Doing the Necessary Work

Yes, I am a writer.

I write poems.

I write novels.

I write and draw comics and comic-book-style stories.

And that isn’t me in the first picture of this post. Although it is pretty close.

But today, I am once again merely sitting down to the keyboard to monkey around and tap out something in writing to get the old writing practice over with.

There is no over-arching plan to follow, no theme already in mind… just little old me sitting down and working at it to get ideas on paper.

And soon, unless the school district I applied to rejects my application for no foreseeable reason, I will be doing the work of a substitute teacher. Of course, that’s not me in the fuzzed up background of the picture. That is not even a real classroom. No classroom contains that many left-hand raisers. And if you could find one, no real classroom has that many hand raisers without having asked the question, “Who wants ice cream?” And a mere sub cannot possibly afford to ask that expensive question.

But that isn’t even the kind of work I meant when I lamely wrote that title. Lamely writing a title is work I have to force myself to do. And that is even harder when you write it first while having no earthly idea what you are even going to write about in the essay.

I always told writing classes (the ones who actually never raise either hand about anything) that the best way to do it is to leave writing the title til last so you will already know what you wrote about and what to call it. But forcing yourself to follow through on a title you just pulled out of the air is one way to force yourself to get the necessary work done.

Another thing you can do to force yourself to get the work done when you need to write something, is put the writing aside and read a book.  As Sagan suggests, books are magical things that let you channel the mind of another author, preferably one who is smarter and a better writer than you are.  I can write fake Twain and fake Dickens like nobody’s business because I soaked in Twain’s magical way of writing down what people said in the weird way the individual talker actually sounded during my college years, and I absorbed Dickens’ knack for creating weird but lovable characters with distinctive personalities and motivations when I was even younger than that.  But channeling is not the same as plagiarizing, so you can get away with it much easier than most other literary crimes you are fully capable of committing as an author.  You can easily steal style and ideas from whatever book you are reading, and that helps you do the necessary work.

Of course, when you are done procrastinating and wasting time by reading somebody else’s book, you can then turn to another helpful tactic to do the work that needs to be done.  You can pick a book to re-read.

That’s right.  When I recently re-read Rodman Philbrick’s The Last Book in the Universe, I was better able to see and admire the structure of that book, a hero’s quest-type story that narrates the episodic adventures of a ragtag group of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world as they are on a quest for a lost book, one that is being written as the reader reads it.

This particular author is quite good at Quixotic Quest Stories, and understanding how he has put his story together is marvelously instructive.  He has written a blue-print for a kind of story you can easily apply to the structure of your own story.

I am doing something very similar now as I re-read my own story, The Bicycle-Wheel Genius and follow the eccentric characters on a very similar quest to find a story in pre-apocalyptic Iowa in the 80’s and 90’s.

So, what is the theme that I can wrap this warped wooden bowl of advice-fish up in so that you can take it home and feed it to your children (by which I mean your own writing)?  Well, my best advice is to never take advice from Mickey.  He is sarcastic and ironic and usually joking, so he rarely means whatever he says.  After all, he wrote one of the best essays of his life yesterday, and practically nobody has read it yet. But I am also saying you don’t have to go it alone.  There is a whole world of us out there, and even the dead ones count.  Use what you learn from others to help you get the necessary work done.  So, find that unused steam engine, fire it up, and start chugging away at the next surprise best seller, or at least the book that most pleases you yourself to write.

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The Peak Year

Last night I watched the movie version of Jersey Boys the musical. It touched me deeply. And the band was asked to each answer the question,
“What was your best year as a member of the Four Seasons, your peak year?” Frankie Valli’s answer got me thinking about the answer to that question as it applies to who I am and what was the peak year of my career.

Now, I can’t deny that, having been a successful public school teacher who loved teaching for more than 30 years, there were a number of very successful years I could point to. But scoring well on State writing tests and reading tests despite teaching in a poor rural school district in South Texas, nor competing in the Odyssey of the Mind creativity contest with my gifted students were really what I would call my peak year. That honor has to go to the year I was twelve (for most of the year), 1969,

That was the year that men walked on the moon. I had followed the whole thing for several years, since Mom and Dad had gotten me excited about space by trying to spot John Glenn in his Mercury capsule crossing the blue sky in our back yard. I had watched religiously as Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra told us on CBS about Mercury and Gemini and finally Apollo.

