Just a Typical Fall Season–Cardiopulmonary Doctor and NaNoWriMo

We’re back to Eastern Standard Time here in Columbus.  The leaves are turning, and I habitually put on a denim jacket (and sometimes something heavier) when I venture outdoors.  I think I’ve retired the trike until next spring, so it will serve its secondary function–something in the dining room that I can run into while walking from the steps to the living room.

At the stroke of midnight, NaNoWriMo began.  As the hands of the clock neared midnight, I was sitting upstairs in my cleaner-than-usual study, Microsoft Word template onscreen, waiting for October to end and November to start.  (I admit I had jumped the gun a little by pulling up Word’s manuscript template, and filling in the variables at the top, such as my name, address, email address, etc.  But I did not do any work on the manuscript proper.)

This will be the third day of NaNoWriMo–the aspiring novelist’s PMS–the race to write 50 thousand words in 30 days.  As of right now, I have 4306 words under my belt.  I worked at home on Friday (not all of it just after the stroke of midnight), and had a long and rather aerobic session at Kafé Kerouac last night.  Susie was going to pass this year, but my first-day word count inspired her enough to jump back into the fray.

In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, here is a picture of the Lanier word processor former President Jimmy Carter used to write his memoir, Keeping Faith (1982).  When the machine glitched and he lost a chunk of the manuscript, it was newsworthy enough to make The New York Times.  (I have this on the brain because I am reading Charles Bracelin Flood’s Grant’s Final Victory, about Ulysses S. Grant’s race against certain death from throat cancer to finish his Personal Memoirs in 1885.)  

Work, planning the Christmas trip to Orlando to see Susie and Steph, and NaNoWriMo–not necessarily in that order–are what dominate the month of November for me.  Tomorrow, I will be focusing on something else I have mentioned in this blog.

Late tomorrow morning, I am checking in with Dr. Bryan Whitson at the Ross Heart Hospital.  It has been six months since the emergency room doctors at Riverside Methodist Hospital discovered my thoracic aortic aneurysm, so it’s time to check in to see whether it has dilated any further.  He is the same physician (a cardiovascular surgeon) who saw me in May when I first learned about the aortic aneurysm.  Before the appointment, I’ll be having a CT scan, and, based on that, we’ll see what will happen afterwards.  I think he will either decide on surgery (especially if it’s 6 cm or greater), or waiting another six months.  (One friend suggested it may not be a bad idea to take my toothbrush and some clean underwear along with me for the exam.)

The CT scan is not painful, although the feeling when they inject the dye is not pleasant.  It feels like they’ve shot boiling hot water into your veins, but the feeling lasts less than 10 seconds.  And I am not happy about the prospect of going under the knife again.  The first surgery I ever had was exciting, when I was five and having a tonsillectomy.  (The enticement of all the Popsicles and ice cream I could eat afterwards sold me, as it would any five-year-old, but the reality was far different!)  I have had three surgeries since then (plastic surgery, vasectomy, and cholecystectomy), and each one has become more and more of a burden.  I am saved the worry of telephone-number medical bills, because I am blessed with excellent health insurance, but the idleness that comprises so much of recovery is worse than the immediate post-surgical aftermath.

So, I have tomorrow off, but it’s hardly a vacation day.

Cracks in the Block

Thursday night, I regaled my Facebook friends with an ongoing account of my successful attempt to try and overcome both the hypersomnia and the writing block that has caused me some distress of late.  In May, I began a short story, and shortly after reaching the 1000-word mark, I said to myself, “I’ll pick it up again tomorrow,” and didn’t.  One of the characters in Bugsy Malone, Jr., a play I saw way too many times when Susie acted in it, sang a song that laments, “Tomorrow never comes!”  Annoying as the song was, it had the ring of truth when it comes to writing and me.

So, Thursday, I resolved that tomorrow had come.  There was no burning bush, no real epiphany.  I was at work, typing a stack of ex parte orders, and just as I released them to the hearing officer, I said, “I’m going to finish this story tonight, damn it!”  After work, I came home and cooked an elegant meal for Steph and Susie (Kraft macaroni and cheese, with Pop-Tarts for dessert), and then put my laptop into my over-the-shoulder bag and headed to Kafé Kerouac on North High Street (here is their link).  I made a brief stop at the OSU Library, but there is no Wi-Fi access for non-OSU staff or students, so I went north.

