On strokes, Walter Wager and Flannery O’Connor

It was five years ago this month that I had my stroke. You know what? It happened, there’s nothing I can do about it, and frankly, I’m tired of talking and thinking about it. I get a stern reminder of it when I try to do something with my right (and dominant) hand and it doesn’t work. I’m reminded of it when I walk outside my house and need a cane to maintain my balance. The tinnitus in my right ear, the edema in my right leg, the pills I take every day to deal with the high blood pressure that caused it, the constant monitoring, all little mementos of the time a little blood vessel in my head went “pop!” and I ended up in the hospital.

So, that’s all I have to say on that, other than this piece of advice: if your doctor tells you to watch your blood pressure, watch your blood pressure.

About eight months ago, I realized that I missed writing, and a friend of mine invited me to join the writers’ group she was in. It’s not a perfect situation (they’re all in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I’m in the suburbs of Atlanta, and they contact me with either iChat or Google Talk), but it’s fun, they give me good feedback on my stories, I give them feedback on theirs (which I hope is as good as I get), and it’s caused me to take this more seriously and to get my butt in the chair and throw words on the screen. (Pen and paper is out, which is probably just as well, because my handwriting sucked and even I couldn’t read it half the time.)

I see joining the group and getting back into writing as the start of Act 2. If you’ve read Larry Brooks‘ fantastic book, Story Engineering, you know that what gets you into Act 2 is the First Plot Point. So, I thought about it some more, and recognized the scenes in Act 1, the world as it was up to that point.

I started reading a lot when I was in the hospital after the stroke. I found many of my favorite authors during that time, in fact. I always say that Mary’s love, renewed faith, almost-daily visits from Ministers of Communion from my parish, reading, and reruns of “The Golden Girls” got me through that time. When I finally got home and was on the mend, Mary and I would go to Starbucks on Sunday afternoons (sometimes more frequently than that) and spend the afternoon reading and drinking coffee (in my case, decaf).

Anyway, about a year ago I decided that I wanted a Kindle. When it arrived, Mary asked if she could try it. Three hours later, she told me that I would have to get another one, because she was keeping that one. We have the wi-fi versions, because we have wi-fi at home and Starbucks also has wi-fi. What we like about the Kindles is, as Mary put it, “we don’t have to get out of our seats when we finish a book. We can just order another one!”

Such was the case one Sunday in May when I finished the most recent book in the “Burn Notice” series by Tod Goldberg. I love “Burn Notice”, and Tod has captured the voice of Michael Westen perfectly. (I actually hear Jeffrey Donovan reading the books to me. They’re that good.) I went shopping in the Kindle store to see if there were any more books by him, and found the book Tied In: The Business, Art and Craft of Media Tie-In Writing. It’s a series of articles written by authors of tie-in novels (original books using the characters from some other media) and novelizations (books written from screenplays and teleplays). I’ve read lots of tie-ins and novelizations, and thought the book would be interesting.

It was in that book that I learned about Walter Wager.

David Spencer has a long section in the book called “American TV Tie-Ins From The 50s Through The Early 70s” where he goes through the history of tie-in novels based on TV shows, and talks about some of the great tie-in writers, among them Walter Wager. Walter grew up in New York, graduated ftom Columbia and the Harvard Law School and became A TV writer and writer of tie-ins. One thing about him stood out. Actually, it damn near hit me in the face:

Though he rarely regarded it as a handicap, and never a source of self-consciousness, Wager had been born with no left hand, and did all his writing as a one-handed typist.

That’s when I decided I needed to start writing again.


I still read books, of course. In fact, one of my recent purchases is The Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor. Something tells me that I should appreciate her writing, because we have so much in common:

– She’s Irish. I’m Irish.
– She was a Catholic. I’m a Catholic.
– She was born in Savannah, GA and lived in Milledgeville. I moved to Georgia almost 25 years ago.
– We have the same birthday (March 25).
– She was crippled by lupus. I was crippled by a stroke.

