Category Archives: On Writing

Everything and Nothing

While en route home from a three-week vacation trip, it seems I left one of my notebooks on the plane stuffed into the seat pocket of the person in front of me. Tight quarters being what they are these days, I’m surprised I didn’t notice, given the 8 ½ x 11 notepad stuck out at the top. My reading glasses, pen, and book were also there, so I’m at a total loss as to explain how I could have left that notebook behind. I would rather have left an arm behind than that notebook.

I had written two blogs and had a solid start on an essay on those pages. I’m sick to my stomach just thinking about it, in tears even. Every single writer reading these words knows exactly how I feel.

In the larger scheme of things, this is nothing, really. Yet in this particular moment it is everything. Everything and nothing at the same time.

And I have to say that it’s all right to over-react, an accusation some might like to make. Not everything has to be compared to the worst thing that might have happened. Not everything, regardless how small, has to be minimized either. Not every smaller event or setback can compare in importance to the larger things in life, but that doesn’t mean littler things don’t count in one moment in time or another. They weigh in differently, but that doesn’t mean they don’t count. Especially if they have a space of some significance in one’s life, however momentary that might be or how irrelevant to someone else.

Life isn’t all or nothing. It’s made up of loads of both big and little things. If a truly big thing had happened, I would be devastated. And no, I’m not devastated, but it is a blow to have lost those words, those thoughts, and the direction they were pointing me in at that specific moment. Moments like that don’t always arrive on time and sometimes not at all,  and the thing is, I don’t recall where they were taking me. Where they had brought me. So much information was processed between my having written them and my searching for them now. I wrote them down and put them away for later digestion. I thought they were safe.

But my brain was on overload the entire time we were gone. We were in Greece, in Israel, in Naples, Pompeii, and Rome. Cities of Antiquity, the Holy Land. There was so much to see and do. So much information to absorb. So many cobblestones to negotiate and cross.

So that which I wrote along the way was set aside as new things were being processed. I wasn’t worried about it. I’d get back to it, polish it off, and send it out when I got home.

Only it wasn’t there when I got home, was it.

I have turned the house and the car inside out three or four times, but I’m going to have to stop now so I can move forward again. Whether it’s writing about something or doing something, there comes a point when we have to move on. Do something else. Let go.

Obviously, I’ve had a bit of trouble letting go. I was hopeful I could write this and get it out of my system by doing so. If you could see how red my fingers are from holding on so tightly, how precious little tension has been assuaged by searching the same places over and over again, how stress lines have formed on my forehead as I sit here going over the possibilities and looking for new places to search, places where I still might find the notebook that’s surely waiting to be rescued.

Letting go? You can see how well that’s worked out.

My Car Has Stalled

Here’s the thing. I’ve written three different blogs over the past month or so – none of which have seen the light of day. Why? It’s not that the ideas weren’t there, but my approach wasn’t a good one, and I wasted a lot of time thinking otherwise – like an airplane wanting to land but as it descends, finding it can’t see the painted lines or the flood lights marking the approach because of the fog that’s obscuring it.

My brain has been full of fog for some time now, and I can only hope this isn’t going to be a permanent condition – or worse, terminal. If it is, can someone just shoot me now and put me out of my misery? Almost nothing is getting accomplished, and what little is, seems, in my estimation – well – garbage.

So here I sit having set aside yet another blog post, this one 10 minutes away from being posted. It made it to the finish line, but I don’t believe it’s worth the paper (figuratively speaking) it would have been printed on.

Writer’s Block. Pure and simple.

What else could it be? My brain scan did not register a flat line, so I’ve not been designated brain dead yet. Nor have I been told that my IQ has suffered a massive and untimely descent into the nether regions. I can still think clearly enough to fix myself a cup of tea and even put spaghetti with my own homemade sauce and meatballs on the table, so there must be some residual ability to write, or at least to think, in there somewhere.

Yet this difficulty continues to plague me.

My backup plan remains the reams of pages containing ideas for blogs that I catalog as they come to me when I watch television, listen to songs on the radio, read newspapers or magazines, and when I get ideas from the books I read – and yes, even a Stephen King novel can generate a decent idea for those who might think otherwise.

