How and why does someone become an author?
As a child growing up in a southern family of modest means, we had a very small library of books. The ones that we did have were oft visited treasures. One of the first I remember was the Bible. I remember it not so much for the mostly incomprehensible text, but for the pictures.
My sister and I would marvel at the series of pictures that represented options for what Jesus might have looked like. Alternatives included a handsome long-haired Nordic looking Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes. At the other extreme was the brooding short haired, dark skinned middle eastern man with scant facial hair.
Other pictures illustrated stories including Jesus throwing the moneylenders out of the temple, the return of the prodigal son, and the remorseful Judas returning the pieces of silver he was paid for his betrayal. Mysterious words such as “virgin” and fantastic creatures such as talking snakes inspired me to read anything I could find. Most of my life metaphors are biblical, except for the ones that are from baseball.
The world opened further when Dad brought home a set of World Book Encyclopedias. We got the red ones, not the expensive leather-bound white ones. I spent most of my time looking at volume “B”, specifically the section on baseball, but a whole world of new information was fingertips away. A yearly update came in the mail as part of the purchase.
Our set of World Books was a perk for my dad’s efforts to sell them to other families. I went with him on several sales calls where he made the pitch that a child’s education depended on a set of these books in the home, the broadband access of the 1950s.
Later would come my membership in the Weekly Reader book club. For pennies begged from my mother, I received six books during one summer. My favorites were Dangerous Island and Mystery in Old Quebec. I raced along beside the bookmobile as it came up our dirt driveway.
Then there was the book about “the facts of life” that suddenly showed up in the living room. No one encouraged us to read it or talked to us about it. But I finally found out what virgin meant.
You can learn just about anything by reading, and if you do a lot of it you might end up thinking that being a writer is the highest form of life, or at least a worthy way to spend your time trying.
Is it possible to consider the origins of our political divide in a dispassionate and intellectual way in the year 2020? Here, is my best attempt.
When I was a child, I had an uncle who was the leader of the local Republican party. His slightly older brother was the head of the Democrats. A third uncle, the youngest boy in a family of ten siblings, took delight in baiting his brothers to fight with each other.
From time to time I wondered how two boys raised in the same family just a few years apart could inhabit opposite ends of the political spectrum.
The political terms “right” and “left” date back at least to revolutionary France when in 1789 the members of the National Assembly were separated based on whether they supported the monarchy, seated on the right, or the revolution, seated on the left.
Since then, much like the identities of named political parties, the meaning of right and left has evolved and changed. In general, left leanings refer to those who endorse diversity, question authority, work for change, would redistribute wealth from the rich to the needy, and value secular approaches to governance.
The political right values authority, often religious authority, sees unmanaged capitalism as the correct economic approach, and works to preserve the status quo.
Each side sees the other as dangerous “elites” and from time to time “populism” upsets any semblance of balance of power by surging to “throw the scoundrels out” regardless of political identity.
Much has been written about the psychological make-up of those who end up one side or the other, but some of the most interesting work has been done by considering the similarities of the extremist members of each side. Eric Hoffer (The True Believer: 1951) describes how low self-esteem and a sense of personal helplessness leads to a rigid and dogmatic endorsement of extremes, regardless of the side.
For the reader who would like to explore right and left in literary works, Atlas Shrugged: 1957, by Ayn Rand is the story of those who champion individualism and unfettered capitalism as a remedy for the failures of governments. On the left, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards:1888, is the rendering of a socialistic utopia.
Eleven-year-old Melinda reaches out to a Red Cross nurse for help in escaping a cult. Social Services takes her for evaluation to a health clinic run by John Rant. The clinic botches the evaluation; Melinda returns to the cult.
Fifteen years later, Melinda and John Randt again cross paths. But this time Melinda is not alone and she has a plan. With John’s death she can finally escape her cult-like life.
John at that time is overwhelmed by various crises and losses in his life. He is distracted and vulnerable. He must discover the true identity of Melinda, or someone will die.
Mathematician Sinclair Dane and a small group of social media marketers offer a contest to win a billion dollars if anyone can pick all the winners in the annual NCAA basketball tournament. They know that 70 million people in the US try their hand at picking all the winners by filling out a bracket, in office pools, at their gym and other places.
