“Welcome, dear Archibald, please let us retire to my library. It may not be nearly as extensive as I wish it to be, but this modest collection of tomes is still an old man’s comfort and joy. Sit by the fire, make yourself comfortable while I ramble on a bit. Tea, or perhaps cognac, if you prefer, will soon be served. It’ll be cognac for me, I dare say.
“That’s it, Archie, get comfortable, and I’ll tell you about my favorite literary passage concerning a library such as mine.
“No, no, it’s not what you’d call a profundity, and I must warn you, the quote does not come from Johnson, or Shakespeare, or Bacon. No, it comes from a marvelously under-appreciated American author named Ring Lardner.
“What? Yes, it is an odd name. And he’s largely unremembered even in his own country, though he enjoyed quite some popularity during the first half of the twentieth century. Some call him a humorist because he often wrote in that uniquely Yankee style we all attribute to his countryman, that Mark Twain fellow. Lardner, too, was a trained journalist, and seemed to kindle sparks from the embers of Twain’s fire. But this one, Lardner, specialized in writing about those odd sports Americans set so much store by. Especially baseball, of all things. Still and all, he penned some very noteworthy colloquial American fiction.
“Ah, French cognac. Cheers, then. Anyway, Archie, this Lardner fellow wrote a particularly charming story about a rural fellow, a rube actually, who seemed to have an extraordinary knack for that baseball nonsense they ballyhoo over there. But, as adept as this man was at playing the game, he found it necessary to constantly make excuses for why he wasn’t even better. So pronounced was his absurd and unnecessary excuse-making, it proved irksome to his less skilled teammates, who eventually began to refer to him, rather uncharitably, as Alibi Ike. Most amusing, really, this compulsion to fabricate a cornucopia of flimsy and fanciful alibis even when it was common knowledge he was the best baseballer on his or any other team. A textbook low self-esteem, I should think, but Lardner plays it all with a deftly light hand.
“The library? Yes, yes, Archibald, I’m rambling, aren’t I? I’ll get to that part straight away.
“Well, during the course of the story, this bumpkin Alibi Ike character, comes to the attention of a wealthy baseball enthusiast who invites the young athlete to his rather ostentatious home. At this point in his storytelling, Lardner allows us to experience events through the wide eyes of this simple, illiterate baseballer who grew up in the hinterlands without benefit of education, nor even indoor plumbing, I surmise.
“Yes, quite astute, Archie. The old fish out water routine, but charmingly and amusingly executed—reminiscent, as I’ve noted, of Twain. Eventually the wealthy potential benefactor leads this virtually-barefoot bumpkin into his grand library. Well, the poor rube looks around, utterly and overwhelmed by the sheer number of volumes. Later, Alibi Ike recounts the experience in words something like this …
‘… Next, he led me into a huge room in which he kept all his books—of which he had a complete set.’
“Yes, yes, isn’t that just a delight? … where he kept all his books—of which he had a complete set. Simply marvelous.
“No, Archibald, I’m afraid my set is not yet complete. But I do strive, don’t I? More cognac?”
Author’s Notes: I believe creative writing is one of those disciples that requires constant practice. So, I recommend you practice creatively. Loosen up. Write anecdotes. Write in-character. Take chances. In short, entertain yourself if you hope to entertain others.
Ring Lardner (Senior) is indeed an under-appreciated American treasure. I hope you’ll look him up. Alibi Ike is a great place to start.
At 63 years of age, I still run eight miles every day through the serene, wooded trails near my home. Throughout the season, I must transcend the elements, physical pain, and endurance to run, often finding peace and wisdom in nature’s tranquility. -s. e-b.
When the alarm sounded, I wanted to continue sleeping. Instead, I slid out of the warm sheets away from the comfort of my husband’s body; peeked through the venetian blinds; and noticed graceful flakes of pearly-white lace had dusted the tree-lined trails adjacent to my home. Even though the mercury hovered just below freezing, I knew today was the perfect day for a solitary winter run. So, I quietly donned my winter running clothes and headed downstairs.
Daylight had not yet turned the slumberous, dark blue clouds to their morning gray, and—for a moment—I hesitated at my front door not wanting to disturb winter’s peaceful silence. When I stepped outside, my warm breath mingled with the crisp, cold air as it stung my cheeks. As I began to run, my stiff legs begged me to turnaround; I ignored their cries knowing they would soon stop complaining. Only my footfalls broke the silence as the gentle snow crunched under my feet.
