Sunday, April 30, 2017

You can do this

Let me begin with something of a confession. I am a bit pumped about today’s post. When I first addressed this subject a couple years ago it felt like I was speaking to the world in general, hoping that my message would resonate with someone, and perhaps lead to something tangible.
Well, guess what? I have recently watched a friend of ours follow the path I wrote about---from the gentle nudging of a good idea all the way to a finished product. I spent a few minutes with him early on, suggesting what seemed to me the right approach, then stepped back while he carried on. I have seen his results, and they are impressive. (More about that later.)
Let me begin with the fact of it. I have taken on a new cause, a deeply held belief I would like to share with you. As sometimes happens, I have a message to spread. 
Now before you start for the door, please know that I am not interested in limiting your right to carry an AK-47, or bazooka, or whatever other “personal protection” device you desire. Neither am I advocating for the need to take away the weapons you already have. And I don’t really care if your Parenthood was Planned or not. Those may be important issues, but they are not the gospel I am preaching. With those disclaimers in mind, I hope you will hear me out before you change channels.
I will begin with the obvious. If you are the kind who likes to poke around the internet, you have probably noticed how many October/November folks are out there---speaking their piece, asking their questions, and telling their stories. Without the noisy fanfare that so often accompanies Gen-X trends, our Gen-Oct/Nov peers are quietly exercising their new-found ability to speak up and let their voice be heard in the cyber world.
Spend a few minutes on the web and you’ll realize there is almost no limit to the ways you can have your say. Our October/November friends are telling their stories in the form of Facebook posts, blogs, videos, and chat rooms. 
Better yet, some of them are taking what seems to me the next logical step, They are writing and publishing their stories, in the form of family histories, family adventures, self-help manuals, non-fictional offerings of every kind, and a multitude of fictional offerings. (Have you checked out the Geriatric Vampire literature? It is quite ghastly.) 
How many of you have ever dreamed of telling your own story? Do you realize how easy it has become to produce and share e-books and Print-on-Demand paperbacks? Beyond the book itself, an Author’s Page on Amazon that lists a writer’s books and e-books and allows prospective readers to browse and perhaps buy those offerings, costs absolutely nothing. 
On a purely selfish level, you can bet I enjoy seeing my sixteen paperbacks lined up on my bookshelf. And with the modest blog you are reading now I can connect with October/November friends and potential readers all over the world. I can’t explain why these pages attract a steady, if modest, Russian and South Korean readership. But they do.
But let’s return for a moment to my stated cause, the reason for today’s post, the message I’ve come to spread. As a veteran of those story-telling efforts I would like to convince my late-life friends that they too ought to have their say, no matter what the content, in a quality, hold-in-your-hand paperback format. 
Whether ‘your book’ (that has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?) deals with family history, fond remembrances, favorites recipes,  gardening tips, or your own fiction---today’s technology provides a gold-plated opportunity to see your work in print. It is so easy and inexpensive that there are few excuses not to give it a try.
So why not? At your stage of life you probably have the time to do that. And given your history (whatever it may be), you certainly have stories to tell---if only for a limited audience of immediate family and friends. 
That is exactly what Roma and I have done the last couple years with a pair of books. They were personal stories, for and about our family. For each of the books we had five very professional-looking paperback copies printed, one for each of our children and one for Roma and me. If we never sell another copy we’ve accomplished everything we wanted to with those books. I guarantee that you can do that too.
Let’s consider the economics of it. In the old days, if we had a manuscript that publishers were not willing to underwrite, Plan B was what they called “vanity publishing.” That entailed paying an often second-rate publisher to turn your story into a book and print a given number of copies. The publisher would  require a minimum run, say one hundred books or more, enough to create economies of scale. The total cost would undoubtedly be at least several hundred 1970 or 1980 dollars. It was indeed a hefty price. Truth is, you had to be quite vain and a bit flush to afford that.
Today, as the author of a Print-on-Demand book you can probably purchase your own high-quality paperbacks directly from the POD publisher for $5.00 or $6.00 each. The book might be your family history, your personal life story, a collection of poems, or the family’s favorite recipes. There is no up-front cost and you can order exactly the number of copies you want---from one to a thousand---for that same low price. 
True, you will have to write and edit the material, enter it on a computer, then upload that file to the publisher’s template. Your investment will be one of time, not dollars. Most of us can afford that, especially when we are having fun in the process.
But wait a moment, you may be saying, “How could I be expected to write a book or tell a story? And what about dealing with agents and editors---the experts who work with professional writers?” 
Well, the fact is, you don’t need those folks, unless you are aiming for a best seller, complete with a big-time marketing campaign. You see, telling a self-published story of any sort is a very personal activity. Regardless of what the so-called “experts” may say, there is no right way, no wrong way to do that. If you are writing for yourself, you are the only one you have to please. You are the one who judges the results. Does it work for you? That is the question. More than that, one of the beauties of Print-on-Demand publishing is the ease of revising and editing any or all of your book at any time in the future.
What can I say? I enjoy seeing my stories in print. Of course it’s a vanity thing. There’s no denying that. It’s an accomplishment I am proud of. More than that, it has proved to be a most liberating way to spend my October and November hours. As one who writes to please myself, (without worrying too much about what will sell), I tell the stories I want to tell, the way I want to tell them. In the end I am the only one I have to satisfy. Within those parameters, anyone who wants to tell their story---about anything, in any way they choose---can do that.
Please bear with me for a moment while I offer a specific example. It was mid-May a couple years ago when Roma first dropped her idea on me. I was finishing a story and would soon be ready to start another. 
“Why not write about our time in England?” she asked. “With all the crazy things that happened to us, it would be fun and funny. And I know the kids would like to know more about that time.”
Truth to tell, it took a few weeks for me to warm to the possibilities. But when I did, the fun she talked about was only just beginning. For days we sat in the living room, just the two of us, reliving those 1972 months when we lived on Ashley Close in Winchester, England. One recollection would lead to another. Before long the notes were piling up---about how we had ended up in Winchester, the life we lived there, the mistakes we made, the wonderful friends we met, and the life-changing experiences our children gained. Before we were done we had the stuff of a story---our story.
By September we had a first draft, a 54,000 word computer file. As I had done so many times before, I uploaded the file to the Create Space template. Daughter Amy, who would not see the finished story until much later, designed the cover using a collage of family photos from our time in England. Then, after proofing our online file, we made the first monetary investment in our project---$6.50, for a single copy of the paperback, including shipping and handling.
Long story short, that first copy was used to proofread and edit the entire story again. (Additional editing would come later.) A month later, we ordered six copies of the revised story we called A Year of Remember, by Gil and Roma Stewart---for a total cost of $30.05. That Christmas our children received their copies as gifts.
We had invested thirty-seven dollars, a few printer supplies, and a good many hours doing what we both found absolutely enjoyable. For that modest cost we had produced a fine-looking 254-page story that recorded a special time in the life of our family. Additionally, in e-book and paperback versions, it was now available to the public on my Amazon Author’s Page---where it has sold a few copies and received good reviews.. All in all I consider that a good return on our investment.
As for the story itself. Does this back-cover tease sound interesting to you?

