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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Your own worst critic

“What is writing but an expression of myself.” – Zane Grey

If you are a writer, you always have self doubts about what you are putting down.  Is it good?  Will people care?  Why should they care?  Ultimately, of course, you just need to be happy for and with yourself and the writing you produce.  If you aren’t, or can’t, then you need to re-think whether or not you have chosen the right path.

In 1925, in a letter to his father about his newest book The Torrents of Spring, Ernest Hemingway said he thought it was a funny book but wasn’t sure if others would like it.  But, he added, “I know what I’m doing and it doesn’t make any difference either way what anybody says about it.  Naturally it is nice to have people like it.  But it is inside yourself that you have to judge and nothing anybody says outside can help you anymore than anybody can help you shoot when a partridge flies up.  Either you hit them or you don’t.  Good instruction beforehand teaching you to shoot, etc., is fine.  But after a while it all depends on yourself and you have to be your own worst critic.”

Ernest Hemingway                       Zane Grey
 These two writers were contemporaries and outdoorsmen.  They admired each other's work but never met.                                  

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Friday, January 30, 2015

Humanity in print

“Books are humanity in print.  Books are carriers of civilization.  Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.” 
– Barbara Tuchman 

My newest novel is historical fiction.  I’ve always loved history, especially when presented in the palatable manner that Barbara Tuchman had for the topic.  A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, her work has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, led by her 1962 best-selling award winner The Guns of August (a prelude to and first month of World War I), and her 1970 biography on the World War II General Joseph Stilwell. 
In 1978, she wrote the wonderful A Distant Mirror about the calamitous 14th Century but considered reflective of the 20th, especially in the horrors of war.  That book, too, led the New York Times best seller list and was a finalist for yet another Pulitzer.

Tuchman began her career in the 1930s as a journalist and in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, became one of the few women – along with Martha Gelhorn (and more about her in a later post) working as a war correspondent – reporting for The Nation.

Barbara Tuchman -- born today in 1912

In 1980, not long before her death, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities.  Tuchman focused her lecture on “Mankind’s Better Moments,” many of which appeared in the  20 books she wrote for us as a lasting historical legacy.

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Sticking to one's dreams

Jessica Burkhart is a good example both of and for our next generation of writers.  She’s also a great example of sticking to one’s writing dreams. Fifteen years ago, as an 8th grader, and while recuperating from a major surgical procedure, she decided to start writing to fill her hours and because she was convinced that she could produce articles that were at least as good as those she had been reading in magazines and journals brought to entertain her. 

At first she tried writing what she thought those magazines wanted.  That led to a couple years' worth of rejections.  So she turned to writing about what she knew – in her case a love of animals and her volunteer work with the Humane Society – a formula that more often than not leads to success.  It was a good choice, indeed.

By age 18, she had over 100 published articles in everything from Girls’ Life to The Writer.  At age 19, she signed up for the annual National Novel Writing Month, a challenge to write a 50,000 word (or longer) novel in 30 days.  Again, she chose to write what she knew and loved – horseback riding.

Having started her own blog, she wrote about the experience of doing her first book, and as luck would have it (and luck does indeed often play a part in getting first books accepted) a literary agent who was perusing blogs spotted her post.  The woman liked what she read and signed up Jessica as a client.    Burkhart’s first book, Take The Reins, resulted in the birth of The Canterwood Crest series, written for Tweens.  

Jessica “Burkhart” Ashley

Burkhart, who turns 28 today and whose real last name is Ashley, now has had a dozen novels published in several genres and is still going strong.  She’s a testament to “stick-to-it-tiveness” and writing what you know … and taking writers’ moments and turning those dreams into reality.    Happy writing!

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Let's be clear about that

Recently, I heard Alan Alda on the National Public Radio's Science Friday talking about an interesting program he helped establish called “The Flame Challenge.”  Each year 11-year-old kids get the opportunity to ask a question that is then given to scientists around the world to answer “in language that is clearly understandable by an 11-year-old.”   To make sure it’s clearly understandable, 11-year-olds worldwide also are the judges.   This year’s question:  “What is sleep?”

The Flame Challenge is an outgrowth of The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, a cross-disciplinary organization founded in 2009 at Stony Brook University in New York and housed, interestingly enough, in the Department of Journalism.  Its goal “is to help scientists and science writers learn to communicate more effectively with the public.”

Too often, Alda said, both scientists and science writers have amazing things to share but they simply don’t know how to share them in clear and concise language.   “The ability to communicate,” Alda says, “is what makes us human and allows technology to advance.” 
When it comes to “effectively communicating” there’s little doubt Alda knows of what he speaks.  A 6-time Emmy winner and 6-time Golden Globe winner, he is best known for his role as Hawkeye Pierce on the long-running show M*A*S*H.   What isn’t well-known is that he wrote a couple dozen of the shows, including the award-winning finale, and won an Emmy for his writing.  He is, in fact, the first person to win Emmys for acting, writing, and directing in the same series.  He also has written several books, including a memoir with the clever title:  Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself

Alan Alda – his 79th birthday is today

Here’s a link to The Flame Challenge.   Happy (and clear) writing!

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Think it, say it, write it

“Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  That was just one of the many, many creative statements made by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, best known by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll.

Born this day in 1832 in the small English village of Daresbury, England, he was the eldest in a family of 11 children, and grew adept at an early age of entertaining both himself and his siblings with his storytelling ability.
 Lewis Carroll
As a babysitting aide, he made up stories for his siblings and their friends, something he continued doing into his 20s and 30s, including for the children of good friend Henry George Liddell.   It was Alice Liddell who can be credited with his pinnacle inspiration. On a picnic outing with the Liddell family, he told Alice and her sisters an amazing tale of a dream world.  Alice was so enamored she insisted Carroll write the story down so she could both relive it and share it with her friends.

Through a series of coincidences, the story fell into the hands of novelist Henry Kingsley, who urged Carroll to publish it. And in 1865 the book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was born.  It would become the most popular children’s book in England, then America, and then throughout the world before Carroll’s death in 1898.

How did a professional mathematician and photographer spin such a yarn?  Perhaps two of his lasting quotes will suffice: “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.”  And, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

And always write things down.

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