Letters From Ingomar

RTTMH.BRecently, I began unearthing old letters with the intention of scanning them onto my hard drive. (An act that in itself sort of defines our time, doesn’t it?)

I started with letters from Ingomar Robier (for no reason other than they were “on top”), a 1976 classmate from English Lit classes at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. Since I had a habit of befriending people who didn’t seem to fit in, I insisted on showing him around St. Louis. I took him to a baseball game and tired explaining the rules while we drank wine from a American made fake goatskin wine flask, and I introduced him to my girlfriends and their friends, and we went to Chinese restaurants, being cosmopolitan college students in St. Louis. After graduation, he went back to Austria. I didn’t remember much about his circumstances, but kept a series of letters from him dated January 20, 1977 through April, 1979, a particularly transformative time in my life, as I suppose as it is for most at that age.

I’m not sure why we stopped corresponding. His letters clearly showed he was the better writer, the better academic, writing about his Masters and Doctorate work. I was moving on to the ugly world of writing fiction and working various insignificant jobs. It may be that we just stopped for no other reason than being consumed by life. I have no idea who wrote the last letter. I don’t have copies of what I sent him. (Did anybody make Xerox copies of personal correspondence?) But one thing is clear, then and now, the Ingomar Robier I knew was an intelligent, astute reader, an excellent critical writer, and judging from his response to my work, a generous and kind heart. Clearly, I valued his friendship, however brief, and I can only hope that I expressed it at the time. (I have researched his name and found that he was on a Fulbright in the USA, published his doctorate, and apparently is teaching English Lit and French at a university in Austria.) As young men, we were brash, sometimes boastful, but also confident (in some of our abilities at least). Now, at sixty, I am invoking my impetuous young man prerogative and am quoting the letters from Ingomar. Who cares if I appear boastful? (Sometimes humility is merely a mask for your fears and is not the virtue you might think it is.)

In a conjunction of seemingly coincidental events, I started rereading Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan (downloaded to my kindle two years ago), and I can clearly see it’s influence on my writing, especially Roobala Take Me Home. I’m convinced now more than ever that had Scribners published Roobala all those years ago, it would have been successful, and perhaps more. Since the initial draft, Roobala Take Me Home has been expanded and revised countless times. See my last blog “Why I Stopped Revising My First Novel.”

Last letter from Ingomar:
April 7, 1979
To start with, I think that “Roobala Take Me Home” is vivid and exciting, full of weird humour and cosmic nostalgia. The universe you portray is a galactic Wild West and the hero himself, Jesse Enoob, hunts through stellar wilderness, a lonesome Candide who finally settles down to cultivate his space garden with his long-lost lover found at last. What made “Star Wars” so amusing, that is, the generous exploitation of hetergenous elements, also gives your space fantasy its special flavour. I’ve found “Roobala” immensely entertaining. Al’s Bar and Grill is turned into a spaceship only to reappear later in Jesse Enoob’s front yard on a strange planet. The American myth of discovery is put on a galactic scale and becomes even more obvious in Daniel Boone, the half brain hunter and, of course, Willima Bailey. If “Roobala” is space realism too, you managed perfectly to reveal the familiar in the unknown and vice versa. Taken as a chain of episodes, the story is fast-moving and picaresque, leaving out emanations of the characters’ inner space dives, who are nevertheless alive and colourful.

If, as Henry James once wrote, all criticism finally boils down to the question of like and not liking, I think I’ve answered it through my “interpretation” of your fine novel. Roobala is a living thing the memory of which has remained alive in me. I should really like to see it published. Have you already submitted it? Maybe you can send me a word or two. Meanwhile I wish you good luck with your efforts to get your first book into print.

Your friend,
Ingomar

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Why I Stopped Revising My First Novel

RTTMH.BOver a 35-years span, Roobala Take Me Home was rewritten, revised, reworked, and partly re-imagined so many times that I’ve lost count. Despite my best efforts to stay current and true to my ever developing self, Roobala Take Me Home inevitably, like all novels, turned into a historical document.