If a decent fraction of these 70 million pay a $2 entry fee to enter the contest, they will have a very nice payday. The fact that they don’t have a billion dollars to pay a winner does not worry them. The odds against perfection are 9.2 quintillion to one.
But disaster looms. With three games to go, someone has a perfect bracket. Will Sinclair go to jail for fraud? There will be winners and losers.
The Second Greatest Baseball Game Ever Played is a baseball story and a soldier-come-home-from-war story. It is my father’s story. Crafted from 100 letters he wrote from World War II, and my childhood memories, the book tells the story of what he did when, as one of the fortunate, he made it home safely from war. Then he organized a pickup baseball game for boys, aged 10-14, and the excitement from this game led to the founding of the local little league team. That game was the “second greatest baseball game ever played.”
What was the first? You’ll have to read the book.
I retired from the profession of psychiatry five years ago to commit full time to writing. I am working on several writing projects, one of which is to tell some stories about my 40 years in psychiatric practice.
My motivation? I think I have stories worth telling about people struggling with mental challenges, and about those who try to help them. (We’ll put the shameless commerce motivation aside for now.)
There is, of course, a big problem here: confidentiality. How do I tell these stories without betraying patient trust or otherwise offend members of my profession?
What I would like to do is simply tell stories, without comment or “message” about the experiences described. I’m not interested in writing a tell-all or call for reform. I think all families and all professions have about the same percentage of saints and sinners, heroes and scoundrels. Nevertheless, some people may be offended at how they are portrayed.
I’m not writing clinically, so there must be some sort of context for the stories to be informative and/or entertaining to a general audience. (Oops, there’s that self-serving appeal to a broad readership.)
Thinking practically, I have to decide several things, the first being point of view. The obvious choice is to use first person, with me telling the story and offering commentary. This sounds like memoir. The best definition of memoir I have heard is “history through one person’s eyes.” That’s what I want to do.
Alternatively, I could use the stories as inspiration for a fiction novel, and drastically disguise people and places, writing in third person. Then I could just make up stuff. Or I could just wait until all the people in the stories are dead, including me, before having it published. (Where’s the reward in that?)
I’d like to hear from others who have written about their lives and the lives of those close to them. How does this writer tell the truth, through my eyes, and not “betray” someone, or get myself into a lot of trouble?
Here’s a link to an article that helped me write this blog: https://www.evanmarshallagency.com/memoir-or-novel-how-to-decide
Maybe fifteen years ago, your favorite uncle asked if he could list you as one possible executor of his will. He was widowed with no kids, still relatively young and healthy, and you really liked him. Sure.
Then he died, and you get the call. It’s not a convenient time in your life to do this. Would it ever be a good time? You feel the anxiety rising.
Calm down. With the internet and a basic calculator, you can do this.
I went through a version of this with the death of my brother. Even with no legal training I was able to get it done because I found the right people and resources to help me.
Your first task is to become legally qualified as “executor” or “representative.” In North Carolina this happens at the county Clerk of Court, Estates Division. The staff of the Estates Division is your first helper, and your most important one. At this office you will take a series of steps to be granted authority to take actions, and assume responsibilities, according to the will.
At this point you gain access to the decedent’s living space, financial papers, bank accounts, and perhaps computer programs and accounts. You may have to organize funeral and burial events, if there are no other relatives who step up. You will create an inventory of assets.
Do you need a lawyer? Please resist the temptation to go to an attorney and dump it all on his/her desk. The estate may not have money to pay this expense.
I used an attorney for a few questions. I spent less than one tenth of one percent of the value of the estate on legal fees. If you need legal advice, ask for an hourly-rate consultation from an attorney well versed in estate law.
Key advice: throw almost nothing away. Don’t keep old paid water bills from twenty years ago. Keep recent bank statements and things such as car titles and home-owners insurance papers.
Big tip: at this point, get super organized. Depending on the volume of personal papers, dedicate a three-drawer file cabinet to organize the things you think you need. Avoid messy stacks of paper. If you are unsure about what to keep, get some cardboard boxes and dump the questionable stuff there for sorting later. Eventually, the really vital things should fit in a three-ring binder.
