Secure in Social Security (156 words)

Social Security will be there for me, more if I make enough money in my six years past sixty.

Curious, the money is based on thirty-five years “highest paid.” So be careful of years unemployed, years for schooling, for children, for illness and for saying goodbye to parents.

A welder gets less security than a surgeon, a retail manager less than a lawyer, and me, a private sector educator, far less than a financier.

Sort of makes sense I suppose. The more money you make, the more money you pay, and then the more money you receive – not a lot from what I can tell. But I can’t tell much without taking time off to study the system.

Still, it feels odd, the value of work reduced to comparisons with baseball stars, movie stars, political and financial ones too. Don’t you see, a star needs more security than me because I chose to make less money.

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Blog Tag

Recently, fellow writer from the St. Louis Writers’ Guild Linda Austin asked me to participate in what apparently is called “blog tag.” Normally, I might shrug off such a request, with its specific guidelines, and go back to twittering away my time with what passes for social networking. However, perhaps because of Linda’s unique St. Louis perspectives stemming from her Japanese culture and history, I have obviously convinced myself that this specific tag tour might be worth something. Visit Linda Austin at http://moonbridgebooks.com

(Ideally, I would have listed other tagged writers at the end of this blog. I gave that some effort but didn’t get enough of a response in time and then became overwhelmed with earning enough money to pay bills.)

Think of the following as an interview, as these tour questions mimic those I’ve been asked before in TV and radio interviews. And visualize yourself as your host of choice, (Fallon, Goldberg, Winfrey, Kimmel, DeGeneres, Letterman, Stewart, Williams, Sawyer, and so on).

You: What are you working on?

JPM: Nothing. This blog, so I am occasionally blogging. Also, I’m writing poetry now and then. But mostly I’m trying to survive by helping others write and hoping they pay me for the help. No long narratives, especially after my cancer comedy. Staring into the abyss makes you (or maybe just me) want to climb into the mountains as much as possible for as long as I can. My writing has, for now, become secondary to my living a more external life, or at least trying to. However, there is no shortage of material. I have a half-finished novel, other old novels needing revision, several short stories, and piles of notes scribbled out in my nearly unintelligible handwriting.

You: How does your work differ from others of its genre?

JPM: My recent work is Eight Billion Steps: My Impossible Quest For Cancer Comedy. Not many cancer survivor stories are a quest for comedy. Also, I’m a fiction writer, so the narrative was constructed using the elements of good fiction. It’s a thriller, suspense, comedy, (According to more than one review, it’s a “page-turner.”) My hope has always been that might help others, although I wasn’t sure how. I avoided reading books about cancer. If I still had the disease, I couldn’t read my own book. However, my radiation oncologist and a nurse who was the caregiver for her late husband both recommend it as a “must read.”

You: Why do you write what you do?

JPM: As a writer, the only way I could survive my ordeal was of course to write about it. Previously, I focused on fiction, and wrote essentially for the same reasons, to survive daily life, to make sense of the world, and most importantly to entertain.

You: How does your writing process work?

JPM: Usually, I write or scrawl with ink onto a yellow legal pad, revise while keyboarding, write new scenes on yellow pad or in the margins of the printout, rewrite, printout, markup, omitting and adding, and eventually during this process that seems like a constant expansion and contraction, I have a more or less finished manuscript. But nothing is ever finished.

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Words Mean Something

I have an obsession –words must mean something – must be read, spoken, and especially written for a purpose. Useless words are an abomination. Conversations should be calculated to inform while entertaining your partner and being sensitive to their idiosyncrasies. The goal of artful writing is to produce a group of words informative and entertainingly arranged in a series while understanding the nuances of your audience.

Too often writers write for themselves and expect everyone to love them.

In writing for yourself, in digging deep into a personal examination of your psyche you can reach a level whereby your writing transforms into literature and your personal examination expands the critical examination of all, of the human condition, expanding our awareness of ourselves in a satisfying series of words.

So, even if you are narcissistic, if you dig deep and find the source of your narcissism, and expose it on the cellular level, then your self-centeredness can be enlightening. Most times of course it is not. Most times it is clichéd third person genre. (I’m a tough cool person with my guard up but so sensitive underneath.)

All I’m asking for here is that those writers dig a litter deeper and ask themselves why? Why do I write these words? Why am I writing this critique now, I ask.

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What A Writing Client Is Teaching Me

Client 002When I was younger, I wrote first for myself, then to show others, and eventually perhaps I might gain recognition. As I grew older and dealt with the vicissitudes of publishing, I cynically embraced the belief that being paid well for your writing is what made you a real writer. Anything less and I was more or less failing. (Talk about high expectations.) Now I’m not so sure. One of my clients is reminding me that writing is so much more than the pursuit of money.

