It was just one of those things,
Just one of those crazy flings,
One of those bells that now and then rings—
Just one of those things.
(words and music by Cole Porter)
Let me explain.
Soon after launching my writing career in 2016, I learned one must start building a platform right away. An “author platform” is an identifiable following. Many things go into a platform, but most authors feel a need to be present in one or more forms of social media.
I was already on LinkedIn and Facebook. I added a “LarryFSommersWriter” page on Facebook, linked to my regular “Larry F. Sommers” page.
In April 2019 I started a weekly blog, “Reflections,” at https://LarryFSommers.com. “Reflections” was both a form of social media and something else altogether. I hoped the blog would publicize my novel-in-progress, but I also hoped it would form a body of writing that readers might value for its own sake. To that end, I posted original articles on past and present, story and narrative, writers and the writing life, and other topics.
Now, since I want my blog to offer lasting value, I spend at least one day creating each week’s blog post. To attract readers, I routinely announce each post with brief publicity snippets on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. These own-horn-blowings also take a bit of time to generate.
That’s the full extent of my social media. In each venue, I have a modest following.
But social media are only part of the platform. I know a lot of folks in person, not filtered by the Web. Now that my novel, Price of Passage, is published, I go to bookstores, public markets, and book fairs to tout my book face-to-face. I love these real-life interactions. I also give book talks or speeches about Price of Passage and the process of becoming a Great American Novelist. All these activities are planks in my platform.
Then my friend Dan Blank spoke favorably of Substack. It’s a website that allows authors to post their writings and attract readers. It also allows those readers to pay subscription fees or voluntary donations to support the authors they like.
Dan Blank is a wise guru. When Dan recommends something, I pay attention.
I decided to go for it. But I didn’t want to write something completely different for Substack. Nor did I want to abandon my WordPress site—at least not until I decided that Substack could rerplace it. So I just added “Reflections” to Substack, making it available in two places now instead of only one. I chose not to require a subscription fee, but to allow readers to donate if they so chose.
So you see, I did not plunge into Substack but dipped my toe in the water.
Substack has been sending me emailssuggesting authors whose writings I might want to follow. Naturally. One of the best ways for a writer to gain a following on Substack is to follow other writers’ posts and comment favorably on them. Of course! That makes sense.
The problem is, I didn’t want to spend my time reading a lot of posts from Hamish McKenzie, George Saunders, or myriad other fine authors who appear on Substack. I had been thinking of Substack as a place where I could publish mywork. But it is at bottom a social medium. Social media thrive on reciprocity: You read my blog, I’ll read yours.
Meanwhile, I struggle to set aside productive times for writing my World War II novel and a Vietnam-era personal memoir. Alot of reading and research goes with these challenges. And I’ve got a tall stack of books to read for my own general education. Do you know Your New Favorite Author has never read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey? Well, I’m working on that.
I love to be generous with my time, but I do have a lot of irons in the fire.
Substack feels “fun and refreshing” to Dan Blank. To me it feels inauthentic and oppressive.
Thought experiments can be worthwhile. I abandoned Substack in my head. Boy, did that feel good. What a relief!
That got me thinking about all the artificial things I do to chase an expanding platform. Things like Twitter and LinkedIn.
Years ago, I worked in a semi-corporate setting, and LinkedIn’s professional networking opportunities were a boon. Now on LinkedIn, I’m just a troll hawking a product.
And I never had any desire to Tweet. I only did it to draw people to my WordPress blog.
After my book was published I started sending out a newsletter, using MailerLite. But lately I get the sense that few people eagerly await the next edition of The Haphazard Tiimes.
There’s nothing wrong with MailerLite. Nothing wrong with LinkedIn. Nothing wrong with Twitter.
For that matter, there’s nothing wrong with Substack.
But I’m a writer. I need to work on writing—both my weekly romance with the Great World-wide Blog Public, and also my novel, memoir, and short story projects.
The only social medium I have bonded with is Facebook. For all its faults—and they are legion—it is the place where I often interact with friends, 796 of them at the moment. Most of those are people I actually know. If I met them on the street, face-to-face, I’d recognize them, and they me. That’s not a huge number of possible readers, but it gives Facebook the one thing none of the other media has for me: Authenticity.
