Sunday, June 28, 2015

A How-To-Write Post

Everyone and his brother on line feels qualified to give advice on how to write. Some call themselves “consultants,” others have been ordained “Influencers” by the Church of the Internet. Some aren’t even native English speakers, and it shows. I admire their spirit, but they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. I’ve been writing for a long time, but I’ve refrained from giving advice on the subject. Until now.

Walking home from my writing bench one day when I’d been particularly prolific -- I had roughed out four stories that day --     I had an epiphany. It’s what a microbiologist must feel when he finally isolates a virus he’s thought from time to time must be there but has never pinned down. I’d been writing this essay-kind of stuff all along without ever defining how I was doing it, but right then  I finally, actually, definitively realized the “how” of it, and I’m going to pass it along here, free.

It’s not like when you write advertising copy or a letter to a friend. For those you know what you have to say or want to say. This is different. You just write a sentence.

Just that simple. You write something -- anything -- that suggests the possibility that it could be interesting, even if you're not yet sure how. Then you let your life experience write the rest.

Write something you once did, a place you remember, someone you knew or something you heard them say, something you read    -- and let the fragments begin to come together. You’re assembling pieces  of a puzzle whose final form you don’t know yet. You find fragment 4 really belongs in paragraph 2, so you move it, and sooner or later -- could be much later, but it’s sudden when it happens --  suddenly, that last piece snaps into place, and you have the essay or article or, in this case, blog post. And you weren’t even trying to teach anyone anything.

Of course, the longer you've been around, the more of those puzzle pieces you can spread out on the floor and hold up against each other. And damned if something you did in 1995 doesn’t suddenly slot into something you heard last week. If you’ve never had that feeling, you’re missing something.

Maybe I’ll pass this along in an article on the Internet. Dozens of people publish hundreds of tips, hints, suggestions, and rules about how to write, but this is as good as any of them, if you’re old enough. With enough experience, you'd know things to write about that might actually be interesting to other people. With enough experience you won't be surprised to hear that not everything you write will be.   

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Wild Bill and Ken

I said in a previous post that three good friends who had been in WWII were all named John. There were two others, not as close, but certainly friends, and I can’t leave them out. One was  named Bill and the other, Ken.

I thought of him as “Wild Bill.” We got to know each other when I worked for a business aviation company and he was the rep for a magazine we advertised in. Eventually he went on to publish his own magazine in that industry.

We had to be two of the unlikeliest friends anywhere. He was a brawling, hard-drinking Marine Corps fighter pilot, and I was -- me. He had an almost electric energy about him. At a business convention my wife watched him approach me when my back was turned, and she thought he was going to attack me. But it was just his normal intensity

I wrote to him once, years later, when I thought he was living in Vermont, but the mail was forwarded. I received an almost formally worded letter from Vero Beach, Florida. He was in his 60s by then, but still tough as nails, running on the beach every day with his Irish Wolfhound. He didn’t need to send a picture;    I could see that as clearly as I see this page. I’ve lost his address, but odds are against his still being alive anyway.-- not many of that era are. 

Ken had also been in the war, in the Pacific, and before that had ridden freight cars around the country, one of the army of unemployed men the Depression had cut adrift. Years later he would be amazed to see a boxcar roll by with the “KT” he had chalked on it.

He was a high school English teacher by the time I met him.        It was during our seven-year sojourn in the mountains near Yosemite National Park. It was redneck country, and he was a welcome exception to the locals. He once described to us watching a freshman buckaroo practicing how to spit, and in fact he taught in a school whose drinking fountains often clogged with chewing tobacco.

He found time to conduct an adult evening class for local aspiring writers, in reward for which he got to read a number of compositions beginning “And lo! An Angel spake…” One of my prouder moments from those years was confusing him with a piece of writing he puzzled over for a week because he thought it was too professional for that class.

He was well liked by the brighter students and I suppose tolerated for his war record by the ones who were just waiting to quit school and get on with the important stuff of drinking and riding their horses. Through it all Ken retained his even temperament, treating his students with  respect or forbearance, as each required.