It made me believe in myself and the power of people for the first time since the tornado and the sexual assault from 1966 had toppled my world.

I had numerous self-confidence issues after 1966. I really, deep down, blamed myself for what happened to me. I was convinced that I was worthless and evil. But watching Neil Armstrong step onto the surface of the moon on that late July evening made me yearn to reshape the world the way he did, even if I could only do it in a much smaller way.

’69 was the “Summer of Love” in more than one way for me. I wasn’t really able to think about myself as a virgin in ’69 for… reasons. But it was the summer that I got to see a girl who wasn’t my sister naked because she wanted me to see her. We were not able to actually do what both of us wanted to do, and my double-clutching at the last moment destroyed any chance of her ever even talking to me again for the rest of my life, but it proved that I was at least desirable to girls. And music from that moment on began to underscore everything in my life. She had “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies playing in her bedroom. And the same song was playing again at the roller rink in Lake Cornelia the night she refused to do the couple’s skate with me, and I asked Leslie instead. Leslie accepted. I was not a monster made from the horror of ’66. i proved that to myself to the beat of “Sugar Sugar”.

And, of course, even though I was a Cardinals fan, the New York Mets proved to me that year that the impossible can happen. Of course, I rooted for the Orioles. You know, a team with a bird for a mascot.

But 1969 was also a year of big decision for me. I already knew at that point that I was destined to be a storyteller. But that was the year of the My Lai massacre. I remember looking at the photos in Life and Look magazines of the dead bodies of women and children, killed by American bullets. I could not, at that point, stomach the idea of going to war after turning 18, a possibility that became very real to me that year.

It was the year I made up my mind I would never kill anyone in my lifetime, never pick up a gun to harm others, or be a part of any such atrocity. I still have great respect for soldiers and what they do, but if I had been there, I would’ve been moved to lay down my weapon and stand with the victims in front of the machine guns. They would’ve had to kill me too. And I was determined to go to jail sooner than fight in the war. Luckily, that was never put to the test. The war ended in 1975, before I graduated high school.

The peak year was not for me a year of great personal success or wealth or accomplishment. 1969 was the year I chose who I was going to be in life. The year of decision. The year that brought me all the way through from there to now. It was 50 years ago. It was the year I was 12.

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Filed under autobiography, baseball, empathy, heroes, humor, philosophy, strange and wonderful ideas about life

More Saturday Artwork

I do not have any particular theme for this gallery post. I just want to post again pictures that I love and have hanging on my wall to study constantly. I don’t know what it is about these random images that make them dear to me… but I love them.

You know how they say that every portrait an artist does is really a self-portrait… Well, this one was always intended to be. I was ten.

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Reluctant Rabbit Returns to Bunny Class

I am now actually pursuing a return to the classroom. Even worse news… I am seriously looking at returning to the campuses where they pursue calming of the hormones in the monkey years, grades 6 through 8.

Yes, I have foolishly applied to become a substitute teacher for Carrollton-Farmers Branch School District. So, in this essay, I intend to successfully talk myself into a final adventure in bunny wrangling.

It is fairly obvious, if you look at today’s Paffooney, that Reluctant Rabbit is me. I am the wackadoo with the big pencil, whether I am in full carrot-eating mode or not. Absolutely necessary now is earning extra money, since life is only going to get more expensive now that I am permanently on a fixed income. And Uber driving is only going to get me killed now that the fees have gone down and the expenses have gone up. Too much driving in heat and Dallas traffic is wearing away my limited health points indicated by the red bar that floats above my head. And yes, I know that only happens in video games, but driving is like a video game, except you only have one life to lose in collisions.

And teaching is what I know best. I know I do not get the chance to get to know the kids like I did as a regular classroom bunny wrangler. But I still get to work with kids. And I don’t have to do lesson plans or grade papers. I do not have to work on days when I am too ill to cope. And I can make better pocket change each month than I can driving for less than slave wages.