I don’t do Facebook primarily to promote my writing. I do it to keep in touch with my friends. Maybe for you that’s Instagram, and God bless you. But I’m sticking to Facebook.
Substack simply became the stack that broke the camel’s back.
Good-bye, Substack.One-too-many stack,Unlike Lot’s wife, I won’t look back.Good-bye, Substack.
Good-bye Twitter, LinkedIn, and MailerLite, too.
I will keep writing.
I will promote my writing on Facebook, a world populated by friends of mine. Only now my Facebook posts won’t have to meet the format needs of three social media outlets simultaneously. Maybe I can make the Facebook outreach more personal and unique.
I will continue to sell my books in markets, bookstores, festivals, and elsewhere.
What is all this for, if not to leave some lasting literature behind me?
So the first thing, and the hardest thing, is to create some great stuff.
Even if that great stuff is not “discovered” in my lifetime, I’ll still be one up on van Gogh. At least I have both ears.
Dear Reader—You’ll know from last week’s post that wonderful things can happen when you’re a Literary Lion.
One example is that I discovered Steve Fox’s debut short story collection, Sometimes Creek. I heartily recommend it. You may just be captivated by Steve’s unique slant on stories that in other circumstances—for example, if I had written them—would be ordinary.
The stories in this book are far from ordinary. Here’s my review:
by Steve Fox
It’s real life as lived in the Upper Midwest on those days when the air is numinous and reality must be seen on a slant to be viewed at all.
The seventeen stories in Steve Fox’s collection Sometimes Creek are regional, populated by folks you know from down the block. They are also universal tales where things happen, in the plot but most of all inside the characters, that stand your expectations on end and make you think about the human condition.
In “The Butcher’s Ghost,” a man and woman slip, separately, into a clifftop bistro with a haunted past—each taking refuge from world-woundedness. The two lonely souls seem like ships passing in the night, but you realize gradually that something more is going on.
The title story, “Sometimes Creek,” gives us a father and daughter in the grip of overpowering grief, who must relocate their household into a neighborhood crazed with its annual Halloween rituals. The neighbors welcome their healing hearts with a mix of help and hindrance, which may or may not make things come round right in the end.
Each of the stories in this collection is multi-layered, dense with nuance and surprise. They are stories that will repay a second or even a third reading. You notice something new each time around.
If you’ve been captured by such masters as Jack Finney and Stephen King, these stories may transport you to similar territory. Two thumbs up, but only because that’s all the thumbs I’ve got.
Another part of the world has been heard from regarding Peco Yeh’s extant paintings.
Peco Yeh is a Chinese artist who plied his wares in Taipei in the latter half of the last century. Your New Favorite Writer had the opportunity to meet him, and I bought a painting from him for a scandalously low price. I have written about that painting, a waterscape, and the experience of acquiring and owning it, in this very blog, here and here.
In the latter post I also mentioned Earline Dirks, who emailed me that she owns a Peco Yeh painting—an interesting study of two figures, one a young boy, examining a lantern.
Now another collector steps forth. Joshua Lowe of Beckley, West Virginia (“Right in the middle of the Appalachian coal fields”) wrote me as follows:
“It was 2012 maybe 2013, a friend of mines uncle had passed and his house was scheduled for demolition. I was asked if I would come to the property with my metal detectors, he wanted to scan the property before the dozers arrived. We scanned found some coins nothing notable. The home was dilapidated and the family had split and taken all the possessions that they where fond of or deemed valuable. I was asked if I would like to “tour the home” and was told anything I like just take it, because everything else would be left in the home during demolition and hauled off. We went room to room thru the home nothing notable or out of the ordinary for an abandoned home. There where dishes and faux silverware scattered thru the kitchen, magazines and stacks of readers digests lay scattered in most of the living areas!
