At the end of the year, I look at the analytics on my blogs and websites and it makes me wonder about who is behind those numbers and graphs. That’s you, dear reader.
Some writers have a reader in mind when they write. I don’t. I least I don’t have a picture of some blended reader. I know a few of you from the offline world but the vast majority are virtual. Some of you aren’t even “readers.” The analytics often list “visitors” who drop by (probably based on a search for something) take a look and leave, never to be seen again. It’s like people who go into a store, walk around and don’t pick anything up or buy anything. Just looking.
A few years ago, a friend said that I should publish on Medium. He mentioned that they even have a program where you can get paid for getting people to read your words. I got an account but have never gone for the payment route. Not that I’m opposed to being paid, but it seemed like more work and I wasn’t seeing lots of readers there and that was my original reason to create an account. I was curious to see if I would get more readers there than on one of the blogs. I did the same thing by posting things on LinkedIn.
Medium’s own advice includes things like: Do not chase algorithms. Do not read articles on how to “make it” on Medium. Do not create headlines that scare the living daylights out of people so they click on them, searching for some elusive answer to life’s unanswerable questions.
That post also appeared on this blog with the less clickbaity title of simply “The Answer is 137.” Here it has over 2000 views, but WordPress doesn’t provide a “reads” stat.
Why more viewers here? I think it is you, dear reader. This site has almost 2000 followers who opted to get an email when a new post appears. Thank you for following! On Medium, I have less than a hundred followers. True, I don’t post there very often but it’s a big pond for little fish like me.
Medium says that email subscriptions help ensure that your most devoted readers never miss a post and their “Subscribe” button is a little envelope next to the “Follow” button.
Medium may discourage clickbait-styled titles, but they gave an example in one of their newsletters of a “creator” (their label for writers) of Kyrie Gray, a humorist who runs the publication Jane Austen’s Wastebasket. She has titles such as , “Zeus Finally Fired Due to Sex Scandals” and “MasterClass Now Offers Courses Taught by Famous Dead Writers.”
I’m currently taking a painting class that is online. We watch the instructor. We try it on our own, and she likes us to hold up our work to our camera for the class to see. I am not confident at all about my paintings and I am not sharing.
Today she added a brief exercise where she asked us to paint something without any pre-drawing. She said she felt some of us were too concerned with the lines and “getting things right.” She wanted us to feel free. “Just ad-lib,” she said.
I thought about it later and about that term “ad-lib.” On one of my other blogs, I wrote a quick etymology of that term. It is a shortening of the Latin ad libitum, which means “in accordance with one’s wishes,” though today we associate it more with going off-script.
In my brief time on a stage or in front of a camera acting, I thought I was a good improviser and felt no fear about ad-libbing. I think I was willing to do it because I was not very good at learning lines. That works in film where you tend to shoot short bits and can often rehearse lines before a take and have another chance if you fail. Ad-libbing Shakespeare on a stage is quite frowned upon. When I taught, much of what I told students was improvised and ad-libbed, though it was based on a script (lesson plan and notes).
But when I write – anything from a blog post to a poem – I always revise and polish. I’m okay free writing to get a draft down on the page, but I never really go with that as a final version.
And that seems to be my artistic style. I like to do a pre-drawing or work from a photograph. I always draw lines as a roadmap that guides a painting. They might remain or they might get covered over by layers of paint but I rely on them. Even as a kid doing drawings, I liked mechanical kinds of drawings – buildings, cars, objects – and have never been very good at people or animals. I actually took classes in mechanical drawing (that’s what my high school called drafting) and loved the precision, the lines, the perspectives, shading, triangles, French curves, and my T-square. I haven’t shaken it off – at least when it comes to painting.
I have always thought that teachers, lawyers, salespeople, and the clergy should be required to take classes in improvisation. Actually, it’s a good thing for everyone to study a bit. Life is very often an improvisation and being able to ad-lib is a great skill that doesn’t often show up on job ads or resumes – but it should.
It’s the birthday of John Lennon. I was a fan of The Beatles from the first time I heard “Please Please Me” played at a local record shop. That came out as a single in America in February 1963 but wasn’t a hit. Vee-Jay Records (their label here at the time) re-released it almost a year later because “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was a big hit and they were coming to America.
At first, Paul was my favorite. When I saw that John had published a book, I turned my attention to him. When he turned into a grmpy Beatle, I turned to the meditative, introspective George. Through it all, Ringo seemed the most stable.