“Gil was at it again. At the tender age of 35 he was on track for his third mid-life crisis in five years. For some inexplicable reason he had concluded that he was meant to be a writer. Now he was preparing to move his thoroughly confused family to England in pursuit of his career as a novelist.”

As I said in the beginning, my mission today is to make the point that everyone of us has stories to tell---memories to preserve, personal passions we would like to translate into a permanent, paperback form. 
Let me repeat, loud and clear---for next to nothing you can turn your family history or the fictional tale you have longed to create into something special for you and your family. Chances are you will find the process of revisiting the times, places, and people you are tranlating into print both fun and creatively invigorating. 
Personally I use to publish my books. I like their process and love their customer support. There are, however, several other Print-on-Demand publishers out there. You’ll find them online.
Okay. with that I’m through preaching. I hope you will take a moment to let your mind wander a bit---to whatever story you would like to tell, or topic you would like to explore.

PS -- I mentioned earlier the recent Print-on-Demand book I watched coming to life. Don Robinson is a retired Methodist minister, with stories to tell and a gift for interesting titles. I think his first book, Of Donuts, Toilet Paper, Grace, and Love, proves that. You can check it out by clicking Here.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Looking back -- a late-life luxury

     Remember, this is a writer’s blog, about the joys and pitfalls of life in October and November. That means, of course, there are times when our personal March and April are part of the conversation.
That is especially true when Imagination -- the mind’s third eye -- is turned loose to weave its mysterious, sometimes magical power. Given free rein it can take us to places we’ve never been, recalling events that perhaps never happened (at least not the way we remember them). With a bit of prompting, imagination can even conjure up stories of the dark and ancient past---all the way back to our adolescent school days.
The last couple years have provided me an opportunity to revisit my own often hazy memories of that earlier time. Reconnecting via the internet with a few high-school classmates has stirred decades of mental overburden---exposing youthful recollections and fuzzy images of young faces staring back at me from the pages of a long-ago high-school annual. 
Of course, like me those folks have become someone very different than the adolescent youngster I remember. Still, weaving them into a story has been an interesting, if occasionally frustrating exercise---a pleasant excuse to return to my own altogether unglorious glory days.
Ours was a large high school. For a social misfit like me close friends could have been numbered on one hand, with a couple fingers left over. Most of the former classmates who have visited our online ‘Class of 55’ website were strangers to me in school, and still are. They are, however, strangers with whom I happened to share a particular time and place. What is it they say about ships that pass in the night?
Still, I have found an unexpected reward in the pleasant reconnecting with those folks, at least the ones who reply. You see, the stories I tell are not set in those youthful, heady days of old. But inevitably my own recollections of that time and those experiences ---the insights and sensibilities, the highs and lows---show up in the stories I tell. There are times when it feels like I’ve been given an opportunity to compare my own recycled recollections with the way my fictional proxies have remembered those times.
One example of how bits of the past can make their way into a late-life story is this scene from Best Friends and Promises, where Aaron Peck and Johnny Blanton are driving off to meet a one-time school pal, Press Fletcher, twenty-five years after their last visit with him.

