Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cancer Update # 5 - Reactionary

I am in the midst of chemotherapy treatment #9 and am just 24 hours from being unplugged from my side-pump, which I have privately nicknamed something I won’t post here.  To bring everyone up to date, treatment #7 packed a punch in terms of energy drainage (coming second only to treatment #3).  Treatment eight was slower in regaining energy and taste buds.  Also, the day after I was unplugged from #7 my hands and toes were a nice shade of pink (somewhere between mauve and old blood) and feeling in my fingertips remains missing.  This will grow worse but, I am assured, the feeling will return, probably.  Number nine hasn’t been so bad, aside from the usual energy drain.

I’ll also mention I had my first reaction to a treatment.  Yesterday at the cancer center, on the last little baggie of poisonous-to-me cancer killer juice, my fingers began to have pinpricks, then my feet.  Then I had a fifteen minute hot-flash, some trouble breathing and my tongue suddenly felt two sizes too big.  By this time I figured I ought to get a nurse involved.  They turned off the little baggie, fanned me, and gave me a supra-shot of Benadryl.  I think it was Benadryl; then again I wasn’t thinking very clearly at the time.  When things calmed down I had to wait for 40 minutes and assure the nurse I was capable of driving myself home.  In the meantime, I was told I had a typical reaction and the culprit element in my chemotherapy cocktail will be changed for the last three treatments.  When the nurse was finally convinced of my sound-mind and dexterous self, I was free to go.  On the way out I pretended to stumble for a few steps in front of the nurses’ station.  They didn’t appreciate that very much at all, but I thought it was funny.

p.s. -- In October I’ve had 417 original page views.  That’s a new record.  Woo-hoo!

Monday, October 21, 2013

I think that people nowadays...

The following is not an indictment of those doggonekids.  Rather, think of it as a statement about the system (public schools) producing them.

There are three neurotic elements prevalent in college freshman and sophomore writing.  I hear tell they exist in upper-classmen (classperson?) essays, but since I don’t teach at that level, I’ll stick to familiar territory.  Just call me Mr. Anecdotal.
First, without exception, students are hyper-vigilant about informing the reader that what they write is their opinion.  “I think that…”, “It seems to me…”, and “In my opinion….”, preface most statements.  When the young writers make a claim of value or policy about pert-near any topic, there is a fear or underlying concern that what they write will be taken seriously.  So, to soften the ideas, they let the reader know it’s only their opinion.  It is as though claiming anything demonstrable or conclusive should be approached timidly, if at all and, by golly, I’ll keep the backdoor unlocked if I have to make a quick getaway when someone challenges my assertion.  This reminds me of certain Woody Allen movied characters.  I’m seeing Leonard Zelig’s (Zelig) uncontrollable mimicry of the people surrounding him, or half of Alvy’s statements in Annie Hall.  Esoteric film references aside, the students will not draw attention to broad statements and observations and are very deliberate about noting the exception to every rule, while unlocking their mental escape hatch with the ever present, “I think that”.  I almost always cross out the offending lines and tell the writers that since their paper has their name on it I know I am reading their opinions.  Otherwise, they should introduce and then cite their sources like good little researchers.   Besides that, if a reader is convinced about one of their statements, then the writer wins.  Let the mushy-headed reader remain mushy-headed.

The second predominant concern of these students is to couch their writing in today’s world.  The reader must be reminded that what they are reading applies to today’s world, people nowadays, and in present times.  It is very important I not slip into thinking they are writing about the 1880s, or the 1970s (their grasp of both eras equally vacant).  But, isn’t it true, that to wake up in the morning is to wake up in nowadays?  Today is my default setting and I have yet to slip through the time-stream portal mistakenly thinking right now is twenty or thirty years ago.  Unless the students are writing about something historical, there is little need to remind the reader that they have returned to the current era.  But the here and now must be proclaimed, usually early in the essay.
Then there’s a third little nuance, juxtaposed oddly against the first; it is the fear of bias.  Not as prevalent as the first two habits of non-mind, I’ve had many talks with students who are afraid they are bringing their biases into their writing.  This fear is expressed in quick conversations, usually at the end of class or during a rare office visit.  They bring in their opinion papers and want to know how they can write without bias.  Alas… isn’t that the purpose of an opinion paper?  I explain to them how bias is like going to a ball game and rooting for their favorite team, about how everyone has bias, and about how it is their right as  a human being to have an opinion and to proclaim it as logically and coherently as they can.  Yet, the timidity of doppelganger group-think holds them in its spell.  They have opinions, they just don’t want to be opinionated.

