© 2008 -- 2011 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Well this feels different

This morning, I finished the last piece of work in front of me that had a deadline. From 10 AM on, I have been unemployed. This is the first time since 1998 that I have not had at least one contract job still waiting on my desk to be done. I'm not worried. I have money coming in and there will be other work. It's just a strange feeling. It's also an opportunity. I can use the time to focus on doing more of my own creative work.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

You still have time

Tomorrow is the second annual Poem in Your Pocket day. You can find out about it here. And if you need suggestions, check out Mommy's Nintendo at The Itsy Bitsy Monkey blog.

I've been impressed with the way the blogosphere has responded to National Poetry Month. I've been pleasantly surprised over and over again when I go to people's blogs and see them putting up a poem because it's National Poetry Month. I think we need a National Poetry Year. All in favor, leave a comment. But before you do, check out Willow's post for today. Wouldn't you like to see posts like that every day for a whole year? I would.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Billy, Age 44

“Is it true about Billy?” someone asked me this morning.
That was the first I’d heard about it.

If I’d looked hard enough
I might have seen the dying
that is the end
of summer,

the grass burning brown,
caterpillars spreading tents
in the tops of trees

and the horn worm clasped
to its leafless stalk while wasp
larvae nurse its sides.

All this time without
a sound, like night storms passing
north, silent flashes

through the calm chirps of crickets.

Originally published in Columbus Dispatch, May, 1982.
© copyright 2004, 2009 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic Blog.
All rights reserved.

[Note: This is one of those poems that took several years to write. It's about a co-worker who committed suicide after taking a week off from work to get all of his affairs in order, including transferring the house to his mother's name and all the money in his bank account into his mother's account. The impetus for the poem came from a realization I had when I heard of his death that I'd seen the moment he had made the decision. There were just the two of us in the front of the store. It was close to closing time and we were both standing at the front counter filling out orders we'd taken over the phone. I looked over at him just as he looked up from the order form and stared out the front window. The look on his face was calm and resolved. He finished up the day's orders, said goodbye and left. That was the last time I or anyone else at the store ever saw him. So I wrote the poem about Billy's suicide multiple times. Sometimes I went into the history of his time in Korea or other times I wrote about the death of his father or about how Billy lived alone with his mother. He was an avid bowler so there was an attempt to write about bowling. I'd get the poem out again and again, revise, put it back the way it was, toss it out and start over. Then one late summer afternoon, I was sitting on my back porch watching a storm gather in the west and feeling a cooling breeze, and there was this poem in front of me. I think I took all of five minutes to get it down on paper, and I knew this was the Billy poem I had been trying to write for years. It was later published along with quotes from an interview I had given in a poetry column in the Columbus Dispatch. The topic of that week's column was the creative process.]

Monday, April 27, 2009

Wishing you well

On a night when the sky is clear, don't close yourself in. Step out. Look up. Take in the sky. Then tell yourself that you are a part of all of that.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Thoughts on being a freelancer, lesson two

Last week's commentary on becoming a full time freelancer was about setting reasonable expectations at the start. This week I want to talk about a piece of advice every aspiring writer hears at one point or another.

So, Lesson Number Two in How to Become a Full Time Freelancer: What do you know--not that it's really all that important.

One of the most common piece of advice beginning writers hear is write what you know. To some extent, that makes sense. After all, if the closest you ever came to understanding a particle accelerator is watching coins disappear down a spiral coin wishing well funnel,

you may find it tough to explain what happens inside the Large Hadron Collider. (And what all the fuss was about -- Some kind of fear that black holes would suck up our world and everything in it from the inside out.)

But why would you try? Well let's see. My first writing paycheck was for $35 from United Way for an article I did for them on the Arthritis Foundation to use in their annual campaign. It had something to do with new treatments and helping people learn about them so they could make informed, competent decisions. My second pay check was also for $35, again from United Way, for an article about a program from the Diabetes Association to help people understand the importance of controlling blood sugar levels.

