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.

Advertisements

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.

KEEP GOING!

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.

Ten things about me

  1. I survived a hemorrhagic stroke almost five years ago. It affected my right side, and I do nearly everything with my left hand. Thus the name of this blog.
  2. I’ve been married to my best friend and the love of my life, Mary, for almost 34 years. Marrying her was the best thing that ever happened to me.
  3. We have no kids, but a clowder of cats. How many, I won’t say.
  4. I’ve been working for my brother for several years after having worked in Information Technology since the days when it was called Data Processing and everything was punched on eighty-column cards. In fact, one of my first jobs was for a company that produced eighty-column cards.
  5. I’ve been writing on and off for most of the last forty years. More “off” than “on.” Most of my writing was for the Ghostletters mailing list. In fact, I was the listowner for Ghostletters for a number of years. It still managed to survive, so I must have done something right.
  6. I’m a member of a writers’ group. Most of the rest of the group meets in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I join them through the magic of the Internet. As I like to tell Mary, that Internet thingy is going to catch on one of these days.
  7. I am a baseball fan. Despite the fact that I was born and raised on the North Side of Chicago and in the northern suburbs, I’m a White Sox fan. I’ve also been a fan of the Atlanta Braves, my current hometown team, since I moved here in 1987.
  8. Some of my favorite writers are Robert Crais, Jonathan Kellerman, Janet Evanovich, Harlan Coben, Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen, Karin Slaughter, Sheldon Siegel (who’s overdue for a new book), Brad Thor, Vince Flynn, Christopher Reich, Tim Dorsey, Morris L. West, Arthur Hailey, J. A. Konrath, Mark Billingham, and Stieg Larsson, to name a few. You can probably tell that my reading tends toward thrillers and mysteries.
  9. Although I read thrillers and mysteries, I haven’t gotten the hang of writing them. That probably puts everything I’ve written so far into the “literary fiction” category, if in fact a category can be assigned to what I write. (Actually, “crap” would probably be the best description of the category. But, one must write a lot of crap. At least that’s what I’ve heard.) I’ve been focused mostly on writing short stories (even though, as one friend has told me, there’s no market for them). As NaNoWriMo has taught me, I’m great with beginnings and endings, but I really suck at filling up the middle. At least with a short story there’s not too much middle.
  10. I probably watch too much TV and read too little at home. I can explain: remember that clowder of cats that I was talking about a while ago? They see me open a book or my Kindle and take it as a sign that I want to give them attention. (Interestingly, they take Mary opening a book or her Kindle as a sign that they had better leave her alone. Go figure.) I primarily watch the dramas on TNT, USA and CBS, and, naturally, “The Big Bang Theory”, which I’ve been watching in reruns on TBS and Peachtree TV, who have played them so often that I’m learning the dialogue by heart. (“Bazinga!”)

There’s plenty of time for further exposition, but that should get you started.