John’s death hit me hard. I vividly recall staying up into the morning hours watching the news about his shooting and death. I know that I was exhausted mentally and physically when I went into the faculty lounge in the morning. I knew my friend Bob Shannon was equally crushed. Another teacher made a flippant joke and said “Who cares?” about John’s death and I never forgave him for the remark.
John had the best sense of humor and loved puns and wordplay. He said in interviews that his childhood favorite books were Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and the Just William stories by Richard Crompton. I also love the Alice books. I read Grahame later in life and still have never read any of the Crompton books.
In 1964, I bought John’s little book of line drawings and Carroll-like stories, In His Own Write. It’s not great writing, but it is amusing. The drawings reminded me of James Thurber and Shel Silverstein. The success of the book in sales and the attention critics gave it surprised John, though he should have expected it with Beatlemania in full swing.
The following year I bought his second book, A Spaniard in the Works. (Both books are sold now in one volume.) It is very much like the first book. The book’s title is a pun on the expression “a spanner in the works.” It means a person or thing that throws of a plan. The American version is to “throw a wrench in the works .” This collection didn’t sell as well. Perhaps, the novelty of a book by a Beatle had worn off.
John read reviews of the books and critics suggested that he must have been influenced by James Joyce, but John said he had not read Joyce. In an interview, he said that he picked up a copy of Finnegans Wake and though he saw the reason they referenced Joyce, he didn’t make it past chapter one. I identified with that. Even as an English major, I never finished any of Joyce except his short stories.
The connection to Lewis Carroll is more obvious. The counterculture of the 1960s latched onto that absurd, psychedelic aspect of Carroll’s writing. I mean, you have a hookah-smoking character and Alice takes a drug that makes her larger and smaller. Songs like the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” are illustrations of that fairly superficial reading of the Alice stories. I have written elsewhere about John’s connections to poetry and literature and Lewis Carroll in particular. I noticed that the edition of his two books noted above says on the cover “The Writing Beatle.” I wonder what John might have been writing today, besides songs.
There is a scene in the movie Yesterday (directed by Danny Boyle) where the protagonist, who finds himself in a world where The Beatles never existed, meets John. At 78, John lives alone in a little coastal home. He had had a good life but it had nothing to do with music. I don’t know that we would know the name John Lennon if his life had gone another way. Of course, we don’t even know if he would have made it to age 81 this year. But I believe if he was here with us now, he would be writing and making art more than making music.
Still, his “words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup” and my own “thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox” as I think about John and all the hours of pleasure and introspection that he and Paul, George, and Ringo brought to me and continue to bring to me.
When I was writing about the romance of being a lighthouse keeper, I also thought about a time when I considered being a lookout in a forest fire tower.
I was in college and had been reading a lot of poetry by Gary Snyder. Gary Snyder was the first poet to get a job as a fire lookout. He was assigned to a station atop Crater Mountain in Washington. (The tower no longer exists.) It was 1952 and he was studying Zen Buddhism and writing and it seemed an ideal job for both practices. Isolation, quiet, few distractions and a long view of the horizon.
I went to a job talk my junior year at Rutgers College given by an old guy from the National Park Service. I have a feeling that a lot of the people there had similar ambitions of being in some beautiful western wilderness. The old guy sensed this and tried his best to dissuade us from joining up. He said, “If you think you’re going become a ranger at the Grand Canyon or Mount Rainier, think again. You could end up in Philadelphia giving tours of the Betsy Ross house. You could get assigned to New Jersey and be at Sandy Hook or Morristown talking about General Washington.” His wet-blanket speech chilled my ambition and I did not fill out an application.
Gary Snyder became a well-known poet and environmental activist. He was part of the Beat poets and the San Francisco Renaissance and became knowns as the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology.”
Snyder’s tower experience inspired some of his friends to do the same. Poet Philip Whalen took a nearby post the next year. At a San Francisco poetry reading in 1955, Snyder met the young Jack Kerouac. This was the reading where Allen Ginsberg, having had enough wine to bolster his courage, performed a new poem “Howl.” Snyder convinced Kerouac to try a stint as a fire lookout.
Kerouac was at Desolation Peak for the summer of 1956. He decided not to bring any cigarettes in an attempt to go cold turkey and quit smoking. He brought one book – A Buddhist Bible – and planned to meditate on emptiness.
Accord to John Suiter’s book Poets on the Peaks, by day 10 in the tower Kerouac wrote in his journal that “Time drags.” He took to smoking coffee grounds out of desperation. He had written that he expected to “come face to face with God” but instead he came “face to face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it.”
Gary gone from the shack like smoke – My lonely shoes
Gary Snyder is a haiku far away
Gary would find himself banned from getting a job again in a government fire tower because he was seen as a possible anarchist (though better described as a pacifist) due to McCarthy-era blacklisting.