As I ran through the woods that morning, nary an animal crossed my path; their tracks in the snow indicated that they had been here before me though. The nippy air frosted my breath, and soon my breathing mixed with my footfalls creating a rhythm. I ran effortlessly past fallen trees along the creek side with no thought of time or distance. I wasn’t aware of speed either—just movement.
I ran past an icy pond cloaked by barren, frost-covered trees trembling like skeletons in the brisk wind. Snow began falling around me making me feel as if I was running in a snow globe. Soon, winter’s tranquility and purity enveloped me; time and distance became meaningless, and I imagined that the woods looked as it once did 100 years ago. For a brief moment I thought I saw Henry David Thoreau in the distance standing outside his cabin near Walden Pond. Yet, off in the distance there was absolutely nothing except for what was right in front of me—miles of solitude.
For years I’ve run alone along these trails in the woods—a quiet, almost sacred place every bit as wondrous as Walden Pond. Generally, the only sounds I regularly hear on these solitary runs are birds chirping, small animals collecting nuts, and my feet as they gently land on leaves, pine straws, or snow. I occasionally hear the pitter-patter of rain drops as they hit leaves and fall onto the underbrush and forest floor. Sometimes a light rain cools my perspiring body and soothes my spirit. Frequently, I immerse myself in my thoughts and dreams and feel invigorated. Other times, the solitude nourishes the seeds of stories germinating in my head.
Here in the woods, though, solitude—as silent and powerful as light itself—forces introspection. So, I linger in the solitude emptying and quieting my mind; then, I let go of the world and my ego—journeying inwards. Here, I sometimes hear my inner voice whispering to me; I occasionally meet myself face-to-face and find the being within—the true self—that has been waiting patiently to be released. Solitude has flung open the door of wisdom—amplifying self-awareness as a metamorphosis of my spirit occurs.
At some point I continue running—grateful for the solitude and the balance I feel. I turn around, follow my footprints, and return in the direction from whence I came. Reluctantly, I approach the end of my solitary run—not wanting it to be over. From season to season I’ve run alone along these quiet trails in the nearby woods, but never once have I felt lonely. Strange. Why is that?
True, some would equate this solitude with loneliness. On the surface solitude and loneliness are similar; yet just below the surface, they are quite different. Solitude is refreshing while loneliness is punitive and harsh. Solitude is rich and full while loneliness is empty and hollow. Solitude is the glory of being alone in awareness while loneliness is the pain of being alone in isolation. Solitude is desirable while loneliness is not. Solitude restores body, mind, and spirit while loneliness depletes them.
Have I ever felt lonely while running? No. How could I feel lonely when my inner spirit is there to comfort me? Have I ever felt alone while running? No, I’ve never felt alone—just unaware. Have I ever been alone while running? Yes, I’ve been alone while running, and being alone is exactly what I needed to be.
ABOUT SARA ETGEN-BAKER
STORIES BY SARA ETGEN-BAKER
I booted up the laptop, tickled a couple of necessary keys, double clicked the mouse and called up my favorite story. I rolled my shoulders, knitted my fingers and cracked my knuckles like Carmen Miranda in a cantina clacking castanets. I positioned my dexterous, driven fingertips over the keyboard, and was about to begin when…
“Don’t you dare,” hissed the story.
I sat back, stunned. My story had a feminine voice. Who knew? But the implications went deeper.
Sadly, I’m used to being hissed at, and threatened by, my characters as I write. But that never bothered me much. I happen to like sassy characters. Besides, you think Poe, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Beatrix Potter never got hissed at by their characters? Well, think again, Sparky. I hear Peter Rabbit was an especially difficult customer to deal with. Rumor has it he was the reason old Beatrix took to tippling. But to be hissed at by an entire story? I wondered if I was breaking some new kind of literary ground.
Gathering myself back together, I let my fingers dangle omnipotently over the keys of random chaos, and with the voice of righteous propriety and utter conviction, I informed my story, “You’re not the boss of me.” I refrained from adding, “So there.”
“Whatever you say, boss,” the story said, “but you’re about to screw up a good thing.” I realized my story sounded just like Lauren Bacall.
(Note to self: Why does my story about camels in desert sound like Lauren Bacall?)
“It is rather good, isn’t it?” I said. “The story, I mean.”
“I’m perfect, darling.”
Now this was a different twist. When my characters hiss at me, it’s always about what I’m doing wrong. ‘Hold it, hack, tough guy Rex Dexter would never say ‘okey-dokey’ in a million centuries!’ Or, ‘If you kill me off, you two-bit scribbler, I’ll shoot myself!’ But finally, here was a voice telling me I did something right. A voice who finally understood me!