I had been a political science major before dropping out of college and going into restaurant work. I knew nothing about health care or medicine or managing chronic diseases. But the editor liked the pieces and I had my first professional credits. The key is, I did know something. I knew how to find out what I needed to know, and I knew how to ask questions and listen to the answers; so I could interview people and get the information I needed to write the piece the editor had asked for. In a sense, I did write what I knew. I knew how to learn and I wrote what I had learned.

Now there's all kinds of caveats attached to that. Notice, I wasn't writing for an audience of doctors. And I wasn't writing patient education pamphlets. I've done both those things multiple times throughout my career, but there was no way I could learn enough in a short period of time when I first started out.

So there are really two lessons to learn here. The first is that a would be writer cannot be handcuffed to the admonition to write only what you know. If that's all you do, you'll have a very small niche in the writing world indeed. And will you become a writer? Probably not. You'll be a barista who writes articles about double mocha lattes. Or a rocket scientist who knows how to make space travel interesting to audiences who read your occasional articles in Discover. But you'll always be a writer second.

A writer is someone who knows words and knows language and gets turned on by using both well (and by seeing other people do the same thing). A writer is someone who is curious about a lot of different things, and knows ways to satisfy that curiosity--how to research, who to ask, and what to ask in order to get the right information to share with readers.

That's not to say a writer doesn't specialize. For the last 13 or 14 years, I've made a good living writing about and editing works on health and health care for both health professionals and health consumers. And even though articles about health was what I got paid for when I first started, this one time college drop out glorified waiter and bartender wrote articles about beekeeping, running public parks, building a career as ceramic engineer, opening a general store, how books are bought for the library, subversive curriculum, literacy, writing a collaborative novel.

My first article in a national publication was about crepes. Even though I had worked in restaurants, I had never done anything with crepes (except for crepe suzette). But I was curious, and I created 20 crepe recipes. I even took pictures of the dishes and got paid for the photos. It wasn't that long after the Arthritis Foundation piece. And it made me feel really good about what I could do.

Now the second big caveat (the first was don't let yourself be limited by what you know) is know your limitations. For those of you who are still with me, lesson three will be The Great Hotel Fiasco--Don't bite off more than you can chew. (I'll tell you about my first real failure.)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Worth a Visit

Joy at Babble on (another wonderful name for a blog) posted a poem by Taylor Mali that's well worth the read, as is the poet's comments that she posted with it.

I need to bring back "Today's Spotlight." I just haven't had time to do it on a regular basis. But Joy's post would have been in the spotlight if I were doing it.

Oh, I was also a guest poet today on Mommy's Nintendo's The Itsy Bitsy Monkey blog. It was fun to be part of her National Poetry Month Challenge. And if you go there, spend some time looking back at the poems she's posted throughout the month. Also, I would highly recommend making the time to look at the blogs of the other poets who joined her in the challenge. She has links to their sites as part of her posts.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


I sometimes wonder how anything becomes a poem. It frustrates me. And sometimes I feel certain that whatever I did in the past to transform a few random groupings of words collected from God knows where into poetry I'll never do again.

For the last couple of days, I've been looking over a series of notes I made a few years after my father died. They're about his art and about his need to tell stories that defined who he was. They're about how the stories became more important as he got closer to death. And they're about not listening to them and forgetting them. They're about watching football with him eight months before he died. And they're about the nothingness we come from, are born into, and move toward.

Some of the notes are broken up into lines, as if they were originally meant to be a poem. And as I read the notes, I can hear and feel the poem that's there. But I can't make it happen. It frustates me. But it's what I do.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The power of a single phrase

Daniel Silva is one of my favorite spy novelists. He doesn't just tell a good story; like the other greats--Le Carre, Deighton, O'Reilly--he tells it well. This passage is from his latest book, Moscow Rules.

