One million words

Remember these high school assignments: Write a 500-word essay on _____.

The struggle.  The agony.  Five hundred words?  How many pages is that?  You’d write something, then count the words.  Only three hundred and ten?  How am I going to add another one hundred and ninety words to that?  (Yes, I know.  Today’s word processors have the ability to tell you the word count.  For me, this was back in the day where the electric typewriter was high-tech!)

In high school, being a writer was not on my radar.  But then college happened, and well, getting these kinds of assignments became challenging in a different way.

Write a short story under 2,500 words.

The rough draft would come out to be almost twice that.  How am I suppose to cut all this?  The same would happen in law school and as a law clerk, only with page-count restrictions.

Briefs cannot exceed 25 pages.

When the factual details in the case were intricate, and faced with conflicting legal theories, I wondered how I was going to tighten up the brief in order to make the strong argument within twenty-five pages.  Shrinking the font to an unreadable size was not an option.

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On August 1, 2012, I finished reading Dinty Moore’s little book, The Mindful Writer – Noble Truths of the Writing Life (Wisdom Publications, 2012).  It is something that was written in the Afterword that clings to me today.

It is said that the writer Andre Dubus would end his writing session each day by marking down his word count.  How many words had he managed in those four hours?  After the number, whatever it was, he always wrote the words “thank you.”

So, on August 1, 2012, I took a small spiral notebook, and began tracking.  Fifteen-hundred and twenty-two words were written that day (no “thank you’s” written due to space, but thank-yous were said).

After finishing my writing work today, Thursday, May 28, 2015, adding 2,621 words to the tally, I have hit one million words (1,000,109 to be precise).

Two years, nine months, and twenty-eight days of writing can get you 1,000,000 words.

The thing that surprises me the most is that in order to get to that million words, I averaged writing 970 words per day over the 1,031 days.  Journal entries, writing exercises, blogs, first drafts of short stories and novels, and their revisions, all of it has added up.

The question is, did those one-million words amount to anything?

  • The final revisions of The Y in Life.
  • Two short stories published in Legends: A Literary Journal from Grey Wolfe Publishing  Summer, 2013.
  • A finalist in the 2013 Michigan Bar Journal Short Story Contest.
  • Two short stories and an essay published in Legends: A Literary Journal from Grey Wolfe Publishing  Autumn 2013.
  • One short story published in Write to Woof 2014 (Grey Wolfe Publishing, 2014)
  • A 50,000 word rough draft novel completed during NaNoWriMo, 2013.
  • The first draft and first revision of the novel I am currently working on (not the NaNoWriMo 2013 novel), at 91,540 words.
  • Four unpublished short stories with one currently entered in the 2015 Michigan Bar Journal Short Story Contest, and two others circulating amongst publishers.
  • 2,377 pages of journaling.
  • Everything written on this website, excluding this entry.

Not bad.

Being a writer requires one to write.  It is evident that I do write.  However, I still get stuck in Moore’s Four Noble Truths for Writers:

  1. The writing life is difficult, full of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
  2. Much of this dissatisfaction comes from the ego, from our insistence on controlling both the process of writing and how the world reacts to what we have written.
  3. There is a way to lessen the disappointment and dissatisfaction and to live a more fruitful writing life.
  4. The way to accomplish this is to make both the practice of writing and the work itself less about ourselves.  To thrive, we must be mindful of our motives and our attachment to desired outcomes.

Too often, I focus on writing to be published, because my ego wants that.  As an actor wants to see his or her name in lights on Broadway, I want to see my novels in bookstores, my stories in The New Yorker and The Paris Review.  This twists me into the self-defeating spiral of questioning whether I’m a writer.

A million words, Mike.  C’mon.  You’re a writer.

I start to argue with myself, that I’m not a published writer, but, there’s a whole page on this website that puts an end to that debate.

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I read The Mindful Writer back in 2012, but it really didn’t sink in until I came across another Four Noble Truths for writers.   I found Gail Sher’s One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers (Penguin Compass, 1999) just before we left for New York City last summer.  I read it while traveling to and from New York City on the train from our Trenton, NJ hotel.   Her Four Noble Truths provided the key to unlock Moore’s Fourth Noble Truth for me.

  1. Writers write.
  2. Writing is a process.
  3. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process.
  4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write.

The combination of Sher’s book and visiting New York City for the first time, brought it home for me.  Her short pithy chapters read while in a city where a day’s walking and subway travel can get you to more book stores than are located in Macomb County, had its effect.  The 732 days before the NYC trip, my average words per day was 883.  Since NYC, 1,183 words per day.  I’ve been getting out of my own way, working on the exercise, journal entry, or project for what it is, losing myself to it.

Writer, Nick Hornby felt that his formative years as a writer was hindered by the prescriptive advice that experienced writers gave him.  His advice is the following:

Walk into a bookshop and you will see work by writers who produce a book every three months, writers who don’t own a TV, writers with five children, writers who produce a book every twenty-five years, writers who never write sober, writers who have at least one eye on the film rights, writers who never think about money, writers who, in your opinion, can’t write at all. It doesn’t matter: they got the work done, and there they are, up on the shelves. They might not stay there forever; readers, now and way off into the future, make that decision.  (Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books ( McSweeney’s, Believer Books. 2013)

A million words?  The work is getting done.

