Catching Up

Catching Up ReadingI’ve been trying to catch up on some of my reading. After unsteadily working at it for the past few years, I feel it would now be appropriate to pat myself on the back for how much I’ve accomplished. I have finally finished all my old Writer’s Digest magazines through 2005 and am reading issues from 2006.

This may not sound like stellar progress, but my collection was ancient in magazine terms. I still had unread issues from the twentieth century and stopped subscribing to it in early 2010. By that time, the magazine was no longer being published on a monthly basis, so even though there’s 4 years left to go through, it’s actually just the equivalent of 2 years.

One advantage to reading old magazines is that a lot of the content is obsolete and can be skipped over. There’s no need to check the market listings or conference schedules. Information about what the current hot topic is or what a particular agent is looking for no longer applies either. This greatly speeds up the process of getting through the magazine.

I do peruse some of the articles about the future of the publishing industry. Ones about the future of ebooks are usually worth a chuckle, since the explosion in their popularity seems to have been largely unanticipated. The most interesting articles are about effective writing and editing techniques. They are almost always still valid.

The disadvantage, of course, is it’s far too late to respond to anything. For instance, I took a humorous quiz to see if I had what it takes to be writer—or if I was too well-adjusted and normal. I failed the quiz. I only got points for 3 of my answers:  having delusions of grandeur, thinking writing is incredibly hard, and believing writers are just as important as doctors, teachers, scientists, and firefighters. Other than that, I wasn’t obnoxious or pushy enough. But let me assure you that I am not well-adjusted and normal. So it’s obvious there needed to be the following bonus question on the quiz:

Agree or disagree with this statement. Even though I have dismally failed this quiz, I still have what it takes to be a writer because I’m the exception that proves the rule. If you agree, you get 100 points and an automatic A+ pass. (Hooray! I get an A+.)

Unfortunately, there was no way to share this thought with either the author or other readers, as the quiz was published 9 years ago.

Once the backlog was reduced to a single magazine box, I slacked off a little but still hope to finish by the end of 2015. That event will merit another celebration, although it’ll be a quieter one since apparently Writer’s Digest heard me loudly congratulating myself on how well I was doing. After ignoring me for several years, out of the blue they sent me a special offer for former subscribers—one that’s almost too good to pass up. Except that’s the type of irresistible deal that created my unmanageable stack of unread magazines, so I’m not falling for it. At least not until I finish the ones I have and revel awhile in the wonderful, empty space I’ve created.

Spiritual Self Help Books

SpiritualSelfHelpWhen it comes to spiritual self help books, the underlying message is usually similar, but the form is strongly affected by the person sharing the information. So the real challenge is finding which ones you can relate to the best. I’ve chosen three prominent authors in this genre—Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, Abraham-Hicks, and Deepak Chopra—to provide a general comparison. They are all essentially saying the same thing, but with their own slant and their own valuable insights.

I really wanted to like Dr. Wayne W. Dyer’s books. He’s very knowledgeable and seems genuinely sincere in his desire to share what he knows and to help others. But it’s a struggle for me to finish his books. I’ve now reached the point where I’m trying to figure out why I keep losing interest in them. It’s not the content, although it does feel like a bit of a rehash of other people’s thoughts. Certainly, his frequent quotes and references to others don’t create a feeling of originality. Still, he does share some ideas and thoughts that expand the topic in ways I hadn’t considered before. It’s also not the clarity or the writing. Everything is clearly presented, and his books are easy to read.

One problem I have is I don’t find Dr. Dyer’s books particularly thought-provoking. He presents a goal—a “sacred” one, in fact—and makes it sound impressively special and eminently desirable. Unfortunately, deep down, I don’t seem to desire it. Not only that, I feel a little guilty for not desiring such a praiseworthy, and even exalted, goal. He then gives you all the steps to take to reach this preordained goal. There seems to be no room for reflection or different perspectives.