If the Clerk’s staff is your first ally, a bank is the next. You may need to create an estate bank account to pay debts, consolidate various sources of money, including refunds from cancelled newspapers, internet/tv providers, possible tax refunds, and other sources. The bank knows about other things such as the need for an estate tax ID number.
You may have to file the decedent’s last tax return. This may represent a refund or a debt. I found another ally in the man who filed my brother’s returns in the past.
Then there is the matter of the heirs. Hopefully, the will is clear about who gets what. If not, the Clerk’s staff can guide you about disbursing assets.
Don’t be surprised at conflict among the heirs. Wills can bring out the worst in good people. Here’s the next tip: read the will carefully, multiple times. Maybe someone thinks the will is not fair. Fixing that isn’t your job.
At this point you are identifying assets and heirs, making decisions about property, and even if it’s going well, you will be stressed. This is taking time out of your life. Here’s another tip: keep a diary. It can be on a yellow pad, but you should record time you spend, any significant travel expenses, conversations with anyone important, and contact information for all relevant parties.
Keeping the diary can help justify your request for a commission for your work. Why not ask for this? You will spend some money as well as your time on this duty.
One last tip about time spent. Likely the process will take over a year. So, set aside structured, dedicated time to work on this. After the initial flurry of activity, a few hours a month should be plenty. Then try to forget about it when you are not working on it.
In summary, this will be stressful. You are entering a new and specialized world, all while grieving your loss. Poking around in the affairs of another can feel awkward and intrusive. But if you find the right allies, get yourself super-organized, and manage your time well, you can do this and feel a real sense of pride and accomplishment.
Are you researching family history? Using DNA for identifying historical origins and making connections to newly discovered relatives? Walking through graveyards and scouring public records? That’s all well and good, but here’s another way: old books.
Old books on shelves or in long unopened boxes? Family Bibles or simply books of other kinds that give you insight into what your ancestors read and perhaps how they thought about life?
I am on an adventure with old family books. I found my grandfather’s well-worn book about the “devil” in high society and the “fashionable” path to sin and damnation. A clear warning that, I think, guided his approach to life and guidance to his ten children. Maybe I’m just asking questions?
I found books on phrenology, owned by a doctor who practiced in the shadow of the civil war, and enlisted the aid of a practicing phrenologist to give his brother a phrenological reading in 1886, documented for posterity.
I found my mother’s first edition, first printing of Atlas Shrugged. What!? My mother and Ayn Rand?
Check out my YouTube video of that and more.
I recently wrote an Amazon customer review of Writing in Community: Say Goodbye to Writer’s Block and Transform Your Life, by Lucy Adkins and Becky Breed (BQB Publishing, 2013). Their book describes a specific type of writing group, a “generative” group, where certain conditions must be nurtured in order to foster the creative process in the service of inspiration and self-discovery. Think trust and safety. Attend to positive relationships among group members.
My experiences with writing groups have come within a different kind of group, a “critique” style of group, where completed drafts are presented for examination from various viewpoints, from grammar and punctuation to overall story concept. Here I will draw from Lucy and Becky’s excellent advice about their group and offer some ways their wisdom translates to another kind of group.
In forming a critique group, the accepted wisdom is to enlist members with a similar level of writing experience and talent. I think this is not as important as having a set of rules, a structure that all members feel comfortable following. I have benefitted from membership in a group that included members skilled in the technical aspects of writing and others who were great storytellers but considered grammar and punctuation as irritants at best. Each made contributions to my writing.
A complete description of rules is beyond this piece, but two concepts highlight the importance of the way in which members give and receive criticism. One fundamental rule is that criticism is offered as “take it or leave it.” The member receiving input is free to accept or decline. I was in one group where a member walked out in the middle of a session when his suggestions were not applauded as the only way to proceed.
The other vital issue is how one offers criticism. A few examples will suffice as the wrong way to give input: “That whole section is just one big information dump.” “I can give you a few examples of actually good writing so that you can fix that chapter.” And my favorite, “I’m not here to worry about people’s feelings; I’m here to make you a good writer.”
My overall point is that there are commonalities in all types of writing groups that will nurture or kill a group. These similarities are all about respect, trust, and safety. This wisdom also reflects the necessary reality expressed in a recent “motto” of the North Carolina Writers Network: no one writes alone.