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Writing Fru Fru

As an author, I feel so far off the beaten track of techniques, theories, movers and shakers, and writing schools, that I must confess I have no idea what’s going on in terms of best practices and goals. Furthermore, I don’t think I care.

I subscribe to several writing magazines. Some of the material is interesting. Most of it makes my eyes glaze over. And that includes the 1000000 ads per issue about MFA programs. These ads list their faculty. I’ve never heard of 99.9% of them. Of course, they haven’t heard of me either, so that’s no a condemnation of those running the show.

My brand of heresy is that I think many writing programs kill off more students than they help. My English minor in college just about killed me. Courses in taxidermy and underwater basket weaving would have been more helpful.

Yes, I’m a rebel when it comes to how writing and literature are taught. Yet, I think most prospective writers will do much better if they are left to figure out how to find their own voice and style without prompts from a professor. Sure, there are plenty of good tips out there about practical matters.

If you want to write, then write. You alone know what interests you, what kinds of stories are haunting your dreams to be told, and how words best spill from your brain onto the printed page. It’s a natural thing. Programs and rules tend to disrupt that natural thing: writing as only you can do it.

While you may not know a dozen theories your 300- or 400-level college course wants to impart to you, you do know yourself and how you see the work you wish to do. The drummer or song or inspiration behind your work always comes from within, not somebody standing behind a lectern who says ABC is good and XYZ is bad.

I always picked XYZ and made it work as my way of mocking silly writing theories. As Mark David Gerson says in his popular writing books, “There are no rules.” Every time a guru says don’t, I can show them a successful author who did it. We always need something fresh and innovative, and sticking to ancient rules ensures we’ll never find it. Which is not to suggest we need pure chaos, though a little bit of chaos in writing can be energizing.

Good writing, I think, comes from people who thought it was more important to know themselves rather than to know the substance of an MFA program. Why? They chose life over conformity.




Smothered by Others’ Expectations

Many children, teens, and adults go through life with little or no support from anyone including parents, teachers, spouses,  and friends. This lack is often the theme of TV shows and novels: we see a person who’s been through hard times finally getting a little support from somebody else and finally believing in themselves enough to try.

The flip side of that record can also be a problem. Some kids’ families–through tradition and/or grades and/or the results of various tests–are overtly expected to do great things. That scenario can be better than one in which everyone expects you to fail. However, it can also become a burden.

As a teenager and a young man, I was always expected to become a writer, partly because my father was a writer and partly because I had shown some early inclinations in that direction. Life–as people often say–got in the way. So, I ignored my writing many times because I was tired of being pushed and I was tired of being asked about it.

It got to the point where–had I just survived some hideous accident–somebody would say, “Well, in spite of that, I hope you’re keeping up with your writing.”

“Hell no, I’m not.”

As a former college teacher, literacy volunteer, and writing mentor, I still don’t know where the line is between too little support and too much support. So, more often than not, I remain silent in day-to-day life about writing because I really don’t know what to say. The support I received was damaging, representing a constant pressure to have a manuscript accepted by a magazine or book publisher, to win a contest, or to put together a winning column in a magazine or newspaper.

The constant pressure to perform brought me to the point where I ignored or sabotaged my own goals. I never want to bring another person to that point. My daughter was an excellent documentary editor, then gave up her career to raise a family. I said nothing, for I didn’t feel the right to second guess her choices the way so many adults second-guessed my choices. She has a great family and has done some great volunteer work. I’m proud of her for that.

It’s hard to stay carefully silent when one’s children and one’s students go out into the world. I want them to know that I’m here if they need me, but that I’m not here to smother them with my expectations. I hope they will be happy and successful because that’s what I always wanted people to hope for me when I was young and rebellious and uncertain about the future.


Reading survivors’ stories

The clinic where I’ve been going for radiation treatments (42, so far) has a support group, which I haven’t attended, and throughout the building, large black and white photographs of previous patients who ended up cancer-free. Each photo is accompanied by a small plaque with several paragraphs of text that briefly tell each person’s story.