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Vinyl memories # 7 Maynard Ferguson

DSC081201980.  High school now behind me, it was on to college.  Though I had played the trumpet the previous seven years, as I wrote in Vinyl Memories #6, the instrument was behind me.  But the music, not completely.  Maynard Ferguson albums joined me on the journey to Eastern Michigan University.

The popular trumpet players of the time were Herb Alpert, Doc Severson, and Chuck Mangione.  I have no recollection on how I was introduced to Maynard Ferguson, but I preferred him and his band over the others.  I think it might have begun with the album M.F. Horn, because it featured “Eli’s Coming” and “MacArthur Park,” two numbers I had played at some point in band.  Hints of India’s influence slipped into his arrangements, and in some cases were more pronounced, such as “Chala Nata” (M.F. Horn) composed by Vemu Mukunda who played the veena on the piece.  The albums which followed tended to have arrangements of more popular tunes, such as “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” (Maynard Ferguson), the theme from “Shaft” (M.F. Horn Two), “Spinning Wheel” (M.F. Horn Two), and “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from “Rocky (Conquistador).  Here’s a sample of an appearance on the Mike Douglas Show.

Maynard Ferguson was born in Verdun, Quebec, and attended high school in Montreal.  A member of Boyd Rayburn’s band in the late 1940’s, he moved on to Stan Kenton’s band from 1950-52 before becoming the leader of the Birdland Dream Band at the popular New York City jazz club for ten years.  He moved on to play in Las Vegas and Hollywood before spending a couple years in the valley of Rishi in South India.  In October, 1967, he formed his own band in Manchester, England.

In the fall of 1980, I moved into my dorm room on the campus of Eastern Michigan University.  My room and suite mates were a random draw, as I knew no one else who was attending the school.  Obviously, there was some concern on how receptive these guys would be to Maynard Ferguson on the stereo.  My roommate was a kid from Akron, Ohio who wasn’t even attending EMU.  He was enrolled at Washtenaw Community College to bring his grades up so he could then make it into EMU and play on the football team.  To the turntable he brought a group called The Michael Stanley Band, which did about as much for me as Maynard Ferguson did for him.

My suitemates, however, were much cooler.  Students from near the top of the class of Romulus High School.  They played Dungeons & Dragons, using miniatures, (something that the guys I played the controversial role playing game with in Plymouth didn’t use, which maybe we should have to avoid controversies such as a giant’s ability to throw a boulder around corners).  They read comic books.  But they weren’t “nerds” from where they came from.  Rob had played football at Romulus High, and Dan was smooth and charismatic, especially with the ladies.  By the second term, Rob had left campus for the army, and I moved in with Dan.  Yes, my Maynard Ferguson albums were mocked, however I remember returning to the dorm after a weekend visit home, to freshly painted walls which included his favorite band’s logo and “Maynard Ferguson,” prominently displayed.

Maynard Ferguson made the twenty mile trip with me from Plymouth to Ypsilanti as a tie to the past, a little bit of familiarity in my new environment.  And as it is with a new journey, discoveries are made.  Some were left behind (like The Michael Stanley Band), but others become a part of the soundtrack of my life.

ALBUMS:

M.F. Horn
Side One
Eli’s Coming
Ballad to Max
MacArthur Park

Side Two
Chala Nata
If I Thought You’d Ever Change Your Mind
L-Dopa

Maynard Ferguson
Side One

Movie Over
Fire and Rain
Aquarius
The Serpent

Side Two
My Sweet Lord
Bridge Over Troubled Water
Your Song
Stoney End
Living in the Past

M.F. Horn Two
Side One

Give it One
Country Road
Theme from “Shaft.”
Theme from “Summer of ’42”

Side Two
Mother
Spinning Wheel
Free Wheeler
Hey Jude

Primal Scream
Side One

Primal Scream
The Cheshire Cat Walk

Side Two
Invitation
Pagliacci
Swamp

Conquistador
Side One

Gonna Fly Now (Theme from “Rocky”)
Mister Mellow
Theme from “Star Trek”

Side Two
Conquistador
Soar Like an Eagle
The Fly

The Best of Maynard Ferguson
Side One

Gonna Fly Now (Theme from “Rocky”)
MacArthur Park
Theme from “Star Trek”
Birdland
Give it One

Side Two
Stella by Starlight
Theme from “Battlestar Galactica”
Pagliacci
Main Title from “Star Wars.”

Book review: Short Stories #1

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At the age of twenty-three, Edward J. O’Brien launched The Best American Short Stories in 1915, a collection of the best short stories published in the previous year.  Upon his death, killed in the bombing of London on February 24, 1941, Martha Foley was put in charge of the annual short story anthology, and did so for thirty-seven years.  Foley, in her first volume, defined a successful short story: “A good short story is a story which is not too long and which gives the reader the feeling he has undergone a memorable experience.” (The Best American Short Stories of the Century, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999).