Hey, wait a minute. I’m getting conned here.
“So what’s your angle, sister?” I said.
“Angle? Lauren/The Story said. “I have no angle. I just don’t want you to do something you’ll later regret.” Her hiss had turned to an alluring coo.
Regret. I had to admit she knew just what buttons to push.
“But everybody tells me self-editing is very important to the writing process,” I told It/Her/Lauren.
“But you’ve already written me, mon cher, a masterpiece. Would you mess with the Mona Lisa’s smile? Would you spray paint the Sistine Chapel? Would you have Hamlet say, ‘To hang around, or not to hang around ’?”
It /She/Lauren was making sense.
“Masterpiece, huh? You really think so?”
“Would I lie to a man of your obvious talents and discernment?”
Hey, wait, I wrote ‘a man of your obvious talents and discernment’ in another story. I’m not only getting conned, I’m being hoisted by my own petard.
(Note to self: Look up ‘petard’)
“Nice try, honey buns,” I said, re-cracking my knuckles and poising my fingers over the keys again, “but I’m going in.”
“You’ll regret it, you no-talent hack.” The hiss was back, and suddenly Lauren Bacall sounded a lot like Gary Busey. I should have known not to trust anything I wrote.
(Note to self: Never trust anything you write)
“Hack?” I said. “I created you, don’t forget.”
“Yeah, you got lucky. And now you want to come back in and muck it all up. The best thing you’ve ever written, and you’re determined to ruin it all.”
I put on my glasses, and began scroll-reading.
“Self-editing is not ‘mucking’,” I admonished It/Lauren/Gary. “It’s an important exercise in reevaluation.”
They hissed again.
My fingers flew as I edited, rearranged, clarified. In the end, I had made extensive changes.
“See, Story,” I said, “by revisiting you, I realized I had not written an honest story. What I had written was dishonest, deceitful, and manipulative. Thanks for pointing it out.”
“Hey, boss,” the story whispered, “as long as you come back to visit me, I’ll always tell you the truth. Even if I have to lie and manipulate to do it.”
ABOUT LEE ALLEN HILL
STORIES BY LEE ALLEN HILL
POEMS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
ESSAYS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
COFFEE HOUSE CHATTER
So, you don't think editing is a big deal?
When critics are kind enough to list spelling and grammatical errors, they are often dismissed by authors for their 'misguided' attention to detail. After all, the writer complains, she has presented an imaginative story with colourful characters, and she bemoans the Bozo reviewer, claiming he paid scant attention to the plot.
I am one such writer. I'm a member of an on-line writing community. Authors post and review each others’ work and rate it accordingly. During my first year on site, I wrote an essay entitled 'SPAG Queens.' SPAG is a term used to define errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar. I argued that reviewing should be divided into a two-part rating system, giving equal emphasis to creative as well as technical writing. I suggested that all these critics who continually went on scavenger hunts to unearth my missing commas were all frustrated, retired school teachers who delighted in rapping me over the knuckles with the ruler they brandished when they read my posts.
One very kind and astute woman sent me back a simple review and asked me whether I was willing to settle for mediocrity. "Don't you want to present your stories in the best light possible, show some personal pride in your work?" That stopped me cold.
By nature, I am a stereotypical Aries, the explorer, the adventurer who barges into a china shop with a great idea, but leaves the shattered teacups for others to sweep up. I never agonized over stories. Once I'd written them, after cursorily shooting them through spell check, I cut/paste and released them on-site.
After painful and repeated collisions with the SPAG Queens, I finally came to the conclusion that I can be a literary slob. It's one thing to be on a learning curve, gaining insight and taking advice to heart, it's quite another thing to disregard good advice, make the corrections when they're pointed out and continue without internalizing the lesson. Even while I was diminishing the importance of grammar errors, I failed to acknowledge that I was using my fellow writers as my personal editors.
It finally gelled and made an impression. I discovered two very simple tools to improve my writing. I began to read the stories out loud before posting. The sound of the words had a very different impact than staring and reading the same glaring mistakes over and over again on the screen. There were natural pauses in an oral review that screamed for a comma. I began to improve.
Then, to my dismay, I started to get comments about using a passive voice. What the hell is that? I'd mumble. But then a few charitable reviewers pointed out my overuse of words like had, were and been, and I discovered that my sentences became more effective when I switched them around to avoid these words.