Inasmuch as my prostate cancer was caught early and wasn’t particularly aggressive, I didn’t feel the need for the support group; I think I might have felt out of place had each meeting been filled with people fighting cancers more like that of Jeopardy host Alex Trebek. However, I have felt a silent and on-going measure of support from the photographs and each individual’s successful fight (or multiple fights) against cancer.

Harbin Clinic, Rome, GA

Since I tend to arrive at the clinic a little early, I’ve read each story multiple times. Even with a somewhat low-grade cancer, I still find comfort in all those words and smiling faces.

In the local Wendys, there’s a lady (Shirley) about my age who gives me trouble about everything because I give her trouble about everything. Last week, she told me she hadn’t seen me for a while and thought I looked sick. When I said I was taking hormone and radiation treatments for cancer, she said her husband had gone through the drill a couple of times. We had the same doctor, as it turns out.

There’s a small bell in the clinic’s waiting room with a plaque instructing people to ring it when they’re cancer-free. So, I asked Shirley if her husband was still with us. She smiled and said he is. Said, “Did he ring that bell on his last day at the clinic?”

“Your darn right he did,” she said. We high-fived without damaging our hands or my junior bacon cheeseburger.

My radiation treatments end this Thursday. Since the recently developed MRI that can see cancer cells is probably still in testing, I’ll have to wait a while before standard tests will tell me what these daily visits have accomplished. But, if the staff should one day ask me to ring that bell, I will. Not because my journey has been scarey but because the sound might bring those in the waiting room a dosage of hope.


Turkish Delight Banned in the U. S.

Washington, D. C., October 13, 2019, Star-Gazer News Service–In response to the Turkish invasion of Syria to exterminate long-time allies of the United States, the administration has banned Turkish Delight until the Turks stop killing Kurds.

Wikipedia Photo

Banning Tsar Joe Doaks said that, “With Hallowe’en just around the corner, this action will hit Turkey in the pocketbook big time, forcing it to stop the invasion we greenlighted several weeks ago.”

While Kurdish spokesmen remain unconvinced the ban will save their lives or keep ISIS prisoners from escaping blown-up jails, the Administration believes new sanctions will “teach Turkey a lesson.”

“Don’t make us ban turkeys from Thanksgiving,” Doaks said. “If Turkey really wants to suck up to Russia, let them eat Borscht.”

DeepState, a policy thinktank outside the long shadow of the White House, said, “The U. S. can sanction countries around the world until the cows and coffins come home, but statistics show that such sanctions never stopped anyone from doing whatever they wanted to do.”

In a DeepState white paper released yesterday, experts said they found the Administration’s assertions that it had not abandoned the Kurds “laughable” even though two out of three comedians say “it’s no laughing matter.”

The Kurds, who have been U.S. allies longer than Turkey (neutral during most of WWII), said that “At present, we feel no need to ever trust the United States again, especially since the Turkish invasion will lead to more chaos in the region for years to come. When that happens, don’t come back to us with the lame ‘pull my finger joke.'”

Doaks blamed Wikileaks for telling the Kurds about the “pull my finger joke.”

Informed sources say that Americans no longer know “what the hell” Turkish delight is, so most trick-or-treaters won’t be harmed by the ban.

Story by Jock Stewart, Special Investigative Reporter






Misspeaking and Apologizing

When my brothers and I were in school, we believed that if we were ever caught doing or saying anything “bad,” we’d claim we were rehearsing for an upcoming play and all of our real or imagined transgressions would be erased.

We never had to use that excuse. Luck, I guess.

I remember this every time a politician is quoted saying something nasty and then claims s/he misspoke. Or, when the same or a similar politician says or does something really awful and offers a public apology. In both cases, the misspeaking claim and the apology are expected to erase the reality of the moment and restore those politicians real or imagined good graces to the media and the public.

I don’t buy it. And, because the Campbell family motto is Ne Obliviscaris (Forget Not), I don’t forget. Perhaps I’ve been too harsh. After all, like most people, I have good friends who–in one desperate state or another–have said some pretty awful things. But I know them, their history, their deeds, and I see the awfulness as an aberration and not a lifestyle.

With politicians, I’m less sure. Perhaps it’s because even the best of them sooner or later turn out to have skeletons in their closets and tapes of conversations where they misspeak at great length of multiple occasions.