Snyder was one of the more serious students of Zen amongst the Beat poets and wanted to study in Japan. He had an offer from the First Zen Institute of America of a scholarship for a year of Zen training in Japan in 1955. The U.S. State Department refused to issue him a passport, informing him that “it has been alleged you are a Communist.”
A District of Columbia Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and a patron paid his expenses to Japan. At first, he served as a personal attendant and English tutor to Zen abbot Miura Isshu, at Rinko-in, a temple in Shokoku-ji in Kyoto. His days there were quite full: morning zazen, sutra chanting, work for Miura, and spoken Japanese classes so he could do kōan study. In the summer of 1955, he requested to become Miura’s disciple, thus formally becoming a Buddhist.
I was thinking about all of this the past week when I got an email about the National Parks Arts Foundation offerings for writers and visual artists to serve a residency next year. No fire towers I could find but there is Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park which sounds pretty exotic. How about a stay at Death Valley?
Could I convince my wife to spend a month virtually alone in the historical lighthouse keeper’s house on an islet in the Dry Tortugas National Park in Loggerhead Key in Florida? I doubt it. Could I go alone to this “uninhabited” islet? It’s tempting. To get to this islet in the Florida Keys requires a seaplane or boat and you would need to pack in all supplies, equipment, and food. No Internet unless you have a satellite phone.
Would I be a Gary Snyder in all that isolation, or would I be a Jack Kerouac? Either way, I would certainly write, take photos and do some painting.
There are almost as many books about writing as there are writers who have published books. Well, maybe not quite that many books on writing but there are a lot of them.
Here are three that are on my shelf.
Stephen King has sold more than 350 million books. Obviously, he knows how to write what sells, but does that mean he can tell you how to write? I had my doubts when someone recommended and handed this book to me. It very pleasantly surprised me.
There are real insights into the creative process. On Writing: A Memoir of the Crafthas some of his life story mixed in with what he has learned. I like the section on his editing process. It also has a good reading list if you want to go deeper.
Readers of the book often say they like her acceptance of “sh@#ty first drafts” in order to get to “good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” This book is often humorous but it takes writing very seriously.
I read the book first 25 years ago after having been writing for much longer but still not allowing myself to feel like I was a Writer.
The odd title is explained in this way: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
That is good general advice about doing many things – weeding the garden, cleaning out the garage, hiking a long trail, writing a poem.
If a more stern approach is needed to get you writing, then On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction might be a better choice. Non-fiction is sometimes viewed as “more serious” than fiction or poetry. That is not true, but William Zinsser’s approach is more instruction manual. It is rarely funny – even in a chapter about writing humor. (I discovered in a college course on humor that humor is not comedy and often not funny in the sense of laughter.
I’m making this book sound too stern. Zinsser is a writer, editor and teacher and all three show in the book. He began as a newspaper writer, went on to magazines and has written books on baseball, music, travel, and those and other genres are covered, including people, places, science, technology, business, sports, the arts and memoir.
I read this book before using it as a text in teaching a writing course. It is probably consider a classic by now, much like The Elements of Style which was standard book to have on the syllabus fifty years ago.
If there is any of the writer’s life that he mixes with writing, it might be that he feels that “clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.”
The best advice to become a better writer is still two simple things: read widely and often, especially in the genre you want to write; stop reading and start writing.
In the early part of 1944, Annelies Marie “Anne” Frank decided to rewrite her diary as an autobiographical novel/memoir. She had been writing for two years. Her parents had given her a red-and-white-checkered diary as a 13th birthday present and it was just a few weeks later that her sister, Margot, received a notice to report for a forced labor camp. The family went into hiding the next day, moving into rooms above the business office of Otto Frank, Anne’s father.
I read her diary when I was 13 and this past week reread The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition which was published 50 years after the original edition. This new edition has diary entries restored that were omitted from the original edition. It comes to a significant thirty percent more material. The restored entries that her father had edited out are ones that perhaps embarrassed him and he wanted to make Anne seem more innocent. But after all, she was a teenaged girl who wrote about her sexuality, argued with her parents, and tipped between the little girl and young woman. But it turns out that Anne also did some editing.
Otto’s business partner’s family, the Mr. and Mrs. van Pel and their son Peter, went into hiding with them. The eighth person was a friend, Fritz Pfeffer, who was a dentist.
From the beginning, Anne recorded her daily thoughts and feelings in her diary, which she nicknamed “Kitty.” Once she filled the original checkered Kitty diary, she wrote in black-covered exercise books given to her by the non-Jewish friends who brought food and supplies to the families in hiding.
