this particular flag speaks to the history of the United States.

The Union Fought to End Slavery?

Michigan sent Union troops to fight in the civil war. What this really means is that my state, and all Union states, fought to keep the Union together, a Union where slavery would be allowed to continue.

At the outset of the war, Lincoln had stated very clearly that he opposed slavery personally but placating the South was more important:

“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” [Read: The Best Inaugural Addresses Ever]

Abolitionism grew after Union soldiers interacted with fleeing slaves, who lived not in refugee camps, but in contraband camps. Cogitate on that for a moment. Contraband defines goods that have been imported or exported illegally.

Fleeing slaves lived in contraband camps run by Union soldiers. Like many southerners, northerners also believed that African-Americans were not fully human.

We in the North suffer from the delusion that the Civil War was about ending slavery. It wasn’t.

The war was about forcing the southern states back into the Union. With the inflation-adjusted equivalent of slaves valued at about 3 billion dollars (so I heard Ta-Neihisi Coats claim earlier this year), and many New York banks getting quite rich off the slave trade, and a bone-deep belief that African-Americans really were less than human (let’s not forget the 3/5s clause of our founding document), can we really claim with fully integrity that slavery was a southern problem only?

History Isn’t Ala Carte Menu

The Confederate Flag is inextricably intertwined with our national flag. Every state in the United States that could have legal slavery did so. Michigan, Illinois, Maine, New York. All of them had legalized slavery at some point in its history. We prefer to overlook this fact, I think. Southerners (which I define as anyone, anywhere in the U.S. who explicitly affirms a symbol such as the Confederate Flag) become convenient tropes for our forgetfulness.

We forget that the institutionalizing of slavery was part of our founding document. It is a much a part of our early American history as the Preamble to the Constitution. Yet we continually refuse to acknowledge or confront our past with any semblance of honesty. Because we aren’t Southern, we are somehow not part of the United States history of slavery. But history is rather like karma. We don’t get away with anything.

We don’t get to pick the parts of history we don’t like. If we get teary eyed over the preamble, then with equally open eyes we must embrace the 3/5ths clause, the contraband camps, the institutionalized segregation that existed (and I would argue still exists) in Detroit, New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia.

The double-sided U.S./Confederate flag are two sides of the same history. Southern history and southern slavery and southern segregation is Northern history and Northern slavery and Northern segregation. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not doesn’t make it less so.