Of late I have been keeping a writing journal, and yes, I do know how ironic that sounds. One post in it talks about how “lackluster” some of my blogs have been – like some of you, I, too, notice when they’re not that good but sometimes I’ll post them anyway just to keep the blog itself viable. And no, I don’t feel very good about doing that which is the problem now. It’s one of several reasons nothing has gotten out there these past few weeks.

Just having a writing journal, and actually writing in it, has made me accountable to myself. However, I still manage to fail to meet the standards I, myself, have set. Herewith, a few excerpts:

From January: Monday was pretty much a zero…I’ve been writing some each day, so it’s not ‘’as bad as it looks on paper’’ – pun intended. A little bit’s better than nothing – right?

From February: Bill says I’ve ruined my essay about modern dating – for the second time. “It’s not a funny little piece anymore,” he said. Have I gone too far?

From March: As you can tell by the dates, I’ve been doing almost nothing – what is the matter with me?…No real hope of getting anywhere, but I’ll keep trying anyway when I’m not moping around feeling so sorry for myself that I’m immobilized by depression. I hope to pen a quick blog in a day or so as – you guessed it – I’ve fallen down on those, too.

From June: I’m having a dry spell where what I put down on paper sounds great – until I look at it the following morning only to realize what garbage it actually is. Today was the fourth try at a blog that’s long overdue. Well, the 4th of 4 (note to self: the firth of fourth! Private joke here, ask Bill). Each time, each new topic sounds great, as does the first draft. A couple of them never made it to the next draft, though. They were awful, topics that sucked, or maybe it was just the writing that sucked, and I just haven’t faced that yet. What is the matter with me? Nothing seems to be working lately! My car has stalled.

Excuses? I’ve got a million of them. This tells me what, you might well ask. It says “L”oser with a capital “L” – this last, written on a scrap piece of paper and stuffed in my writing journal on the same page as the June entry included here. But it’s looking like the branch of a tree that has finally borne fruit!

I have spurts of mental activity where I can see the cartoon bubble shaped like a light bulb and the word “IDEA” at its center so clearly. Then it’s breaks into pieces that scatter around my feet. If this goes on too long, lethargy and self-loathing settle in and make themselves comfy for the long winter ahead.

But I realize I’m not alone in this. Most of the reading audience raise their hands in agreement. We hear you, they say, and we’re with you on this one.

Well folks, here it is. The blog I thought I couldn’t write. It’s not the one I planned, and my gratitude for your lack of applause for my not posting that one is appreciated. It may never see the light of day, and for that, we might all be grateful.

My car is up and running again, this thing almost having written itself in only about an hour and a half. It’s amazing what one can do when all the pistons are firing. What a relief to find the fog has dissipated and clarity has returned. I hope this time I can keep my momentum from dying.

Altered Impressions

I don’t make coffee often, mostly just when I’m having a party or a few friends over for dinner. Just before I turn on the coffee pot, I sprinkle cinnamon over the top of the filter pack. It gives the coffee a nice flavor with the added, healthy bonus of an antioxidant boost. Plus, it tastes good. Those Maxwell House coffee filter packs are pretty handy, but the last time I tried to purchase some, they were no longer being sold in the decaf version, at least not around here. Decaf in single-cup bags is still around, but individual bags are not convenient to manage with a group of 12 people.

Filters of many kinds are things we use every day, and most of the time we’re not even aware of using them. But filters are important. They determine what we notice first, and they vary from person to person. They are critical in creating first impressions, and first impressions are important. Maybe they shouldn’t be, but that doesn’t meant they aren’t. If you want a decent job, creating a good first impression should be paramount – it can make the difference between a second interview and a tossed application in the dreaded circular file.

Like any system of categorization, filters make it easier for our brains to assimilate and file information quickly in order to access it later on, if needed. If we didn’t stick these tidbits in some kind of mental file, how could it be easily recalled when we needed it? We’d find ourselves rummaging through that proverbial haystack – this one consisting of billions of bits of information in no logical order whatsoever. How do you find something if you have no clue where it went? There are many kinds of mnemonic devices to aid memory, but even they rely on the mind’s ability to categorize and file.

Our ability to organize data of all kinds in this way enables us process the mounds of information we must sift through to access other, related information we need. Our brains know where to look, which folder to open, which bit to pull out and put together with others similar to it. Using filters, close cousins of politically incorrect “stereotypes,” is how we make sense of our world, the individuals and communities that coexist in it, its singular thoughts, its comprehensive ideas. They are starting points, and we go on from there.

