During my 40 years in practice as a psychiatrist, I at times advocated for patients at the North Carolina State Legislature. On one occasion I accompanied a staff member of a rural mental health program to ask for funding. We gave the legislators a thick handout describing various kinds of mental health needs in the population of people we served.
My colleague, experienced in this arena, was not confident that the legislators would even read, let alone understand our data. So, he chose to tell them a story. He began, “I’d like to tell you a story about a boy. His name is Billy.” What followed was a description of a troubled twelve-year-old with many emotional and developmental needs. With a great deal of effort, we had been able to help him a lot.
No legislator nodded off during the story, and several leafed through the handout as the telling proceeded. The punchline was well delivered: we have many Billys that we need to help and we need more resources to do that. Our request was successful.
The above is but one use of the genius of storytelling. The storyteller is one of those oldest professions, the keeper of the culture before the written word and modern media were created. Ancient heroes, villains, wars, floods and more, all kept alive in oral tradition until words could be recorded on clay tablets and later various forms of paper.
We use storytelling to inspire, to sell, to persuade, to entertain, and to remember and be remembered. The fact that we now sometimes put it to print or record and preserve the voice electronically does not change the fact that at the core it is called storytelling.
There is a difference between reading a book and listening to a live storyteller. The differences are beyond this writing, but once you hear a master storyteller present his or her best, you will understand.
Those who aspire to write would do well to first listen.
William and Henry James were brothers, born a year apart in the mid-1800s, sons of highly educated and affluent parents. They took different routes to fame: William is known as the father of American psychology, Henry appears on the short list of greatest novelists of the English language.
I began college as an English major but left that path to attend medical school and practice psychiatry for 40 years. Now I am trying to write novels and other books. I am drawn to the question of who understands people more clearly, the novelist or the psychologist.
During my training for a career in psychiatry, I became obsessed with John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Leaping out from the pages of that novel were characters similar to the patients I was trying to classify with the nomenclature of psychiatry. The fact that Steinbeck’s book was a revisitation of the Cane and Abel story from the Hebrew Bible further captured my imagination.
The psychologist James approached people with a rational mind. He sought the meanings of the how’s and why’s of emotions, highlighting the effect of the external event on the internal experience.
The novelist James aspired to accurately observe and describe human life. He sought to portray the “nature” of the human experience including through imagination and fictionalized story. He also went where his brother never dared, to write ghostly horror tales, to embrace the supernatural as literary form. In his work we find chilling examples of sexual exploitation, betrayal, sibling rivalry, and bitter resentment.
While the study of psychology has advanced considerably since William James, for the moment I stand with the novelist. It was Henry the writer who said, “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” He knew best the human condition.
While upgrading internet access to my home, it was necessary to move aside some books and an old radio from their usual spot so the technician could do his work. I was struck by the juxtaposition of my modern laptop with the radio, a 1951 General Electric model.
The radio came down to me from some in-laws, and paired with the computer, spanned seventy years of technological change. It operates with “vacuum tube” units, a terminology those of a certain age will recall. It still works! I turn it on about once a year to make sure.
I wonder what things a previous generation heard on this radio. World War Two was over by 1951, but the Korean War was not. Perhaps they listened to information about the 1952 presidential election or even heard Dwight D. Isenhower’s inauguration speech.
Television became increasingly available toward the end of the 1950s, but perhaps they listened to the Nixon-Kennedy debates on the radio. My own family did not get a television until about 1956. We could tune in to three channels.
The books I moved were also noteworthy. I have a first edition, first printing of Atlas Shrugged (1957) and a 1936 copy of Gone With the Wind. Those two books border my favorite modern novel, Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace (1996).
I value the modern technology. It makes life easier. I cherish the old. It brings me joy.
I once asked another author to join a writing group in which I was a member. The author responded, “Well, it would be nice to have people read my manuscripts but I have no interest in reading others’ stuff. I’m way past the time I let someone else tell me what to read.”
For me, the joys of being in a group of other authors goes way beyond the critiques offered. To be there when another writer struggles with the creative process, especially with deeply personal issues, is rewarding on many levels. Our group once helped an author write about a time that she was in a group of children, led by adults to chant racial slurs at young black children during the early days of integration. Powerful stuff.
I also value my membership in a book club where selections are made for works I would never have discovered or chosen to read. We are currently reading This is the Voice by John Colapinto. The book is a scholarly but entertaining history of how speech developed and its place in overall human evolution and culture.
Since I am neither a musician, a linguist, or an evolutionary biologist, my initial reaction to scanning the contents and the comments of praise on the back cover was, “Why are we reading this?” I soon found out. Learning things such as how making music with vocal sounds probably predated what we think of language and conversation is only one of the fascinating things in the book. Tune comes before lyrics and actually helped build the brain for higher function.
Finally, the publisher of my book, Billion Dollar Bracket, (BQB Publishing) has many fine writers in its offerings. I have joined with a number of them in reading each-others’ books, to write reviews and otherwise help promote our work.
