Inspiration, Medium, Writing, Writing Tools

Girl (writer), Interrupted

It’s September 1968, and I’m heading off to my freshman year of college. The most important gift my parents gave me on this momentous occasion (other than paying my tuition, room and board) was an Olympia portable typewriter. Little did I know it at the time, but that typewriter, more than any other single factor, was to have a profound effect on the rest of my life.

Are you old enough to remember writing reports and theses on a manual typewriter? How each revision frequently meant retyping the entire document? That was academic life in the “revolutionary” 1960s.

Lately I’ve been reading about the importance of uninterrupted writing. In 1968, between trips to the library for research, jotting down notes on index cards and hand writing citations, only to later transfer them via typewriter into a thesis, made uninterrupted writing impossible. It also accounted for the reams of paper I went through during that first year, and why I could relate to John Lennon’s lament at the end of Helter Skelter: “I got blisters on my fingers!” Except that album came later.

Back to the future!

“I like the future. I’m in it!”—Firesign Theater

Jump ahead to 1980, when I decided to go back to school and finish my literature degree. I’m also working in a secretarial job where I’m using an electronic word processor. I love the ability to make a minor or even major edit to a document without having to retype the whole thing, so when I got my student loan, I decided to buy one of those new-fangled microcomputers I was starting to hear about.

I said “microcomputers” because IBM had yet to introduce us to the term “Personal Computer.” Indeed, they hadn’t even entered the market yet for that product.

A trip to the only “high tech” (another new term) store and $1800 later, I was the proud possessor of both a computer and a printer. Most important of all, however, was the ability to revise a 20-page paper without having to retype the entire thing. And to an English major and aspiring writer, it was well worth the money.

My choice? A Kaypro 2X “portable” computer (portable only in the sense that it had a carrying handle—it still weighed around 50 pounds), a library of software including an office suite, and a Juki® daisywheel printer that spun words at the rate of 15 characters per second.

At the time, it was the most computer you could buy for the money.

A Logistics Problem

Wordstar®—the only word processing program available at the time—proved to be woefully inadequate for academic writing. While it could add footnotes, it had no provision for bibliographies, appendices, and all of the other assorted requirements of academic writing.

The solution? I ended up taking a couple of computer programming classes which resulted in my being able to create a document, insert a special placeholder in the document, saving it, and then creating a new file in Datastar® (Wordstar’s database sibling) with the bibliographies, endnotes, and other assorted goodies and then saving it. My programs would then read the original document, replace the placeholders with numbers or letters, and then read the Datastar file and append the bibliography file to the end of the document. (Incidentally, I did this with Borland International’s Turbo Pascal, which I had not taken any classes in.)

Brilliant, no?

Until one of my faculty advisers said I couldn’t count my programming classes towards my degree because, in his words, “computers have no bearing on the humanities.”

So much for my seminal thesis on how computerized word processing affected to writing process. I carried that thesis with me for years before “improved” technology made it impossible to even read the 5–1/4″ diskettes it was stored on.

But now it’s the 21st century

And love ‘em or hate ‘em, computers are here to stay. Hell, even my iPhone with 16Gb of memory is more powerful than my Kaypro with 64Mb ever was. I have the ability to write whenever and wherever I like. But even more important, when I’m sitting at my laptop, thanks to Google® I can write without all those now-unnecessary interruptions such as going to the library for research. And as for dictionaries and thesauruses, once again they’re available without my ever leaving my keyboard, much less having to actually go to the library.

Computer programming has, at least for me, become too complicated to keep going on. Otherwise, I would have long ago created a program to brew a decent cup of tea and bring it to me. Then again, if I didn’t have to walk downstairs to brew it myself, what other exercise would I ever get?

Honestly being the best policy…

…I’m forced to admit that I do spend most of my mornings downstairs, enjoying a cup of tea (freshly brewed using only the finest whole-leaf Assam tea leaves. [Nothing but the best for this tea snob!]) whilst perusing (in the literal sense of the word) the latest Medium posts, seeking inspiration or even solace. And even that has become a Pavlovian action: I’ve been doing it for so long that now the slightest mention of tea makes me reach for my iPhone and start browsing Medium.

Coming soon to a blog post near you!

Remembering that long-lost thesis has given me an idea for my next Medium post: how my own writing is influenced by whether I’m doing it on my iPhone, iPad, or laptop.

Aging, Generations

It’s your life. Live it boldly and fearlessly.

Part of becoming an adult is realizing that you are winging it like everyone else.

Looking back from the vantage point of 67 years, there are so many things I wish I could say to my 19-year-old self. First and foremost? Don’t grow up! It’s a trap!

But that’s just wishful thinking. Life itself is a trap, but it beats the hell out of the alternative.

