Are “lone wolves” getting a bad rap?

Wolf smallAnother piece of human waste crawls out of the darkness to kill innocents, and the media automatically labels him a “lone wolf.” What utter bullshit. We need a new meme, and I think I have one.

Along with many others, I consider the wolf a noble animal, whether it operates on its own or in a pack. Their role in a healthy ecosystem has been well documented. They provide an essential, if grizzly service. For prey, wolves focus on the old, the weak and the diseased, which leaves the stronger, healthier animals to keep the species going.wolf 2 small

Terrorists however — whether homegrown, imported, or excreted by some sort of “religious” leader — do not deserve to be compared to wolves. For that matter, they shouldn’t be compared to any higher life form. Though I’m tempted to lump them in with something crazy, it’s conceivable such an effort might suggest cuteness.

Suggesting that killer cretins are lone wolves goes completely against the established meme which uses the label to connote good guys who refuse to work with a group, and head off to take out bad guys and rescue maidens. There are plenty of examples; Google it.

The province of terrorism is a place too dark and disgusting to offer respite for the rest of us. It’s a place populated by things which squirm in the inky blackness generally labeled as hell. What should we call these dregs of humanity? Certainly not lone wolves. How about:

 maggot“lone maggots”?

It fits, doesn’t it? They root around in the darkness, feeding on garbage, and when they eventually “mature,” they join a larger community of scavenging, parasitic vermin. Is that not apropos? Sharing this scum with the offspring of blowflies almost makes me feel badly for the flies.

Almost.

Let’s demand that the media, especially the broadcast media, stop labeling terrorist madmen — and madwomen — in a fashion that suggests some sort of romantic heroism. Let’s call these vile creatures what they are: maggots. Use the plural form for pairs and groups; lone maggot works just fine for the individuals.

‘Nuff said.

–Josh

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Memoir or Autobiography?

Ninja_girl memoirThere *is* a difference between a memoir and an autobiography, but more than anything, that difference is in the eye of the beholder — in this case, the reader.

Ninja_biographyThe conventional explanation of the difference is that a memoir focuses on one (or a few) limited aspect(s) of a person’s life: my time as a POW, the year I spent at sea, my vacation on Mars, life with Donald Duck, etc. On the other hand, an autobiography is more generally thought of as a chronological recounting of an entire life.

But when you boil it all down, what it’s really about is removing the mask(s) and revealing at least a part of yourself to the world. Diary of a Ninja might make a good title for a novel, but I suspect the real thing wouldn’t happen. Why? Well, because… ninja. C’mon, geez.

For some people, the essential part of their life is the end product of their entire life. Okay then, how does that jibe with the explanation above? Short answer: it doesn’t. The more important answer, I believe (with apologies to any library science majors who might find this frustrating), is that it doesn’t matter what you call it. I’d strongly suggest, however, that you make the distinction in or near your title. Or at the very least, on the back cover.

So, if you’re writing about your life as an art critic, your title might run along the lines of No Paint, No Pain — How I Skewered Art, Without Letting Art Skewer Me. An instant bestseller? Probably not. But at least readers will have an idea of what you’ve written about. On the other hand, if your book features the struggles you faced and the battles you won despite having a second head, your title might read something like Conversations With Myself — Two Heads Aren’t Always Better Than One.

Some readers may think this whole topic is just silly, not worth the energy required to think about it. And yet I know quite a few folks who worry not just about this, but whether Dollarphotoclub_75339773 smtheir story — their memoir — should be titled in the singular or the plural: memoir or memoirs? According to Merriam-Webster (my interpretation anyway) is that no one cares. If you write a memoir about your life as a ski instructor (you lucky so-and-so), and follow it with the years you worked as a lifeguard for Las Vegas showgirls (poor baby), then you’ve written two memoirs. If you combine it all — perhaps: Surf and Snow: My Life of Perpetual Pleasure — then it’s one memoir.

Anyway, that’s my take. More soon.

–Josh

Posted in Memoir, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Writer Warm Ups

Dollarphotoclub_89277699 smMost of us are creatures of habit. Writers, especially, fall into that category. We’re probably not as bad as big league baseball players who have more rituals than a pasture full of priests, but we, too, can be pretty odd when it comes to warm-ups. Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and more recently, Stephen Pressfield (War of Art), all recited Homer’s “Invocation of the Muse” before plunging into their work.