Most importantly, she was a remarkable writer, and I want to be a remarkable writer. I can learn a lot from her. And, judging by some of the stories, I’m going to have fun reading her.

RIP Don Cornelius

Don Cornelius died yesterday. It’s probably safer to say that he was found dead in his home with an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, and that generally points to suicide.

He grew up in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, and was selling insurance when he decided to take a course in broadcasting. When he finished that, he became a substitute disc jockey at WVON (“The Voice of the Negro”), then was asked to cover sports for “The Black’s View of the News” on WCIU (“Chicago’s First UHF Station”) in the late Sixties. Eventually he became the host of the show, and had an idea for a TV show that was essentially a Black, urban version of “American Bandstand,” a show that would feature Black artists and Black kids dancing. He started his show, “Soul Train,” for about $400. In its first year, it was a local show airing on a UHF station that many TVs in Chicago couldn’t even receive, and it ended up so popular that Don moved the show to Los Angeles and syndicated it. It became one of the most popular syndicated shows of all time.

When I was in high school in the Chicago area, “Soul Train” was on TV just about all Saturday afternoon. Even though it was aimed at Black teens and young adults, a lot of white kids (including me) watched it. We loved the music, we loved watching the kids dance, and we loved Don Cornelius. He was a Chicago boy like we were, and we related to him as our neighbor. He did a lot more than just run a Black “American Bandstand”; he brought us together. In doing so, he became a pioneer in television.

Now he’s gone. An African American friend of mine said that it’s a pretty lousy way to start Black History Month. But, really, how many people have given him much thought in the last few years? That he and his achievements will be remembered this month is a silver lining. It’s just sad that it takes someone dying to remind everyone just how much they gave us when they were alive.

Love, peace and soul, Don Cornelius. And thank you.

Challenge accepted!

I mentioned when I started this blog that one of my reasons was to take advantage of initiatives like the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge. Today was the first day one could sign up to participate, and I did so. (See #140 on the Blog Hop Linky List if you don’t believe me.)

Why does this idea appeal to me? Simple. I see the writing community that exists on Twitter, Facebook, WordPress and Blogger. I like it, and I want to be a part of it. This seems to be the way to make that happen. I’ve read a lot of writers’ blogs in the last couple of months, and reading them makes me realize that there are people out there who do the same thing that I do. In some way, each of those blogs has helped me, either by suggesting a new way to look at some aspect of writing, giving me examples of great writing, suggesting books (writing and otherwise) that I’ll enjoy and learn a lot from, or just being that friendly voice.

What am I going to write about? Stay tuned.

I love you, Mom. Now shut up and let me write.

Who is your inner critic? You know, the person that sits in your head and rolls his/her eyes when you write something, who’s always quick to tell you that your story sucks, the characters are stupid, the premise is absurd, that you’ll never be able to sell it, you’re writing a run-on sentence… All right, I think you get the idea.

Mine is my mother. I loved my mother dearly, wept bitterly when she died, would give anything to have just one more hour with her. That said, she was a pain in the ass when it came to reading the papers that I wrote for school. She was a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, teaching grades 4 through 7, and would always find something wrong and make me rewrite the paper.

My personal favorite was the day that she told me, “This is spoken English. It’s not appropriate for writing.” After a brief introduction to “written English,” I was sent to my room to translate my paper written in “spoken English.” After ten or eleven tries, I finally was able to demonstrate to my mother’s satisfaction that I knew how to write a paper in “written English.” I turned it in the next day.

A couple of days later, the paper was returned by my teacher, and I had gotten a C-.

I asked him what was wrong, and he told me that it was hard to read and difficult to understand. I asked him if it would be all right to rewrite the paper, and he said that he was open to it.

You know what’s coming: I turned in the original paper the following day. When I got it back, he gave me an A-. I took this as a sign and stopped showing my papers to my mother. Still, every time I sat down to write something, I would hear my mother’s voice telling me, “that’s not right,” and many times would go back and rewrite the parts that I knew she would find objectionable.