A second problem is the way he describes the journey one has to take to reach “the promised land.” The focus is on all the problems one faces and how hard it will be to overcome them. His books are filled with phrases like “try to,” “make an effort,” and “attempt to.” The feeling created from these word choices is that it will be a long, arduous journey to reach a place that I’m not sure I want to go.

In contrast, the Abraham-Hicks series of books brushes aside “problems” as if there aren’t any real ones. Everything is easy, if you allow it to be. What a wonderfully appealing idea that is! If your life is going badly, all you have to do is stop doing those things that are blocking the good life and start heading in the direction you want to go. The explanations of what you’re doing currently and how to change everything are amazingly clear and simple to follow.

These books were a refreshing change from most of the others I’ve read in this genre.  Not only that, I do happen to believe that when you’re on the “right” path for yourself, then life is easier. Things have a tendency to fall into place. And this type of easy reading, easy answers may be exactly what you’re looking for, especially if you’re not into all that mystical stuff (assuming you can overlook the one tiny flaw of these being “channeled” books).

So what’s the catch? Well, it’s all too facile, too superficial. The books lack a spiritually satisfying depth. Everything is outwardly focused. Even the source of the information is an external “group of beings” called Abraham. And all the information and techniques given are aimed at changing the life you are leading in this physical world. It’s all about creating abundance, health, great relationships, satisfying work, etc. Perhaps creating a wonderful life experience is the whole point of us being here. Yet, it’s hard to ignore that niggling feeling of “Is that all there is?”

If you want spiritual depth and thought-provoking ideas, there’s always Deepak Chopra. His books presents many different religious and spiritual perspectives, blending Eastern and Western philosophies, with a special emphasis on health. Like the other authors, he has read widely and distills the knowledge he has gained from his reading and from his personal experience for the benefit of the reader. But he does not portray himself as the grand teacher and knower of all things. Thinking and questioning are definitely encouraged. They are meant to be read slowly and reflected upon, which is my preference when it comes to these kinds of books.

But there’s no real “action plan” given. So for some people, they may be too philosophical to do any good. Understanding is valuable, and sometimes that alone will “solve” a problem. However, more often than not, people need a hint of what to do next. No matter how profound something may be, there needs to be some kind of practical application for it, if it’s going to affect our everyday lives.

All these books are based on the idea that we have “creative control” over our lives, which is accomplished through the amazing power and focus of our consciousness. And even if a person can’t embrace this concept in its entirety, our thoughts and beliefs do control the way we experience our lives. Therefore, any book that helps us to understand ourselves and our thinking processes and helps us use this information more effectively is of value.

Which author a person likes really depends on whether one prefers the problem-solving approach of Dr. Wayne W. Dyer (a result of his psychology background) or the simplicity and practicality of the techniques in the Abraham-Hicks books (shaped by their business background) or the intellectual style of blended philosophies provided by Deepak Chopra (influenced by his upbringing and life which combined Eastern and Western beliefs). Of course, if you are searching for answers and understanding like me, you’ll probably read books by more than one of them because each will help you expand your perspective and add to your self-knowledge.

There is one other important thing these books tell us. The authors were able to find their answers—ones they were confident enough in to share with other people. So even though their answers may not be exactly right for us, there’s no reason we can’t find our own answers, just as they did.

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(This post was previously published on a website that is no longer available.)

A Good Cry

Life is full of niggling incidents. Some are so trivial we barely even notice them in our busy lives. Most of the others we’re able to brush off, conserving our energy for bigger problems, rather than wasting it on minor irritations. But all those little jabs and dings do accrue over time. We end up with layers of invisible scrapes and bruises that make us feel battered and worn out. This built up negativity can be counterbalanced with positive things. We regularly rejuvenate ourselves with a vacation, a pat on the back for some achievement, or a special treat.

But that’s not always sufficient. Sometimes these psychological injuries can only be alleviated by being expressed. That’s probably why some people feel better after having “a good cry.” Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. All my cries have apparently been “bad” ones because I’ve never felt better afterward and usually feel worse. The only thing crying does is add the discomfort of a stuffed-up nose and red eyes to my still unresolved problem.