I remember meeting my grandson for the first time. I sat in the back seat so I could be next to him. I think he was 3 months old. He reached out and took my finger in his hand and didn’t let go for the entire 30 minute ride home.

That image still persists when I look at the 18-year-old, 6’2″ young man he has become. The bundle of babyfat we used to call “Mama’s Little Linebacker” in jest has become just that: a star on his school’s football team.

I remember when he wanted to be a paleontologist after watching Jurassic Park at the ripe old age of five: “Mama! Hurry! Come see! The T-rex is gonna eat the guy!”

Then there was the time after the first “Indiana Jones” when he was going to be an archaeologist.

To him, the future is wide open. And while I have to content myself with watching him from the opposite coast (both literally and figuratively), the last thing in the world I want to do is set boundaries on him, or limit his possibilities.

And so to him – and to you as well – I say, don’t hold back. Don’t limit yourself.

It’s your life. Live it boldly and fearlessly.

Once I lived with a cat. I would have preferred a dragon, but that’s life.

Eating, Food

What’s For Breakfast?

Long before Bill Cosby recorded his skit about giving his kids chocolate cake for breakfast, I had already wondered why it was okay to have a donut for breakfast, but not a piece of cake? And why were sugary cereals preferable to donuts?

I even asked my mother about this once, but like so many childhood inquiries, my questions were unable to generate any useful answers.

Lately I’ve been wondering. Why do breakfasts often feature hash brown, but not mashed, potatoes? Why do we serve rench fries with hamburgers and hot dogs, rather than. mashed or boiled? Well, okay–boiled potatoes in a potato salad.

I can’t stand to even be near to someone who puts ketchup (a tomato-based sauce) on their eggs, and yet I was quite put out this morning when I realized I had no Frank’s RedHot sauce (another tomato-based sauce) to put on my omelette.

(As an aside,growing up, one of my brothers hated tomatoes but loved tomato juice, while the other one loved tomatoes but hated tomato juice. And don’t even get me started on my German great-grandfather who insisted on spreading good German mustard on his pancakes.)

And the greatest mystery of all: Does anybody drink milk with their pizza? If not, why not? My mother always served us milk with just about every other Italian dish, so why not pizza? It was the same ingredients just arranged differently.

I believe that beer is the perfect accompaniment to Chinese or Mexican food. But for Indian or Thai? Thai iced tea or Masala Chai.

I’m pretty sure most of us prefer American versions of Chinese cuisine to the real thing. I mean really? Baby octopus?

Then again, I prefer TexMex to Mexican food. I had a couple of friends who spent a spring break in Mexico, and complained that there wasn’t a single Taco Bell in the whole country! They had to eat REAL MEXICAN food! Oh, the humanity!

And even this blog, which is ostensibly about food, is more about culture and my own personal philosophies of life. It’s just that most of my insights occur over breakfast or dinner, or as is more often the case, a nice cup of tea.

What about you, dear reader? Do you have any hard and fast breakfast rules? Or do you believe as I do that when it comes to food, rules are meant to be broken?

Productivity, Writing

On Productivity, Tea, and Me

For me, one of life’s greatest pleasures is the first sip of the first cup of tea of the day. I’ll even go so far as to admit that some days, just the anticipation of that rare and precious moment is itself the motivation I need to get out of bed.

I’m a writer. At least that’s what I tell myself when I can’t think of anything to write. When I do write, it’s frequently over a cup of tea. Kalami Assam is my current favorite. I buy it at my local Indian foods store in a one-pound box. Whole leaf, of course. I brew it strong, in memory of my grandmother, Nana, who claimed that a proper cup of tea should be strong enough “that a wee little mousie might trot across the top.”

And I brew it strongly enough that on those days when I add a dash of tea Masala spice blend, the tea is still the predominant flavor.

I will confess that were I a religious woman, tea would be my sacrament, my Eucharist, if you will. The blood of the Camilla Sinensis plant.

Tea is my inspiration. My half-full cup sits next to me cooling as I write this. I had nothing to write until I began drinking this morning’s cup. That was the impetus behind this post. Without that oh-so-precious first taste, I would have had nothing to say. But one sip was all it took to get the words flowing.

Yes, I’m a writer, but not without my tea!

Blogging, Inspiration, Writing

Ain’t No Such Thing as “Writer’s Block”

But there is such thing as writer’s laziness, writer’s excuses, writer’s burnout, and any number of other excuses we use to justify our lack of desire? production? output?

I’m usually out of bed by 8 a.m. This morning, however, I slept in until 10. Yes, I know: I’m a worthless sinner. NOT!

But sleeping in so late – no matter how much I needed to – pretty much messed up my daily schedule. Between my tea and fixing breakfast and checking my emails, I didn’t have time to write. Or did I?