Even “historical” novels are rooted in the imagination of the writer looking back. A historian from 1980 looking back at 1900 has a different perspective than the historian from 2000 looking back at the same year. And 2014 predictions about 2050 will eventually recede into the past and will likely become part of a collective joke – “Look how silly and misinformed we were!”

When I wrote the first draft of Roobala Take Me Home using an ink pen, yellow legal pads, and manual typewriter, predictions were flourishing about how the personal computer was going to save us all so much time that we’d only have to work 20 hours per week.

The Scribner’s Publishing Company, the one existing in1980, was mildly interested in publishing Roobala. “Many moments are beautiful, witty, and surprising, and the entire work is permeated with a curious nostalgia that I found very touching.” The irony of “curious nostalgia” in a young man’s futuristic space fantasy novel still, to this day, propels me forward and backward, and renders me mentally convulsive. Whether those “surprising” moments remain so today, at this moment, is uncertain. (Why don’t you go and find out?) And what about tomorrow?

What novelist has not, at some point, secretly worried that all their work suddenly becomes irrelevant because aliens arrived? Never occurs to them that it was irrelevant to begin with. Nevertheless, it’s hard to sustain belief in your cutting edge prose after a planet-altering event. Sort of messes up your suspense. Think of the revision needed to stay current. Your “almost finished” suspense novel becomes a cozy pastoral period piece. You give up. Of course. Because you are sane. You really are.

A thousand years from now, when your work is discovered in a pile of electronic rubble, you may be recognized as an unknown author and your imaginative moments may become one of the many historical markers of our collective imaginations. So that’s something. Be happy.

Occasionally, I feel like an ideologue after the system has collapsed. My writing becomes the rambling of someone receding rapidly into the past, tortured words twisting in the wind, struggling to remain relevant, while relying too heavily on alliteration. But when was I ever relevant? So nothing lost. No big deal.

In this speeded up age when everything changes from one millisecond to the next, when words “typed” yesterday become obsolete next week, I must quit revising my symbolically futuristic, comical space-western novel Roobala Take Me Home. I will no longer revise Roobala! I’m finished! There is no point in trying to go back and revise what has already been rewritten endlessly – more important to write in the moment – to stay alive, fixated forever on the next word. (Unless of course someone pays me lots of Roobalas.)

Inevitably, a setting in the future becomes obsolete when the future arrives; therefore, I make no claim to relevance. Roobala Take Me Home is however a more or less precise imaginative work of a twenty-five year old writer, and a writer in his thirties, forties, and fifties. Now I am sixty and, in this note, I am trying to make sense of my younger self who made bad decisions and who wasted so much time trying to capture time.

Perhaps young writers will read this and say, “Well that was bizarre; I hope I never make that mistake.”

JPM 2014

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Secure in Social Security (156 words)

Social Security will be there for me, more if I make enough money in my six years past sixty.

Curious, the money is based on thirty-five years “highest paid.” So be careful of years unemployed, years for schooling, for children, for illness and for saying goodbye to parents.

A welder gets less security than a surgeon, a retail manager less than a lawyer, and me, a private sector educator, far less than a financier.

Sort of makes sense I suppose. The more money you make, the more money you pay, and then the more money you receive – not a lot from what I can tell. But I can’t tell much without taking time off to study the system.

Still, it feels odd, the value of work reduced to comparisons with baseball stars, movie stars, political and financial ones too. Don’t you see, a star needs more security than me because I chose to make less money.

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Blog Tag

Recently, fellow writer from the St. Louis Writers’ Guild Linda Austin asked me to participate in what apparently is called “blog tag.” Normally, I might shrug off such a request, with its specific guidelines, and go back to twittering away my time with what passes for social networking. However, perhaps because of Linda’s unique St. Louis perspectives stemming from her Japanese culture and history, I have obviously convinced myself that this specific tag tour might be worth something. Visit Linda Austin at http://moonbridgebooks.com

(Ideally, I would have listed other tagged writers at the end of this blog. I gave that some effort but didn’t get enough of a response in time and then became overwhelmed with earning enough money to pay bills.)