The old reporters’ joke is asking a candidate, “When did you stop beating your wife?” There’s no good way to answer that question that doesn’t lead to political ruin. So, with that in mind, if I were a reporter covering a news conference in which a politician said s/he misspoke, I would ask, “When did you stop misspeaking?”

After they hemmed and hawed, my follow-up would be, “Was it when you got caught?”

It has saddened me over a lifetime that so many people I adored, trusted, and believed in, were caught, claimed they misspoke, (and possibly) apologized. I expect better than that of people. All of us make mistakes. Yet I’ve come to believe that a history of misspeaking is a way of life rather than a mistake.

In fact, misspeaking has become so rife, it’s hard to tell whether people are misspeaking when they claim to have been misspeaking or if they are referring to what they did or said that got them into hot water.

A popular and hackneyed line out of lawyer TV shows is when the witness is asked, “Were you lying then or are you lying now?” I’d enjoy interviewing politicians and beginning with the question, “Will you be misspeaking today or is all that over and done with?”


My alterego Jock Stewart asks what I can’t:


John le Carré is publishing his twenty-fifth novel

I have always admired John le Carré. Not always without envy – so many bestsellers! – but in wonderment at the fact that the work of an artist of such high literary accomplishment should have achieved such wide appeal among readers. That le Carré, otherwise David Cornwell, has chosen to set his novels almost exclusively in the world of espionage has allowed certain critics to dismiss him as essentially unserious, a mere entertainer. But with at least two of his books, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and A Perfect Spy (1986), he has written masterpieces that will endure.

Source: ‘My ties to England have loosened’: John le Carré on Britain, Boris and Brexit | Books | The Guardian

I admire any author who can endure. I haven’t read all of le Carré’s novels, but a fair few. And, at 87, I think we can say he has endured.

I was in college when I read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I wished that had been one of the novels that we discussed in class, but we were busy talking about novels written a hundred years earlier.

When the cold war with the Soviet Union ended, I wondered what he would do. As it turns out, he had more stories to tell. Since I am not prolific, I admire writers who are prolific and turn out good stuff.


Unexpected comfort

“However, in her honor, it is my goal to help others with sick loved ones. It is my promise to make and deliver a Spoonful of Comfort to your loved ones with as much care as if I were sending it to my own mother. They’ll feel better and so will you. Whether you have an ailing mother, a child away at college with the flu or a grandchild with an ear infection, Spoonful of Comfort can help you show that you care with gourmet soup gift baskets.” – Marti Wymer, CEO/Founder, Spoonful of Comfort

When a person is sick, they often have a caring spouse–as I do–and caring friends–as I do–but when if comes down to the minute-by-minute crawl of days during their illness, they are usually alone with their thoughts and fears.

So any good thing that’s completely unexpected can make a great difference in their mood. In my case, it was the box I found on my front porch when I got home from my 40th cancer radiation treatment. It was a wonderful gift basket containing a quart of soup (kept cold in a special bag), granny’s cookies, granny’s dinner rolls, and a giant label to get the heated-up soup out of the pot.

I’ll respect the privacy of the C______ family, but they will see this post and know that the box on the porch really fired up my mood in a very good way. Thank you so much.

I happen to like chicken noodle soup accompanied by dinner rolls and cookies, so I’m looking forward to diving into this box of goodies.

Meanwhile, I followed the instructions and put the soup in the refrigerator, feeling less alone.


What the heck’s on my website?

Chaos, usually. I tinker with the place until it becomes a mess and then I clean it up and start fresh again:

My home page tells people the kinds of books I write and has space, as needed, for the announcement of new books, book sales, and other promotions.

About: This is the obligatory about me schock that tells you who I am. It’s all fantastic lies, of course, but I try to make it sound humble.

Excerpts: Do I really need to tell you what’s on this page?

Books: This is a listing of my books and indicates how many editions (e-book, hardcover, paperback, audiobook) each one has. The links are generally to the books’ Amazon pages, yet I’m happy when people get them from Indie Bound or from their neighborhood bookstores.

Spotlight: Currently, this page talks about my latest release, Special Investigative Reporter.