So, I found the one person from the Garland district that knew me as a teacher and is still not dead, fired, or retired to give me a letter of reference, the one required to be a sub. The application is in. And there is a way-better-than-even chance that they will hire me. I have a lifetime teaching certificate. And schools around here are so desperate for subs that they kidnap drunks in back alleys to have enough of them to cover all the classes.

Now I must prepare myself for spitball and booger flinging, bizarre insults about my supposed rabbit ancestry, and ugly-face standoffs between hate-filled little bunnies. The monkey years. And Reluctant Rabbit has been away from them for too long.

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Filed under autobiography, humor, Paffooney, plans, rabbit people, teaching

The Captain

In my newest book When the Captain Came Calling, there is a fantasy character who is basically an invisible man. Captain Noah Dettbarn is the captain of a ship called the Reefer Mary Celeste. It is an ill-fated ship on a fatal voyage. It runs afoul of a mermaid with man-eating intentions, a witch-doctor with a hungry volcano-god to feed, and a beautiful young girl who bewitches the captain.

All of this happens in the log book of the mysterious invisible captain who has returned to the Iowa farm town where he was born and raised just as the local kids’ adventurer’s club, the Norwall Pirates, is being re-organized with a girl as their leader.

Today’s first Paffooney is an illustration that I intend to use in the book.

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Filed under characters, humor, NOVEL WRITING, Paffooney

Time Out for Story-Makers

There is a moment in which you have actually finished a years-long project and produced something with long, hard, sustained effort. You simply have to take the time to sit and breathe. The story is finished. There is a natural pause before the next story begins. In this blog, this is that pause.

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About the Book… #11

Up until now I have been putting chapters of When the Captain Came Calling on this blog, in order, as I have been finishing the manuscript, and revising and editing at the same time. I used this method to show you all the work in progress, step-by-step, as I did the revision and editing.

30 chapters (that I mysteriously call cantos for illicit poetical reasons) posted on 30 Tuesdays for the last 30 weeks. That is less than half of the novel.

I took the 22,000-word first draft and turned it into a 57,000-word completed novel in that time. The illustration above is the final copy of the cover art for When the Captain Came Calling. It is a slightly altered version of the concept cover art I have been posting for 30 weeks. Val is wearing a skate-boarder’s t-shirt that up til now had a fairly accurate portrayal of what is probably a copyrighted cartoon character. So, I turned Rude Dog into a parody called Ride, Dog! and gave him two black eyes… or possibly sunglasses. I should know better than to draw other people’s cartoons too accurately, even though it was a real detail about 80’s skate-boarders that they often wore that same cropped t-shirt.

I have also shown you character art for some of the most important characters in the story. Pictured to the right are Mary Philips, the leader of the re-formed Norwall Pirates, a small-town adventure club and 4-H softball team. She’s a practical girl-next-door sort of leader, mentor, and friend who believes all the kids who have reached their middle teenage years need to stick together and help each other through the common problems of growing up, and dealing with moving from the fantasy worlds of who they want to become, into the practical worlds of who you really can become, if only somebody gives you a boost. And the Invisible Captain Noah Dettbarn, the victim of a South Seas Voodoo curse which he is trying to overcome by finding a virgin to throw into a volcano is pictured also. He’s not exactly the villain of the story, but he turns out to be a relative of the witch-doctor. And also, Valerie-squirrel is in that picture, clinging to Mary’s arm. At one point Valerie has to run through the trees to escape an ugly, evil, killer cat who wants to eat her while she is still the squirrel the witch-doctor turned her into.

And, for some reason, people in Norwall (not just kids) think that Mazie Haire is a witch. True, she is the current resident of the Gingerbread House that has always been associated with magic and witches. Also true, she has a telescope in that upstairs room and always seems to know things about other people in the community that she shouldn’t. by rights, actually know. But that doesn’t make her the villain of the story. It also doesn’t make her the hero.

These character sketches and short explanations were a kind of crafting of the puzzle pieces that helped me to put the entire big picture together piece by piece.

I am now moving into the final proof-reading and formatting that will lead to being able to publish this book on KDP with Amazon. You should look for that book to appear there in a couple of weeks. And I intend to make some noise about it here when it is done.

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Filed under humor, novel, novel writing, Paffooney, writing humor