Think of the following as an interview, as these tour questions mimic those I’ve been asked before in TV and radio interviews. And visualize yourself as your host of choice, (Fallon, Goldberg, Winfrey, Kimmel, DeGeneres, Letterman, Stewart, Williams, Sawyer, and so on).

You: What are you working on?

JPM: Nothing. This blog, so I am occasionally blogging. Also, I’m writing poetry now and then. But mostly I’m trying to survive by helping others write and hoping they pay me for the help. No long narratives, especially after my cancer comedy. Staring into the abyss makes you (or maybe just me) want to climb into the mountains as much as possible for as long as I can. My writing has, for now, become secondary to my living a more external life, or at least trying to. However, there is no shortage of material. I have a half-finished novel, other old novels needing revision, several short stories, and piles of notes scribbled out in my nearly unintelligible handwriting.

You: How does your work differ from others of its genre?

JPM: My recent work is Eight Billion Steps: My Impossible Quest For Cancer Comedy. Not many cancer survivor stories are a quest for comedy. Also, I’m a fiction writer, so the narrative was constructed using the elements of good fiction. It’s a thriller, suspense, comedy, (According to more than one review, it’s a “page-turner.”) My hope has always been that might help others, although I wasn’t sure how. I avoided reading books about cancer. If I still had the disease, I couldn’t read my own book. However, my radiation oncologist and a nurse who was the caregiver for her late husband both recommend it as a “must read.”

You: Why do you write what you do?

JPM: As a writer, the only way I could survive my ordeal was of course to write about it. Previously, I focused on fiction, and wrote essentially for the same reasons, to survive daily life, to make sense of the world, and most importantly to entertain.

You: How does your writing process work?

JPM: Usually, I write or scrawl with ink onto a yellow legal pad, revise while keyboarding, write new scenes on yellow pad or in the margins of the printout, rewrite, printout, markup, omitting and adding, and eventually during this process that seems like a constant expansion and contraction, I have a more or less finished manuscript. But nothing is ever finished.

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Words Mean Something

I have an obsession –words must mean something – must be read, spoken, and especially written for a purpose. Useless words are an abomination. Conversations should be calculated to inform while entertaining your partner and being sensitive to their idiosyncrasies. The goal of artful writing is to produce a group of words informative and entertainingly arranged in a series while understanding the nuances of your audience.

Too often writers write for themselves and expect everyone to love them.

In writing for yourself, in digging deep into a personal examination of your psyche you can reach a level whereby your writing transforms into literature and your personal examination expands the critical examination of all, of the human condition, expanding our awareness of ourselves in a satisfying series of words.

So, even if you are narcissistic, if you dig deep and find the source of your narcissism, and expose it on the cellular level, then your self-centeredness can be enlightening. Most times of course it is not. Most times it is clichéd third person genre. (I’m a tough cool person with my guard up but so sensitive underneath.)

All I’m asking for here is that those writers dig a litter deeper and ask themselves why? Why do I write these words? Why am I writing this critique now, I ask.

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What A Writing Client Is Teaching Me

Client 002When I was younger, I wrote first for myself, then to show others, and eventually perhaps I might gain recognition. As I grew older and dealt with the vicissitudes of publishing, I cynically embraced the belief that being paid well for your writing is what made you a real writer. Anything less and I was more or less failing. (Talk about high expectations.) Now I’m not so sure. One of my clients is reminding me that writing is so much more than the pursuit of money.

She’d been working on “her book” for nearly 40 years but never could “finish” it. About five years ago, I coached her a little, but we hadn’t spoken in a long time. Then she called one day and said, “I’ve got to finish the book.” She had metastasized cancer. The doctors told her she didn’t have much time left. I had just endured my own battle with cancer, emerging scarred (a little maimed), but cancer-free and happy to talk, taste, swallow and breathe.