Etc.: This page presents weird stuff I’ve done or subjects related to one of my books. Right now, there’s an article there about belladonna, something one’s favorite conjure woman doesn’t need on her shelf since it’s rather dangerous. It’s hard to believe women used to enhance their beauty with this member of the nightshade family.

I used to have my website on Homestead which has one of the best editors I’ve found for absolutely controlling the page. I switched over to GoDaddy which isn’t as costly but is missing some of the functionality I got used to having on Homestead.

GoDaddy has e-mail as an added feature, but since I’m not really in the market for doing speeches, appearing on panels, or teaching in MFA programs, I’m not using the feature. However, if you really need to contact me, you can send me an e-mail at People who know me well, know that I’m hard of hearing, so that’s why I don’t do events.

The rumor that my conjure research allows me to put a hex on everyone who stops by the website without buying a book probably isn’t true. I’m really not sure.












2019 National Book Awards Finalists 

To invoke this year’s most persistent platitude: We need good books now more than ever. From speculative fiction by Marlon James, to Carolyn Forché’s memoir 15 years in the making, this year’s National Book Award finalists reflect today’s ever-innovative literary landscape: Diverse perspectives are celebrated and old genre mores are thrown out the window. Literary luminaries like James, Susan Choi, László Krasznahorkai, and Laila Lalami are joined by rising talent including Akwaeke Emezi and Julia Phillips, and nearly all the finalists are first-time nominees.

Source: EXCLUSIVE: The 2019 National Book Awards Finalists | Vanity Fair

Every year when the Nobel, Pulitzer, Booker, and National Book Awards finalists and winners are announced, scores of people say they haven’t read any of them even though book sales usually increase after books receive awards.

I haven’t read any of the finalists on this list. The primary reason is that I very seldom buy hardback books. I tend to wait for the paperback editions. Sadly, by then I’ve often forgotten the books I was waiting for and so I don’t think of them until they show up on an awards listing.

I often wonder why so few people have read the awards’ finalists and winners prior to the award announcements. Are the awards out of touch with what most people want to read or ar most readers being lazy and sticking with the latest in the Tom Clancy, James Patterson, and Nora Roberts releases?

Some readers–including me–often shy away from titles where it looks like the authors attempted to write important books on purpose. It’s as though they look at the issues, pick something that’s cutting edge and current, and then craft a novel that’s intended to be gospel on the subject more than readable. The thin turns into a tidal wave, I think, where those voting on awards vote the “gospel” because they’re afraid they’ll be criticized if they don’t.

The same thing seems to happen with the Oscars, I think. And maybe beauty pageants as well.

Or, perhaps I’m just a bumpkin who likes easy books with lots of pictures.



Review: ‘ Very Cold For May’ by William P. McGivern

Very Cold for MayVery Cold for May by William P. McGivern
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This 1950 police procedural is told in a very straight-forward manner like books that ended up in noir movies. The protagonist is former newspaper reporter Jake Harrison who works for a PR firm that’s representing a man currently being investigated by the government. Add to this, the fact that former WWII-era socialite May Laval is planning to write a tell-all memoir that might include the details of her potentially sordid relationship with the man Jake represents. In fact, it might contain details about a lot of past relationships. She kept everything about her day-to-day intrigues in a diary.

Nobody can, including Jake, can talk her out of writing the memoir, much less divulging who (if anyone) might suffer the slings and arrows of earlier escapades.

When she is murdered, there are plenty of suspects. The diary seems to be missing from the bedroom murder scene. Who has it? Everyone wants it and everyone seems to have an alibi.

This slim volume is well-done until we get to the ending. The ending might have worked in 1950, but most readers have–by now–seen movies or read detective stories where all the suspects are called together in a room while the main character tells them what happened to May, what happened to the diary, and why people did what they did.

On the plus side, who killed who is a surprise. On the minus side, the ending–by 2019 standards–is a bit hackneyed. Detective story aficionados may nonetheless enjoy this old novel.

I found this old novel on my bookshelf last week and have no idea where it came from. My wife has no recollection of it either. One of us must have been assigned to read it in a college course and–assuming we did read it–forgot all about it.


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