Recommended Reading: News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton

de_botton_1The News: A User’s Manual
Alain de Botton
Vintage, 2014
Paperback, 272 pages

If the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life” were sung today, instead of singing “I read the news today, oh boy,” John Lennon might just sing “I saw the news today, oh boy!”

“Oh, boy!” Indeed.

On its Web site, CNN’s breaking news around 10 p.m. CDT July 9, 2018, is a photo of Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court Justice nominee, at a podium presumably at the White House or on Capitol Hill or somewhere in D.C., the president smiling smugly in the background, Kavanaugh’s family off to one side, wife smiling lovingly.

This is important news, right? At least for the U.S.? Then why do I almost automatically disengage from it? Why don’t I click the photo to read or listen to the story that follows?

Below the photo is a headline: “Trump’s Supreme Court pick is a DC insider who worked for special counsel Ken Starr during the Bill Clinton investigation in the 1990s.” That headline is among many about Kavanaugh.

Twelve hours later, Kavanaugh’s nomination is no longer the lead story. The lead is about the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a cave in Thailand. Scrolling down, however, I can pick from five different headlines analyzing Kavanaugh. Still, I find myself uninterested enough not to click any of the links.

It’s not that I’m politically apathetic. I vote, I sometimes follow political news and even comment here and there, usually on Facebook.

The problem: There’s already so much analysis about Kavanaugh, just from this one source, it’s numbing. My problem, as with many of us who follow the news regularly, or not so regularly for that matter, is that it’s the same story different name as the last nominee. I could begrudgingly switch to the Fox News Web site, and though they’re likely to praise the nomination, the analysis, in general, will be similar. I’m disengaged because I’m bored with the analysis, no matter who’s presenting it; it will continue in the days, weeks and months leading up to the justice’s confirmation — and then continue afterward until his first decision, which, in turn, will get analyzed … well you get the picture.

This sort of disengagement is addressed in Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual, an analysis of how news, as it’s presented now, affects us, and how the news could be better and serve us better as consumers of it — and as providers of it, better present it.

“We regularly come across headlines of apparent importance that, in private, leave us disengaged,” De Botton writes. “Boredom and confusion may be two of the most common, but also two of the most shameful and therefore concealed, emotions provoked by so-called ‘serious’ political stories presented by the news organizations of modern democracies.”

De Botton is an essayist, philosopher and public intellectual known for such books as Essays on Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy. He also runs the School of Life, a school, as its Web site notes, dedicated “to developing emotional intelligence,” a sort of self-help school that promotes philosophy, art and literature over pop psychology as practical sources for changing lives and making one’s way in the world a bit more tolerable.

On the surface, in De Botton’s estimate, the news, no matter what’s covered — politics, crime, celebrities — doesn’t make our lives more tolerable. Even just a casual perusal of the news is likely to cause us fear or anger, despair or apathy or lust or envy, depending on the stories we follow, or where we happen to catch the 24-hour news cycle. Some news might elicit all these emotions at once.

The medium in which the news is presented doesn’t seem to matter. De Botton draws examples from print, TV and presumably online — given that most print media (or what once was print) is now followed online. (The book was published on the cusp of social media’s dominance as an outlet for news, even individually created “news,” and smart phone technology, but with minor adjustments, De Botton’s critique easily applies to those media as well.)

For instance, here are some headlines De Botton cites early on from the BBC that could have come across our newsfeed on Twitter or Facebook or on TV at any time and pretty much from any source, local, national or international:


Only the third headline might command our attention, but probably just insofar as to cause us anger or outrage at such hideous acts. The story itself would in print probably run three-to-four-hundred words in length or gain a minute or two of broadcast time, and then it would become a mere piffle in our minds. Just a few of us, including the journalist reporting it, would follow the story from arrest to prosecution to sentencing — unless the Sydney man happened to hold celebrity status or the story itself, especially in trial, were to reveal gory, gruesome and macabre details. Otherwise, it’s water-cooler talk.