Stereotypes – bad, bad word in this era of political correctness. Are we even allowed to say that word anymore? Is there much of anything we’re permitted to say these days that won’t get us in trouble? If this isn’t “politically correct,” well, I don’t care. Moving on…

So think of your brain as just a filing cabinet containing multitudinous folders, and in each are pages and pages of papers pertaining to a specific topic. Without this, how could you hope to access that one thing on that one piece of paper you’re looking for that can bring a number of those pieces together?

We are constantly being told that people are the same, but how can we be the same when we are different in so many ways that can not be discounted – in little ways to be sure, but in big ones, too. We all have filters and that’s what makes us different. Individuals. Not a collective, not carbon copies of each other. We are differently impacted by geography (where we were born and raised), by the kind of parents who raised us, by the communities we lived in, and the schools we attended. Were our families intact during our formative years; and if they were, what factors kept them together? What advantages and disadvantages did we have? How have our innate temperaments shaped us, and what role have they played in determining how we view others who move in and out of the worlds in which we live at any point in time over the course of our lifetime?

It makes no sense to talk about how we are all the same when, clearly, we are not – and for countless other reasons than those I’ve mentioned here. But let’s give it a whirl to see if I can further clarify the point of all this.

Different people look at things in different ways, and that begins with what people notice – and they notice different things first.

Dentists – The first thing they notice are teeth, which, if neglected, signal health issues down the road. A dentist may not know why someone is neglecting their teeth, be that fear of dentists or drills, lack of money, or whatever – but they can see discoloration, empty spaces where teeth should be, chipped teeth, and the kinds of thing that affect one’s bit. Are there cavities? Antiquated bridgework? All you have to do is talk or smile, and they know what you have or haven’t been doing.

The first thing orthodontists notice is alignment. Their job is to prevent and correct irregularities of the teeth, usually by means of some kinds of braces. And they can tell if you’ve been doing what they’ve told you to do from one visit to the next and can get testy if you don’t keep up on your end because your perfect smile is the stamp of approval for their work.

Dermatologists – Skin is paramount in this field. They notice anomalies, even through your makeup providing it hasn’t been applied like a thick coat of paint. They notice spots and can quickly assess, pretty accurately most of the time, whether or not what they’re seeing might indicate a serious problem. They notice texture, coloring, raised and flat spots, and will advise which of the many sunscreens available are the best at filtering out the sun’s harmful UV rays.

Ergo, sunscreens can be added to this list, too.

Manicurists – They hone in nails, nail ridges, cuticles, and what they see can also provide information about one’s health.

Hair stylists can tell right away if your hair has been chemically treated or it’s been neglected. Does it have split ends, appear dull, or does it feel silky and glisten in the sun? Illness and various medications can have an impact on your hair. Does the way it’s cut shape your face in a flattering way or render the entire head – well, lifeless, for want of a better word?

Painters and sculptors are acutely aware of form, shape, size, and color, even venue – they pay particular attention to depth, perspective, and the overall theme of their creations and those of others.

Architects – angles, utility, light and shadow. Think Frank Lloyd Wright vs I. M. Pei. Some of us still wonder why Pei thought a glass pyramid would work at the Louvre in Paris where the two structures, separated by centuries, are currently juxtaposed – and whether or not that works.

A musician’s currency is envisioned and executed by means of choice, the voice of the instrument, the tempo and genre of the composition, and a vocalist takes these into consideration as well, including, if they are really good at what they do, emotive presentation that gives their music and their words greater depth and meaning.

Dance Instructors filter observations through one’s posture, frame, tone, poise, precision, form, and graceful movement on the dance floor. Do dancers move with fluidity and a lightness of being, or are they clunky and difficult to position for easy execution of complicated steps that look effortless if done correctly?

Jewelers look at fingers – Are they slim and long like a pianist’s or stubby and chunky? Will a ring that easily fits the finger on which it is placed today still fit five years from now? Is the setting compatible with the size and shape of that finger?

And Doctors – They see you in bits and pieces related to whatever their specialty happens to be. You are a part, not a whole.