It wasn’t until recently at a chamber music concert that I experienced something similar to that cleansing release of a good cry. One of the pieces they performed was String Quartet No. 8 written in 1960 by the Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. Since I’m not that knowledgeable about classical music, I wasn’t familiar with it, even though it’s very popular with both musicians and audiences. The only information provided was that it was written during a very dark time for Shostakovich (both in his private and public life) and that this piece was autobiographical. There are five linked movements, blended together so I couldn’t differentiate them, but in the fourth, there is a repeated series of three rapid, strong notes, possibly intended as the ominous sound of the KGB knocking on the door in the middle of the night.

With only this limited information, I was unprepared for the feelings it evoked. The solemn opening motif instantly drew me in, and the music carried me along, deeper and deeper, into the turmoil of emotions being expressed. There was anxiety and agony; danger and despair; fear and frenzy—all these feelings and more. But rather than dragging me down, as one might expect such a dark piece to do, it seemed to siphon out all my negative, stressful feelings and absorb them into the music. When the music faded, I was left with a feeling of peace.

I would not expect to react like this every time I heard Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8.  Nor is it something I would want to listen to very often because it’s very intense. Instead, it’s a musical experience to be saved for once in a while, for when I really need a good cry.

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Clear As Mud

Clear As Mud - 1I’m a big fan of clarity when it comes to any kind of writing.  Don’t give me a lot of flowery speeches or esoteric thoughts.  Make it simple and definitely forget about those thematic metaphors in fiction or obscure symbolism in poetry because I won’t even notice those things.  And rather than puzzling over your profound words, I’ll simply move on to something else.  I want clarity, especially the kind that’s generously spiced with humor and word play.

That probably explains why my favorite poem is the “Two Dead Men” one.  It’s the only poem that I’ve actually memorized—though admittedly, the version I remember is a short one.  In case you’ve never heard of it, this is what I recall from my childhood:

One bright day, in the middle of the night,
Two dead men got up to fight.
Back to back, they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other.
If you don’t believe this tale is true,
Ask the blind man; he saw it, too.

In spite of clearly remembering the poem for decades, I always felt there were some other lines I had forgotten.  So recently I decided to look it up on the Internet to see if there was more to it and to find out who the author was.

It turns out that it’s an anonymous “folk” poem, one that has innumerable versions and has probably been around for at least a century.  Not only that, similar “Ballads of Impossibilities” have been around for multiple centuries.  (For additional information about this visit:  http://www.folklore.bc.ca/Onefineday.htm)

One key point about folk poetry I picked up from that website is that it invariably rhymes, so variations that have the odd non-rhyming line are personalized versions of it.  I liked the idea of having a personalized version because the one I remember has some story flaws in it that have always bothered the writer in me.

For instance, it’s essentially a sandwich-style story, but with only one slice of bread.  If a narrator is brought in at the end, there should be one at the beginning, too.  The main story starts well.  It provides a brief description of the setting for context and then plunges into the action.  Except that there is no follow through.  A story consists of series of events, not just one.  So what happens next?  Surely there would be consequences to something that results in two dead people.  But most damning of all, where did the blind man come from?  You can’t just throw in a brand new character right at the end to help you wrap up a story.

There is no way this could be the whole story.  Further research has allowed me to piece it together and present what I believe is an accurate lie about the truth of what happened that fateful day.  First of all, it involved two dead boys, not men, which makes this story even more heartrending.  But it’s actually about a policeman, a sympathetic character who has somehow managed to carve out a successful career in law enforcement in spite of being deaf.  Not only do the events that unfold after the initial tragedy portray the ultimate downfall of the policeman, but the only background information given in the story was used to establish a valid reason for the policeman’s presence in the neighborhood.  He lived in that area.  There is no need to make up some questionable scenario whereby he is just happening to be passing by when the ruckus occurred.