They were fifteen minutes down the interstate before Johnny’s silent remembering turned verbal.
“Ole Press was always a cool one,” he said quietly. “There weren’t many like him, at least not that I knew. God, even as a kid he had a way with the ladies. He must have been born with it.”
“Yeah. He had the touch all right. There were a few times when he even managed to fix me up with the leftovers.” 
Aaron let those pleasant recollections rattle around in his head for moment, tracking back to the beginning of his friendship with Johnny. “You remember how I was then,” he said. “Back in the ninth grade. I was a gawky damn kid. I stuttered. Had terminal acne. And there I was, just beginning to understand why I liked girls.”
“I knew you’d eventually figure out that part.”
“Hey, that’s just who I was back then. That was the Aaron Peck everyone knew. What girl in her right mind was going to get excited about being around me? Without you and Press to lend a hand out I might never have had a date. I could have ended up being a hermit.” 
Aaron paused a moment to recall how he had managed to avoid that unfortunate possibility. “That’s just the way it was,” he added. “At least until I had a chance to start over.”
“Start over?”
“That’s right,” Aaron nodded.“It wasn’t a plan or anything like that. It just worked out that way. I went off to college. Away from Tanner---where no one knew anything about me. I didn’t have to deal with all that baggage I’d packed around all through junior high and high school---all the stuff that made the old Aaron Peck who he was.”
“So you reinvented yourself. Was that it? You became the new, improved Aaron Peck?”
“Well, maybe a little new. Probably not all that improved. The thing is, I was starting fresh. I didn’t have to live down anyone’s notion of who I was. There I was, making first impressions for the second time.”
“And that seemed to work, eh? Being the ‘new’ you.”
Aaron was grinning at the thought of it. “Do you think a classy girl like Leona would have paid any attention to me in high school? Not a chance. You remember how it was back then. By the eighth or ninth grade everyone had been given a label of some kind. Once they pinned that on you, there was no getting rid of it. 
“Just think back to our last reunion. It was fifty years after we graduated, and still there were lots of folks who remembered us by those old labels. That’s all they knew about us. In their minds that must be who we still were.”
“So what kind of bad stuff could they have pinned on you?” Johnny asked. “That you ran around with Press and me? I suppose tht gave them something to talk about.”
“That, and a few other vices I’d picked up along the way. Anyway, I went off to college the next fall and bingo---I met this very nice, really cute girl, who had never heard all that stuff about me. Turns out she liked me just the way I was, without ever knowing who I used to be.”

Then, from the story I call Becoming, here is Carl Postell’s recollection of the night he and Jack Bentz first connected, forty-some years after the high-school days they had shared at Tanner Southside High School.

The two of us had not been buddies in high school. As I remember we were both a part of the same niche group---bit players, hanging around the fringes, wanting to belong, with neither the self-confidence or social skills to make that happen. 
Ironically it had been our individual isolation that brought us together that night. It was our fortieth class reunion, a couple years after my divorce from Sandra---the first I had ever attended without her. 
She was there, of course, taking pains to be sure I noticed that she and Tom Ryan were being more friendly than necessary. She might have been disappointed to know I was silently wishing Tom the best of luck. As near as I could tell they deserved each other.
Anyway, while the two of them were refusing to act their age that night, I ended up at the same table as Jack---each of us alone, each of us lonely. After a few awkward glances at each other’s name tag we got talking. Actually we got drinking, then talking. In fact, the more we drank the more we talked.
For a couple of naturally insular guys like Jack and me, a real conversation was a nice change of pace---especially with someone who felt no need to “one up” everything the other said. 
Both of us still lived in Tanner, so once we became acquainted it was an easy thing to get together every week or so, which we had continued to do. When we had time we visited over lunch. If we were in a hurry we chatted over a beer.

Just think of how those adolescent years prepared us for what was to follow. For most of us that time was a launching pad---a place from which to begin a life journey we could scarcely imagine at the time. 
Ready or not, we were taking the first tentative steps toward becoming the person we are today---complete with the dreams we have dreamed and the life we have lived---and the family and friends we have created along the way. 
Now, in the October and November of that journey, having reestablished contact with a few folks I knew back then, and renewing a few hazy memories of that time, I'll admit that I am enjoying the luxury of looking back. 

