Friday, April 30, 2010


Part Two of a Two-Part Posting

“Where do I get my ideas and inspiration for writing?” I repeated his question. “Let’s take a walk to the mall.”

It was only a couple of blocks away and frankly, the slow walk and fresh air gave my caffeine-buzzed mind a welcome breather. We shared some small talk on the way, being nothing noteworthy but needed nonetheless.

We found a comfortable bench near the middle of the mall. I told him to take a look around and tell me what he saw.

“A bunch of stores, a bunch of shoppers, plants, decorations, I don’t know,” he offered.

I pointed to a lady with a stroller and two boys. “What do you see there?” I asked him.

“Umm, a mother and her baby, and her two sons,” he said. “Taking a break from shopping? I mean, what am I looking for?”

“Take a closer look,” I said. “Notice her posture, her eyes, the boys. They have a story, even if you don’t know all the details.”

He took a couple of minutes, watching them as if seriously trying to see a story. Finally he said, “She looks maybe tired? The boys seem to be having fun. The baby is sleeping. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to see.”

“A little better,” I said. “Here’s what I see. She’s probably a single mother, low income, only one of the boys is her son and she’s here to celebrate his birthday, probably at McDonalds, where she’s only going to buy food for the boys, nothing for her. It’s been a hard life for her, I’d guess for a year or more.”

“Are you just making that up?” Warren asked me. “I mean, how could you possibly know any of that.”

“A good writer has to notice more than the obvious. She’s not wearing a wedding ring, so she’s probably single. Her clothes are well worn and a little dirty. Her hair’s a bit stringy and unkempt, she’s not wearing any makeup and she’s missing half a shoe lace. Hence, she’s likely low income. One of the boys is wearing older clothes and a bit dirty as well, his hair looks uncut and shaggy but not deliberately so. The other boy has new, clean clothes and a good haircut and is not likely her son but her son’s best friend.”

I continued. “If you look at the bottom of the stroller, there’s a small package in what looks like birthday wrapping paper. Probably a gift for her son. She’s been eating a peanut butter sandwich and drinking water, but she hasn’t given anything to the boys, even though they keep asking her how soon they can eat.”

“But why did you say she’s had a hard life?” he asked.

“It’s in her eyes,” I said. “She’s not just tired but there’s little hope or joy in her eyes. Even though it’s her son’s birthday, she’s got little left to offer.”

“That’s cool,” Warren said. “Even if it’s not all true, it’s cool how you noticed all that stuff. I’m gonna start doing that.”

“You boys ready for McDonalds?” the young mother asked.

“Yeah,” they excitedly replied. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

I told Warren to wait as I quickly got up and walked into the McDonalds just ahead of the young family. I ordered a dollar cup of coffee and handed the clerk $30. I told her it was for my coffee and whatever the family behind me was going to order, then to give the change to the mom.

I quickly walked back out to where Warren was waiting.

“The clerk is pointing at us,” he said.

I turned and looked. The mom tilted her head, as if she were trying to figure out who I was and what had just happened. I just smiled and nodded at her. As she turned back to the clerk to get the change, I told Warren we should move to a different part of the mall. He had no idea what I had done and I didn’t want to explain to the young family why I did it. Sometimes a mystery gift is better left a mystery.

By the time Warren and I were done with our three-hour shadow-the-writer tour, I had given him probably a dozen pages or so worth of notes.

He learned that, at least for me, story ideas and inspiration come from life itself, by observing the obvious and the not-so-obvious, then making connections with the rest of the world, our senses and our emotions.

It’s the difference between, “I see the whale,” and “There she blows! -- there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!"

A good story is, after all, merely words that breathe.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


Part One of a Two-Part Posting

It was my turn to be shadowed by a young wanna be writer. His name was Warren and he was all of twelve years old.

For him it was to be a three-hour tour into the mind of an admittedly eclectic writer. For me, I worried that this three-hour tour might turn into a Gilligan’s Island fiasco.

When he arrived at the coffeehouse where we agreed to meet, he greeted me with a huge grin and a gentleman's handshake.