She’d been working on “her book” for nearly 40 years but never could “finish” it. About five years ago, I coached her a little, but we hadn’t spoken in a long time. Then she called one day and said, “I’ve got to finish the book.” She had metastasized cancer. The doctors told her she didn’t have much time left. I had just endured my own battle with cancer, emerging scarred (a little maimed), but cancer-free and happy to talk, taste, swallow and breathe.

She handed over a dizzying array of paper and computer files, duplicates with one or two lines revised, many with whole new paragraphs mixed in. I painstakingly sorted through them and arranged them in chronological order. We went through them line by line, sitting together hunched over her laptop. Her computer skills were basic, and she was amazed at how I could move stuff around. I printed pages, she marked them up. She read the changes and I typed, revising on the fly, discussing themes, chronology, the merits of each line and each word, moving scenes and creating chapters. My suggestions had to be consistent with her voice. She wrote poignantly, truthfully, clearly. She instinctively understood the writing process, often asking herself what she meant by something she’d written. The chaos of her 40 year attempt was congealing into a powerful narrative.

When I worked at home, she called urging me to go faster because the doctors had done another scan, and it didn’t look good. Through all of this she was getting chemotherapy and courageously plowed on, the act of writing seeming to uplift her enough to be uncannily productive. I’ve had deadlines before but this one gave the term a whole new meaning. I’m not sure what that meaning is –  one of the reasons I’m writing this I suppose.

She’d had, to say the least, challenges that made for an interesting life. Abuse, depression, alcoholism, astounding business success, drive and determination, love, humor, a unique pragmatic use of religion, and a useful unwavering belief in God. (I’m not religious or even that spiritual – she never proselytized.)  She is an extremely successful, kind, bright woman who wants to remain anonymous. No fame and glory needed.

We’re almost there. At the end, I will format for CreateSpace, Kindle and Smashwords. Clearly she is getting immense satisfaction from the process and the knowledge that she will finally “finish the book.” If it sells half a million, the likelihood of her being around when it does are slim. Her motivation was never to be a successful writer in the sense I’d considered it. She just thought her story might be helpful to others. And if she wasn’t there, well, that was God’s plan all along.

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Complete Your Book

Do you have a memoir, autobiography, or novel you cannot seem to finish? Or an idea that needs jump starting? Sometimes all it takes is someone who understands the writing process, someone who can guide you around pitfalls to successful completion, or someone who can get you started and set you on your way, available as needed.

I can help you find your voice and develop your unique style regardless of topic. Rates are fair and competitive, consistent with market principles, and vary depending on the project and services rendered. Once we agree on an outcome, I commit fully to the project.

Do you need my help? If so, let’s get started. Contact me at 314-496-2204 or jmay194@sbcglobal.net. It costs nothing to talk on the phone or exchange emails.

My experience includes awards and publications, a novel favorably reviewed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a Pushcart Prize nomination and thirty years teaching reluctant learners. Currently, I am wrapping up collaboration with a highly successful businesswoman who was unable to complete her incisive memoir until she hired me. She worked on it for over 40 years. (See “What My Writing Client Is Teaching Me.”)

Thanks for the opportunity to serve you.

Jeff May
314-496-2204
jmay194@sbcglobal.net

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Who Owns the Future?

Warning Note: I understand that I’m being cynical, but what’s the point of having your own website and blog if you cannot indulge yourself in occasional cynicism? And give yourself a chance to blame others. I blame Jaron Lanier. My cynicism wast’t fully crystallized until I read Lanier’s “Who Owns the Future?” (To be fair, Lanier offers unique solutions… but will they happen?)

Sometimes the online world seems outrageously silly. Not just the everyday kind of absurdity that we’re all familiar with, the ranting and raving, but our intelligent enlightening comments that we hope are improving the human condition. We fool ourselves into believing that our comments are worth something. Maybe they are. In fact, I know they are, but only to our sense of self. Maybe they are worth more than you think to huge corporations with super-powerful supercomputers and servers. Think of the effort you might put into evaluating a book or product. People respond with likes and dislikes and other comments. Who profits from all this feedback, all this evaluating, all this clicking? Who profits when readers quickly go to the comments section of online newspapers? Monetarily speaking, you get ZERO. Nada. Nothing. Who pays for your work? Of course you say that it’s okay because all the info is free so it balances out. But does it? Are you sure? Nothing is free. With every click, do you give up a bit of your soul? Who pays for that? Meanwhile after we’ve rated the product, we can go back to stocking plastic at Wal-Mart.