At the same time I give thanks for the way my personal journey has played out. Hopefully yours has been just as good.

Monday, April 3, 2017

October (& November) Magic

I can't make my way out of a straight jacket. Truth is, I sometimes struggle to get my shirt on and buttoned right. I don't do card tricks. And I've never sawed anyone in half---at least not on purpose. But a while back, in the course of a day or two I was reminded how something as simple as the first few notes of a long-unheard song can literally transport me to a different time and place. That struck me as a form of October magic.
It was the spring of 2014 when the two of us went driving---from Oregon to Kansas---to follow what remains of the Oregon Trail back to Oregon City. It was a long-awaited trip that had been set aside the year before when one of my ladder tricks landed me in the hospital. Finally, however, I was good to go, so off we went to retrace the wagon-train journey Roma's ancestors endured on their way to Oregon. (My family, being the practical ones we were, waited until the railroads were up and running.)
I had intended to set my blogging activities aside for a couple weeks, to concentrate on seeing the western half of our country from the road instead of the sky. I was quite surprised to find that it took only a few hours for an unexpected aspect of modern-day sightseeing to reveal what seemed to me an October insight worth exploring.
I learned that there is nothing like a long trip over straight and sterile interstate highways to renew old acquaintances---friendships that had not crossed my mind in a very long time. 
You see, to help pass the hours we were listening to The Fabulous Fifties---a set of CDs that Oregon Public Broadcasting had gifted us in return for a pledge. On those eight discs were dozens of classic tunes from our well-remembered heyday. (Well, it certainly felt that way at the time.) There we were, driving down the highway, listening to old friends, perhaps the same ones you knew in the March and April years of your life. 
If you are a pop music person like me, (not everyone is) it was quite a list of friends to whom we were being reintroduced. Perry Como, Nat King Cole, The Four Aces, Four Lads, Fats Domino, Patti Page, Frankie Laine, Kay Starr, Guy Mitchell, Johnny Ray---and on and on. Everyone has their own favorites. I had to chuckle a bit when I found Les Baxter's name on the play list. He was the one who nearly got me fired from my DJ job on the college radio station when I introduced him as Lex Bastard.
For mile after mile I was caught up in those songs and the memories they evoked---struck by their inexplicable power to connect me to my past. What was there about the music---which in one sense is nothing more than melodic noise---that grabbed me the way it did? 
What allows the ethereal reality of those sounds to remain in some seldom-visited corner of our mind for so long? How is it that decades later the unexpected sound of a few introductory notes is enough to unleash a flood of powerful emotions and still-warm recollections---hints of the oh-so-youthful persons we were at the time? How can those connections remain after all those years? What magic is at work?
Perhaps like me there are certain songs or tunes that strike you that way---creating an instant connection to a particular time, place, or person. Other bits of that adolescent music may lack a specific link, but still reinforce the mood and mindset of an era---perhaps a special school year, or the social connections that were part of that moment. 
True, I do sometimes march to a different drummer. I am sure that not everyone has endowed the first few notes of a well-remembered tune with the magical ability to resurrect bits of their personal history---the special moments, events, and persons they associate with those few musical chords---the memories they have carried with them all the way to their October and November years. 
On an allied note---I wonder if today's young couples have "their special song" the way we used to. Having heard some of their music that seems unlikely---though I  suppose that is a sign of my own November judgment bubbling to the surface.
For me it was the music of the Fifties that I endowed with the power to take me back in time. For you it might be the tunes of the Sixties or the Seventies that work the same magic. If you are living out your November years, perhaps the war-time tunes of the Forties can take you to a place you don't visit every day. As near as I can remember the attraction began early for me. I can recall a vivid "Shrimp Boats" moment from the eighth grade---a bit that would eventually show up in my Best Friends and Promises story. 
It was quite remarkable to consider all the places those few hours spent with The Fabulous Fifties were able to take me. But of course, I did have other options. I could have packed my "Country Music Favorites" and spent long hours driving along to the sounds of George Strait, Alan Jackson, and Travis Tritt. (Don't you love that name?)
I could have done that, and perhaps would have---except Roma made it clear I would be traveling alone if I did. You see, she has a thing about "twang." Rather than risk a solitary visit to the Oregon Trail, I settled instead for The Fabulous Fifties---and I'm glad I did.
It is tempting to end this bit of nonsense by assuring myself that everyone has their own mental library of March and April musical recollections. But I'm not sure that is true. Though I may not be the only one who gets swept up in those "memories set to music," perhaps most October folks have outgrown such childish behavior.
And that leads me to today's question. Have you ever felt that magic---the way a few bars of an old favorite can transport you to another time and place? If so, I urge you to take a moment to use the "Post a Comment" option (below) and share with us the songs or performers that had the power to work that magic for you.