On March 28, 1944, the group gathered around a contraband radio to hear a news broadcast from London by the Dutch Government in Exile. The Education Minister, Gerrit Bolkestein, encouraged ordinary Dutch citizens living under the Nazi occupation to preserve documents for future generations.
Bolkestein said: “If our descendants are to understand fully what we as a nation have had to endure and overcome during these years, then what we really need are ordinary documents — a diary, letters from a worker in Germany, a collection of sermons given by a parson or priest. Not until we succeed in bringing together vast quantities of this simple, everyday material will the picture of our struggle for freedom be painted in its full depth and glory.”
The next day Anne wrote in her diary: “Of course, they all made a rush at my diary immediately. Just imagine how interesting it would be if I were to publish a romance of the ‘Secret Annex,’ the title alone would be enough to make people think it was a detective story. But, seriously, it would be quite funny 10 years after the war if people were told how we Jews lived and what we ate and talked about here.”
Anne went back through two years of entries and started to rewrite them. She assigned pseudonyms to her family and the other members of the Secret Annex. She edited the original diary and notebooks for clarity, to add character development, and to give more background for potential readers.
She had decided that after the war she would write a memoir called Het Achterhuis, which translates as “the house behind,” or “the annex.” She would use the diary as its basis.
“I know that I can write, a couple of my stories are good, my descriptions of the ‘Secret Annex’ are humorous, there’s a lot in my diary that speaks, but whether I have real talent remains to be seen.”
She had the intention to become either a journalist or novelist, but she was not without doubts about her writing and her story.
“Everything here is so mixed up, nothing’s connected any more, and sometimes I very much doubt whether anyone in the future will be interested in all my tosh. ‘The Unbosomings of an Ugly Duckling’ will be the title of all this nonsense.”
She was rewriting the old pages but also adding new content. When she ran out of composition books, she started writing on loose sheets of paper. In the spring and summer of 1944, she filled more than 300 pages of loose paper and she was still working on it when the Nazis raided the secret annex in August of 1944. All of the inhabitants were sent to concentration camps.
Anne died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. Of the eight members of the Secret Annex, only Anne’s father, Otto Frank, survived.
Miep Gies was one of the Franks’ friends who had helped them during their years of hiding. She and her husband were active in the Dutch resistance. After the annex was raided, Miep Gies found Anne’s writing and kept it, hoping to return it to Anne herself one day. When she learned that Anne had died, she passed it on to Otto, who edited and eventually published his daughter’s story.
In Het Achterhuis (The Secret Annex) Anne omitted a lot of the first diary. (The first version is referred to as “A” and the revised version as “B.”) For example, while writing A, she was very much infatuated or in love with Peter van Pels. They had intimate conversations.
“We told each other so much, so very very much, that I can’t repeat it all, but it was lovely, the most wonderful evening I have ever had in the Secret Annex.” (March 19, 1944, A-version).
But by the time she was revising, her relationship with Peter was far less intimate and her “love” had waned and so she left out some of the earlier relationship passages.
The matured 15-year-old took a critical eye to what she had written about having her period, love, and sexuality when she was 13 years old and she cut much of that. While I had assumed that her father censored his daughter’s writing, Anne also practiced self-censorship in her revising.
I wrote last week about wanting to reread Anne‘s (or Annelies’, as I prefer) diary in its complete version and also that I too had kept a teen diary that became a journal which I have continued to this day. If I had a thought to ever publish any of it, I know that I would also do some serious revision to improve the writing and also to omit and “revise the history” there.
In reading the definitive edition and doing some research on all of her writing, I realized that her diary has rarely been taken as very serious writing, or as a memoir, It seems that is in part because it was written by a young girl. There are other memoirs written by survivors, mostly as adults, that tell similar stories. But there is something about that 13-year old’s diary and about the 15-year-old’s very polished revision that is still very appealing.
The novelist Phillip Roth was also intrigued by her story and included her in his novel The Ghost Writer. In that novel, the protagonist is Nathan Zuckerman and it is the 1950s. He is a new writer and gets to spend a night as a guest in the New England farmhouse of his idol, E. I. Lonoff. There he meets Amy Bellette, 27 years old, a former student of Lonoff’s and who may also have been his late-in-life mistress.
Nathan is fascinated and attracted to the enigmatic and mysterious Amy and begins to suspect that she is Anne Frank and has been living in the United States anonymously, having survived the Holocaust.
I suspect that Roth, like myself, read the diary as a youth and wanted to somehow save Anne from her Fate. The only way to do that is to write about her.