One of the few things I remember from my basic chemistry class at Marietta High School was the principle of potential versus kinetic energy.  A boulder at the top of a big hill has potential energy, but once you start rolling it down the hill, it has kinetic energy.  I had potential energy as I slogged through the process of logging on, “ping”-ing off Kafé Kerouac’s Wi-Fi, and making cursory checks of my email and my Facebook account.

Finally, I bit the bullet and signed onto Microsoft Office.  I had to sit down and scroll through what I had already written, and take some notes.  I had forgotten characters’ names, the name of the small city where I set the story, etc.  Finally, when I established continuity, I paged through the notes I had taken for the scenes yet to be written, cracked open a Diet Coke, and began to write.

The first few lines and paragraphs were sheer hell to write.  But once I got past them, and began to establish some momentum, I found myself eager to keep going.  In many ways, writing a short story is much more difficult than a novel.  A short story has a definite ceiling for word count–9000 words is generally the maximum, then you cross over into novella.  A novel, however, has no limit.  The writer can keep adding more and more, and the pages just keep stacking up.

I was a little bothered by how much I had to backtrack to maintain continuity for a work that would eventually top out at 5704 words.  Especially when I am such a stickler for continuity in television programs, other works of fiction, etc.  (My antennae go up when I watch an early M*A*S*H episode when Hawkeye Pierce concludes a letter to his father by sending greetings to “Mom and Sis,” whereas it’s established for most of the series that Hawkeye is an only child, and his father has been a widower since Hawkeye was 10.  Likewise, as much as I love Stephen King’s massive novel It, I can go straight to where Richie, one of the “Losers’ Club” who fights Pennywise, attends Methodist Youth Fellowship faithfully every week, but several hundred pages later, he says he’s Catholic.  Another Loser, Beverly Marsh, lives with her stepfather, but later on King mentions she inherited her artistic ability and hair color from him.)

Whenever I hit a thousand-work mark, I notified people via Twitter (and, by extension, Facebook).  I had to resist the urge to rest from it, and risk losing all the headway I had gained.  I left Kafé Kerouac a little after 12, so I could catch the last northbound High Street bus.  Susie was long since asleep, and Steph was in front of her laptop, communing with her retinue in Second Life–where she spends virtually every waking hour of late.  I knew the alarm would ring at 6:45, so I could be out on Indianola at 7:30 to catch the bus, but I knew that if I quit now, it would be another long stretch before I typed a word.  I took the laptop upstairs and plugged it back in, and finally, just before 4 a.m., I typed that beautiful indication:

– 30 –
at the bottom, and sat back with a sigh.  (- 30 – is a printers’ equivalent of THE END.  At one time, the end of an article or manuscript was represented by “XXX”.  XXX is the Roman numeral for 30, so that’s how it changed.)
I know the story is not ready to go out yet.  I need to go through and edit it, and resist the urge to fall madly in love with my own prose, as I am wont to do.  (I mentioned on Twitter and Facebook that it was time for the blue pencil, and maybe a scythe.)
There wasn’t total spontaneous prose, like Kerouac advocated when he wrote On the Road and many of his later books.  I was quick to backspace and edit whenever I thought I needed to.
The original manuscipt of On the Road, typed in three
weeks on a scroll of Teletype paper, fueled by massive
doses of amphetamines, black coffee, and pea soup.
The story takes place after the funeral of a beloved high school teacher, and my hero (close to my age, 47) and his wife meet up with my protagonist’s semi-romantic interest at the gravesite.  (“Semi-romantic is not meant to be facetious–romantic, not romantic is quite fluid in junior and senior high school.)  There is no rekindled romance, no Same Time Next Year arrangement.  The essence of the story is some legend tripping the major characters do as a result of this reunion.  (Look that phrase up yourself, Caped Crusaders.)
I went to bed at 4:15 Friday morning, and slept until 7, barely made it to work on time.  I was so wiped out that I left work at 3 p.m. and came home and went straight to sleep.  I’m off work Monday (cost-savings day), but I’ll be going down to Mineral with Jacques.

