Stops. And Starts.

just start 2

You’re forty years old. Middle age is upon you. When you smile, crow’s feet appear. And you’ve just lost your job. Fired.

May 1995. That’s where forty-year old Jim Grant found himself. An Englishman and a big man, 6’ 5”, Jim had made a career in British television production only to see that career dismantled strategically by people and forces over which he had no control. There was little he could do about it and he was angry. And broke.

Jim needed to do something to make a living and didn’t have time or money to waste. He went to the store and bought pencils and a ream of notebook paper. Pencils, because they’re cheaper than pens. He didn’t have a computer. He just sat down at his kitchen table and began to write:

I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock.

Fans of the Jack Reacher novels of Lee Child, Jim Grant’s pen name, will recognize these words as the opening lines of Killing Floor, the first of the Jack Reacher novels. Lee Child has published twenty-three Reacher novels, all bestsellers, with a twenty-fourth in production to be published this year.

What are the takeaways for you and me in this short sketch? Here’s a couple:

  • He started writing at middle age, not as a kid. He did this because he needed to make a living and had been in entertainment most of his life. A novel is entertainment. Child argues that beginning to write at middle age is a great thing because you have experience with life. This gives credibility to your stories. See the video below.
  • He channeled his anger and frustration creatively. He didn’t baptize his misfortunes in pint after pint.
  • He began the career of a New York Times bestselling author in the least sexy way possible: At his kitchen table with pencils and loose-leaf notebook paper to save money. No Macbook Pro. No fancy creative space. Just a chair, table, pencil and a piece of paper. It doesn’t take much. Just put your butt in the chair and begin.

That’s what he did. You can do the same.

So start.

Suggested Resources:

Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future (Leonard A. Schlesinger and Charles F. Kiefer with Paul B. Brown)

Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me (Andy Martin)

Image Credit: Christian Fahey

 

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The Art of Being a Class Act: “If”

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too:

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

 

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim,

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same:

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

 

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings,

And never breathe a word about your loss:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

(Rudyard Kipling)

 

Suggested Resources:

Just So Stories (Rudyard Kipling)

“The Jungle Book” (Motion Picture)

 

 

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Blackwing 602

This is a Palomino Blackwing 602 pencil.  Blackwing?  Sounds like something out of Gothic horror or at least Batman.

No.  It’s an iconic writing instrument, the Mercedes-Benz of pencils.  Not the original Blackwing 602s, manufactured by the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company.  [Those of us half a century or older remember Faber pencils in grade school.] Those gems, which went out of production in 1989, can fetch upwards of $40.00 per pencil on eBay.

Years later, the Blackwing 602 brand was acquired by California Cedar Products Company which started making them again under their Palomino division.  Purists still prefer the original Faber Blackwing 602s, but they are disappearing.  And who wants to pay $40.00 for a pencil?

The script on the barrel of the pencil says HALF THE PRESSURE, TWICE THE SPEED.  There is something about the recipe of the 602’s graphite that gives the user a very smooth writing experience.  I test drove one and compared it with a number of other pencils last Christmas.  There is a difference.  All pencils are not created equal.

Other coolness factors:

  • The flat, square and replaceable ferrule-encased eraser gives one the added bonus of an expensive pencil not rolling off the table and breaking the lead. At $22.95 for a dozen through Amazon.com, this is a big deal.
  • Luminaries in many artistic fields have sworn by the Blackwing 602 for years. Writers (John Steinbeck, Vladimir Nabokov); Composers & Arrangers  (Stephen Sondheim, Nelson Riddle, Johnny Mercer); Cartoonists (Chuck Jones).  It’s even shown up on Mad Men!  

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There is something wonderfully sensual about the experience of writing longhand, composing music, or sketching with a superior writing instrument.  You can try this famous pencil for yourself.  Be aware, these pencils are not easy to track down in most towns.  You won’t find them in Staples or Office Max, unless they’ve begun selling them.  They’re not carried in a lot of brick-and-mortar stores.  However, you can find them here for about $2/each, including shipping.  I never dreamed I’d consider a single pencil worth two bucks a piece but this one is.

Try it and see for yourself.

PS  Buy the Blackwing sharpener and sharpen your 602s by hand. Never sharpen a Blackwing 602 with an electric sharpener!  You’ll discover soon enough that not all sharpeners are designed well–well enough, that is, to get a long life out of your Blackwing 602.  Here you are.

 

Suggested Resources:

How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants (David Rees)

Blackwing Pages: For Fans of the Genuine Blackwing 602

 

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Ray Bradbury On the Joy of Writing

“You write to please yourself. You write for the joy of writing. And then your public reads you and it begins to gather around…The enthusiasm, the joy itself draws me — so that means, every day of my life, I’ve written. When the joy stops, I’ll stop writing.”

Suggested Resources:

Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity (Ray Bradbury)

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Stephen King)

 

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After A Long Hiatus….

After A Long HiatusI’ve taken quite a long sabbatical from writing regularly on this blog.  One post in the past sixteen months has been it.  I now intend to return to at least semi-regular, if not regular, contributions to this page.