Some versions of this poem do suggest that the background information applied to the two dead boys, but those often include unsubstantiated slurs about the two mothers of the identical twins, and I didn’t feel I should give credence to those until someone can provide me with verified proof of these lies.

The original question about who the background information referred to may have arisen because it was somewhat awkwardly inserted.  Knowing where and how to insert background material is frequently a dilemma for writers, one which is not always skillfully resolved.  I have not attempted to correct this awkwardness because I wanted to preserve the integrity of my completely fabricated version of the poem…and because I couldn’t figure out how to fix it either.

So it’s obvious the policeman has to be the main character.  Otherwise, this complex story of contradictory human relationships just doesn’t make sense.  This new perspective also adds a nice touch of irony to the “real” title of the poem, One Fine Day.

(Liberties have been taken with both the story and the lines in order to create my personalized version of the poem.  Furthermore, I’m pretending that making it rhyme compensates for ignoring any problems with the meter.)

One Fine Day
Ladies and gentlemen, skinny and stout,
I will tell you a story I know nothing about.
Admission is free, so pay at the door.
Pull up a chair and sit on the floor.

One fine day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys got up to fight.
Back to back, they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other.

A blind man came to watch fair play.
A mute man came to shout “Hurray!”
A deaf policeman heard the noise,
And came and killed the two dead boys.

(He lived on the corner in the middle of the block,
In a two-story house on a vacant lot.)
A guy with no legs came walking by
And kicked the policeman on his thigh.

He crashed through a wall without a sound
Into a dry ditch where he promptly drowned.
A long black hearse came and carted him away,
So he ran for his life and is still gone today.

I watched from the corner of a big round table,
The only eyewitness to the facts of my fable.
And if you don’t believe my lies are true,
Ask the blind man; he saw it, too.

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Inordinate Activity

I don’t normally post something two days in a row.  In fact, I rarely manage anything as frequently as two weeks in a row.  But another author shared a link to an interesting article about the book publishing industry that I felt was well worth passing along, even though the article itself is ten months old.  That may not seem that “old,” but the industry is changing rapidly because of the breakneck speed in the evolution of ebooks.

Regardless of whether or not you publish via the traditional route, what happens to the publishing industry affects all writers.  There will always be the need for storytellers because there will always be readers.  Or perhaps that should be communicators and audiences since no one knows what formats might be created in the future.  But one thing does seem obvious:  A less-than-flexible system built up over many years and based solely on the production of print books is becoming archaic.  To survive, change needs to be embraced whole-heartedly.  To thrive, innovation needs to be pursued enthusiastically.  The book on publishing definitely needs to be rewritten.

Article Link:  Book Publishers Scramble to Rewrite Their Future

And I’m Back

boomerang-hiMy great experiment with reviving an old blogging website is over, and now I’m back to this one.  I think.  The problem is, there is no perfect website, especially when you’re using a free one.  All you can really do is compare the different features and pick the one that best suits your purposes.  And frequently, by the time you make a decision, things have changed, and you have to start researching it all over again.

Years ago, when I first tried out Blogger, it didn’t seem that user friendly nor was there much flexibility in customizing it.  But I had been hearing good things about all the great changes they’ve made.  So I decided it was time to give them another chance.  Besides that, there were certain things I didn’t like about WordPress.

The biggest drawback with WordPress is the inability to modify your template (unless you pay a yearly fee for the privilege).  Even basic changes like using a different default font or font size for your website aren’t allowed.  And most of the fonts for the free templates are quite small, especially their sidebar fonts.  Another problem is that their post editor is sometimes challenging to work with.  It doesn’t always do a good job of formatting pictures the way you want them and will also strip out some of your other formatting, especially things like extra line spacing you try to add for appearances.

Blogger allows you to modify the template.  They have also become more user friendly, when it comes to making posts.  But their biggest drawback for me is the inability to have sub-pages.  You can have additional “static” pages (up to twenty), but they are all top pages.  (The technical term for top pages are parent pages and sub-pages are either child or grandchild pages.)  That means, if you have a bar-style navigation menu at the top of your website page (like I do), every single one of your pages will show up as an individual tab, rather than having some pages nested under a main tab.