“We came into the den and a stack pictured laid against the wall, most where nothing more than everyday prints that you would find in any cut rate motel, Home interior or pier 21. As I went thru the stack of pictures, it was there. It jumped out ! It was something did not belong in this stack! I had no idea who Peco Yeh was! But, that did not matter, I knew this one was painted and framed by hand, I knew this one had some age and it grasped my attention and knew that it did not belong in the trash! I took the painting with me that day. I still appreciate and admire it as much now as I did then! I was told that the original owner was military and was stationed in Southeast Asia many years ago. Thru the little research I have done I have no doubts that this was bought during his tours in Southeast Asia maybe even from Peco Yeh himself.”
Here is a photo Joshua Lowe took of his Peco Yeh painting:
On the face of it, it’s a simple urban scene, a narrow street or alley vanishing into the distance in a classic perspective drawing exercise. Right at the convergence point is a small white-clothed figure—male or female, impossible to tell. In my view, it’s that human figure alone who gives this scene a spark of interest. Unlike the boatman in my painting, who is clearly a boatman: or the young boy in Earline’s painting, who is clearly a young boy: this person is a mere sliver in the distance—enigmatic, mysterious. The alley is ordinary, but the person—is he, or she, coming or going? Is he, or she, carrying something on his or her head? The legs, vague and spindly though they are, convey a feeling of motion, dynamism in a static setting. Wouldn’t you like to know who it was that Peco had in mind? I sure would.
I have no reason to think Peco was a great artist. Yet here are three paintings—mine, Earline’s, and Joshua’s—that lead the eye to explore a bit beyond the deceptively simple surface of things. For that, I thank him.
I never aspired to be Longfellow. Or Ralph Waldo Emerson. Or Marilynne Robinson.
I just wanted to write something.
And to have it read by somebody.
Who would be moved by it.
To achieve these aims, I found it necessary to become a Literary Lion first.
After years of storm and struggle, I retired in 2009 and found the perfect part-time job to entertain me in retirement.
I was the husband of a good and loving wife, the father of an outstanding daughter, and the grandfather of two sparkling cherubim.
Our house was paid for and had a large backyard with plenty of shade in which one could lollygag to one’s heart’s content.
And my heart, Dear Reader, was content.
At age 70, I was a success.
Only: I had not yet written the Great American Novel.
Back in 1953, I wrote a story—a private-eye saga on two sheets of lined paper in my Big Chief pencil tablet.
I wrote it at my third-grade desk, when I was supposed to be doing something else. But I had already finished doing that other thing, whatever it was, and some of my classmates were still toiling away.
In those days, most teachers did not go out of their way to encourage creativity. But dear old Mrs. Winders, as she walked the aisle looking over her pupils’ shoulders, chose to look elsewhere as she walked by me. So I finished my detective story.
It had a beginning, a middle, and an end, just as Aristotle recommends. There may even have been a reversal of fortune or two. It was pretty good but, alas, has been lost to posterity.
I always meant to follow it up with more stories—and books, lots of books. But stray fortunes led me down a different path. You know how it is. (If you don’t, check with Robert Frost.)
So here I was, at threescore and ten, not yet the author of a major work of fiction.
You know how, when you get an itch, you need to scratch it?
At the end of 2015 I retired from my retirement job with a respectable church magazine to become a full-time fabulist. Editing The Congregationalist was the best job I ever had. I enjoyed it well and could have kept doing it for a long time. But sometimes you have to choose one thing or another.
Satchel Paige advised, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” I reckon he was right. Look what happened to Lot’s wife.
I wanted to write fiction. I did not know what fiction to write, but I figured it would come to me.
And so it did.
I wrote a few stories about a 1950s boy named Izzy Mahler. I submitted them to the Saturday Evening Post and they published two of them on their website. They honorably mentioned another in their Great American Fiction Contest and published it in the 2018 contest anthology.
Chalk it up to beginner’s luck.
As I groped for a topic or theme for a novel, my wife brought forth genealogy on Anders Gunstensen, my great-great-grandfather, who emigrated from Norway in 1853. Based on her research about Anders and his wife, Johanne-Marie Elizabeth Nybro, a fictitious story flashed into my mind—one that could be wedged into the wide spaces between the few known facts.
So in 2017 I started to write a historical novel in which the main characters, Anders and Maria, move from Norway to America and become involved in a black slave’s escape from slavery.
I had attended the University of Wisconsin-Extension’s 2016 “Write By the Lake” conference. There, the great Laurie Scheer had led me to believe that I could actually write such a book and that somebody might read that book.