I recommend the Nieman Journalism Lab article and interview, “Jaron Lanier wants to build a new middle class on micropayments” by Eric Allen Been.  “Anybody can blog and all that — and I still like that stuff — but the bigger problem is that an incredible inequity developed where the people with big computers who were routing what journalists did were getting all the formal benefits. Mainly the money, the power. And the people who were doing the work were so often just getting informal benefits, like reputation and the ability to promote themselves. That isn’t enough. The thing that we missed was how much power would accrue to the people with the biggest computers.”


Lainier

Jaron Lai

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Oh God Forbid, Read Me Now

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Have you ever gone into a bookstore and wished you could read every single book? When I was much younger, I embraced that unrealistic and lofty goal. Read every single one of those bound gems. Now I face book after book, their authors shouting at me – Read me; read me please! – their pleas foisted upon me, flung in my face on Facebook, my virtual face time spent having to face the fact that I can never ever come face to face with my life time goal; that is, to hold that last book on earth in my trembling hands, reading the last line before some narcissistic bastard or saucy bitch “finishes” writing the “last line,” the eternal life-changing ending, the elusive eternal flame that I will have missed forever.

Needless to say, which begs the question, why say it at all, it is all a bit overwhelming. Used to be I could just avoid bookstores and avoid this breathtaking dilemma –I could hike into the woods carrying my tattered textbook urging me to avoid alliteration wherever possible, or my slim volume of famous poems, or gasp, a legal pad and pen so that I could sit in the sunshine and contribute to my own personal madness without foisting it upon the innocent.

But no more. Now I must check my email and invariably click on the news, or I must obsessively listen to NPR, or even local AM, or God forbid, check my Goodreads account and face the impossible once again. Oh, how I wish I were trudging through the real Amazon oblivious to the swamp of useless words, which are all virtually needless.

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Stop Stealing Our Writing Tools!

Why is there space between your paragraphs? You are stealing our space! Stop it! You are taking away our freedom. You are robbing us of a tool that shows time passing or that indicates dramatic pause. If you continue to put space between every paragraph in fiction, we will no longer have a choice. We won’t be able to use it for non-chapter breaks that don’t warrant asterisks or other markers. If you continue, spaces will become the norm and we will succumb to the abnormal norm, or risk being misunderstood, or worse…. Would you also eliminate your ellipses?

Who are you, and why are you stealing our space? Apparently, you are technology. This isn’t the first time that advances in production have influenced the grand scope of communication. (A printing press anomaly is the reason American writers place ending punctuation inside the quotation mark on trailing quoted material.) Not all that along ago, business letters had paragraph indentations. Online, however, the accepted formatting is single space block with space between paragraphs. It’s a Microsoft Office default, so it’s ‘deir fault. (Stop forcing puns while you’re at it.)

This new evolution in technology has perverted fiction (and many essays). Textbooks have printed fiction with meaningless extra spaces. I have seen it! John Updike surely did not want his dialogue perforated with unintended emptiness.  Nor did Kate Chopin. It appalls me, and it should appall you. Why? Because this laziness and stupidity becomes almost criminal when you consider that novices who unwittingly read Updike perverted with extra spacing will think it is supposed to be that way. (Isn’t that how we learn – by emulating the masters?) They will think that John Updike intended space between every single paragraph. This in turn sets up the expectation that all fiction should require whitespace. This abomination needs to be stopped.

Someone or thing (maybe Microsoft) has stolen your screwdriver for tightening and loosening your narrative as you see fit. Soon this foolish spacing tendency will overtake us. We will lose our screwdrivers, and then we’re screwed.  So, for God’s sake, stop!

 

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The Far Side of Inappropriate

I remember someone telling me, or having read somewhere, that laughing at inappropriate things is a sign of cruelty, perhaps psychopathy. At the time, during my impressionable twenties, that made me think – did I laugh at “inappropriate” things? Am I psycho? Certainly, a few of my “dates” were more or less put off when I laughed at their misfortune.

Once, during those pre-cellphone days, my girlfriend arrived for a classy dinner date with her hair styled by her sweat, her eyeliner smeared, and nose smudged, all from having to change her flat tire. That elicited a hearty guffaw from me. She wasn’t happy. But it wasn’t like she was missing a limb. There was no blood. She hadn’t been carried in on a stretcher. Maybe I was a psychopath, but then I thought no way that could be true because I certainly felt bad when she dumped me. (Narcissism is another story.) Since then, I’ve read a lot about it and know for sure that mostly-only-maybe serial killers, CEOs, and politicians are psychopaths.

However, the memory of my girlfriend showing up for a fancy dinner with a grease mark on her nose put a smile right back on my face. Maybe there was something wrong with me. Or maybe genetics and growing up in a family of four boys had something to do with it. My mother has dementia and my father is a WWII veteran, both in their mid-nineties, and they still laugh at all sorts of things. They are still going strong, sort of, my mother laughing at the same humorous story over and over within the span of a few minutes. But you know what? It’s still funny, like watching Seinfeld. I envision my parents laughing in the face of death, laughing all the way to the grave, space dust with a sense of humor.