Much has happened in the past year and a half.  Our eldest daughter married a fine man from the Plains.  Both are now happily ensconced in the Deep South, surrounded by salt water and palm trees.  My wife, Kath, and I visited them a month ago.  A great trip.  They are well.

Our youngest daughter, happily married for the past two years, has moved with her husband, another son of the Plains, thousands of miles away to new tasks.  They, too, are surrounded by palm trees and salt water.

Our vacations will be superb!

Here in northern New York, we recently sold our one hundred and one year-old Victorian farm house and have a smaller apartment close to work.  We are content.  Our home of fourteen years served us well but, with our two daughters married, it was more house than we needed.  So we sold to a fine young family with adorable children.

Candidly, sheer busyness accounts for my writing hiatus, a good bit of it anyways.  But more than that, I’ve learned some things over the past year and a half.  My reading has increased in breadth and depth.  I’ve had the good fortune to be mentored skillfully and have been forced to reevaluate many of my cherished prior commitments about life, human accomplishment and foible, God, reality, and lots of other things.

I hope to share the fine authors and thinkers who’ve helped me grow.  They’ve not been easy on me.  And won’t be easy on you either.  But then again, as a mentor recently admonished me, “Do not be seduced by low-hanging fruit.”  What has value must be extricated at cost and time.

Or, as Sara Groves sings on her newest record Floodplain, “Love is a diamond hidden in mountains, covered in danger and dirt.”

Let’s do this.  Thanks for reading!

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The Book of Lights and Tough Ethical Questions

The Book of LightsI’m currently reading a book by Chaim Potok, author of my favorite novel, The Chosen.  This particular book, written in 1981, The Book of Lights, is set in Korean War-era New York City near historic Riverside Church and Grant’s Tomb, Korea, and Japan.

The main protagonist, Gershon Loran, has been ordained into the rabbinate and conscripted into the service after the armistice has been signed.  He is a somewhat melancholy and, at the same time, brilliant and reflective man who is particularly enamored with the study of Kabbalah–the books of Jewish mysticism.  He is haunted by visions.

His roommate, Arthur Leiden–also a rabbinical student and future rabbi, is a curious figure.  He is a conflicted man, often drinking too much and coming to class unprepared (and drawing upon himself the kind of ire that was standard for teachers towards lazy students a generation ago.)

Arthur is conflicted as well because his father, a physicist, was involved in the creation of the atomic bomb.  Albert Einstein, Harry S Truman, Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi are all colleagues of Arthur’s father and figure into the story.

The book, a predictably thoughtful story, forces the reader to examine the moral import and consequence of developing weapons of mass destruction and its consequences for those who bear the weight of such a dark legacy.

I am about half the way through this novel.  Potok is a masterful writer.  He understands the human psyche and Jewishness (in which he was both raised and trained).  Read this and his other works.

And reflect.

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39

39Guilty pleasure:  Sometimes it’s a lot of fun to play head games with somebody, especially if they’re close to you.

I decided to do this with a colleague today at work.  “Listen to this,” I chatted him, “it will mess with your head.”

This song was written by a post-graduate student of Astrophysics in England, mid 1970’s.

Though it sounds like a song chronicling the beginning of World War II, it is actually about spaceships, time travel, physics and Einsteinian relativity.

It was written by one Brian May.  Um, er, Dr. Brian May.

Brian May was working on his doctorate in Astrophysics in the mid 1970’s when his group, Queen, hit the big time.  Really big.

He left off his education.  For the time being anyway.  One strikes the anvil when it’s hot.  And Queen was hot after the release of A Night At the Opera, which featured this song.

It’s the story of a big spaceship that takes off with a crew, traveling at the speed of light.  Though away for a year, they return to the world now a hundred years older though they have aged a year.  It’s theoretical physics.  Time, a physical property that varies with mass and gravity.  It’s the creation of a physicist, not someone on LSD.  I love this.

A few years ago, Brian May resumed his studies and earned his Ph.D.  How inspiring!  And he is one of my favorite guitarists ever.

Enjoy!

39

In the year of thirty-nine
Assembled here the volunteers
In the days when lands were few
Here the ship sailed out into the blue and sunny morn
The sweetest sight ever seen
And the night followed day
And the story tellers say
That the score brave souls inside
For many a lonely day
Sailed across the milky seas
Ne’er looked back, never feared, never cried

Don’t you hear my call
Though you’re many years away
Don’t you hear me calling you
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew

In the year of thirty-nine
Came a ship in from the blue
The volunteers came home that day
And they bring good news
Of a world so newly born
Though their hearts so heavily weigh
For the earth is old and grey
Little darlin’, we’ll away
But my love this cannot be
Oh so many years have gone
Though I’m older but a year
Your mother’s eyes from your eyes cry to me

Don’t you hear my call
Though you’re many years away
Don’t you hear me calling you
All your letters in the sand
Cannot heal me like your hand
For my life, still ahead, pity me

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