So on I wrote.
Meanwhile, I joined a local writers’ group, Tuesdays With Story, a twice-monthly gathering for mutual critique, moderated by the great Jerry Peterson. I submitted raw chapters of my novel for comments by fellow writers. My mind stubbornly resisted many well-meant suggestions from these colleagues. Eventually—when my original approach left me stuck with nowhere to go—I came to understand what my Tuesday night friends were telling me about narrative structure. Aided by these generous critics, I trudged up the Fiction Writers’ Learning Curve, which turns out to be a lot steeper once you are climbing it than it looked from the bottom.
I attended the 2018 UW-Extension Writers’ Institute and suddenly realized the writers gathered there had become my tribe. Though they wrote different kinds of stories and took much different approaches, they shared my affliction. Many of them were presenting more advanced symptoms.
I was the new kid on the block, yet welcomed freely into their midst.
They warned me it is hard to get a book published and hard to sell copies of it once published. You need a “platform.” Now, if you happen to write nonfiction and are already a known expert in your field—perhaps you make lots of speeches and presentations around the country—then you already have a platform.
If you’re a mere fabulist—a writer of fiction—then you need to build a platform from scratch. It takes connections, relationships, and social media. Don’t wait till your book is published to get started.
One of the best things to pre-sell my writing was to write a blog, they claimed. That sounded like a great deal of work. I would have to rent space on the Internet and post new writings regularly. What could I think of to write a blog about? And, thus occupied, when would I find time to do my real writing?
It preyed on my conscious thoughts. My Tuesday night mentor Jerry Peterson said, “Well, you might try writing a blog just for its own sake. Don’t think of blog posts as just a way to promote your writing. They might actually be your writing—or at least, part of it.”
I launched a blog in April 2019. I called it “Reflections” and defined its focus as “seeking fresh meanings in our common past.”
You see, I had figured out by then that all my writing is about plumbing the depths of the past. My genre preference of historical fiction might have been a clue.
I soon found that, keeping that focus in mind, I do find topics to blog about, week after week. It can take a whole day or more out of my writing week to do the blog. But I enjoy it, and people read it.
Thus far I’ve blogged for more than four years, for a total of perhaps a quarter of a million words.
Jerry was right. Blogging is writing. It stands on its own.
This post—a particularly long one—is titled, “Confessions of a Literary Lion.”
Pause a moment to reflect, Fair Reader.
I set out, in January 2016, to become a writer of fiction. In pursuit of that dream, I found I had to do several things:
I had to write fiction. Not sporadically, but with regularity and dedication.
I had to attend conferences and classes to learn how to write fiction.
I had to join a writing group and learn how to use astute critiques to improve my work.
I had to spend quite a bit of time reading other people’s work and crafting astute comments to help them improve their work.
I had to plunge into social media to build a platform.
I had to write a blog—yes, to boost my visibility (platform), but also simply to spread my writings abroad. To reach people who might never read my historical fiction.
Oh, and besides all that: To learn the art of fiction, to learn the trade of marketing, and to better grasp that past which I am so eager to share with those who inhabit the present—I had to read a great many books. Books of well-written fiction. Books of poorly written fiction (learning what not to do!). Books on how to write. Books on how to get published. Books on how to sell books. Books of history and biography, surveying the terrain of the past. Books that zero in on specific past events and settings that relate to the story I’m writing. And by the way, books read for the sheer joy of reading, which I have always done.
I have become one of the leading customers of the glorious South Central Wisconsin Library System. I’ve become a patron in good standing of Amazon and local independent bookstores.
All the pursuits mentioned above, in the aggregate, are so sedentary that I find I need a determined effort to get regular exercise. Yet I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.
However, one must face the fact: I’ve become a Literary Lion.
I considered it a public service to writers. If you know you must become a Literary Lion even before you have any tangible sign of literary success, it puts things in perspective.
The main thing it puts in perspective is that, if you’re serious about writing, you give it your all.
You will soon be neck-deep in drafts, revisions, critiques, reviews, conferences, events, relationships, and books. You may as well buy an ascot, a smoking jacket, and a briar pipe, because you’ve become Mister Writer (soon to be Mister Author)—or Miz, as the case may be.