There are, of course, many others kinds of filters through which we make assumptions about others. To wit, some people view everything as a result of the commission of a sin, while others see the same thing as separation from God – which sounds worse to you? Or I might ask – which sounds less accusatory? And for some, it’s a simple question of good versus bad. It’s all in the words we choose to use, which brings me to…

…Writers whose filters are composed of words: the one’s they use, and the ones they choose not to use. Writers live for words and hope theirs come alive for others. And believe me when I say, there are reasons for each choice made – every word, every punctuation mark, and each sentence with specific and thoughtfully-considered placement of both, to include the subtext that runs just below the surface.

Filters are assumptions often based on the most arbitrary of things, conditions, or circumstances. On what someone else has told us or what we think we see or hear in conversation. The problem comes when we are too quick to judge others based on first impressions – and that’s why first impressions do matter.

They matter if you’re interviewing for a job, where a first impression might get you a second interview or a place in the dreaded “circular file.” First impressions are created in the way someone is dressed, the words they use in conversation, whether they speak or remain silent, if they look down at the ground or straight ahead when they pass us on the street, if they “ignore” you when you say hello, the spring in their step, their gait when they walk, or whether they are handicapped (or the PC acceptable “physically challenged”) when they sport that blue tag on their car and walk into the store, seemingly fine to the uninformed eye.

How can we say with certainty which coffee we like best if we stop looking after the first one that tastes good – might we not find one that’s even better if we tried out the filter packs of a few other brands?

Political correctness notwithstanding, we all use filters of one kind or another. It would be impossible to manage the chaos otherwise. That’s easy to do if it’s coffee we’re talking about; if only that were as easy to do with people.

Do Something

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.” – Neil Gaiman

Doing Something.

Making mistakes is akin to failure, is it not? It’s a bad thing. It’s not what any of us really want to do, is it? Yet we all make them. Big ones, little ones. Ones of lesser impact – and ones with sometimes catastrophic consequences.

The point here is what are we learning in this process? Or do we become so traumatized by our failures that we are hampered by our increasing fear of failing – again. More and more afraid to try a second or a third time, thus failing to move forward. Stuck where we are.

But we’re not perfect. Not I. Nor you either. And when we think we are or when we try our best to achieve perfection because we think we have to, or that we should, or because that’s what others expect (or at least that’s what we think they expect), we are doomed to fail. Why? Because no one, not a single person you or I or anyone else knows, has managed to achieve that perfection – or for that matter, ever will.

So what do we do about it? When we fail, misstep, err in some way big or small, how do we proceed?

We go on, and in the process secure the foundation of the building blocks of self-esteem. We do better by not letting our mistakes defeat us.

Which is kind of what I did – letting myself be defeated, that is – and why I’ve been absent from my blog these past few weeks. And it wasn’t just the writer’s block that laid me low, either. I’ve had some ideas but was totally unsuccessful in expanding on them. I felt as though I’d stopped thinking, clearly at any rate, about the work I’d been doing or about the essays I’ve written and the ways I might improve them.

I felt hopeless, lazy, useless, lolling around on the sofa watching meaningless television – which of course made me feel even worse about myself. Somehow I managed to keep working out at the gym and kept swimming, too, but with less frequency or enthusiasm these past couple of weeks. The “Loser” in me stared back at me in the mirror demanding an explanation for why I’d stop working to achieve the goals I’d set for myself. Why I’d allowed myself to fall into an abyss out of which it felt increasingly impossible to climb. I couldn’t even concentrate on reading the piles of books I have. Instead of whittling them down, I watched the piles grow higher. Even the two newest Stephen King books (my default when all else fails and which I use to extricate myself from this pervasive malaise) failed to garner my attention. Normally, he’s got me by the throat by the bottom of page one and doesn’t let go until the last page.

This I deemed a really bad sign.

There they still sit on my end table. I’ve picked up Revival – “a rich and disturbing novel {that} spans five decades on its way to the most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written” – three or four times but couldn’t tell you what is on that page if my life depended on it. I must change that – this weekend. Before things get worse.

Do these kinds of failures occur because we really are losers? Is everyone else we see doing so much better than we are because they are better than we are?

Of course not. What, then, is the difference?

The difference is they’ve gotten back up from the floor they slipped on, and they began again, tackling the same problems they first faced without letting their “failures” deter them. And they do this time after time, no matter how many times it takes. They cling to that determination that has so long defined Americans and our approach to life. They say I can do this. I will do this no matter how long it takes or how many times I have to try – no matter how hard it is. What they don’t say is I can’t, I’ll never get it right, I won’t achieve my goals.