Here it is, 12:30 in the afternoon, and I’m finally writing. Oh, sure: I could have started an hour ago, but I had nothing to say.

Which got me thinking: do I really have to await a visitation from Erato or Calliope or some other imaginary Greek muse to tap me on the shoulder with her magic wand to inspire me? Or can I just take out my iPhone and start typing?

Fortunately, I don’t believe in gods, goddesses, or any other imaginary characters, which means that whatever I decide comes from me and me alone. Nobody else.

Sure, sometimes I’ll read something that gets me thinking, and that might inspire? prompt? me to write a reply or a response.

But ultimately, I’m responsible for my own actions. And ultimately, only I can decide whether I’m going to use an imaginary excuse like writer’s block, or whether I’m going to pull up my big-girl panties, go to work, and write my arse off.

Writer’s block? Don’t make me laugh.

Blogging, Medium, Writing

On Writing For Medium

How To Find Your Voice and Become a Superb Writer

Save your work, then step back and preview it. Periodically, as I am going along, I “listen” to what I have written. This ensures it still sounds like “me”, that it flows and represents the way I want my story to come across. –Enrique Fiallo

This is a crucial step, and given today’s fast-paced cyberspace, perhaps the hardest. I spend far too much time on social media, with the result that I feel pressured to respond to the latest Facebook post or Twitter tweet and so most of my responses are flippant, with no real thought behind them.

But Medium is different. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’m different when I’m in Medium. I like to think it’s because my visits here have taken on a somewhat ritualistic flavor: I spend time brewing a fresh cup of tea (using whole leaf tea, naturally) and engaging in deep-breathing exercises while it brews.

I then sit down with my mug of tea and open the Medium app, usually on my iPhone. I peruse (yes I do know what the word means) article titles, and click on ones that seem interesting. Sometimes – as in this case – I’m prompted? inspired? to write a response.

But this isn’t Facebook and it’s not Twitter. This is Medium, and I don’t want to come across as some young smart-ass punk (can I even be that at 67 years of age?), and so I do my best to respond in a deliberate and thoughtful voice. (I save my smart-assery for my blogs.)

Once I’ve finished my response I then go over it, making sure it is coherent and consistent. I delete a comma here and add one there, change a word to one that makes more sense or gives more clarity.

Above all, I want to communicate clearly, and if doing so requires me to break some arbitrary rule of grammar, so be it.

After, it’s my voice.

Blogging, Rules, Writing

An Open Letter to H.P. Lovecraft

And Anyone Else Who Thinks They Know the Rules of Writing

“At night, when the objective world has slunk back into its cavern and left dreamers to their own, there come inspirations and capabilities impossible at any less magical and quiet hour. No one knows whether or not he is a writer unless he has tried writing at night.”

Dear Mr. Lovecraft,

Do you mind if I call you Herb? That is, after all, your name: Herbert Phillips Lovecraft.

Anyway, Herb, I tried your advice about writing at night, and it sucked. See, I’m a morning person. Always have been, always will be. I guess it’s just encoded in my genes that I’m at my most productive around 8 in the morning.

But just for shits & giggles, I tried your way?—?and gave up after 3 days. First, I could barely stay awake past 10 pm. Second, I still woke up at 8 the next morning, even after forcing myself to stay up until midnight?—?when I was far too tired to even have an idea, much less write it down.

The about writing is this, Herb: nobody can tell anyone else the “right” or “wrong” way to do it. Writing is communication, and the method is unique to all of us. I tried writing at night, and it doesn’t work for me. Does that mean I’m not a writer? Or?—?and this is, I suspect, more likely the truth?—?that I’m not a writer by your standards.

Here are some other ways I don’t write:

  1. With a quill pen, which I understand was once quite fashionable
  2. Standing up and leaning on my mantel
  3. With a typewriter
  4. With a pencil or a pen

All of these were once “rules” of writing for certain specific authors, and which have never worked for me. I grew up with typewriters, first manual and later electric. And while I used to love my IBM Selectric typewriter, and later, my IBM Displaywriter, I’m now perfectly content with my laptop, iPad, and iPhone.

The only hard and fast rule I have consistently adhered to for the past 50 years of writing was one taught by Dr. Louis Bittrich in my advance-placement college Freshman Composition class: “You can’t break the rules until you know them and understand why they’re there. Only then can you deliberately violate them, if it helps get your message across.”

So Herb, this is where you and I part company. I really love a lot of your work, but I’m afraid your opinion on writing at night will, for me, remain just that: an opinion. I tried it, it didn’t work, so I’m going back to writing in the morning, over a steaming mug of strong black tea.

A Fan