At any rate, you may stop asking people, “How do I know if I’m really a writer?”
Just suck it up and get on with it.
When this Buddha-like moment of Enlightenment came to me, it was on the whole a good thing, because it prepared me to dig in and take the next major challenges in stride.
You see, while undergoing a Gregor Samsa-like metamorphosis into something both fascinating and repellent (note the high-class literary allusion there, Gentle Reader?), I had been diligently pecking away at the Great American Novel.
I finished the first draft—“finished” in the sense of typing “The End” at the bottom—in late summer of 2019. After a period of extensive and exhaustive revision, I felt it was ready, under the title Freedom’s Purchase. So early in 2020 I began querying agents and publishers to see if they would read it and publish it.
Here’s how the publishing business works: You don’t just send somebody the whole manuscript of a book. That’s asking them to commit hours or days of their time to reading something they never heard of before. All agents and publishers receive hundreds or thousands of queries a year.
So the procedure is to send a brief query letter giving just a brief description of the book’s contents and your own qualifications as a writer. Some agents and publishers want a one-page plot synopsis in additon. Some want an author’s biography or resumé. Some want to see the first ten pages, or the first three chapters, of the text. You send them exactly what they ask for, and then you hope they will ask to see the whole manuscript.
Mostly, they don’t. On those rare occasions when they do, it’s cause for rejoicing.
But be prepared to receive a rejection.
Among the rejections I received for Freedom’s Purchase were two that included a sentence or two of explanation why they passed on the opportunity to publish my book. One said the story “just didn’t feel big enough” to succeed in today’s very competitive book market.
The other said, “I’m afraid I’m going to take a pass on this one. The plot as described in the query had not begun to develop in the first 50 pages, and I frankly lost interest in the story at that point. You might want to consider rearranging some of your chapters, assuming the escaped slave story did eventually materialize, and have it interspersed with the character/scene development that was all at the beginning.”
When you have been in labor for years to give birth to an 80,000-word manuscript based on a furtive gleam in your mind’s eye, it can be hard—I mean, disappointing—to read such words.
However, they can be very much worth reading, because it can be just what you need to know.
A light bulb went on in my head.
All I had to do to make the story publishable was take it apart completely, throw out most of the best passages, reinvent the entire structure of the plot, make a minor character into a major character, ignore previously-received advice about the need for a unitary protagonist, invent oodles of new plot developments, and rewrite the whole thing from the ground up.
That’s all that was needed. And, Gracious Reader, you must understand—on account of the two informative rejections, I could see how to do it, except for all the details I would have to make up as I went along.
It would be the work of a year or more. It was disheartening. I felt defeated.
But I was now a Literary Lion. The Lionhood membership card came to my rescue. Becausethis latest twist in the saga of my novel begged to be blogged. I wrote,
My two helpful rejectors had made me realize something: I had gotten so good at query letters and plot summaries that when professionals read my book, the manuscript did not fulfill the promise of the synopsis. . . .
I would love to believe that I wrote a terrific novel that these dolts simply aren’t discerning enough to appreciate. But I would be a fool to stand on my greatness and fail to hear what these astute individuals are telling me.
What was I to do? Upon reading my blog post, the great Christine DeSmet, book coach par excellence, sent me an email. I did not save her exact words, but they were to this effect: “You can do this, Larry. Don’t give up.”
Being a Literary Lion, I confess, has its burdens; but there are great benefits as well. One of them is the opportunity to receive precious encouragement just when you need it.
I did not give up. I spent the year that it took to completely remake Freedom’s Purchase. Christine not only encouraged me, she helped me with many valuable insights about story, plot, and narrative methods. When I was done, I had a book that was at least 500 percent better than before, and a new title: The Maelstrom.
The first people I queried were the two publishers who had given me the informative rejections. I explained that although I sent them something before, the Maelstrom was a whole new book, and wouldn’t they like to read it?
One of them declined. The other, Daniel Willis of DX Varos Publishing, a traditional small press publisher in Denver, Colorado, said: “Send it.”