“I knew it would be a place like this,” he said enthusiastically as he looked around at the small storefront. “It’s just the kind of place writers like to hang out in, isn’t it?”

I looked around and for the first time, really noticed the place. The air was thick with the smells of espresso and the old barn wood which covered half the walls. Lighting was as muted as the conversations that surrounded us. Posters of writing icons hung next to paintings and photo-art by local artists hoping to make a buck or two. It wasn’t a particularly clean place but it wasn’t especially dirty either. It was a place that one could be as alone and anonymous as one chose, blending easily into the background of life as though he or she were just another brick in the wall.

“I guess it is,” I said. “I’ve always thought of it as a place where you can be anyone you want and no one will care. Plus, the coffee’s good.”

Warren pulled out a Moleskine®, two pencils, and two pens from his backpack and my first thought was, “This kid really wants to be a writer.” He opened his notebook to about three-quarters of the way in to a page headlined: Meeting with Mr. E.

Like a junior journalist he got right to the point.

“Question number one,” he said. “Who are your favorite writers?” The pen in his hand immediately snapped to attention.

I paused for a moment, thinking to myself that I should have been prepared for this because it is so obvious a question that would be asked.

“The Bible,” I began, but was immediately interrupted.

“I’m sorry,” Warren said. “Did you say the Bible? As in,” he hesitated. “The Bible?”

“Yes,” I answered as his pen swung into action. “Singularly, it is a book that has just about everything in it. Prose. Poetry. Parables. Narration. History. Genealogy. Life. Death. Creation. Destruction. Faith. Hope. Love. Villains. Heroes. Lords and Ladies. It’s all there. Beginning. Middle. Ending. Plot and character development. It is a Master Class in writing, all in one book. As much as it can bore and confuse you it can intrigue and clarify you. I’ve got about a dozen Bibles and I still read them.”

“Wow,” he said,with a puzzled look. “I never thought of the Bible in that way. That’s kind of weird. Anyway, um, other favorite writers?”

“Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Allen Poe, Aristotle, Isaac Asimov, Aesop, C.S. Lewis, Douglas Adams, Zig Ziglar, Hans Christian Andersen, Harvey Mackay, Robert Fulghum, William Zinsser, Paula LaRocque,” and I paused. “I mean, I’m not married to any one favorite style or genre of writing. My favorite authors, really, are those who write well and interest me. And I’ve done a lot of reading over the years.”

He hurriedly wrote as much as he could remember, and I told myself to speak a little more slowly to give him the time he needed.

“Great,” he said as he finished writing. “Question number two: Any books you would recommend to help me be a better writer?”

“Well, that’s a question that is best answered within defined context,” I started to answer. “But generally speaking, there are a handful or so of books that every good writer should have at his disposal. A few really good dictionaries and thesauruses. Then, Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well,” Paula LaRocque’s “The Book on Writing,” and probably mine when I publish it.”

“Okay. Good, I’ve got ‘em,” he said as he finished writing. “Question number three: Where do you get your ideas, your inspiration for writing?”

-- End of Part One. The Conclusion will arrive tomorrow. –

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


“Guess how many fingers I have?” he excitedly asked. Apparently he was just learning how to count or something.

“Ten?” I asked.

“No!” he shouted. “I only have eight fingers.”

“You’re right,” I said somewhat patronizingly, although he wouldn’t recognize that it was patronizing.

“Guess how many thumbs I have?”


“Good guess. I have one on each hand. Know what finger is my favorite?”

“No, I don’t.” I said. “Which one?”

“This one,” and he held up his index finger. “Know why?”

“Why?” I asked politely.

“Cause I can do this,” he said, and he popped it right into his nose, dug around a little bit and pulled out a little piece of green. “It’s a booger,” he proudly proclaimed.

“I can see that,” I said.

“Know why they call it a booger?”

“I really don’t,” I said, somewhat afraid of what the answer was going to be.

“Yeah. Nobody does,” he said. “It’s just one of those words. Bye.”

And he was off playing.

You gotta love the innocence of children.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


“The reason you’re so fat,” he shouted, “is because that’s exactly how much you want to weigh!”