They own their failures instead of blaming other people for them. Life is difficult for all of us, but at some point we must accept responsibility for those things we do – and those we fail to do. It’s how we learn. It’s how we grow. It’s how we become better people.

My New Year’s wish for you in 2015 is what Gaiman wishes for all of us – that we make mistakes, good ones, bad ones, amazing ones. Ones that we accept and turn into something positive. Ones that occasionally lead us somewhere we didn’t know we needed to go. How do we do that? Gaiman says don’t freeze up, don’t worry if it’s not perfect or not good enough. If you are afraid of trying, don’t give in to that fear. Do it anyway. You’ll never know what might have been if you fail to try.

And at least you can say you tried.

Do Something – Anything – in 2015 that you won’t have say you’re sorry you didn’t do when 2016 rolls around.

For the Love of a Good Book

I tried to write this thing about the polar vortex yesterday, but it just wasn’t coming to me. Giving up, something I am loathe to do, felt like the only answer, so I forced myself to ignore the flashing red “loser” light that came on in my head. I’d given the vortex idea a try, several in fact, but just couldn’t find a way into it. The words just wouldn’t come, though I like the idea I had for the polar vortex but not now – so don’t think you’re off the hook.

Without mulling it over, I shut the lid of my computer and picked up a book I’d started reading a couple of days ago. Going out on the back porch and sinking into a cushy chair with a BIC blue, fine-point pen in hand (I love to underline and write notes in my books), I picked up the story where I’d left off. Did I feel guilty, knowing I should have been working on my blog? I’m sure I should have, but owning this decision instead of continuing to struggle with it was a good feeling – and that’s how Stephen King and I wound up sitting together in a heavenly breeze on a warm, sunny day, thoroughly enjoying each other’s company.

Anyway, reading always makes me feel better and often regenerates the thought processes. Besides, the intrinsic value I derive from reading seemed worth the sacrifice of, at best, one mediocre blog that first effort would have brought forth.

People talk about good books all the time but in many respects “good” is pretty subjective, don’t you think? Is “good” the same for you as for me? And how does one measure the value of a good book? Books that have made a tremendous impact on your life are ones you remember – oh, maybe not the entire story line or even more than a couple of specifics – unless you are my daughter, Laura, who’s memory in this regard is phenomenal – but you may recall the title, the author, or that it changed you in some significant and important way: made you a better person, more aware, less alone.

There are books that you remember forever because they represent turning points, the value of which have been immeasurable. And a turning point can’t always be measured in external changes. Many times the subtler ones result in more currency when redeemed at the cash-and-carry.

Certain books may have had an impact on your emotional and psychological well-being, too. How can anyone deny the value of that?

Some of you might be asking yourselves if I felt guilty wasting time that might be put to better use rather than reading a novel by Stephen King (Joyland, in case you were wondering), and my question to you is, what’s wrong with wiling the day away with a book. Any book – well, almost any book. Absolutely nothing, according to the French who can’t fathom an American attitude that espouses not wasting one minute of any day – as if reading were a waste of time. The French do it all the time but don’t for one minute consider reading all day wasting time. They revel in the time spent with a good book. If it provides a moment of calm reflection or just slows you down to a reasonable pace and makes you detach from your cell phone for a short while, tell me: how is that a waste?

My family knows well my attitude toward wasting anything, as the motto by which I’ve lived my life is Waste Not, Want Not. Anyone who’s grown up poor can understand this. So believe me when I say that while I may plop down somewhere – the back porch in the summer or, in winter draping my legs over one arm of an overstuffed chair in front of my large bay window – and spend hours on end with a book that talks to me and captures my attention, it is very hard not to think of myself as “wasting time” when there are many more things I could be doing that are purposeful. That have a goal: laundry for example, or vacuuming, plucking resistant weeds from the mulch around the house (scratch that, I hate bugs). That sort of thing. Things viewed as useful endeavors that bear visible fruit.

Not so with reading. What have you got when the book’s done? Hours counted on a clock that have passed you by with “nothing to show for your efforts.” The book goes back on the shelf with nothing one can point to and say: look what I did today. You did do something when you engaged with that book – and that something, no matter how small, has made a difference on the inside.