Dano read it, he bought it, he published it August 23, 2022. A year ago tomorrow. With a new title: Price of Passage.
We had a wonderful launch party for the book at Mystery to Me bookstore in Madison. Lots of hoopla among my friends and confidants.
The next day, I was once again just a struggling writer. Yes, a published author, with a book to sell. But the state of publishing today is that the author must do almost all the selling. While working on other literary output. And balance it all.
I already had another book—a middle-grade historical novel about my old short-story hero Izzy Mahler. Children’s books are not in Dano’s wheelhouse, so he declined the opportunity to look at it. I’m still trying to find an agent or editor who is interested.
Meanwhile, I’m working on another book. A World War II novel. That’s all I’ll say, because it’s not very far along.
So here are some things that have been added to my Literary Lion duties:
Book fairs. On certain weekends, I pack up a box or two of Price of Passage copies and go someplace to pitch my sales canopy and hawk my book, one copy at a time, to interested readers. I sold seventeen copies last weekend to people in Middleton. New Glarus, Waunakee, and Verona are coming up.
Bookstore visits. Sometimes I just pop into a local independent bookstore and pitch Price of Passage to the owner or manager. They don’t always agree to stock it, but sometimes they do, and I’ve sold some copies that way.
Speeches. I’ve appeared at the Sun Prairie Public Library and a Norwegian-themed women’s book club called Gudrid Circle. I’m scheduled to speak September 30 in Stevens Point at the Central Wisconsin Book Festival. These speeches are also opportunities to sell books.
I’m still a member of a writers’ mutual-critique group—two of them, actually, one meeting monthly and the other biweekly. By default, I have become the convener/moderator for both of them. I guess because I’m a Literary Lion.
Recently, I added Substack.com as a venue where my blog appears, in addition to my own site at LarryFSommers.com. It’s an experiment. I don’t know if I’ll gain readers or not, but at least people who read my posts on Substack will have an easy way to sponsor my writing with a cash donation. We’ll see what happens.
I’m considering finally reading The Iliad and The Odyssey. In translation, of course. I need to understand heroes better.
There’s always something new and different in the life of a Literary Lion.
I’m pretty sure this is not how Shakespeare did it. Or Walt Whitman. Or Agatha Christie.
So this is what I do. Why am I suddenly doing it on Substack?
First and foremost, to expose my work to a wider spectrum of readers.
Secondly, to offer readers the opportunity to support my work with cash. You are not required to do this. You can read everything I post for free. But if you want to support and encourage my work, Substack offers a convenient way to do it.
Why do I mention this second point? The writing life is not remunerative. There are conferences to attend, websites to maintain, software to update, books to buy, manuscripts to print. Most book fairs and festivals charge a fee for a booth or table—a fee which may or may not be recouped by sales. My subscription to Publishers’ Marketplace, an essential tool for writers, costs $25 every month.
In the seven and a half years since becoming a full-time writer, I have spent $9,000 more on the project than I have earned in book sales and other income. I persist despite the dollar cost, because I have something to say, and I will not live forever.
For every James Patterson or Stephen King there are thousands of us who never receive enough for their writings to break even, let alone make money. Substack is offering a different paradigm, in which readers can support writers by paying them.
From my point of view, it’s worth a shot.
Whether you pay or not, I hope you’ll enjoy reading my posts. And if you do, tell others.
Here’s a small story of the publishing world. It includes hope and anguish, heroism and tragedy. If you read to the end you may be touched, as I have been, by the goodness that surfaces from time to time in human affairs.
In December 2020, mystery writer G.P. Gottlieb sent word to book coach Christine DeSmet that Dan Willis of DX Varos Publishing, Inc., would be open to new submissions in January. Noting that historicals were among the genres Dan published, Christine passed the information on to me.
I sent a query, and Dan asked to read my shiny new manuscript, Freedom’s Purchase. Trembling with hope, I sent him the file. After only a few weeks, he replied:
Hi Larry, Thank you for the opportunity to consider to consider your manuscript for Freedom’s Purchase.
I’m afraid I’m going to take a pass on this one. The plot as described in the query had not begun to develop in the first 50 pages, and I frankly lost interest in the story at that point. You might want to consider rearranging some of your chapters, assumed the escaped slave story did eventually materialize, and have it interspersed with the character/scene development that was all at the beginning.