Thinking of Adding a New Feature to My Entries

While I was writing about the Cincinnati road trip and the Radio Convention, at one point I started a paragraph with TANGENT ALERT: before proceeding to go off point to include a link to YouTube.

My thought now is to make that a permanent feature, so it can be as much a warning to the reader as it would be to me to try to stay focused on the subject at hand.  Earlier this month, I went to a Website called Blurb.com, because I’m considering downloading this blog’s LiveJournal years and ponying up the money for a professionally bound copy of it.  I had to format each page individually once they loaded (all 200+ of them), and I was appalled at how, in one entry, I could stray so far off the landscape from what I had intended when I logged on that day.

A Tangent Alert would probably amuse me as much as it would help me discipline my writing.  I can see it becoming an object of fun, both for my readership and myself.  Already I’m thinking it’s the blogosphere’s equivalent of a gimmick used in a 1966 thriller, Chamber of Horrors.  I saw this masterpiece on Channel 10’s Nite Owl Theater one Friday night as a teen with two friends.  We knew we were in for fun when this item appeared on the screen:

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, the motion picture you are about to see contains scenes so terrifying, the public must be given grave warning.  Therefore the management has instituted visual and audible warning at the beginning of each of the FOUR SUPREME FRIGHT POINTS… the HORROR HORN and the FEAR FLASHER.  The FEAR FLASHER is the visual warning.  The HORROR HORN is the audible warning.  Turn away when you see the FEAR FLASHER.  Close your eyes when you hear the HORROR HORN.

The three of us were laughing until we were crying each time these “warnings” came on the screen, and the show’s host, mellow-voiced baritone Frederick (“Fritz the Nite Owl”) Peerenboom, was laughing right along with us.  For weeks, whenever one of us mentioned “the HORROR HORN” or “the FEAR FLASHER” in any context, it never failed to trigger gut-busting laughter.

Much of my writing–including in here–I’ve ended up having to delete because of just how far I have strayed off point.  I’ve gone so far afield that I’d look at the paragraph on the laptop screen and ask myself, Now where was I headed with this?  I’d even try to work my way backwards, because usually all these associations would make sense to me, at least.  If I couldn’t find the connection, and work from there, the passage would be gone.

The tendency has been there since day one.  My first “long” project was a 48-page (typed, single-spaced) personal narrative with the imaginative title, “Two Trips to Richmond, Virginia.”  I wrote it when I was 11, describing two car trips my mother, father, and I made from Marietta to the former Confederate capital (during Christmas break 1973 and February-March 1974) to be with my aunt and cousin while my uncle was hospitalized with the congestive heart failure that would take his life in March 1974.  Besides chronicling every hamburger stand, restroom stop, and gas station along U.S. Route 50, it took very little for me to write a page of two about something totally unrelated to this journey.  (I wrote a bit about Watergate, since we crossed the Potomac River at one point in the trip.  We passed through a little dot on the map called Belgium, W.Va., so I’d mention I’d heard of a movie called If It’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium.  Less than 20 miles from the Virginia state line is the city of Romney.  Since Romney is the home of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind, visited by Helen Keller in 1916, she would rate a long paragraph or two.  A motorist on U.S. 50 would leave West Virginia and enter Maryland, only to re-enter West Virginia less than 10 miles later.  John Wilkes Booth was a Marylander, as were most of his conspirators, so I was off and running about Lincoln’s assassination.  You get the picture.)

I am also not sure that I’m conscientious enough to be able to flag a tangent when it arises.  When I wrote the previous entry, I typed TANGENT ALERT: at the very start of the paragraph, knowing I was headed away from the main subject.  There will be many times, I am sure, when I’ll have to go back and insert it after the fact, or when I won’t notice it at all until the entry has been online for a few days.

During coffee hour at church Sunday, a woman who is a friend of Steph’s and mine asked about Susie’s and my day trip to Cincinnati on Saturday.  I gave her the Reader’s Digest account of the convention and the trip to Duttenhofer’s, and she mentioned that she’d probably read it in the blog when she came home.  I told her about writing TANGENT ALERT:, and she nodded very knowingly and approvingly, thinking I had at last seen reason.