She handed over a dizzying array of paper and computer files, duplicates with one or two lines revised, many with whole new paragraphs mixed in. I painstakingly sorted through them and arranged them in chronological order. We went through them line by line, sitting together hunched over her laptop. Her computer skills were basic, and she was amazed at how I could move stuff around. I printed pages, she marked them up. She read the changes and I typed, revising on the fly, discussing themes, chronology, the merits of each line and each word, moving scenes and creating chapters. My suggestions had to be consistent with her voice. She wrote poignantly, truthfully, clearly. She instinctively understood the writing process, often asking herself what she meant by something she’d written. The chaos of her 40 year attempt was congealing into a powerful narrative.

When I worked at home, she called urging me to go faster because the doctors had done another scan, and it didn’t look good. Through all of this she was getting chemotherapy and courageously plowed on, the act of writing seeming to uplift her enough to be uncannily productive. I’ve had deadlines before but this one gave the term a whole new meaning. I’m not sure what that meaning is –  one of the reasons I’m writing this I suppose.

She’d had, to say the least, challenges that made for an interesting life. Abuse, depression, alcoholism, astounding business success, drive and determination, love, humor, a unique pragmatic use of religion, and a useful unwavering belief in God. (I’m not religious or even that spiritual – she never proselytized.)  She is an extremely successful, kind, bright woman who wants to remain anonymous. No fame and glory needed.

We’re almost there. At the end, I will format for CreateSpace, Kindle and Smashwords. Clearly she is getting immense satisfaction from the process and the knowledge that she will finally “finish the book.” If it sells half a million, the likelihood of her being around when it does are slim. Her motivation was never to be a successful writer in the sense I’d considered it. She just thought her story might be helpful to others. And if she wasn’t there, well, that was God’s plan all along.

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Complete Your Book

Do you have a memoir, autobiography, or novel you cannot seem to finish? Or an idea that needs jump starting? Sometimes all it takes is someone who understands the writing process, someone who can guide you around pitfalls to successful completion, or someone who can get you started and set you on your way, available as needed.

I can help you find your voice and develop your unique style regardless of topic. Rates are fair and competitive, consistent with market principles, and vary depending on the project and services rendered. Once we agree on an outcome, I commit fully to the project.

Do you need my help? If so, let’s get started. Contact me at 314-496-2204 or jmay194@sbcglobal.net. It costs nothing to talk on the phone or exchange emails.

My experience includes awards and publications, a novel favorably reviewed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a Pushcart Prize nomination and thirty years teaching reluctant learners. Currently, I am wrapping up collaboration with a highly successful businesswoman who was unable to complete her incisive memoir until she hired me. She worked on it for over 40 years. (See “What My Writing Client Is Teaching Me.”)

Thanks for the opportunity to serve you.

Jeff May
314-496-2204
jmay194@sbcglobal.net

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Who Owns the Future?

Warning Note: I understand that I’m being cynical, but what’s the point of having your own website and blog if you cannot indulge yourself in occasional cynicism? And give yourself a chance to blame others. I blame Jaron Lanier. My cynicism wast’t fully crystallized until I read Lanier’s “Who Owns the Future?” (To be fair, Lanier offers unique solutions… but will they happen?)

Sometimes the online world seems outrageously silly. Not just the everyday kind of absurdity that we’re all familiar with, the ranting and raving, but our intelligent enlightening comments that we hope are improving the human condition. We fool ourselves into believing that our comments are worth something. Maybe they are. In fact, I know they are, but only to our sense of self. Maybe they are worth more than you think to huge corporations with super-powerful supercomputers and servers. Think of the effort you might put into evaluating a book or product. People respond with likes and dislikes and other comments. Who profits from all this feedback, all this evaluating, all this clicking? Who profits when readers quickly go to the comments section of online newspapers? Monetarily speaking, you get ZERO. Nada. Nothing. Who pays for your work? Of course you say that it’s okay because all the info is free so it balances out. But does it? Are you sure? Nothing is free. With every click, do you give up a bit of your soul? Who pays for that? Meanwhile after we’ve rated the product, we can go back to stocking plastic at Wal-Mart.