There is a VIP reception room at Ben-Gurion Airport that few people know and where even fewer have set foot. Reached by an unmarked door near passport control, it has walls of Jerusalem limestone, furnishings of black leather, and a permanent odor of burnt coffee and male tension. When Gabriel entered the room the following evening, he found it occupied by a single man. He had settled himself at the edge of his chair, with his legs slightly splayed and his large hands resting atop an olive-wood cane, like a traveler on a rail platform resigned to a long wait. He was dressed, as always, in a pair of pressed khaki trousers and a white oxford cloth shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. His head was bullet-shaped and bald, except for a monkish fringe of white hair. His ugly wire-framed spectacles magnified a pair of blue eyes that were no longer clear.

That's a marvelously descriptive pasage that introduces us to the character Ari Shamron. But what I want to call your attention to is a single phrase that makes everything work--"like a traveler on a rail platform resigned to a long wait." Take that away and what you have is a description, with no context. That phrase defines the mood not just of the man but of the scene, and it points to the inevitability of what is to come. It's a visual image like a definin camera shot in a great film. It's a close up not just of the man, but of his mind. There are other great phrases in the passage--"a permanent odor of burnt coffee and male tension," "a monkish fringe of white hair." Taking them away would diminish the paragraph, but not in the same way taking away the image of the traveler on a rail platform would. And it's not just the phrase, it's the visual quality of the metaphor (that sets up the visual description of the man) and its placement in the middle of the paragraph so that everything revolves around it. Some people are masters of the language. Daniel Silva is one of them.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Check out the new song by Rachael Chatoor. It reminded me of some lyrics I wrote several years ago. I also did the music but wasn't really happy with it. If Rachael wants to do music for it, she can have the lyrics. (Anyone else, please ask first. It's copyrighted.)

Paper in the Wind
(Song Lyrics)
By the Grandpa

The music stopped while I was dancing
On a street all by myself,
And all the questions I’d been asking
Felt like dust inside my mouth

The friends I had around me
Are like paper in the wind
Their faces lost in shadows
Of other places I have been

I tried to call from San Francisco,
I got caught in your damn machine
It said
Leave a message, sorry we missed you.
Our son’s gone off to chase his dream.

And I can’t tell you where I’ve been

Each morning I wake hungry
But nothing’s left to do
Too late to say I’m sorry
Too late for missing you

I tried to call from San Francisco,
I got caught in your damn machine
It said
Leave a message, sorry we missed you.
Our son’s gone off to chase his dream.

And I can’t tell you where I’ve been

[C—Waltz time]
I dreamed I danced with my mother,
A song from another day.
We held each other tight
Her smile made the music play.
I dreamed I walked with my father.
We talked along the way
By the time we got home
We had nothing left to say.

Too many miles between us
I’ve done things you cannot know
Nothing stays the way it was
I’d talk longer but I’ve got to go

I tried to call from San Francisco,
I got caught in your damn machine
It said
Leave a message, sorry we missed you.
Our son’s gone off to chase his dream.

Why can’t I tell you where I’ve been?

Sometimes I hear the music echo
And turn to greet a friend
Nothing but my shadow
And paper in the wind
Nothing but my shadow
And paper in the wind

© copyright 2009 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic Blog.
All rights reserved.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Thoughts on being a freelancer, lesson one

A long time ago when I was reliable, meaning when I could be counted on to post regularly, and when people left comments, a few readers asked me to blog about my writing career. Truth be told, it's not that interesting. I write and I edit because I like working with words and meaning and ideas, and I like getting ideas across to other people. I'm also good at it. Plus, I don't know what else to do. Everything else seems boring.

[Well that's not exactly true. What's boring is reporting to someone else and letting that someone else dictate how I spend my time. If I'm going to screw up, if I'm going to miss out on life, I want it to be my fault. I don't want it to be because I didn't have any choice but to do what I was told. And there are a lot of other things that are not boring. I miss being an English teacher. I miss running college writing centers. I miss sharing ideas about how people learn with other professionals. And I really miss helping students realize what they're after. I also like to draw and play the piano. I'm not very good at those things, but I like doing them. And I like punching the speed bag. (There was a time in my life when I wasn't bad at that.) And if I could figure out how to make money doing any of those things, I'd give it serious thought. But I digress.]