Some of this is just habit, a writer’s stylistic fingernail chewing – like the struggle to not use second-person pronouns in formal essays.  I suspect, however, there are deeper causes.  I see these three problems as a subtle and nuanced blend of existentialism and an over developed sense of self-awareness couched in a depleted mattress of, 'This doesn't really matter', coupled with a bouquet of the gold-standard, non-contextualized doggerel-jargon-doctrine, “Judge not.”  (Maybe John 7:24 doesn’t fit so neatly on a bumper-sticker).
My question:  where are the current, bold young writers and independent minds, unafraid to throw their cards, face-up, on the table?  This neck of the woods isn’t producing many.  Mild compliance and vague timidity may be necessary to maintain the current direction; just as smooth edges fit into slots better than sharp corners.   But, this approach will do little towards finding unique thinking.  And maybe unique thinking is what we need.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Fancy Radio Talkin'

So, yeah… I made it on the radio.

The gracious and well-learned Jim Sullivan from Illinois Central College invited me to speak for a half hour on his radio show: Poet's Voices.

And I'm all like, "Heck Yeah!"

Thank you, Jim, for the opportunity. It was a lot fun.

Click the linky above if you like to take a listen.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Same Diner Every Day

Without aspiration
the emptiness shall overtake us
with fattened boredom.
The plates wax cold,
the menu tired;
abbacies of sleep.
Grinded down,
sipping poor solutions
and keep an eye on what the other guy had.
The dessert, distraction,
gladdens the face for what's on next,
to tune in the crummy remains;
those uneaten portions
to take home in the box.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Them Old Revision Blues

I revise my work, but not as much as I used to, and I wish I had the universal, 100% unqualified answer so that I might know when to stop revising.  But I don't.  Every once in a while someone criticizes a book by saying it's been overwritten.  I'm not quite sure what that means either.  But, here are a few thoughts I've cobbled together on the topic of revision.

I went to college, ok?  There, I admit it.  I learned some good things and picked up some bad habits (not all of them recreational).

One thing impressed upon me was the idea of revision.  After taking x number of literature courses and x number of writing courses my impression was that a writer has to revise, revise, revise.  But I cannot recall any lessons on how to finish a piece of writing.  And the stories were told about how the great writers worked and worked and worked on that single or double, or perhaps three or four literary masterpieces.  Hence, or possibly ergo, the young writer learned to revise.  But again, no one ever intimated or shared any lessons on how to tell when something was finished.

And so, hi-ho ho-ho, it's off to revise I go.  And revision isn't all bad.

For example, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  That's the month where people sign up on the website and the expectation is that the writer can puke out 50,000 words during that timeframe (Thanksgiving be cursed to the second or third line of a priori).  I've completed NANOWRIMO, twice, and have the brownie buttons to prove it.

What I had at the end of the project was the equivalent of a fresh can of Play-Doh, possibly opened and possibly shaped into the snake or the smooth ball or, flattering myself here, possibly the bowl.  That's about as far as I ever got with Play-Doh.  But what the writer has is 50,000 + words of writing, and it is impossible to revise nothing.

A 50,000 word manuscript, fresh out of the November oven, is major goodness and an accomplishment not many people can enjoy, but it's not finished.  My advice is, after the story is told, put it away on the thumb-drive and don't look at it until, when you read it again, parts of it you cannot remember.  For me, that's about three months.  That's when I'm ready to revise.  And revise I must because it is far easier to begin something (anything) than it is to finish it.

Consider the real word; a landscape vastly different than college.  The worker soon learns the value of the finished product, or soon finds him or herself unemployed.  If the task doesn't get completed, no one is paid (unless you're the President or in Congress).  It's that simple.  The world rewards finishers and would prefer if you kept the revision process to yourself.   The project manager wants to see where you're at.  The boss wants to know when it will be done.

So how many revisions of a piece of writing are enough?  I don't know.  No one does.

But consider, the third of Robert Heinlein's (Science Fiction dude) five rules for writers directly addresses the topic at hand.  He tells us, "You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except To Editorial Order".  Did you catch that?  Write it and send it out and don't touch it until the person willing to pay asks for changes.

And while the artistes among us will grouse and mumble about prostituting one's art, the more pragmatic who worry about the mortgage payment will understand.  Heinlein was no slouch-wannabe-got-writer's-block-and-would-rather-talk-about-my-writing-than-write.  There's something to his advice.

Then again, J.R.R. Tolkien (Fantasy dude) worked on the Lord of the Rings for decades.  Perhaps that's why we know what Sam and Bilbo had for breakfast every day.

It's a bit of a sweet spot or an intuition, knowing when to be done.  And like I said earlier, my attitude towards revision has changed over the years.  This here little essay, for example will be done very soon.  I started it this afternoon.  I'll go over it once and look for typos and tighten it up here and there, but I'm not going to sweat it out.

A writer has to ask him or herself, how long am I willing to work on one project when I know I have so many other ideas I want to tackle?