I recommend the Nieman Journalism Lab article and interview, “Jaron Lanier wants to build a new middle class on micropayments” by Eric Allen Been.  “Anybody can blog and all that — and I still like that stuff — but the bigger problem is that an incredible inequity developed where the people with big computers who were routing what journalists did were getting all the formal benefits. Mainly the money, the power. And the people who were doing the work were so often just getting informal benefits, like reputation and the ability to promote themselves. That isn’t enough. The thing that we missed was how much power would accrue to the people with the biggest computers.”


Lainier

Jaron Lai

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Oh God Forbid, Read Me Now

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Have you ever gone into a bookstore and wished you could read every single book? When I was much younger, I embraced that unrealistic and lofty goal. Read every single one of those bound gems. Now I face book after book, their authors shouting at me – Read me; read me please! – their pleas foisted upon me, flung in my face on Facebook, my virtual face time spent having to face the fact that I can never ever come face to face with my life time goal; that is, to hold that last book on earth in my trembling hands, reading the last line before some narcissistic bastard or saucy bitch “finishes” writing the “last line,” the eternal life-changing ending, the elusive eternal flame that I will have missed forever.

Needless to say, which begs the question, why say it at all, it is all a bit overwhelming. Used to be I could just avoid bookstores and avoid this breathtaking dilemma –I could hike into the woods carrying my tattered textbook urging me to avoid alliteration wherever possible, or my slim volume of famous poems, or gasp, a legal pad and pen so that I could sit in the sunshine and contribute to my own personal madness without foisting it upon the innocent.

But no more. Now I must check my email and invariably click on the news, or I must obsessively listen to NPR, or even local AM, or God forbid, check my Goodreads account and face the impossible once again. Oh, how I wish I were trudging through the real Amazon oblivious to the swamp of useless words, which are all virtually needless.

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Stop Stealing Our Writing Tools!

Why is there space between your paragraphs? You are stealing our space! Stop it! You are taking away our freedom. You are robbing us of a tool that shows time passing or that indicates dramatic pause. If you continue to put space between every paragraph in fiction, we will no longer have a choice. We won’t be able to use it for non-chapter breaks that don’t warrant asterisks or other markers. If you continue, spaces will become the norm and we will succumb to the abnormal norm, or risk being misunderstood, or worse…. Would you also eliminate your ellipses?

Who are you, and why are you stealing our space? Apparently, you are technology. This isn’t the first time that advances in production have influenced the grand scope of communication. (A printing press anomaly is the reason American writers place ending punctuation inside the quotation mark on trailing quoted material.) Not all that along ago, business letters had paragraph indentations. Online, however, the accepted formatting is single space block with space between paragraphs. It’s a Microsoft Office default, so it’s ‘deir fault. (Stop forcing puns while you’re at it.)

This new evolution in technology has perverted fiction (and many essays). Textbooks have printed fiction with meaningless extra spaces. I have seen it! John Updike surely did not want his dialogue perforated with unintended emptiness.  Nor did Kate Chopin. It appalls me, and it should appall you. Why? Because this laziness and stupidity becomes almost criminal when you consider that novices who unwittingly read Updike perverted with extra spacing will think it is supposed to be that way. (Isn’t that how we learn – by emulating the masters?) They will think that John Updike intended space between every single paragraph. This in turn sets up the expectation that all fiction should require whitespace. This abomination needs to be stopped.

Someone or thing (maybe Microsoft) has stolen your screwdriver for tightening and loosening your narrative as you see fit. Soon this foolish spacing tendency will overtake us. We will lose our screwdrivers, and then we’re screwed.  So, for God’s sake, stop!

 

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