Next, several people have asked me for advice on becoming a freelancer, and it occurred to me that I could do both, talk about my history as a writer/editor while talking about what it takes for one person to do it.

So, Lesson Number One in How to Become a Full-Time Freelancer: Don't Quit Your Day Job.

In 2006, there were 305,909 people making money as a writer or an editor. That really isn't a very large percentage of the working force. 197, 495 (or 65%) of them were "employed." That means they weren't working for themselves. 108, 413 (or 35%) were classified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as self-employed or unpaid. For 80,000 of those workers, writing or editing was classified as their primary job. And for 28,000, writing or editing was a secondary job.

Now there are several important things to note in the above paragraph. The first is, given the amount of writing that gets done every day, there aren't that many writers and editors who are working, comparatively speaking.

The second thing is that the overwhelming majority of those who are working are working for someone else. They are not self employed. They are not their own boss. They are not masters of their own time. If you want to write or edit and get paid, your best bet is to find a job where that's part of the job description. There are a number of sites on the Internet where those kinds of jobs are listed. Google writing jobs. You'll find them.

The third thing to notice is what I bolded in the paragraph above. BLS labels self-employed writers and editors as potentially unpaid. There are a lot of people out there who will publish what you write and pay you by sending you a copy. There are even some, who will make you pay for the copy. Other people will pay you by the word--often starting around 2 cents. And I know things have changed since I started, and you can write stuff and post it on site on the Web at a site that will pay you based on how many page clicks you get. Well, call your family. Call your friends. Tell them to click through. Tell them to tell their friends to click through. And then wait.............

The unfortunate thing about that is if you don't have a network (meaning connections), and you don't have a track record (meaning publications), you actually have to write for those people [two cents a word/pay by click]. It's the only way to build a publications list. You need that to get jobs.

So when I was in my 20s, I read everything I could about making a living as a writer. I went to college, dropped out, went back, dropped out again, went back ad nauseum. Finally, I dropped out and went to work in the hospitality industry. I was the youngest maitre d' in the history of Brookside Country Club. And I was damn good. But there was one thing that was consistent. I never stopped reading Writer's Digest. [That is not an endorsement. In fact, for those who are serious about wanting to write for a living, I'd recommend not reading it.] And I focused on the things that would make me an instant success. I settled on syndication. That was the way to go. You write something. You send it to a syndicate. They sell it and split the money with you. It's easy living.

So I was a young husband and father. We traveled. [ha!] We went from Columbus to St. Louis. I talked to people in whatever job I had. So I came up with an idea called From Here to There. The idea was I wrote these little essays about the people I met or the sights I saw. And then the syndicate would sell them. We'd be rich. We'd use the money to go somewhere else besides St Louis and write about it. It would be a wonderful life. I sent it off to syndicates. I got rejected over and over again.

That's not the way it works. [To syndicate, you get get your work published in several different local venues. Then you gather data to show that readers are reading it and responding. Then, maybe a syndicate will be interested. The real way it works is the syndicate finds you.] My approach, though, did work for some people (the ones who wrote the articles for writer's digest). For the vast majority of us who were clueless, it was just one more indication that we were not cut out to be writers.

We like to think of ourselves as Ernest Hemingway or Joan Didion. The truth is most of us are Joe the electrician [the plumber was a false identity] or Rosie the riveter. The Romance of writing catches our attention. The labor of writing somehow never peaks over the horizon. Writing, for the vast majority of us who make our living this way, is hard work. And it's work the uninitiated are never told about. Unless you have a track record, you are not going to make it as a full time freelancer. [There are always exceptions.] So keep that "day" job. Or better still, make that "day" job a writing job.

Enough about you. Let's talk about me. I had publications as a kid. Still, aside from a couple of prizes, I really didn't get paid for anything I wrote until I was in my mid twenties [maybe I'll talk about what happened when I first got paid in lesson two]. I didn't go out on my own to become a full time freelancer until I was in my late forties. I didn't feel comfortable at it until I was in my early fifties. But then again, I'm not all that comfortable right now, and I'm a long way past my early fifties. Still, I make a living. I have money coming in. And I have jobs in hand and jobs on the horizon.