What I consider the real waste of time is not taking the time to read books. Read something that provokes your interest or enlightens the mind. Something that enriches you as a person. But don’t forget to read just for fun, too, for its entertainment value. We all need to get out of ourselves and away from our lives sometimes. Reading about others’ lives, even if they’re not real people, can help us do that. They can provide a fresh perspective or at least make our own lives fade into the background and disappear for a little while.

I think Stephen King would agree with that.

If we could be more like the French in this regard, it would do us all a lot of good.

No Harm Done

My mother called to tell me that the sitting judge in an on-going local rape case involving minor children under the age of ten had said that the accused should suffer the maximum penalty under the law, without allowances for anything that might lessen the sentence for what he did. Mind you, the trial isn’t over yet.

The judge didn’t say that, I told her, and, in fact, couldn’t have said that because that would result in a mistrial and they’d have to start all over again. It’s a violation of judicial ethics for the judge to comment on an on-going case in any fashion whatsoever.

She kept insisting, telling me where to find the article in the newspaper.

It was not an article, after all, but a letter to the editor written by a resident in Medina. In referencing the case, he mentioned the judge, who had made no comment whatsoever. It was the Medina resident, in his letter to the editor, who had made the comments that my mother attributed to the judge hearing the case. And citizens have the right to voice their opinions – but judges do not.

The problem here is that my mother didn’t read the letter carefully, so she misunderstood the message being conveyed, or in this case, attributed that message to the wrong person. A mistake that could render the trial null and void if the Judge had said it, but it would not come back to haunt the Medina man who was only exercising his right to free speech.

This lack of attention to detail, to hear the words being said – all of them, is a growing problem these days. My mother is somewhat of an exception as she’s always been this way, partly due to poor hearing, but also due to thinking about what she wants to say next instead of listening to what’s being said in the particular moment. More and more people, including many of my former students, don’t take the time to read or listen with keen attention. They skim text, reading only the beginning, picking up maybe a few sentences in the middle, and re-focusing a bit at the very end, just enough to get the gist, and do the same in the verbal sphere. They try to skate through with a cursory effort to negotiate minimal participation on the fringe of a discussion or to write a paper using 750 words that contribute nothing of value to the larger conversation.

People don’t seem to give their full attention to anything or anyone these days, leading to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. We’re texting, typing on the computer, and reading only the briefest of texts, tweets, and emails, the latter of which, I’m told, are passé already. We are constantly multi-tasking – and everybody’s doing it. The current climate we must negotiate, and not very effectively, is that of the short attention span.

Do we have that much to do every minute of the day that we are forced to multi-task in an effort to keep up?

When we don’t get it, we fail to ask for clarification. And why would we if we think we already know what’s going on?

When you tell your reader/listener that they’ve misunderstood what you said/meant/wrote, their first reaction often amounts to not believing you. It’s your mistake, not theirs. Sometimes they realize they’ve been inattentive but are ashamed to admit it because, well, how would that make them look? Like they didn’t care enough about what you said to give it the attention it was due.

Words make a difference, even just one of them.

If you choose your words carefully and that listener/reader zips right through carelessly, missing some important points and filling in the blanks his/herself, the resultant meaning doesn’t accurately reflect author intent. It’s no wonder so many people have to say I told you that already, and you’re, like, Really? I don’t remember you telling me that.

When I called my mother back to clarify her misreading of the text, she said she’d already talked to my sister who said I was right. Mom had misread it. Then she laughed at herself because she makes lots of these kinds of mistakes – we’ve become inured to it after all these years. Well, somewhat, sometimes. And she told Carol I would be calling her back to set her straight, and since that is what I was doing now, Mom thought that was pretty funny.

At least her error won’t be getting her in hot water with anyone in the legal profession. It won’t result in a criminal going free. It won’t land her in jail. And while mistakes of this nature can cause big problems within families, too, there was no harm done here. Not this time.

Just try to be mindful in dealing with others verbally or in writing, carefully monitoring your attention and interest. Be fully present in that moment, so you don’t end up friendless. And you sure don’t want your photo winding up on the front page of your local newspaper – at least not for the wrong reason.

 

Aha, Gotcha!

Bill and I are about as different as two people can be when it comes to the methods used to get from one place to another. In conversation, I often make intuitive leaps that allow me to bypass chasms and still make it safely to the other side. In contrast, Bill painstakingly builds a sturdy, safe bridge one section at a time. When he’s finished, an unbroken line of elephants, linked to one another trunk-to-tail in chain-like fashion, could cross it.