With a straightforward blog, sub-pages may not be necessary.  But I want to have static pages for general categories that I can then add sub-pages to, as I create more content.  For instance, on this blog, I have a static Self-Publishing page with four sub-pages to share my experience with different aspects, such as choosing a paperback publisher and changing my formatting in order to publish it as a Kindle Book.

Another consideration is the way categories and tags are handled.  I really like the way WordPress does it, which lets you choose general categories for each post, but then also lets you add tags to it that apply to that specific post.  All Blogger has is a tag system to set up categories with.  If you keep adding very specific tags to every post, you end up with too many categories.  But if you don’t add the tags, it will be harder to find an individual post.

What I really want is a blog/website combination, so I also researched a third possibility—Weebly.  Their service is intended mostly for regular websites, but you can use them for blogging, too.  The primary advantages for using them are the ease in setting it up, the ability to modify templates, and the ability to have sub-pages.  They’re very user-friendly and allow a great deal of flexibility.  The main drawbacks are the somewhat basic blogging editor and a tag system for categories similar to Blogger.  Since I tend to write long, complicated posts (even when I try to keep them simple and short), I like a somewhat more sophisticated editor than Weebly provides.  I also ran into a page-size limitation when I tried to add a sub-page for a free short story that was just under 4,000 words.  Although they supposedly have a way of displaying it, I had trouble making it work correctly (possibly because I had not yet published my website).

All three of these free website providers have pros and cons, so choosing one depends on what’s important to you, and that may involve features I didn’t take into consideration because they didn’t matter to me.  For example, Weebly and Blogger are more open to different types of commercial activity, while WordPress is very restrictive.  But generally, if your primary purpose for setting up a website is for blogging, then either Blogger or WordPress is probably better than Weebly.  If you want a regular website with multiple pages and sub-pages, filled with pictures and even embedded videos, with only short, pithy posts or updates, then Weebly might be your best choice.

For my purposes, I want a blogging website with sub-pages.  So I came back to WordPress and searched through their free templates until I found one with fonts that were a tiny bit larger and more readable than most of the others.  The other features available for this template (Twenty Eleven) are mostly satisfactory, although definitely not as good as my original choice (Coraline, the one we use for our group blog, Boomers and Books).  Of course, I seem to enjoy running around, setting up multiple websites (which is not recommended if you’re a serious author trying to create a presence on the Internet and build up a following).  So I may use this one mostly for my writing stuff and also set up a secondary Weebly website, just for all my other unrelated whimsical ventures.

The Old Switcheroo

I’ve been trying to switch from my “new” blog (my currently active one) back to my “old” one, which hasn’t had any new activity on it for over two years.  The first step was to eliminate all the old posts on my old blog so I could start fresh.  I then needed to write two posts, a “good-bye” one and a “hello, again” one.  Once those two were posted, I could stop using the “new” blog and start posting to the “old” one again.  I also needed to figure out both the process and appropriate timing to change the two feeds I have for my blog.

After several months of “working” on it, all I had accomplished was to delete most of the old posts on my old blog and stop posting to my current blog.  For some reason I couldn’t decide on an appropriate post to make a new start on my old blog.  Nor had I figured out the correct order of all the steps I needed to take to make the transition work smoothly.  My dithering has resulted in no posts on either blog for almost two months. 

Apparently, a two-month lull is sufficient motivation to finally get me to move forward again.  Therefore, this will be my last post on this blog, unless this switch proves less than satisfactory.  In which case, I’ll be back.  But I’m feeling optimistic and invite you to join me in my move “back to the future.”  My first post on my newly revived blog introduces my “Boomer Bits” idea, which I confess to having already mentioned on my Facebook page.  But it seems appropriate—a slightly used idea for a slightly used blog.