For those of you who are still with me, the next lesson (lesson two) may be called "What Do You Know--But It's Not the Only Thing That Matters." And I'll talk a little bit more about what happened when I got my first paycheck.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

You deserve a break today.

When the world starts getting a little too serious, here's an antidote. Enjoy.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Jason at Sunrise Service

It’s cold, and the wind blowing across this hill
Makes it colder. I’m not used to wearing
Winter coats at Easter, nor to sharing
Sunrise hymns with strangers. But kids will
Pull you out of bed at awful hours and fill
Your life with endless nights. They don’t care
That their lives intrude on yours with that glaring
Arrogance of youth that can’t stay still.

At eleven PM Jason cut his hand.
At midnight, in a dim and sterile room,
A young intern sewed it shut. He stands
Here now to celebrate an empty tomb.

The spreading rose of day dissolves the night.
I watch him join hands with others to sing
Hallelujah toward the rising sun.
And as I walk a little further from
Their voices rising in the morning wind,
I feel the cold rise up around my heart.

His world’s a morning filling up with light
And sun-glazed faces like a ring
Of sacrificial fire. Their antiphon
Goes with me down the hill. He’s just begun.
The road is like a ribbon with no end,
And I’m too old to remember where it starts.

They’ll sing and share the bread. I’ll set the fan
Inside the car on high. I’ll sleep at noon.

Originally published in A Matter of Mind, Foothills Publishing, 2004.
© copyright 2004, 2009 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic Blog.
All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

I'm just saying

S pointed out to me psychologist John Rosemond's parenting column in the paper this morning. I usually try not to read him, unless I need either a good laugh or a dose of "Oh my God, what's with this guy?" But today's column begs for someone to comment.

The gist of his column was that helping children develop self esteem is doing them a serious disservice. To prove it he cites unnamed evidence that people with high self-regard tend to anti-social behavior. In fact, our maximum security prisons are filled with people with very high self-regard. Well that may be true, but self-esteem and self-regard do not mean the same thing. Here's what Webster's has to say:

Self-esteem: a confidence and satisfaction in oneself; self-respect
Self-regard: regard for or consideration of oneself or one's own interests

Hardly the same. What Mr. Rosemond did was...well here's a quote from Mr. Rosemond's column:

The supposed merits of high self-esteem were sold on the basis of rhetoric.

Well if that's true (?) then I guess it's fair for Mr. Rosmond to discredit self-esteem with rhetoric. What Mr. Rosemond did was employ a rhetorical trope known as dysphemism. A dysphemism is the substitution of one term with a harsher, more offensive, or more disagreeable meaning for another term. Self-esteem and self-regard are not synonyms. And erroneously equating them does not prove Mr. Rosemond's argument that people with self esteem can't be humble or caring toward others.

But the question arises, who exactly put the focus on self-esteem in the first place? Well Mr. Rosemond does provide an answer to that one:

In the 1960s, American parents stopped going to their elders for advice and began going instead to mental health professionals--people like me. To create a devoted client base, we had to come up with something new. So we cut from whole cloth a nouveau philosophy...

In the next paragraph he says, "Mind you, we made this up."

People like me (?)...we had to come up with something new(?)...so we cut from whole cloth(?)...we made this up.

Okay. This is the man who wants us to believe what he's telling us now? I'm just saying....

Friday, April 10, 2009

In the Park

The Brownies scramble past me in the park,
A swirl of laughter like a sudden wind,
& one holds up a whirlybird, then darts
& cries out “Seed!” the others closing in.
Pencils! Pencils! They all fall down.

Their bellies flat, their laughter spent, they mark
Their books & scramble on, & I am left behind
To wonder if these scramblings are a part
Of why these seeds have wings, or how the thin
Green seeds that burrow under ground can start
Becoming roots & bark & limbs.