Which, is the issue, De Botton says. What’s the point?

De Botton offers possibilities to improve news and its presentation, primarily suggesting news dig deeper into the “whys” of events or people it reports on are important. Why should we care about a war in Africa when we’re drinking our coffee in our kitchens in the U.S.? What if we see the every day lives of those caught in the war, to see the universals in their lives, then maybe we might just care some? Or we might see a crime as more than just an event in which in which we can express our self-righteous outrage at the perpetrator.

“The tragedies of others should remind us of how close we ourselves often are to behaving in amoral, blinkered or violent ways,” De Botton writes. “Seeing the consequences of such impulses harrowingly played out in the lives of strangers should leave us feeling at once scared and sympathetic rather than hubristic and self-righteous.”

While on one hand De Botton’s suggestions for how news should be gathered and presented is highly idealistic — especially to the reporter, the journalist who is frantically trying to daily fill column space or airtime with something to keep his job — on the other hand, his ideas are intriguing and his critique of the news is spot on in the way it influences those who consume it.

As reporters, we often just go about writing the city council story, knowing the city’s budget will usually fall short or that the next Supreme Court justice will influence the workings of the nation one way or another. We will too often go just to the people in power to get some quotes and then go onto the next story and talk to more talking heads. We ask the same questions and get the same narrative. We don’t always go out with our notebooks to understand the whys of a story, to dig out what a story means, if anything at all.

The kind of journalism De Botton seems to advocate does exist in longform magazine writing, it existed at its best in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s as The New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, et al, emerged. But then, that style peaked by the ’90s. Still, those journalists ferreted out meaningful stories by training literary lenses on their subjects.

Is this the kind of journalism consumers of news now want? Do they have the attention span to read such stories, to watch a lengthy documentary film? Perhaps after reading De Botton’s book, they will want more of that kind of journalism, rather than what they are getting?

I want to think that’s what news consumers want — news with meaning and richness of texture, news that looks at the world in its ordinariness as an artist does. It’s why I am encouraged when I read a great narrative piece in a magazine, online, or even in a newspaper. It’s why I was encouraged that until a few weeks ago CNN had a great show that showed us the world through its people, its food and its culture in the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”

I would like to see De Botton’s idealistic approach put to the test. It might be more encouraging and less “Oh, boy!” than you think.

— Todd


On Writing: The Glamour of Grammar


If there was a moment in graduate school that dismayed and hurt me more, I can’t think of anything worse than the day my first seminar paper was returned.

To see that big green F — ironically green pens were used to grade papers because green ink was supposed to be less antagonistic than red — at the top of the page and all those inserted green commas — my paper looked like it had grown a football field. And I was Tom Brady watching the Philadelphia Eagles celebrate their Super Bowl victory while I sat helplessly and forlornly in the middle of the turf at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Defeated not by linebackers and a last-second touchdown pass, but by flawed argumentation and grammar.

I dropped the course immediately.

But, I didn’t let the F end my graduate career, no more than a Super Bowl loss has ended Brady’s career. I refreshed my grammar rereading some basic composition texts and the goat text for most writers — The Elements of Style.

For me then — and since — grammar mattered.

Do you really have to grasp every element of grammar to be a great writer? Spelling seems to be a bugbear for many. There are of course the legends: F. Scott Fitzgerald apparently couldn’t spell and Shakespeare spelled his name six different ways — that, of course, was before spelling in English had become formalized.

And there are, of course, experimental works of genius like the unpunctuated last chapter of Ulysses — but Ulysses is an exceptional piece.

What about commas? Does Cormac McCarthy really know where the commas, or periods for that matter, go in passages like this from All the Pretty Horses:

“That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies  …”

And so on for another quarter of a page until the sentence/paragraph comes to a full stop. So what? Does this evocative lyrical piece in McCarthy’s signature Faulknerway style need commas or conventional punctuation? Clearly like Joyce, McCarthy is trying to show us the unconscious flow of the mind, of consciousness, of a dream state in this case. Where, exactly would you punctuate it? Still, if he’s trying to evoke a dream state, why does he keep reminding us this is a dream by repeating the phrase “in the dream”?

And, of course, as you’re reading this post, many of you might ding me for sentence fragments or using colloquialisms like “goat” for “go-to”. And, if you are like a recent editor of mine, you’ll cringe until your spine snaps to see me begin sentences with conjunctions. “And” at the beginning of a sentence particularly bugged him.

Probably as much as I was bugged as an editor when a writer of mine couldn’t name the parts of speech, and yet wrote well. Another writer couldn’t spell well and often wrote cringe worthy sentences, but was a great reporter. She got the details and great quotes. And with some great editing, won an award for feature writing.

Still, for me, grammar matters. The trauma of a green F sticks with me. It makes me check and double-check my copy and makes me fierce editor. All writers should know the basics, as Roy Peter Clark says in Writing Tools.

Even if you aren’t a professional writer, clear, generally grammatically correct writing affects communication no matter the field. At the very least, there is a utilitarian necessity for clear writing.

“Poorly written reports, memos, announcements, and messages cost us time and money,” Clark writes. “They are blood clots in the body politic. The flow of information is blocked. Crucial problems go unsolved. Opportunities for reform and efficiency are buried.”

— Todd

Current News: Why Anthony Bourdain Matters


Unless you count imaginary trips, I haven’t traveled much, although I hope to do more.

Yet, I feel I’ve traveled the world vicariously through — the rest of this sentence seems unreal to write — the wanderings of the now late Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain, 61, the celebrity chef, writer and host of CNN’s “Parts Unknown” died June 8, apparently of suicide.

In the past couple of years, news of celebrity deaths seemed to outnumber celebrities. I’m not much of a celebrity watcher/follower. Of course, I have my Hollywood heroes — Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Frances McDormand, etc. — and certainly as a teen I was obsessed with pretty much everything the band Van Halen did.

But, I didn’t get into celebrity gossip, unless you count the great TV talk shows like the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” as celebrity gossip, or regularly follow TMZ — though that show has begun to warrant some legit breaking news.

The closest thing I suppose I have to celebrity obsession is with writers. I used to collect writer’s obituaries and, when I really get into a particular writer, I will read what I can about him or her. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’d probably find a hint or two I’ve had long love affair with Ernest Hemingway.

In 2016, in particular, it seemed every Hollywood star, every rock star was turning up dead, only two celebrity deaths genuinely affected me as if I’d actually lost a relative or friend — Carrie Fisher, of course was my princess, like she was for many of you. What more can you say about the space princess who was your first movie star crush?

Of course, David Bowie and Prince rank high up on the loss scale, too.

Then, however, came writer Jim Harrison. Harrison died March 26, 2016, sort of the ideal writer’s death, I suppose, if there is any ideal death — at his table, writing in longhand.

I came to Harrison, late, introduced to his writing by my mentor and colleague, Clay Coppedge. Before I ever read a word of Harrison’s prose, I heard Harrison read at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, when he was promoting his collection of essays, The Raw and the Cooked.

This is where I get back to Anthony Bourdain. As any reader of Jim Harrison knows, the man was a gourmand. Harrison took pleasure in food like no other writer I’ve ever read, other than Hemingway (Harrison would have hated that comparison).

Until 2009, I had no idea Anthony Bourdain was such a fan of Harrison’s.

Then, I had become a religious watcher of Bourdain’s show on the Travel Channel, “No Reservations.” It became an obsession. In Bourdain, I found a kindred spirit — I longed for adventure; he adventured. He ate, he drank and he loved life. He also wrote well about it and had his own TV show.

It was hard not to love his show and him. I was in the second year of long-term unemployment, edging toward divorce and straining under a savage bout with depression. Bourdain’s joie de vivre was intoxicating, a relief from the darkness crushing against me from all sides, from the high place of my mind.

I made sure not to miss the episode Bourdain visited Harrison in Montana.

“I’m in awe of him,” Bourdain says of Harrison in the episode. It’s refreshing to hear a celebrity say he’s in awe of someone and mean it.

And it’s clear from Bourdain’s book Medium Raw, the chef was in awe of Harrison. Harrison is “the man who has done everything cool with everybody who’s ever been cool, dating back to when they invented the fucking word.”

Like Harrison, what the bad-boy chef —Bourdain was once called the Hunter S. Thompson of celebrity chefs — writer and traveler gave us was authenticity, the kind of thing that seems missing in our world of corporate ken dolls, the kind of thing Bourdain gave his fans, even in a Montana that, as wild as it still is, has also become overrun with CEOs and moguls.

In all of his shows — his most recent was “Parts Unknown” — Bourdain traveled and ate and drank and gave us armchair travelers a touch of depth about a place, the sort of thing you can’t get with ordinary tours. He went to out-of-the-way places, had a love affair with street food and in Vietnam famously ate a bowl of $6 noodles with President Obama.

After Bourdain’s passing last week, all I could post about it was “Damn.”

I hadn’t watched “Parts Unknown” in awhile, but I loved every episode for its touch of authenticity. Plus, more often than not, he’d end up citing a favorite book — in Tangier he recalled Sheltering Sky author Paul Bowles, and probably talked about William S. Burroughs — or he’d somehow work in a line from “Apocalypse Now.”

Just this week, The Atlantic, talks about Bourdain’s authenticity. “The key ingredient of Bourdain’s career was indeed realness.”

That’s what mattered about him. He was a pop culture icon. And yet, he could stand in awe of other icons like Harrison.

He mattered to me, because he showed a life of no fear, and he talked about good food, good books, good music. He wasn’t afraid to be cultured or crazy.

It’s the kind of thing we need now. We need pop culture of the variety of Bourdain and Harrison, even Hemingway and Twain. People unafraid of the world or life. People without borders, because somehow we’ve become a culture isolated and wanting protection through walls.

I’d rather live in Bourdain’s borderless world.

There’s a photo that’s circulated around social media. I found it on a Jim Harrison Facebook fan site. It’s of Bourdain, Harrison and the now late actress Margot Kidder. They are drinking at a bar in Livingston, Montana.

It’s a poignant scene, the kind of thing that makes you wish there were an afterlife, but only if you could hang out at bars with your friends and with great actors and writers and chefs.

It’s the kind of afterlife I hope Bourdain is enjoying.

— Todd

Recommended Reading: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War


51837639Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
Mary Roach
W.W. Norton, 2016
Hardcover, 285 pages
Almost three-quarters of a century have passed since some 13,000 paratroopers dropped from the skies over Normandy a few hours before thousands more Allied soldiers would land on the beaches to begin the liberation of Europe from the Third Reich.

Those paratroopers dropped with anywhere from 90-120 pounds of gear, including parachutes, rifles, knives — some dropped with machetes — entrenching tools, flashlights, compasses and maps, packs of rations, and extra ammo and grenades. All this gear was meant to be used to survive anything Hitler’s Wehrmacht launched at them: bullets, bombs and bunkers or panzers, machine pistols and panzerfausts.

On their way down the paratroopers probably prayed not just that their lives and their comrades’ lives would be spared the barrage of flak coming at them, but that they had, on landing — and if they survived that landing — the guts and guns to fight the men firing that flak at them and at the planes that dropped them. We know they had the guts and guns. That’s well-documented.

What we don’t know is whether they worried if their iconic cotton-twill uniforms might survive the blasts of a grenade’s explosion or wick away their body heat as they marched from one Norman farm field through another. These sorts of worries are the meat of research at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Massachusetts. There, scientists test Kevlar body armor and its variations; they test fabrics to see which cling to the skin in the vacuum created by an explosion, worsening burns, or which cloth lifts away from the skin, lessening the damage the victim might endure.

When you think of military science, you might think of the marvels of engineering that might go into the so far hypothetical F19 stealth fighter or even the strategy and tactics a commander uses to launch a successful campaign.

In Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Mary Roach explores the sort of military science performed at Natick, the kind that researches the best uniforms that protect the men and women wearing them from “all that modern warfare has to throw at them: flames, explosives, bullets, lasers, bomb-blasted dirt, blister agents, anthrax, sand fleas.”

It’s the unsung, behind-the-scenes science of warfare that Roach puts into the spotlight, the things rarely talked about in history books or heard of on the news, “the quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, panic, ducks.”

Ducks? Exactly.

Unless you’re Elmer Fudd, I doubt you think of a duck as something that poses a risk to national security. But “birdstrike,” as the military calls the mass of geese, gulls, ducks and other birds that collide with Air Force jets, costs “$50 million to $80 million in damage and, once every few years, the lives of the people on board.”

The Air Force tests birdstrike — so you’ll know— with an aptly named chicken gun, which hurtles chickens against jets at speeds of 400 mph or more.

Grunt is Roach’s fifth book. I’m currently reading her first, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which explores how cadavers have been used to aid the progress of medical science, and even of military science, as they were in 1893 when Capt. Louis La Garde of the U.S. Army Medical Corps experimented with what’s now termed stopping power of the then new .30-caliber Springfield rifle, firing the gun at a series of naked and unarmed corpses.

With the advent of ballistics gel, the military, as well as law enforcement, rarely use cadavers in weapons testing any longer — the freshly dead, as it turns out, aren’t good test subjects to determine stopping power. The already stopped often don’t react to damage from bullets in the same way the living or simulated living parts made from the gel do.

Actually, one primary task of the military now is to prevent its personnel from becoming corpses. One way to do this is to train medics in gruesomely realistic settings, as the 1st Marine Division does its medical corpsmen at Camp Pendleton. In its combat trauma management course, the Marines find themselves in the midst of a simulated Afghan village when all hell breaks loose during an insurgent attack.

Only, the corpsmen aren’t anywhere near Afghanistan; they are in a movie studio designed to give them the feel of war. Here, they find actors — in some cases amputee Marine veterans — screaming in agony as gouts of movie blood fountain from the same sort of special effects equipment that makes a mess of soldiers on screen. In the background all the while, as the medics tend the wounded, realistic sounds of combat blare out over speakers — audio from the movie Saving Private Ryan.

While these scenes are engaging, Roach gives us her best with the quirky stories ­ — sometimes asides in a chapter — that have the most potential for maximum gross-out factor, as when she turns to the subject of wound care using maggots.

She first encounters the fly larvae in Stiff, where she describes her visit to the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility. There, where forensics researchers study decay in cadavers in the name of law enforcement and solving murders, Roach notes “grains of rice” squirming in a man’s belly button. “It’s a rice grain mosh pit,” she writes with her characteristic sense of humor.

Only, these aren’t grains of rice. They’re maggots, which she decides to give a much more palatable name to — “haciendas”. In Grunt, she graduates to making roses roses and maggots maggots, when she visits wound care researchers at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR).

Maggots eat dead or decaying meat. “When the meat is part of an open wound,” Roach reports, “the act of eating performs upon the meal a kind of debridement. Debridement — the removal of dead or dying tissue — fights infection and facilitates healing.”

The last thing a wounded soldier trying to recover from those wounds needs is infection. Enter the WRAIR maggot therapists, who treat wounds using said fly larvae, to eat away dead, decaying, infectious flesh. These larvae, of course, aren’t grown in the wild but safely cultivated in sterile environments by the therapists — sometimes in home labs.

Having seen maggots at work before, Roach is less squeamish this time around: Maggot therapist George Peck places three of the wriggling larvae on the tip of Roach’s index finger. When they rear up in search of food, Roach likens them to puppets on Sesame Street.

It’s sort of a sweet scene — if you think of the maggots as, say, puppets or playful puppies. Then comes the kicker, when two of the larvae lift their companion up as if in celebration. Peck informs Roach, “They do cannibalize.”

Which, indeed, is what they do.

Roach peppers her book with scenes like this. At once graphic, yet somehow endearing, largely because throughout the book, Roach charms with her voice, a voice that is at once affable and serious. Voice and narrative always make a piece work.

Grunt works because of Roach’s voice and her ability to set scenes like those above. Still,  war is a grave, serious subject, and while Roach’s voice is often charming and witty, she never makes of her subject a frivolous thing.

She tells the story of the people involved in the science of war with humanity and depth, and how their work affects them.

Grunt ends poignantly inside the morgue and mortuary of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, where military autopsies are performed. Roach notes that since “2004, around 6,000 autopsies have taken place here,” all of men and women killed in combat.

Here, autopsies uncover more than the cause of death. They uncover what could save the next soldier’s life. The beefed-up, buff pectorals of many weight-lifting soldiers and Marines, for instance, have caused small needles to miss their mark when medics try to relieve air pressure off of shot-through collapsed lungs. Autopsies discovered this. Now, longer needles are used on buffer pecs.

In the end, however, war is about the dead, the dead young men and women going through the morgue and mortuary, and the question posed by one of the medical examiners, “Was it worth it?”

History shows us it was worth it to land behind the lines of the Norman coast in 1944. Still, it’s a difficult question to answer. Roach leaves us pondering that question with a final image. She sees a stepladder in the exam room: she learns it’s used by autopsy photographers to get perspective, to get the whole body in the frame.

“I guess war is like that,” Roach writes. “A thousand points of light, as they say. Only when you step back and view the sum, only then are you able to grasp the worth, the justification for the extinguishing of any single point. Right at the moment, it’s tough to get that perspective. It’s tough to imagine a stepladder high enough.”

On Writing: Is Writing Hard?


Susan Orlean, journalist and author of The Orchid Thief, once tweeted, “Writing is hard. Writing is hard. Writing is hard.”

I retweeted her. I felt a surge of empathy. Though I’m nowhere near the talent or accomplishment of Susan Orlean — she’s a goddess of great feature writing — as a writer I understood exactly what she felt.

Reading that tweet was also quietly reassuring: someone of her talent experienced difficulties with her writing. Probably at the time I saw the tweet, I was having difficulties with my own writing. Maybe I was trying to put together a marketing document, and trying to make sense of business jargon. Or maybe I was slamming a news story together on deadline. Or maybe I was trying to get imaginary people to come alive on the page in an imaginary world my brain had concocted. Or maybe I was just trying to compose a blog post, like I am now.

Whatever the circumstance — the writing situation, I suppose it’s called — I’m sure I got up from my chair (as I just did) at least 20 times after maybe, maybe writing a sentence. I might have paced halfway across my bedroom with a cup of lukewarm coffee in hand to gather my thoughts and come back to my chair and pecked out a few more words or even a phrase — possibly a complete sentence.

I know for sure that as I was composing this post, I topped off said coffee at least three times. That was much easier than keeping butt to chair and typing. I also consulted my AP Stylebook to see whether or not to capitalize “tweet” when referring to that thing you do on Twitter. You don’t, by the way, capitalize “tweet,” according to the AP Stylebook.

Why have I procrastinated like this? Because, well, writing is hard.

Or is it?

Within 30-45 minutes or so, I’ve written six short paragraphs. I didn’t suffer, I didn’t bleed. About the worst thing that happened was developing coffee breath, and since it’s just me and the cat at home, there’s nobody to offend with it.

But, there is a mythology that surrounds writing — that it takes blood, sweat and possibly tears with an unleashing of fears to do it. And, if you’re not suffering, you’re somehow doing it wrong. And, people, including professional writers, believe the myth.

In Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark notes how common and pervasive the mythology has become.

“Americans do not write for many reasons,” he writes. “One big reason is the writer’s struggle. Too many writers talk and act as if writing were slow torture, a form of procreation without arousal and romance — all dilation and contraction, grunting and pushing.”

Building up that myth are writers themselves, as Clark notes, citing an oft-misattributed — usually to Hemingway (talk about the notion of suffering) — quote from New York sports writer Red Smith, “Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”

The struggle, Clark says “is overrated, a con game, a cognitive distortion, a self-fulfilling prophecy, the best excuse for not writing.”

In my marginal notes next to this sentence, I wrote, “I need to remember this. I think it’s all a matter of confidence.”

And, I think that’s what the real struggle is, it’s with fear, as Richard Rhodes says in his book How to Write, “Fear stops most people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do?”

Fear is the real struggle. It’s what holds me back. Those questions above nag me when I write, no matter the size of the project — a blog post, a feature article, a novel draft. Fear says, “No one is interested.” Fear says, “Have another cup of coffee. Eat a bowl of ice cream.” Fear says, “Why bother to write tonight? You’re tired from your day job. You need to rest. That next episode of ‘Bosch’ looks pretty good. Nobody will care. You won’t make a living at this.”

Fear talks me out of writing. Some days I’d rather do algebra, writing seems so hard. I’ll bet fear talks you out of it, too. I would bet Susan Orlean had some sort of nagging fear when she tweeted “Writing is hard”.

So, no, writing isn’t hard, though it does require hard work and perseverance to master the craft. Fear makes it hard. Fear is a variable in an equation that makes anything a zero sum game.

But, you have a right to write, as do I, Rhodes notes. Why?

“You’re a human being,” he writes, “with a unique story to tell, and you have every right. If you speak with passion, many of us will listen. We need stories to live, all of us. We live by story. Yours enlarges the circle.”


On Writing: Staying focused and maintaining interest in writing projects: advice from Joe Lansdale


Joe R. Lansdale at the 2013 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas, United States. Photo Larry D. Moore. 

I wrote a little about this yesterday, about my mind jumping around from interest to interest of late in my writing, a jump prompted it seems by a re-upping of interest in journalism because of a freelance gig and a waning interest in the second draft of my novel.

This isn’t the first time for me to lose interest in my novel project. As I mentioned yesterday, it was about this time last year my interest in the first draft waned. So, it’s possible I’m at the moment in a sophomore-draft slump.

Last year at this time, writer friends online encouraged me to press on. For awhile this year, in the midst of job and apparently major career changes, I felt the first slump coming on sometime around the Christmas holidays. It seemed to coincide with a major case of holiday blues — these blues hit during that time of year, largely because I find the whole season intolerable; I want it to go away, get sent in a bright red package with a bright red bow to some holiday Gilligan’s Island and get lost and stay lost.

To stay with the fearless-crew-of-the-Minnow theme, perhaps I was lost, overwhelmed by multiple stressors, including the black-dog depression brought on by so many stressors. As you well know from your diet of of pop psychology, major life changes can upset your creative traveler like Gilligan’s storm.

However I got there, I was pulled out by a writer infinitely greater than myself: Joe Lansdale.

Writing tip. Don’t let those who can’t, or won’t do it keep you from doing it. Spend less time explaining the reasons you can’t and more time showing that you can. That sounds like a slogan, but it’s the solid truth. There’s always someone who has an excuse, and sure, there are some that have valid reasons. But most people don’t have valid reasons. They just have reasons they don’t write. I don’t have time is the main one. And hey, that’s a toughie.

But I didn’t start out as a full time writer. I did other jobs, and sometimes two, meaning one was part time on top of whatever else I was doing for a living at the time.

I eventually realized I had a lot of time. Time that I was spending sitting around worrying  about not having the time, or planning a block of time. I decided, what if I wrote from ten thirty at night until midnight. My original goal was one page, and I learned very quickly I could do that.

So, I decided to expand on the idea. I would do three pages of prose. I had to get up at six a.m. to go to work, so I gave myself a carrot, so to speak. I thought, what if  gave myself an out and wrote three pages of good prose, even if I wrote it in thirty minutes. I did that, I could go to bed before midnight. So it was ten thirty to midnight, or three pages. It was usually midnight back then, and sometimes I didn’t get the three, but over time I managed to the majority of the time.

It wasn’t any good, by they way, but I was learning. In time I turned to working mornings, as I had an afternoon to tent-thirty job as a janitor, and weekend jobs as I could grab them. Practicing and teaching martial arts part time. And writing.

On the weekends I would write when I could, even if it was but for thirty minutes. I still made time to be a husband and a father, and my wife and I have managed a great life out of it all. I spent time at my kid’s events, and with them, and still do, even though they are grown.

There is time, if you make it. It’s still hard work, but of a different nature now. I say this merely to say you can do it too, not that I did anything amazing. That’s the point. It wasn’t that amazing. I learned to balance my time without turning it into a chart I had to check off or frustrate over. I relaxed and did it.

This piece of advice spurred me along, and I made time to write and work on the second draft of the novel.

Now, my problem isn’t time. It’s focus. But, I realize, as I’ve just reread and retyped this quote, the shift of focus may be exactly what need to do. Maybe I need to hold off on the novel and use the writing time I’ve set aside for myself for nonfiction writing?

So, does this happen to you? Do your interests flip-flop or jump from project to project? How do you handle it?

— Todd

Current News: Cats, Freelance and Staying Focused/Interested in Writing

I’ve inherited a cat. I’ve never owned a cat and hadn’t really planned on getting one, but Callie the Calico became part of my  life just a little more than a month ago after a friend’s death.20180430_201537

Now, I wonder why I haven’t had a cat before, though I know next to nothing about them, other than they apparently evolved some 6-7 million years ago in the Middle East and were worshiped as gods.

Callie seems to be a good companion so far, and I’m glad I was able to adopt her. It’s probably good for writers to have cats and clearly there are some famous literary cats, like Hemingway’s six-toed feral cats that  roam his Key West estate.


Since February I’ve had a regular freelance gig writing advertorials for local newspapers. These have been fun and a nice source of side/supplemental income. At the same time they’ve juiced  my journalism jones again.

I guess I’m like James Bond, never say never, again. I was convinced I was done with journalism last September, at least daily newspaper journalism, and maybe that part of my writing life — at least full time — is done. It’s hard to tell.

The renewed interest in journalism has also led me to reading some great nonfiction again, including Mary Roach’s Grunt, about which I’ll write more in another post.

Reading nonfiction and writing a form of it, though, has put me in the mood to write more of it and that’s why I’ve been blogging more lately. I hope you’ve enjoyed the output.


This freelance gig and a renewed interest in journalism and nonfiction, though, has also distracted me from working on the second draft of a novel, a second draft I had fully expected to have finished by now.

Getting distracted by different forms of writing seems a constant for me. At times all I want to write is fiction or a specific genre of fiction such as science fiction or mystery.
Then I get occupied with wanting to write more nonfiction.

Do you experience this as a writer? Does your interest in a form jump around?

But, besides my mind jumping around from fiction to nonfiction, I’ve lost interest in the second draft, lost interest in the novel itself. In one way, this is a bit discouraging. I really wanted to see this thing to the end. But will I? I’m feeling doubtful about this.

Then again, it was about this time last year I was growing tired of the first draft and was ready to chuck in all in the trash bin.

So, maybe, I’ll push through and complete it. Maybe, what I need is some distraction like blog posts to push through the block. To keep writing.