(This intrigued me enough to look for a copy Homer hairof the esteemed poet’s immortal words. Alas, they were written in ancient Greek, a language clearly beyond my humble skills. So I went looking for a translation. Just one. I found… many. This link should take you to a list of seven, one of which may get you fired up, and if so, more power to ya! However, the variations left me wondering if they all really started with the same text. <shrug>)

All that aside, it’s probably a good idea to observe a bit of ritual before launching into a writing session. It could be a simple thing like pouring a cup of coffee and reviewing the previous work session’s output, and that’s about the extent of mine. Or it might call for tidying up one’s work space before digging in, but clearly, I’m guessing at this as I’ve never straightened up a work area in my life. (Ask my bride, but also check out the photo oftwain and desk Mark Twain’s work space.) No one will think ill of you if you do something minimal. We’re writers, after all, not automatons. We don’t need ceremony, an extensive set of exercises and/or ritual ablutions before we get busy. Right?

Ball players, on the other hand, have been known to go to serious extremes before, during and after they get down to business. Buttoning and unbuttoning batting gloves, not changing “lucky” socks (or [shudder] underwear), taking a precise number of practice swings, spitting on, at, over, or around home plate — all are common practices. There are worse things I suppose. Animal sacrifice comes immediately to mind.

Most of us aren’t athletic enough to qualify for the pros, so we can settle for more modest efforts and perform our rituals in the privacy of our own work space. For some, just having some sort of work space to claim would be a big improvement. If you don’t have your very own spot, consider finding one as a goal for the coming year. You won’t regret it.

game face

Now here’s a game face!

For those rare types who don’t have any writing rituals, pray tell, what’s wrong with you? Isn’t it high time you got your game face on? Writing is serious business, so if you want to get started on the right track, do something serious! Challenge the Muse to back off and let you wing it on your own. To paraphrase a line from “Blazing Saddles,” you don’t need no stinkin’ muse!

Just get busy.

Until next time,

–Josh

Posted in Memoir, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Editing Apps Can Make Our Stuff Perfect!

Bullsh Uh, make that, “No.” For proof, look no further than the “auto-correct” option on your (alleged) smartphone, a function that’s generated more embarrassment than all the unintended pregnancies on record.

I’ll admit, technology can improve our work. Word processors alone easily prove that, but we’re crazy if we expect some sort of techno-wizardry to do more than help us get our stuff to the “okay” level. The brutal truth is, no matter how snazzy the software looks or how lofty the claims are, we still have to do the heavy lifting. That’s we, meaning you and me.

But the technology sellers are still peddlin’ this stuff, and writers are still buyin’ it, so it only seems right that someone discusses it.

Four programs for making writer’s lives easier and more error-free dominate the market. The first is Microsoft Word which has been around, it seems, since… well, since forever. In fact, the first version of Word actually came out in 1983, which in terms of personal computing *is* forever. Nobody actually cares how many versions (sub-versions, revisions, and re-revisions) of this venerable program exist, but the number has to be stratospheric. Most of the really useful stuff in Word has been in the product since the mid-1990s, although that hasn’t kept the software giant from constantly tinkering with it, adding so many bells and whistles that its primary function — word processing, remember? — is almost hidden. That said, the good stuff is still in there, and two of Word’s earliest enhancements can actually help you write better: spell checking and grammar checking.

It only helps if you actually use it.

Stop yawning! I’ll admit, neither function is flashy, but both are reliable within certain limits, which isn’t surprising when you consider they’ve been tested by a zillion users for a couple decades. That wasn’t a tyop; I really did say decades. I rely on Word’s spell checker, because I’m a lousy speller. (And my handwriting isn’t going to win any awards either.) As for the grammar checker, I’m not a huge fan. That’s not because Word’s grammar checker does a bad job; it does what it can, but I can do it better. Still, I don’t turn it off, because there’s always the chance I’ll miss something. What could it hurt?

I’m more likely to break a rule of grammar intentionally than accidentally. Since none of the grammar checkers on the market are good enough to know which is which, I rely on my own judgment. You should, too, even if your grammar skills are a bit on the sketchy side. So, review the flags Word (or the other programs I’ll mention) raise. If the issue merits a change, make it. If not, ignore it. But don’t assume you’re done. You still need someone with a critical eye to examine your work, especially if your eye isn’t critical enough. Just because something is grammatically correct doesn’t mean it’s worth reading. Ever slogged through a really boring book? I have. Too many, in fact, and I absolutely refuse to write one. You should, too.