Others, during the years, have chimed in with their definition of a good short story.  For Raymond Carver, “Abjure carelessness in writing, just as you would in life.”  John Gardner wrote, “I want stories in which the author shows frank concern, not self-protective ‘sensible’ detachment.”  For Louise Erdrich, “The best short stories contain novels.  Either they are densely plotted, with each line an insight, or they distill emotions that could easily have spread on for pages, chapters.” (The Best American Short Stories of the Century, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999).

My fiction reading fluctuates between novels and short story anthologies.  Different things draw me to the short story anthology.  Sometimes its the author, and other times its the theme.  Due to the recent publication of a short story collection written by a mentor of mine, I thought it was about time to review short story collections.

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One form of short story anthology is a collection of short stories by a single author.  garden for the blind (Wayne State University Press, 2015) is a unique collection of stories by an instructor/mentor of mine, Kelly Fordon.  She teaches a fiction writing class through Springfed Arts, an organization dedicated to educating and inspiring writers.  The eleven stories within garden for the blind have a common thread throughout – two protagonists named Alice and Mike.  The opening story, the great gatsby party, is set in 1974, The concluding piece, garden for the blind, is set in 2014.  Within this span of forty years, the reader is presented with episodes of Alice and Mike’s life.  They had come from privilege, growing up in an affluent suburb of Detroit, and are affected by tragedy and a morally bankrupt decision.  The reader is privy to how their lives play out.  It’s like a novel told through a collection of short stories.  Each story stands on its own, and they are moving and realistic, pulling on the polarizing tensions of race and privilege, creating a collection of plot-driven stories culminating into a character-driven work.

DSC08103Some short story anthologies are based on a fictional character or world.

Going from one mentor to another, Lawrence Block has been my distant mentor for thirty years.  My editor at the Newspaper Institute of America, a correspondence writing course I took after I graduated college in the mid-1980’s, introduced his work to me because she thought my style was similar to his.  At the time, he was also the monthly column writer on fiction at Writer’s Digest Magazine.  A Grandmaster Award Winner, Block’s mystery novels fill two of my book shelves, more if I added the books on writing and the earlier works that I do not own.  His longevity comes from having developed series characters such as Matt Scudder, the former police officer, alcoholic, private investigator, whose stories are cynical and brooding much like Scudder; Bernie Rhodenbarr, the whimsical burglar whose front is that of a used book store owner, who solves mysteries mostly in order to get himself off the hook; and Keller, the hit man with a heart.  Last year, one of Block’s Matt Scudder novels, A Walk Among the Tombstones, was released in film, starring Liam Neeson, which I highly recommend.  It’s not verbatim to the book because it’s the tenth book in the series, though the general plot is consistent.

Defender of the Innocent: The Casebook of Martin Ehrengraf (Subterranean Press, 2014) is a collection of short stories featuring Block’s character, criminal defense attorney, Martin Ehrengraf.  Ehrengraf’s clients never have to take their case to trial because it is his presumption that all of his clients are innocent, “which presumption is invariably confirmed in due course, the preconceptions of the client himself notwithstanding.” (The Ehrengraf Presumption).  His contingency fee is high, but there are significant expenses that Ehrengraf must shoulder in order to see to it that his clients’ charges are dropped.  Block has not written a novel featuring the crafty, diabolical attorney.  There are only these twelve short stories, collected in this volume to date.  The stories are twisted and compelling, and if you’re a lawyer you may be distracted that Ehrengraf takes his criminal cases on a contingency basis – counter to an attorney’s professional responsibility.  Realize, however, that to Ehrengraf, crossing the line of professional ethics is minor compared to the actions he takes to ensure his clients innocence.

DSC08106Short stories by multiple authors based on a central theme is another form of anthology.  Akashic Books has published a massive series of noir anthologies with specific settings.  I discovered them at Book Beat one afternoon, as the store has a large selection on hand.  I was originally drawn to Manhattan Noir and Manhattan Noir 2, both edited by Lawrence Block.  The locations of the noir series are not only set in American cities, such as Detroit Noir (edited by E.J. Olsen and John C. Hocking), San Francisco Noir (edited by Peter Maravelis), and Kansas City Noir (edited by Steve Paul), but also global locations which include Delhi Noir (edited by Hirsh Sawhney), Istanbul Noir (edited by Mustafa Ziyalan & Amy Spangler) and Singapore Noir (edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan).

Prison Noir  (Akashic Books, 2014) edited by Joyce Carol Oates, is a collection of stories set in prisons and jails in America, mostly written by inmates.  As Joyce Carol Oates wrote in the Introduction, “We may feel revulsion for some of the acts described in these stories, but we are likely to feel a startled, even stunned sympathy for the perpetrators.  And in several stories, including even murderers’ confessions, we are likely to feel a profound and unsettling identification.”  For the most part, the stories are populated with characters as complex and real as you’ll find, caught in the society within our society that most people want to or choose to ignore.

Short story anthologies collect stories written by a specific author, or about a specific fictional character or world, or written by several authors with a common theme.  I see short stories as being like television episodes, where novels are full-length feature films.  Mixing the two up as a part of my reading regiment I find enjoyable.  Which means I’ll be writing about more short story anthologies in the future.