Fast forward twenty years or so. By now, I’ve been writing on the Ghostletters mailing list, where the object is to create one or more fictional characters and interact with the other fictional characters. Two of my creations were a bartender named Jack O’Brian and his daughter, Mary Cecelia. I was having a great time doing this, and, on one of my trips into Chicago, shared what I had written with my mother, because I was pretty proud of it.

The first thing out of Mom’s mouth was, “You misspelled her name. It’s C-E-C-I-L-I-A, not C-E-C-E-L-I-A.” And that was as far as she read. (Turns out, either spelling is correct, though Mom’s spelling is the preferred one. When I pointed that out to her, she said, “It’s still wrong.”)

I was crestfallen, closed up my computer and put it away, and we never again spoke of my writing.

Which is not to say that I don’t still hear her voice when I’m in the middle of writing a story.

  • “Oh, for God’s sake, Johnny, you know better than to say that.”
  • “That’s still not the way to spell her name, I don’t care what you found on the Internet.”
  • “You’re not going to write about THAT, are you?”

It has taken a while, but I’ve finally figured out that all I have to say is, “I love you, Mom, now shut up and let me write.” And, somehow, it’s made all the difference.

# # #

Last week was one of those weeks, I’m sad to say. One of my cats, Cece, was walking around drooling. We figured that she had a bad tooth, and were ready to take her to the vet. Unfortunately, she evidently thinks that humans have cooties and simply would not let us catch her. Finally, Mary left the carrier in the kitchen with the door open, and, mirabile dictu, Cece managed to go in there all by herself. Mary found her there this morning, shut the door and took her in. Turns out that she had dislocated her jaw somehow, and had a few bad teeth and a hole in her mouth that needed to be sutured, but she’s going to be fine.

The same can’t be said for Toby, our one-eyed tuxedo, who saw me coming ten years ago and wouldn’t let me leave without him, and who has been my cat all this time. He seemed fine until Friday afternoon, when he began howling and hissing and wouldn’t let me pet him. The vet said that, while it appeared to be a urinary problem, they didn’t know the extent of it, and it would require hospitalization and surgery to find out what was wrong and probably a special diet and isolation afterward. We considered the options, decided that he had lived a long and happy life, and chose to put him down. Sad, yes, but he would have been miserable, and I couldn’t do that to my little buddy.


This is something that I should have learned years ago:

When I’m writing, I’ll occasionally realize that I don’t know something that I feel is crucial to the story. The way I used to handle this is to stop and immediately go on a search for the missing information. Now, I just keep going, knowing that this is just a draft and that I’ll be rewriting this part anyway.

Or, I’ll write a sentence that runs on, or that has too many extra clauses in it, or has wording that I don’t like. Before, I would stop and spend as much time as I needed to rewrite the sentence. Sometimes this meant rewriting the whole paragraph, the whole scene, the whole chapter, or even the whole piece. Now, I just keep going, since I know that I’m going to be rewriting.

Other times, I’ll write a sentence and it’ll bring a hundred questions to mind. Take the sentence, “Joe came in and drank a glass of water.” Why was Joe out? Where did he come in from? Where did he get the glass? Where did he get the water? Before, I would stop and rewrite the sentence to answer those questions, sometimes adding several sentences in the process. Now, I just keep going; if I decide that I have to answer those questions after I’ve finished the story, I’ll do it when I rewrite.

You probably already knew these things, didn’t you? So did I, on an intellectual level. I’ve read Ann Lamott’s Bird By Bird, where she devotes an entire chapter to the “shitty first draft.” Hemingway said that “the first draft of anything is shit.” And one of the main axioms of writing is that “All writing is rewriting.”

But knowing something on an intellectual level is one thing. Believing it and having faith that you’ll be able to turn that shitty first draft (or second draft, or fifth draft) into a bestselling novel or an award-winning short story is something completely different. That requires having faith in yourself and in your craft.

That’s the hard part for me.

But still, I’ll keep going.