The one story I ever heard him tell about the war was an intriguing one. Sweeping through an abandoned Japanese encampment, I think on Saipan, he found a magazine with a picture of a Caucasian woman under guard by what appeared to be a Japanese policeman. Not being able to read the Japanese text and preoccupied with more immediate problems, he discarded it. Only afterward did it occur to him to wonder if it could have been Amelia Earhart.    

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The War

The thing about the war was, after it was over you could be talking to someone who had had fantastic experiences and you’d never find out about it. Or maybe you would in the guy’s obituary. We heard it about some movie stars and sports stars, but the average man you’d run into in the late 1940s to even today, although less and less today, might have done something heroic that he never talked about.

You’d hear the funny stories. “We were getting ready to assault the island and we couldn’t light up cigarettes, so I borrowed some chewing tobacco. When the big guns went off I swallowed the whole thing.“

It’s only in the last couple of years, as they realize they’re fading away, that the survivors of the really bad events of World War II  have agreed to tell their stories in TV documentaries. For many of them it’s their last chance to eulogize friends killed 70 years ago. So now we’re hearing, not for the first time but in the most personal way, what Omaha Beach was like and how it felt to fly bombing raids into Germany. Even some from the other side; picking off American ships silhouetted against Atlantic City’s lights in the early days, before German submarines became death traps.

There have been several wars since that one. The great thing is, every generation gets to have its own war. By rights mine should be Korea, and I’m classified as being in that “era,” but I was sent to  defend democracy in a different part of Asia.The biggest danger where I was stationed was the local snakes. So as wars go, WWII was the one that left an impression on me when I was impressionable.

In the years since, I’ve found that time not only blurs memories, it changes outlooks. There were people born after the war who condemned the U.S. for using the atomic bomb. But  the Japanese had put up fanatical defenses for every little island outpost in the Pacific, so invading their home island was going to be a bloodbath, and The Bomb avoided that. It was a good thing.

You had to be there…  

Sunday, June 7, 2015


What it would be like to step out the door of an airplane a couple of thousand feet up, in the dark, with people shooting at you, is beyond my ability to imagine. But John did that on D-Day in 1944. That would be 71 years ago yesterday. I’ve heard that many people who survived it had flashbacks on the date every year for the rest of their lives.

I used to try to  take John for lunch or a couple of beers on the day, until he died. I worked with him at the L.A. Times in the early 60s. He was a photographer and I was a writer, and we sometimes teamed on an assignment. Nothing dramatic; we worked for the Promotion Department, not hard news.

He drove one of those slick little 57 Ford two-seaters with the portholes. When we finished whatever it was -- publicizing a retail advertising client, interviewing  a contest winner -- John would drive us back to the Redwood Room, the bar located physically in a corner of the building the  newspaper was in; the bar was sort of an annex. The bartender and all the waitresses would greet him by name, and before it was over they knew me just as well.

 Lou Nightly -- the banner over the front window announced “Lou Wilson Nightly at the Piano," and the “Wilson” dropped out early on -- Lou Nightly would assign a theme song to each of the regulars and would launch into it when he saw one coming through the door. Mine was “Danny Boy.” I don't know why, you‘d have to ask Lou. Too late now, I’m sure.

John was one of three WWII guys I became friends with, all named John, oddly. Whether it was the war, or the Depression before that, that shaped them, or just coincidence, all had something -- "integrity" is a word that comes  to mind. When you were a friend, that was it. Probably the same for an enemy, but      I didn’t have to deal with that part.

We visited John at the VA hospital, a few days before he died, as it turned out. We were directed to a day room, but when I looked in there was only one man in it and it wasn’t John. The  attendant insisted, though, and when I looked really closely, yes it was him. The cancer had aged him so much so fast I hadn’t recognized him.

We wheeled him out on to the sun deck. He smoked a joint, the only thing that helped the pain, apparently. We talked for a while, and when we ran out of things to say, Jean and I said goodbye and left for home, a couple of hours’ drive away. A few days later we heard from his niece -- all the family he had left -- that he was dead. That’s my flashback to D-Day. I wasn’t there; I just knew someone who was.