While judges and juries appreciate the detailed maps lawyers, through the efforts of investigators such as police detectives and seasoned FBI agents like Bill, lay out for them – neatly, logically, all loose ends accounted for and in their rightful places – lovers of stories don’t necessarily relish being led around by trunk or tail. Lovers of stories like the guesswork, enjoy the challenge, and most importantly, look forward to figuring things out as they go along picking up clues from one chapter to the next.

English: The Seal of the United States Federal...

English: The Seal of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation. For more information, see here. Español: El escudo del Buró Federal de Investigaciones (FBI). Para obtener más información, véase aquí (Inglés). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)loose ends accounted for and in their rightful places – lovers of stories don’t necessarily relish being led around by trunk or tail. Lovers of stories like the guesswork, enjoy the challenge, and most importantly, look forward to figuring things out as they go along picking up clues from one chapter to the next.

But no one wants surprises in the courtroom. So Bill prefers what’s always worked for him, the methodical, detailed thinking and writing that will aid lawyers in getting a panel of jurors where they need to go when the time comes. The method that provides as much evidence as possible in the form of objective details placed on a linear timeline with close attention to the most minute, but relevant, details – one…at…a…time. This approach has garnered him accolades for tracking and apprehending armed bank robbers, fugitives, and kidnappers. Proof that it works.

But that’s not how I work. In fact, my career in stamping out crime and bringing “perps” of another kind to justice comes as a result of my long-standing membership in the grammar police. At least that’s what my children keep telling me.

The plodding investigator goes from one thing to the next in a logical and progressive order. The doll house that took so long to construct won’t fit well or hold together if the

Antique English Doll House

Antique English Doll House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

necessary steps were bypassed when you went from step D to step F thinking E didn’t matter all that much. Besides, it was taking too long and while the cost of another doll house might not set you back too much, shortcutting the installation of a new appliance could cost mega-bucks in repairs and equipment. Some nonfiction works this way, too. If you fail to perform the outlined steps in order, or if you miss one, the doll house – like the court case – could fall apart.

 

Whenever possible, plodding investigators deliver the end result with the lovely bow intact, the gift card neatly printed, the exquisite wrapping paper perfectly folded by his perfectionist’s steady hand.

Here. This is for you. Open it.


The only time I plod along is when I’m trying to grasp a difficult concept or attempting a complex recipe which requires careful reading, and where pinpoint focus is essential. Serious plodding is necessary. Vital, in fact.

But not all nonfiction works like this. Those who make intuitive leaps know where something is heading without having to ask. They trust the resolution will come.

Lovers of stories have little affection for the plodding investigator’s approach to writing. They just want to get there. To jump, not walk. To take a back alley, looking for clues to piece together on their own. They’d rather fly than go by train. They cross to the other side of the street not one slow step at a time but beating the traffic by dodging cars, finding another way around, through.

Instead of predictable and boring, readers are rewarded with surprising and interesting.

An investigator worthy of his credentials collects evidence and pieces it together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. That big mess on the table doesn’t make much sense at first and they use various approaches in the beginning – some start constructing the border, others use color, landscape, sky, trees, water, or people in the scene to guide them. Investigators engage in “what-iffing” turning the crime over, viewing it from different angles, looking for missing links, isolating the connective elements. Investigators are always looking for the piece that completes the broken line.

And so are readers of stories.

There are different prisms through which both crimes and stories can be viewed, but in the end, the investigator builds a case that follows a linear and chronological path to conviction, a case that paints a clear picture of the crime scene for a jury and has been successfully made – what happened, when, to whom, how, and why – the unbroken line along its border complete.

A good writer does the same, but does so by leading his reader/witness with subliminal suggestions and clues. If the job is done well, a writer need only point the reader in the right direction and he’ll find his way and make that intuitive leap. He’ll be challenged, engaged, subsumed by the text.

The desired response to both evidence and story: “Oh, I get it. Now it all makes sense.”

Either build that bridge to cross the chasm or have faith enough to make the leap over it. Both investigators and readers must be alert to everything. And if the writer has done his job, the answers will make themselves known gradually over the course of the story, building a reader’s anticipation, excitement, or anxiety. The denouement of both is reached in the “Aha, gotcha” moment.