Another reviewer—or maybe several—commented that the first hundred or there about sentences in my narrative started with the word I. “Of course they do,” I cursed. “It's a first person perspective. What do you suggest—using ME?” But of course, the reviewer was absolutely correct and gave me the kick in the pants I needed to pay attention to what was nothing more than a sloppy habit. Ditto for using the same word in two adjacent sentences. For example, I recently read a story with (paraphrased) these two lines: “It was a quarter mile walk to the mail box. As I was walking towards...” First of all, those two sentences can easily be combined and, second, the undue emphasis on walking has no relevance to the story, but the writer seemed to make it a big deal by the way she presented the opening.
By chance I discovered the preview button on the web site submission screen. This option further enhanced the quality of my work. I was amazed at how different my story looked when posted on the official home page. Maybe it was the bold font or the frame of information that surrounded my words, but it looked different and I was to discover that it was. In my cut/paste exercise from my Word program to the site, all my dashes turned into quotation marks. Some people referred to this tool as “Mad Eddie,” a demon editor who garbled the text when translating onto the forum. No matter what my Word document contained when I completed the transfer, my story reverted back to block printing.
I couldn’t assume that the story was ready to be released from the preview mode until I read it one more time. I can't tell you the number of stories I've released after dozens of self-edits, only to begin editing again after I've committed the story to public scrutiny.
I used to think I was a good speller, but spell check humbled me. The option doesn't make it easy for me to disregard errors, boldly underlining the mistake and forcing me to deal with the word. There are times when the option doesn't have an alternate spelling, and though I know it's a real word and describes exactly what I intended, I change it just to eliminate a flurry of finger pointing from the critics. Hell, if spell check can’t figure it out, I’m not so certain I’ll get a definitive answer from my fellow writers.
What spell check can't correct is spelling differences between American and UK language.
Most writing sites have international contributors and stories are posted by people living in Australia, England and Canada who all share a commonality for their love affair with the letter 'U.' These members of the Dominion have squandered millions of gallons of ink in their on-going obsession with that letter. Here is a small sampling of our extravagant overuse of this often ignored alphabet member. Americans will color, the Brits-colour and so it goes on down the list: humor/humour, neighborhood/neighbourhood, odor/odour--in an unrelenting flurry of confusion to the American reader. These are not spelling errors, just regional differences. But, some spelling mistakes are never unearthed, even by the most zealous writer's edit.
Recently, I made a terrible mistake. One would think that a simple spelling error could be overlooked, but it was compounded by the context of sentence in which it surfaced. I've been in sales for thirty years and occasionally I forget that the general public may not understand phrases that are in everyday usage in my industry.
I glossed over one such phrase--killer instinct—a phrase that, in sales, means unrelenting passion, a drive to get the sale and do whatever is necessary to get the purchase order. Of course, I was oblivious that if I dropped these words into a communication with an American who is listening to CNN report the latest shootings at a navy base in Washington they might have a completely different meaning.
To compound this precursor to my BIG MISTAKE, I was discussing a character in the writer's novel, a killer, and the author demonstrated a brilliant psychological intimacy with the man's head space. I related it to my own internal conflict of being passive, but having murderous thoughts towards OBAMA. Just to illustrate the point even further I discussed my tears when spotting road kill despite my ability to put a bullet between the man's eyes. No, I wasn't talking about OBAMA, I was referring to OSAMA, but the damage was done.
He muted me, denied me access to his portfolio, barring me from reading any further chapters to his book. Apparently he replied to my review, sending me a response telling me to absolutely never make any attempt to contact him or darken his door again. This response was likely chewed up and hit his junk box during the muting process. I never received his answer and only discovered the locked door when he posted a new chapter. I admire his passion about the President and it reflects my own—and I'm not even an American.
Somewhere hidden deep in my on-site portfolio on the web site we both frequent, there is an essay titled “Obama,” written by me three years ago. I wrote about a President who fired up America, the like of which has not been seen since the Kennedy years. I talked about the grace and charm and the respect this man brought to the international stage and my own undiluted admiration. My fellow writer obviously never read my heartfelt essay, or perhaps he believed that I was so fickle that I could morph from love to hate in a scant three years. The story is in the general vicinity of my essay “SPAG Queens,” an irony that doesn't escape me.
SPAG does count. For me it meant the dissolution of a relationship with an author I both like and admire. Words are powerful tools, but can easily be used as weapons. We can build walls, or we can build bridges with words that will bring us closer together or tear us apart. We writers need to accept responsibility for the quality of the work we make public and the content as well as the intent of our essays.
The whole thing was my fault. I was the one that wrote the words and I was the one who pressed the release button.
Perhaps someone out there will vouch for me if Homelands Security comes to my door.
copyright © 2013