While writing the entry about Saturday, I did show restraint, he wrote with some little pride.  I mentioned buying a $.50 paperback copy of James A. Michener’s Centennial, and began to write about something a friend had told me when we were in high school, when I made my first unsuccessful attempt to read this paper behemoth.  The friend told me that Centennial had literally been a lifesaver.  A man was sitting in a bar and a thief robbed the cash register at gunpoint, shooting up the place as he left.  The man in this story pitched violently off the barstool onto the floor, and was sure that he had been shot.  When he arrived at the E.R., the triage crew undressed him to search for bullet wounds.  (I’m sure you know the punch line to this story: The bullet had lost all its velocity passing through the book.  The man had not been shot at all!)  I doubt this story is true–I even Googled all the key words to see if there was a news story archived somewhere about it, and came up empty.

And in the previous entry, I refrained from writing about it.  I just noted that I bought the book, and didn’t mention I also purchased Cheever’s Falconer and Elvis: What Happened?.  I didn’t include this.

It can be done.

My Writing and Plotting Style: The CONRAD’S CASTLE Method

There were some signs my writing block may be ending.  During my 3 p.m. break, I hurriedly jotted several short story and poem ideas in my breast-pocket notebook, worried I’d forget them if I didn’t put them on paper right away.  Such bursts of inspiration have led me to write, sometimes they’re of very short duration.

I’ve always described my writing style, whether with fiction or poetry, as Conrad’s Castleish in approach and execution.  Not many people get the allusion.

Above is the cover of the book.  I’d best not scan and paste any more of it, ’cause I don’t want to run afoul of copyright issues and laws.

This remains my favorite children’s story, and it was ever since before kindergarten, when I got the book for my birthday.  Conrad is a kid who tosses a big stone in the air.  It remains hovering in mid-air (I spent many futile afternoons trying to copy this trick, in vain), so he gets a ladder, and begins building a castle, presumably pulling other stones out of hammerspace.  As he works, his friends try to distract him and lure him away, the best temptations being, “Hurry, we’re going to watch Harry eat some mud!” and “Do you want to see a dead mouse?”  The castle is finished, hovering in mid-air in all its glory, flags flying and entrances barricaded.  A bird says, “Hey, that’s impossible!  You can’t do that!”, whereupon the castle collapses.  Conrad stands on the rubble, brandishing his fist in a “As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” gesture, and says, “I can, too!”  He builds another castle, ignoring similar distractions and lures from his friends, and has a much better castle to show for it in the end.

How does this relate to writing?  I’ve taken several writing classes, and teachers have wanted outlines and plot descriptions.  They encourage linear writing, starting at Chapter I and going on until THE END.  Even Jack Kerouac, typing On the Road on a 40-foot roll of Teletype paper, managed to start at the beginning of the narrative and go on until the end, fueled by Benzedrine and gallons of black coffee.

Usually, an idea, a phrase, or even a single line will pop into my head, and if I’m fortunate enough to get out my notebook and ballpoint and write it down, I’ll look at it and then try to think of something to put around it. “That single line is great,” I’d tell myself, “now get 20-odd more to put around it, and you’ll have a poem.”  Likewise, a vignette will pop into my head, often (but not always) based on a past experience or an anecdote someone has told me.  The vignette isn’t substantial enough to be free-standing as a short story, so it hovers in the literary netherworld until I find a plot and supporting characters to put around it.

That’s the Conrad’s Castle analogy.  Our young hero doesn’t build his castle from the ground up (it never touches the ground, in fact), but he throws a stone into the middle of the air and works from there.  I’ve often wondered if Shecter was honoring that great Unitarian sage, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

This type of plotting and writing is problematic when you (like I) still prefer pen and ink, or a manual typewriter, to word processing.  Using this method, when I composed exclusively on a typewriter, meant many crossed-out passages, paragraphs written in margins, pages numbered “72½”, etc.  (When I was a typesetter, copy like that would drive me absolutely bonkers.)  When I do actually sit down and get to work, the laptop is a blessing, not just because it’s much quieter (I am not gentle with typewriters; I have been told I treat them the way Pete Townshend treats stage guitars), but because I can move things around and insert entirely new ideas and scenarios and have the finished product still look decent.

So, I doubt any writing teacher will endorse this method, at least not in class.  But it seems to be the only way I ever get anything done.

There may yet be hope, since I was sitting at break at 3 p.m. and some ideas came to mind.

We’ll see.