I marvel that before the first trees sprung
A rhythm burst from space we can’t explain.
& when I watch the Brownies twirl among
The reeling notes of birds & play their games
Of turning over rocks to find out snails,
I marvel that the rhythm still prevails.

But then I pause. Aren’t I too old to wonder
At such things? I know that life sucks life
And so sucks mine. What are these Brownies wandering
Through the park to me? Redundant seed.
Noisy children fresh from their mothers’ breasts,
Shadows of their wombs. My own heart,
Knowing only that it with time must cease,
Makes me content to let these questions be.

Originally published in A Matter of Mind, Foothills Publishing, 2004.
© copyright 2004, 2009 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic Blog.
All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The trouble with freelancing

A lot of people who do what I did don’t last as long at it as I have. I officially stopped working for the man and became a full-time freelancer in May of 1994. That means I’m starting my 16th year in just a few weeks. I know when I tell people I make my living from writing and editing, it sounds Romantic, like I’m living the life of a knight-errant or, since I do get to write poetry, some type of medieval minstrel. The reality is it’s more like the life of a vagrant, just roaming here and there with no visible means of support and no real goal in mind.

A lot of people I know who made the same leap, do it for three or four years, but then they go back and take a job. That's because we're not making our living by writing the things we love--great poetry, amazing fiction, soaring new journalism essays that fill the pages of The New Yorker. It's a small percentage of writers who get to earn money that way. What most of us do is called contract writing or work for hire. We work for agencies, pharmaceutical companies, health plans. We write very specialized pieces aimed at computer geeks, investment bankers, physical therapists, or people with diabetes. Getting to set our own schedule means never taking a day off because if you don't work, you don't get paid. And if you don't have any work in front of you at the moment, you have to scramble to find a client and pick up another assignment.

After a few years of doing that, of living in a constant state of uncertainty about where your next pay check is coming from, a job with paid sick time and vacation, with a 401K and office colleagues to talk to during the day seems mighty appealing. Even if your client list is pretty secure, it's that not having people to talk to during the day that can get very oppressive. I have, over the past fifteen years, gone back to teaching part time on occasion, not because I needed the money, but because I just needed the human contact.

I had perhaps my best financial first quarter since I started freelancing this year. I was busy. stretched completely to my limits. I was working so many weekends I'd have trouble knowing exactly what day it was. Things are finally quieting down and I can breathe a little easier. Except...

The end of March. Did you hear that crashing sound? That was the roof of my security shelter crashing down around me. Two long-term contracts that formed a solid monthly income base just ended. Just like that. Boston Globe Media decided not to continue publishing a magazine that I had been managing editing for them for 11 years. Not only did I feel I was getting laid off, but I had to contact the writers who wrote regularly for me and tell them I'd have no more work for them in the foreseeable future. Then right after I got that word I found out the newsletter for health care providers I had been writing for the past five or so years was not going to be published anymore, and the publishing company that did them was closing.

That's the the way business I'm in goes. I'll get more work. It's just that right now I'm feeling a little wistful for the job security of a tenured faculty member that I left to follow my dream. On the bright side, I am going to have more time to get back to the blog. I've missed it.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Lesson

“Is there anyone here who really believes?
That’s heavy stuff about birds and lilies
in the midst of anxious thought.”

“Yes sir, “ said a small voice disembodied
and floating through the snickering air.

“And what do you do,” asked the leader,
“when the client needs lunch?”
No one turned to see
because the voice had no client.

“And what do you do when your shoes
are scuffed and your hair needs cut?”
If the voice answered, no one heard,
so full was the room with the shuffling of grins.

“‘Surely life is more than food, and the body
more than clothes,’” quoted the leader.
“Maslow tells us as much. But who is here
that would not worry about the next meal
if he were poor, and who is the one
who would not trade a friend for a blanket
if it would keep the cold out?”

“I am,” said the voice as the lesson ended.

Originally published in A Matter of Mind, Foothills Publishing, 2004.
© copyright 2004, 2009 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic Blog.
All rights reserved.