The audience immediately gasped, groaned, protested and threw in some expletives just to keep it real.

As it turns out, his opening statement was purposefully designed to be as incite-full as it was insightful.

“How many of you,” he continued, “went to bed last night weighing your ideal weight and woke up this morning to discover you had put on 50, 100, 200 pounds while you slept?”

No hands went up.

“How many of you, on your journey toward whale status, sincerely believe that a diet of Twinkies, ice cream, chili dogs with that special 5-cheese sauce, meat-meat-and-more-meat pizza, and consuming daily quantities of McBiggerButt’s fries, Leviathan Lard-n-Bacon Burgers (double-bacon please) and a diet-friggin’ soda, all colossus-sized, was actually a healthy diet?”

All hands stayed down.

“And just out of curiosity,” he said, as most of the audience knew that this volley was not going to go well, “how many of you think that the Fat Fairy mistakenly stumbled into your home, sprinkled some ‘slow metabolism dust’ on your cookies, and so it’s not really your fault you can’t lose all that weight?”

Stunningly, a few hands went up.

“Are you kidding me,” he screamed. “Put those hands down.”

This was no boot camp for the weight-challenged. This was a boot-up-your-butt camp and it was about to get real ugly.

Or so I thought.

Without warning, this dieters’ drill sergeant suddenly became an empathetic and compassionate counselor.

“Look,” he said unexpectedly softly, “I understand. I’ve been there. And I want you to know that you too can conquer the dragons that have slowly yet persistently been dragging you down. But you have to understand that ‘feeling good’ is not the first priority here. Eating good is. Thinking good is. Doing good is. Feeling good will come later, I assure you.”

He asked everyone if they knew and understood the two basic rules of healthy living – eat right and exercise. And of course they did.

“Good. I won’t have to waste time on what you already know.”

He then introduced what he called the dieters Dragons of Deceit and Defeat.

The Dragon of Deceit muddles the mind and hides in the heart. It tells you lie upon lie about what will make you feel good. Feeling stupid? “Eat,” it says. Feeling ugly? “Eat,” it says. Feeling like a loser? “Eat,” it says. Feeling like no one likes you? “Eat,” it says. Whatever your problem, it assures you that eating can make you feel better. And of course it doesn’t tell you to eat whole, fresh foods. It tells you that you need “comfort” foods.

As the weight begins to pile on and you begin to feel guilty about it, the Dragon of Defeat begins its evil work. “You may as well eat ‘cause you’re not going to get any smarter,” it says. “You may as well eat ‘cause nobody’s really going to like you anyway,” it says. “You may as well eat ‘cause you can’t lose weight anyway,” it says.

Before you know it, ten pounds overweight becomes 28 pounds. Thirty-five pounds becomes 63 pounds. 142 pounds becomes 200 pounds. As the lies pile on, so does the weight.

So how do you destroy the Dragons of Deceit and Defeat.

Core Truth. You keep asking questions and seeking clarity until the core truth reveals itself, and it always does.

Whenever the lie comes at you, challenge it with the truth. Once you know the truth, write it down, read it often and speak it aloud.

Not so surprisingly, the Truth really will set you free.

Monday, April 26, 2010


A bachelor friend of mine recently stopped over at my home to pick up a computer he had dropped off for me to turn into a clean and lean computing machine. (And how do you use a computer in today’s online environment and not have basic firewall and anti-virus protection??)

Anyway, we talked for a bit and then, on his way out he asks, “How do you keep your home so clean?”

I’ve been to Ray’s condo and I can safely tell you that it will never make Good Housekeeping Magazine. I’m not sure who’s winning: the mildew colonies that keep growing in his bathroom or the dust bunnies who keep multiplying all over his place. I don’t think he knows what the original color of his kitchen linoleum is. Nor do I think he knows that the glass in his windows is not frosted. And I’m not sure but I think I saw a tiny little sign outside his back door that said, “Condemned. Not fit for cockroach habitation.”

So when he asked me how I keep my home so clean, the only thing I could think of saying was …

“We … Clean it.”