In addition to Word, there are many other programs available to check your work for spelling and grammar gaffs. The biggies are Ginger, Grammarly, and After The Deadline. They are by no means the standard for all programs of this ilk, nor are they likely the best, but they’re the ones currently getting the most attention. They’re all clean and spiffy and promise to deliver what you want. Alas, if you write fiction, that’s not gonna happen.

They’ll spot clearly misspelled words, and they might even pick up on contextual spelling errors — like improper usage of they’re, there, and their. God help you if you type hots instead of host, or plumb instead of plump. (Just for fun, see what funky paragraphs you can come up with using those four mis-wordings, or whatever they’re called. A free copy of Write Naked! to whoever <whomever?> supplies the best one.)

I’m disappointed that these programs don’t learn from their users. Seriously, whatever happened to “artificial intelligence?” If I’m writing a novel (which quite honestly, I’d rather be doing right now), and I run it through a program whose writing rules were meant for scientific papers or software documentation, the results will be ugly. NotDollarphotoclub_49017186 sm only will they be massively discouraging, they’ll mostly be wrong. Shouldn’t the program be able to figure out I need a different set of rules? I see it as an unnecessary burden on creativity.

If I feel the need to dangle a modifier, I’ll dangle one. I don’t need the blessing of some knuckle-rapping robot. The same goes for run-on sentences, which can often be quite effective. The occasional incomplete sentence works the same way, as do split infinitives, passive voice, contractions and colloquialisms. It’s art, folks, not engineering. If the goal was to make every writer produce the same stuff, there would be no need for more than one writer.

 ‘Nuff said.

–Josh

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The flip side of the ho-hum holiday issue…

Based on some of the feedback I got in response to my last post–which I opted not to show in the comments–and some second thoughts of my own, I’m rethinking the holiday happenstance issue because of an important component I overlooked: comic relief. And, since I consider myself something of a humorist, the failing hits me pretty hard.

running with idiotsSome memoirs deal with multiple life traumas, and a recitation of these difficult times can take a toll on readers. In such cases, relating an occasional light moment is not only appropriate, it makes great sense. Good storytelling provides both high and low points, moments of tension and moments of levity, touches of sadness and touches of joy.

Humor can provide a change in tempo as well. More often than not, life issues build slowly over time until they reach a point where they can no longer be ignored. We’re all guilty of this to one extent or another. A smile at the right moment can make those difficult moments more bearable, at least in the retelling of them.

BlenderFinding ways to sneak these giggle packets into a memoir can be tricky, but it’s certainly not impossible. Be creative. Take advantage of your photo editor. With only a modest degree of effort, you can transform photos with a bit of text, add elements you wish were in the original or delete those that actually were. We’ll discuss such techniques in a separate post (probably several). For now, recognizing the sorts of things you’d like to change will have to do. Actually doing them will depend on how much effort you’re willing to expend and how much imagination you have.

bwSometimes just telling the story is enough. Christmas may not have been all that great after you moved to a smaller house, but watching Uncle Flapdoodle trip over the dog and spill his bourbon-laced eggnog on teetotaling Aunt Treacle just about made the downsizing worthwhile. And while you’re at it, you could add a photo of Uncle F on the job as Santa at Gumpert’s department store. Some things are just too good not to share.

Happy holidays, y’all. I hope the New Year delivers for you as I know it will for me.

More soon,

–Josh

Posted in Memoir, Writing | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Ho… ho… hum?

Hang on, now, before you unload your holiday blunderbuss at me; I’m really not trying to play Scrooge here. All I’m hoping to do is save you some time developing your memoir, so hear me out.

The holidays, obviously, are a source of memories from all across the emotional spectrum. Hopefully, the positive ones outweigh the negatives, but for many of us, the holidays we remember are the traumatic ones. Someone’s missing, something’s lost, or we’ve somehow forgotten something which seemed important at the time. Do such occasions deserve a place in your memoir? You’re the only one who can decide that, but my guess is in most cases, the holidays don’t hold too many memories worth presenting in memoir form, no matter how tempted we are to dwell on them.

Stop and think about it; most of the major events in our lives, good and bad, don’t usually come as surprises. Some do, of course, and they’re typically grim events which strike out of the blue, and they’re thankfully rare around holidays. Those things surely deserve inclusion in your life story, but unless you can find a larger context for Aunt Mabel dropping the Christmas turkey in the litter box or Grampa Grundy squishing Junior’s hamster with the motorized scooter he got for his birthday, you may want to just skip over those things.