One book from a BQB author was unique, Choker, by Bob Mosley, a young adult book. It has been more than a half century since I was a young adult, but this book took me back to another book from my childhood, Phantom of the Foul Lines, by Burgess Leonard (1952). Both were stories of young men seeking accomplishment and peer acceptance through sports. Choker was updated to reflect current issues such as race, but the story works no matter the time.
I am glad I let other people tell me what to read.
It’s Madness! This tournament of college basketball teams. People go a little crazy after the tournament matchups are set in March. Back when people used to work in physical offices, sick days increased, and other surreptitious schemes proliferated so fans could watch the daytime games.
I have a friend who goes into a serious depression when his team falls, and he is a psychiatrist. The jersey shades of blue and colors of red and purple elicit emotional reactions and define for college students and alumni for whom to root or to hate. Only international football (called soccer in the US) gets crazier.
How did it get this way? For me it started in 1957 when I sat with my dad and two oldest siblings on the living room couch and watched the UNC Tarheels play for the collegiate championship against Kansas led by Wilt Chamberlain. Every few minutes my dad would jump up and wave his arms and hands pointing out something that happened in the game. A coaching lesson accompanied each dramatic gesture.
Dad was enthusiastic about sports and as he invested his time and energy in me, sports became important to me.
Then there is the alma mater. Those of us fortunate to attend college and have a positive experience invariably transfer some of that parental connectedness and loyalty to our schools. Those of us fortunate enough to attend a college or university with an exciting sports team get some sort of emotional imprint from it.
So that’s some of the foundation. Mix in colorful, exciting media presentations and throw ungodly amounts of money at it, and the madness grows. Every year 70 million fans fill out bracket choices for bragging rights for picking the most winners. Some enter contests for prizes.
Billion Dollar Bracket tells a part of this story. Many lives collide in a contest to win a billion dollars by picking all the winners in the tournament. Some are looking for riches, others for redemption, and some for shelter. See more about it and where to buy it at www.edrewbridges.com
I know the basic formula for a book review. Stay focused on the book, say what was great or not so good, briefly review characters and plot, don’t give away the whole story, and so on.
But River People by Margaret Lucas sent me spinning off in multiple directions, so I’ll throw away the formula and write this blog about it.
First, a traditional summary. The year is 1898 and in the lingering shadow of the US Civil War, people are moving west and scratching out lives, many suffering unimaginable hardships. Most of the narrative is focused on two young women/girls and the unspeakable humiliation and abuse they incur. Bridgett, age 11, is an orphan adopted by a cruel minister looking for a servant. The minister has taken a wife, 17 year-old Effie, whose function is Biblical, to bear sons.
More about how this ends later, but first, here is one way my head spun. I have often enjoyed certain kinds of “what if” conversations with friends and family. What if you could have lived at some other time and place? Male friends often choose one of the glorious empires, Greece, Rome, or the native Americans before the Europeans came. One guy is convinced that it’s all been downhill since the hunter-gatherers, and would have loved to help build Stonehenge.
Women almost never weigh-in on the topic. I’ve become aware that they know history better than I do, at least about what it was like for most women in previous times.
Back to Effie and Bridget. Together they survive with the help of an unlikely and reluctant hero who expresses the soul of the book when he says “time will come when you will have to make a choice about what you will build: coffins or arks.”
I know that quote lacks context. It’s worth reading the book to find out how it fits. And put the time and place of Effie and Bridgett’s life on the no side of the “what if” question.
Going further, my head spun with the stunning writing by the author in describing the natural world where the human stories take place. The river and the life around it achieve character status in the detail, mystery, and beauty in the way that world is painted.
Finally, I lived the first 12 years of my life in a house without modern comforts. When Lucas describes some of the day-to-day tasks of living without indoor plumbing, heating with wood fires, and cooking on a four-hole woodstove, it spun me back. Unlike Effie and Bridgett, I never went to bed hungry, thanks to capable parents.
Surprise, this blog piece will double back to a “buy my book” message, but let’s first talk about winning and losing.
Consequences of winning or losing vary depending on the game. A soldier in an army standing against soldiers in other armies face the ultimate consequence. A friendly game of pool before dinner among friends is the other end.
I’ve never faced the soldier’s consequence but my early years were filled with sports winning and losing. I played on a high school basketball team who won a state championship with a 29-0 record. The feeling you get from that kind of triumph stays with you.
In college I would have probably carried home an even more impressive trophy if that clever opponent had not jumped in front of me on a fast break and fouled me out of the game. I know what it’s like to miss the final shot that would have won a game. Losing people is immeasurably worse.
My book, Billion Dollar Bracket, is about various forms of winning and losing. In part, it’s about a contest to win a billion dollars by picking all the winners in the annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But it’s about a lot more.
Many lives collide in this story. If someone picks the winners of all the games, the contest sponsors most likely go to jail for fraud. Some of the characters of this book are looking for riches, but others are looking for shelter, for redemption, a second chance in life.
Back to buying my book. Retired now from all work other than trying to be an author, what is winning now? Book sales? Critical acclaim from smart people? Right now, it feels like a privilege to just be in the game…put me in coach, I’m ready to play.
I’m writing an Amazon customer review of a book I like, marking it as “five stars” and offering comments that I think might entice others to buy it and read it.
Suddenly, I am distracted. I become aware of the strangeness of what I am doing. I am using an electronic device to send information out into the world where thousands if not millions of people might read it.
A specific question intrudes: who invented writing? And how have we come to this place that I am writing about writing?
Consensus is that writing began in the Sumerian middle eastern civilization over five thousand years ago. This ‘cuneiform” first writing was a practical, economic tool, a series of pictures and symbols used to keep up with livestock and grain. Eventually, writing was used to tell stories.
Of course, before writing there was the oral tradition, the storyteller, one of the world’s oldest professions. The storyteller was the keeper of the culture, keeping alive the ancient stories of heroes, values, great floods, and wars. Think the Homeric poems of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The oldest written story is the Sumerian cuneiform Epic of Gilgamesh, a story of flawed kings, friendship, sex, dangerous quests, and the search for meaning and immortality.
Alphabets, manuscripts, and all manner of stories then grew for thousands of years but nothing developed that could be called “literary criticism” until Aristotle wrote Poetics in the 4th century BCE. It took another two thousand years or so before reading and writing was no longer confined to the religions and the wealthy. With the “Enlightenment” and the printing press, new forms of expression spread, and a new form of human life evolved, the “critic.”
From there we now have the “new criticism” and “literary theory” but I’m getting too deep in the weeds now. All I want to do is tell you that a book I just read is a “good read” and you should buy it.
Out of my reverie now, I become aware that I am using writing for the same reason the Sumerians invented it, for commerce.
Much has been written about how to manage the limits placed on our lives due to the pandemic. Physical fitness, workplace issues, and the stress of isolation from family and friends are three topics at the top of the list. But what happens with the creativity of writers and artists during such a time?
The story of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, deserves reflection here. At age 18, she and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley visited Lord Byron at his home near Lake Geneva, Switzerland. The year was 1816 and the region was trapped in a “mini-ice age” due to atmospheric changes from the eruption of the volcano of Mount Tambora.
To pass the time during their confinement, Lord Byron proposed they each write an original story. The details of how this legendary story grew from the mind of young Mary Shelley are fascinating but beyond this writing. Rumors of what other activities Lord Byron suggested for passing the time will also not be repeated here.
The story Frankenstein was not the only remarkable act of creativity by the group during that “volcanic winter.” Lord Byron wrote a fragment of a story about vampires that others evolved to the modern version of the “romantic” vampire. (Polidori, The Vampyre: 1819.)
Back to the present. I must admit I have been “slowed” from the lack of bumping around in the world to see people and things. I spend a lot of time just sitting and thinking, and way too much time watching politics on television.
But I have hope. I’m becoming more skillful in using technology to connect to people. I’m reading more. And in the middle of all this, an idea for a new book has bubbled up to the conscious region of my brain. Too early to talk about, but like doctor Frankenstein’s creation, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”
First the personal things for which I am thankful: decent health, a loving wife, a lovely daughter and granddaughter, a talented son-in-law, three remarkable sisters, impressive in-laws and loyal friends.
But this is my author newsletter, so let’s focus on what I am thankful for in that world. I am truly indebted to the people at BQB Publishing for bringing my book to print and teaching me far more than I even imagined about marketing my book.
Thank you, Terri Leidich and Julie Bromley, for your overall leadership from the world of BQB Publishing. Thank you, Caleb Guard, for the attention to detail in the editing, and thank you John Daly for the social media sharing.
IndieBound Paperback: https://bit.ly/3bGrzYH
Amazon US eBook: https://amzn.to/2ztZtlj
Amazon US Paperback: https://amzn.to/3eUJz3B
Amazon UK eBook: https://amzn.to/2Y5gEUH
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iBooks US eBook: https://apple.co/3l1wNmK
iBooks UK eBook - https://apple.co/32hd1w1
Barnes and Noble eBook: https://bit.ly/3bECB0L
Barnes and Noble Paperback: https://bit.ly/3aFRkHr
Rakuten Kobo US eBook: https://bit.ly/350MmVW
Rakuten Kobo UK eBook: https://bit.ly/2TVraKN
158 Books: https://bit.ly/2YhWO8X
The Audiobook is available now!
Genuine thanks also to Suzanne and Dave Lucy, owners of page158books, for hosting me for my book launch last Saturday. The event is on YouTube at:
I’m happily retired from gainful employment other than being an author. I’d love to build an online community of readers and writers who routinely share ideas, reviews, and so on.
Stay safe and well.
I read. I write. I learn. I’m in a writing group and I have four published books. I’m still pretty sure I’m not Steinbeck, but my heart and soul have found their way back to where they should be.