If I was a psycho, so was everybody else, especially those who laughed at Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. I still carry ripped out pages of Far Side in my fly-fishing vest, occasionally sitting on a gravel bank and delving into their deep meaning while contemplating smallmouth bass and bluegill. One of my favorites – two guys in a boat with mushroom clouds in the distance. “I’ll tell you what this means, Norm… No size restriction and screw the limit.”

While craziness is inherent to the human condition, perhaps we can measure the intensity of craziness – the insanity of our times – through comedy; for example, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the only place for real news.

We live in a funny world.

But sometimes it seems as if some people are wired to cry, or they’ve learned that crying gets them what they want. There’s another joke for you to contemplate deeply. Is it nature or nurture? Not that I haven’t cried a few times. It’s unavoidable. Crying had its place when I had a life-threatening mucoepidermoid carcinoma on the back of my tongue and throat, and talking, breathing, swallowing, were in serious doubt. But it was also knee slapping hilarious. I think. And my account of it, Eight Billion Steps: My Impossible Quest for Cancer Comedy has some funny parts. I hope.

Maybe it was a little more humorous when my two slightly older brother, Jim and John, and I were travelling deep into the Ozarks stream-hopping with our fly-rods, catching smallmouth. I was driving my family van, which was getting older (like my kids, but not me, proven by my level of maturity). I pulled over on a gravel road at a low water bridge. John hopped out and started fishing. But my van’s driver side window wouldn’t go up. Jim and I got the brilliant idea to have him pull on it with needle nose pliers while I held the electronic button full on. Then, all at the same moment, John caught a huge trout out of normally warm water suited only for bass and bluegill, it started to rain, the sheriff pulled up, and the van window exploded inside the door. All those pieces would never go back together, and those events would never again occur simultaneously. Except mathematically, but who does math at a low-water bridge except mayabe scientists and mathematicians, whom I admire greatly. They seem to have some idea what’s going on. But regardless of probability, I drove home in a downpour missing a window. That was funny.

The “point being, perhaps, that there is none.” So says Alice Walker in her poem “Suicide.” I’ve always found that line sort of funny, and certainly no reason to kill myself. To the point, I’d rather laugh myself to the grave, chuckling on my death bed rather than being way too sober about it. Doesn’t mean that I have to stay drunk or stoned for the rest of my life. I just have to keep in mind that my mind is clearly humorous.

Even glamorous rich and famous celebrities are often full of angst and they do desperately funny things trying to ensure 24/7 “happiness.” I’m not one to chase celebrities, but they are hard to avoid as they fill up “news” programs. Better to laugh at them than become upset. That’s not insensitivity. It’s a coping mechanism. But if we can laugh at them, we should also be laughing at ourselves. Life is tragic. Life is difficult. Life is… oh, blow it out your ass. It’s an amusement park of twists and turns, rocket-planes and puke-making machines.

Writers know hilarity all the time – isn’t it funny how writing something makes you feel like a genius but reading your own writing makes you feel like an idiot.

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1974 Marketing

Somehow, I think the marketing in quotes below, found on the back cover of a novel published in 1974, would not work as well in 2013. This was the bottom half of a back cover blurb separated by a thin black line. The top was a two sentence description about the setting and characters.

Modern readers might scoff. Maybe I’m wrong. What do you think?

“It is a novel so original, so full of imagination and subtle pleasure, that to describe it further would only dilute the pure joy of reading. Turn to the first page. Begin. You will never have read anything like—  Title of Novel—  before. Nothing quite like it has ever been written before.”

What was the novel and who was the author?

Chose from this list of 1974 novels.

a.  My Life As a Man by Philip Roth
b.  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
     by Robert M. Pirsig
c.  Carrie by Stephen King
d.  Ragtime by EL Doctorow
e.  The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western  by Richard Brautigan
f.  Marathon Man  by William Goldman
g.  The Dispossessed  by Ursula K. Le Guin
h.  Celestial Navigation  by Anne Tyler

While you’re at it, choose one of my novels, or one of my nonfiction books, the most recent of which is Eight Billion Steps: My Impossible Quest For Cancer Comedy. I didn’t write Eight Billion Steps as a “How to beat cancer” book; however, it does contain some practical information that may help. I sincerely hope it does. Depending on sales, I intend to contribute approximately 10-20% to various cancer centers and organizations.

(I suppose this marketing is more subtle?)

Where the River Splits, No Teacher Left Standing, Cynthia and the Blue Cat’s Last Meow, The Wells Creek Route and Other Stories, and Roobala Take Me Home, and Eight Billion Steps: My Impossible Quest For Cancer Comedy

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