Dollarphotoclub_94465407 smallOn the other hand, if little Doober, your annoying nephew on your half-brother’s side, picked up the violin he got for preschool graduation and started playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 35, you’ve probably got a bona fide story to tell, especially if you gave him the instrument. (Handy link to audio of Itzhak Perlman’s rendition.) The point is, you have to make a decision about the interest value of every anecdote you include. Please don’t blow this idea off; it’s important, and it’ll have more impact than anything else you do: pick and choose what you put in your memoir with care. Make sure it’s relevant.

Here’s a thought: if your life consisted largely of misadventures, make them the pivots around which your stories turn.

If you intend to focus on one aspect of your life, be it career, hobby, family, politics, a life of crime, or anything else, you must do what you have to do to keep your goal in mind. Delve into holiday tales only if they contribute something meaningful to the overall story. Winning the local radio station’s contest for sound-alike rock stars doesn’t have anything to do with your career as a brain surgeon. Unless you can tie it in to the main topic, let it go. No one cares. I really hate being the bearer of such bad news, but someone has to do it. <sigh> I guess it’s me.

Dollarphotoclub_29453389 txtIF, on the other hand, you had a habit of singing rock tunes by that one particular artist while you dug into some poor schlep’s brain, then by all means, include it! See how easy this is?

Life stories are rich with options, but it’s surprising how many memoir writers miss the obvious in favor of the obscure. It’s most likely a failing you won’t be able to avoid completely, so don’t be overly concerned. Instead, find a good editor, or at the very least, a trusted friend, who’ll read your work and offer constructive criticism. More on that elsewhere.

For now, rely on your own good judgment. Don’t let the holidays take over your memoir. If something happened which is truly worthy of mention, write it as if your life depended on it. If it didn’t, give some thought to leaving it out.

More soon,

–Josh

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

It’s a bird; it’s a plane. No, it’s a memoir!

Look up in the skyWith apologies to Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster (who created the iconic man of steel in 1933), but I couldn’t help myself. Over the past several months I’ve been working with two wonderful women who have written memoirs: Ceil Ramsey and Annel Martin. The time I put into the projects is nothing compared to the energy and effort they put into them. I just count myself lucky for having had the chance to help.

I felt obliged to trot out Superman as a tie-in because of the size of projects such as these. For all the people who attempt them, very few actually complete the task, and fewer still do it in such a way that the end product is pleasing on multiple levels. Neither I nor these two authors expect their books to reach the New York Times bestseller list, but their work will surely be cherished by family members and friends alike. And rightly so!

JRMB front cover--smCover-smTo review, let’s start with the covers. Both contain images the authors provided. In Ms. Martin’s case, she not only raised the prize-winning flower on her cover, she also took the photo. Ms. Ramsey chose an image which not only captures her, but represents the flow of her narrative as well.

Both books are rich with illustrations, and not just the usual line-everyone-up-and-smile variety. In addition to heirloom photos, there are plenty of graphics to augment the stories, flesh out details, and provide humor, insight and understanding.

Another trait common to both books is honesty. It’s often said that hindsight is 20-20, but when one writes a life story, there’s always a temptation to add vibrant color in some spots while leaving others in shadow if not complete darkness. Both of these writers rose to the challenge and told their stories honestly and without undue embellishment. That doesn’t mean everyone will automatically agree on every detail. The world simply doesn’t work that way. If it did, there’d be no need for more than one eye witness at any trial.

Best of all, perhaps, is that both projects were completed in time for Christmas. I can only imagine the feeling of pride these two great gals will experience when presenting their books as gifts. Theirs are stories no one else could tell, and had they not invested the time and effort, to say nothing of the emotional toll such a project demands, those tales would be lost forever. We all have such stories–whether happy or sad, hopeful or despairing. They are stories that deserve telling, and the only thing that stands in the way is our willingness to do it. In future posts I’ll be discussing the nuts and bolts of presenting those tales in a professional and artistic manner. But that’s the most I can do; the stories must still come from those who lived them. You’ve gotta write ’em yourself.

SUPERMAN-COMIC-thumbI’m quite proud of my association with Annel and Ceil. Working with them has enriched my life. Reading their books will enrich yours.

–Josh

Posted in Memoir | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments