Questioning Assumptions

Popular lore holds that cats hate water, but it isn’t necessarily true. I’ve had three, and they have all imbibed from the tap, supervised the bath, and showed up when the garden hose was running. One routinely came home soaked from her forays, whether from roaming wetland, marsh or lakeshore, I’m not sure. She lived on the edge, that one, and she didn’t live long, but her days were surely filled with water.

If life hadn’t delivered up cats in my household, I might never have known that some cats actually enjoy water and find is fascinating in their own fashion. I might have subscribed more or less forever to the popular, but incorrect, view. I might have even repeated it, which seems like littering.

Another person might not care. What harm, after all, in misjudging a cat’s possible nature?

But writers question assumptions, look deeper, even those of us who will, before we are done, distort what we learn into something entirely different. Barely recognizable, it will still ring true.

Some cats love water; that’s a fact. I can use it, distort it, or ignore it, but at least I know what’s accurate, and this affords me, an accidental fact-holder on this matter, but a fact-holder nonetheless, a certain kind of power.

Now, as for the nine lives . . .

. . . the jury’s out.

Photo credit: lead cat –; nine cats – Aussie Gold

Kitchen Table

To rewind this tale to the proximate cause of my shift of late to the kitchen table as my base of operations would require volumes.

One of those volumes is in my agent’s hands. Another is in scraps on my regular desk, back in my office. Several more are in published form, shelved on the bookcases found there. These are painted white and stand floor to ceiling against walls done in a soft, warm color named goat’s beard.

A goat appears in one of my works. That’s nothing I could have predicted. It’s a charged scene, with that goat serving as both dinner and as loss, a stand-in for a destiny reduced to smoke and ash.

To tell that scene required considerable effort, none of which could show. I wanted the reader to take it in, but not be held up by it. I wanted him to shake off a chill perhaps, but not stop to think about it, because he’s in too much of a hurry to see what comes next.  That’s exactly where I want my reader: wanting more.

To write a scene like that—one that can speak on many levels, from dinner to destiny, but which foremost entertains—is not the work of idle writing. It requires, among other things, fortitude and careful calculation.

My office is not the place, of late, to find either. There’s too much going on, too many directions, too much conversation, too much. What chance to clear a head with all this noise?

And so, I’ve left it behind and moved to a more hospitable region of the house. Today you will find me—or preferably not, as I work alone—in the kitchen. Fortunately, at the rather early hour I like to write, I have the space to myself.

Everyone needs a place to think, to plan, to compose a simple sentence that advances the cause. And one needs to be able to linger there, as well, as these things take time.

Where is that place? I wonder if the answer is the same across the globe. Should I take a pencil and a photographer and find out? Already, I can picture an array of kitchen tables, from the sandy earth to the polished oak of the English manor, populated, in the off hours especially, by women in their robes who need to think.

Photo credit: Amanda Woodward

The Boss

As a writer, you work for yourself, even if you’re being paid. Every sentence, every word, every turn of the phrase comes from you. The way things sit on the page. The amount of white space. The tone. The taste. The raised eyebrows of the reader—in delight or shock, maybe—is proof that you have done your job well.

And now you’re done.

It’s up to them now, those with the city shoes that decamp, slamming car doors, all  sunglasses and cell phones, looking around to assess the possibilities in what you have created. And because you’re the writer, you’re still looking after they have turned away, busy with their labors, the next steps.

A smart writer remains interested, takes notes, and tries to be helpful.  You’re not the boss anymore—far from it—but you are still the parent. And parents must always be accorded their say. It’s in the contract, buried in the fine print.

Photo credit: Businessmen – Huntz, paolo

Fishing for Stories

Some of the best stories come in our off-duty times. There you are, minding your own business, when you notice something in the current. You keep your eye on it, but it bobs and dives. You run along the bank to follow it, cry out when you think you’ve lost it.

But there it is!

Quick—get it, before it floats too far downstream.

That it has caught your attention is proof enough that it is worthy of it.  Something interesting is at play, and you will learn.

Perhaps your curiosity will be satisfied in a moment. Not every matter is as it first appears. It’s a cork, but no gold cap—just a shiny foil from a brewer’s hand, and you, dripping wet from your efforts to secure it in hand.

Or, maybe you’ll find something that will hook you and open an entire body of work.  Hold on. Look here . . . there’s a message on this cork, penned in a delicate hand. It seems to speak directly to you, practically calls you by name.  It’s a command, a prayer, a question, perhaps. Search for an answer, and now you’ve got a story.

Photo credit: cork – Miroslav Sárička, sxc; bottle – Ali Taylor, sxc

The Ebb and Flow

There are times when writers can’t seem to write, or when everything we write is just plain terrible. Writer’s block, as some call it, is a common affliction. We moan. We groan. We take to the bed, drink fluids.

But in our fear, our misery, we tend to forget that it’s just the natural rhythm of a working life, the ebb to any forthcoming flow. It’s a good thing, really, the chance to build power, but for the restless among us, the quickest way through it is to stop resisting, and go do something else.

Sometimes, the answer is to turn to reading. That’s it: reading. Don’t try to analyze how the writer is doing what he’s doing. A good work will soon put a stop to this anyway by sweeping the reader away, which is exactly what’s needed.

At other times, one might need to go investigate what other creative folks are doing, people not in your own field. Some turn to music, for example.  Others, to fashion or food. For me, modern art offers an appealing suspension of rules. So much is possible when an artist can set his piece on fire, or compose it of shiny hard candy that he invites his viewers to eat, a trail of glittering wrappers all that’s left by the end. Who can feel wooden and unyielding for long in the presence of such creative breadth?

Photo credit: Timo Balk, sxc.

Just the Facts

As the cop says to the old lady, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Number of months blogging: 8.

Number of posts: 65. Ones I particularly like:  21.  Website tune-ups: 3. Improvements in the works: 3.

Posts pulled from an inventory of ideas: 15.  Freshly conceived, more contemporaneously inspired posts: 50.  Rate of new pieces generated as compared to inventory:  3:10.

Number of free photo sources: 3. Countries represented in my stable of photographers: dozens. Number of photographers I called upon repeatedly: 2.

Number of permissions sought: 11. Most required for a single piece: 7. I didn’t run it, even though it sported two from the CIA, one of them a spy, a famous cartoonist, an accomplished painter, the king of Bhutan, a parrot, and a man who knew how to cure prosciutto in the attic. . . .

Dumb decisions to which I nonetheless adhere: 1 (The issue: SEO versus what one would really like to say.)

Publication: twice weekly. Number of Tuesday pieces that spiked: a lot, randomly. Number of Friday pieces that spiked: same. Biggest spikes:  unrelated to day of the week.

Most popular post:  How is Information Acquired.  (Note: Topic had sex appeal.) 22 others also particularly popular, including: What’s in a Name?, Three Writing Principles a Long Way Downstream, Trash and the Written Word, Flamingo A-go-go, Choosing to Write, Owning a Word, and The Clause for Immortality.

Number of planning hours per week:  2.  Number of writing hours:  never enough, and they fly by.

Number of pieces that just did not work:  7. Number of times I tend to go at a piece, over and over, until at last I come to my senses and trash it: 4.

Typical posting hour: 6:30 a. m. Latest posting hour: 3:30 p.mTwice.

Number of languages in which spam arrives: 5. Most popular, of late: Russian. Rate of real comment (best as I can tell) to spam: 1:15.

Most fun in the working day:  selecting the photography, which is refreshing after the labor of writing.

Number of changes as promised in my last blog, which addressed a refocusing initiative: 1. The change: This blog is now a weekly, with Friday posts.

See you next week.

Photo credit:

The Hallmarks of an Engaging Letter

Yes, I know. No one writes letters anymore. We write e-mails. Or blogs, commentary, essays, stories, books . . .

Right there, it goes to show: a letter will be noticed.

The lure begins with its very physicality: a nice weight to the paper, a promising feel in the hand. It separates easily from the rest of the mail: what’s this? for me?

You inspect the handwriting, always so surprising: black ink on ivory or buff, a slant, a loop, a curlicue or spidery hand.  You might look at the stamp and wonder if it was as deliberately chosen as, say, a man and his necktie.

You slit it open, start to read.

A good letter says something. It can be an apology or a proposition. It can put something to rest or start something new. It can entertain, or inform, or enclose a photo, or a clipping. Maybe, even, it’s scented, as was the habit of a writer I once knew (Shalimar, the toilette water, just a spritz.).

Some letters can change an entire life. You don’t send information like this via Twitter’s 140 cold characters thrown up against ever-changing wallpaper.

A letter done well is a treasured thing, a hatbox set on a closet shelf reserved for this purpose. Everything else—your books, your newspapers, your essays, e-mails, your notes, lists, drafts—will get trashed or deleted, sooner or later. My money says that the last to go, and maybe not even for generations, are your letters.

Photo credits: perfume bottle – Sarah Barth, sxc; hatbox – Franci Stumpfer,sxc.

The Little Man

All day long, people talk.

Sometimes we hear helpful things, and we are grateful. But sometimes—stage left: enter the little man, a not so helpful guy.

That shifty little bugger, never invited, sits on one’s shoulder, burrows in, makes himself at home, and doles out unsolicited advice. Smoking a cigar, pontificating, he suggests maybe that we can quit our workout early, that five—okay, seven—minutes won’t matter. Don’t bother, it’s not worth it, is his answer, whatever the question. In a taunting mood, he might even say that work is overrated, that we ought to throw that computer in the lake and go have a life.

When the little man comes around, we are presented with a choice. We can listen to his prattle, even adopt his views, or we can tell the little man to go away.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to see him off.

I’ve tried lots of them—they all work, if you want them to—and lately, I’ve taken up boxing at the gym. I have baby blue gloves that I love like a pair of shoes, and my jab is coming along. If the little man dares to come around, I’m thinking he won’t be staying long.

Special thanks to Dana Apgar.

Photo Credits: troll – Tracey Scott-Murray, sxc; red ghoul – Julia Freeman-Woolpert; boxer – morguefile

It’s All in the Delivery

Words are shifty things. One minute they mean this. The next, they mean that. Perhaps this is what makes them so hard to pin down. Here are two versions of exactly the same words, with two entirely different meanings. Watch:

Pretty clever, and I didn’t see it coming. Made me stop to realize yet again how words can be made to say anything.

Photo credit: Karl-Erik Bennion, sxc