Best luck to you!
Daniel Willis, Publisher D. X. Varos, Ltd.
Sigh. Another rejection, par for the course.
But this was the best kind of rejection—a personal note telling me what was wrong. Combining it with one received from another publishing house and triangulating: BAM! I achieved a sudden blinding insight.
I spent a year rebuilding my book from the ground up, gave it a new title—The Maelstrom—and asked Dan to read the new version. He agreed to read it and then agreed to publish it.
So on August 23, 2022, I became the author of a published novel, now titled Price of Passage. This is the proudest accomplishment of my life, after my daughter and grandchildren.
Think of my world as a great room in which nervous writers shuffle about, bumping into one another, smoking endless cigarettes (real or metaphorical), while riffling the smudged and bruised pages of manuscripts that are getting old. The vast floor of that room, Dear Reader, is knee-deep in jagged shards, the remains of shattered dreams.
My book, Price of Passage, would be among those dead fragments of once-bright literature, had not Galit Gottlieb shared key information; had not Christine DeSmet passed that information along; and, especially, had not Dan Willis agreed to read my manuscript—twice!—finding, on the second read, some of the value I had struggled so long and hard to put there.
That’s exactly how gritty and how personal the book publishing business is.
Nearly a year has elapsed since my book was launched. Dan Willis has been my partner in the tough job of selling books. Neither of us is flush with money for advertising. Both of us have struggled, persistently. Dan has been in this struggle not only with me but with about thirty other authors DX Varos publishes.
Dan Willis died July 9.
Dano died of natural causes. He was a comparatively young man, I don’t know how old exactly, but he had not been healthy for some time.
His demise has thrown the future of DX Varos Publishing, Inc., and the future prospects of more than fifty books, by about thirty authors, into uncertainty. That’s because DX Varos has been virtually a one-man operation.
Dan’s friend Karen Morrisey, secretary and co-owner of the publishing house, is trying to sort things out. It will be a while before we know what the future holds.
What we all do know—we authors have been commiserating via Facebook and Zoom—what we all know is that we have lost a great friend and champion.
Dano was a man of many parts. He was an accomplished genealogist with a deep and abiding interest in the royal families of Europe. He was an author, who published several works of fantasy or speculative fiction plus authoritative nonfiction works on the Romanovs, the Hapsburgs, the Windsors, and other royal lineages.
And, oh yes, he was a publisher for aspiring authors like me. In the halls of Random Penguin Publications, he would pass unnoticed. Hidden behind a water cooler. Swamped under piles of digital press releases. Perhaps relegated to the AI department. Who knows?
But at little DX Varos, in Denver, Colorado, Dano was a giant.
Dan didn’t make money as a publisher. He always had to supplement his income with a day job. But he discovered authors, gave them a chance to shine, and brought out a lot of worthwhile books that otherwise would have been just the fragments of shattered dreams.
His contract was simple, clean, and unambiguous. He responded promptly to emails and was, according to all his authors, a delight to work with. Amid financial and business pressures that must have been gigantic, Dano always found time to pay attention to our questions and concerns. And he was an important part of the volunteer machinery of the Colorado Independent Publishers Association.
We are finding out that Dan, fearing his life might be cut short, had taken special care to set up his files and busines operations in an orderly way so that Karen, his executor and successor at the helm of the publishing company, will have a fighting chance to keep it going, sell it advantageously, or wind up its affairs in a sound way.
We mourn the loss of a wise and patient man who helped us all navigate the problematic world of book publishing.
The Big Five publishers—the ones we all wish would look at our books—have their own way of doing things. A profit-oriented way.
Wisconsin, where I live, is known for inclement weather. Winter seems to last about six months here in Madison.
Then there is a brief spring, followed by three months of warm, GLORIOUS SUMMER, which tapers off in a wine-and-gold two-month autumn until snowflakes fly around November 1.
Since summer does not last forever, I spend as much time as possible in my backyard. When not mowing or weeding, I sit in a chair, reading a book and sipping something. I glance up now and then to appreciate how lovely it all is.
A black locust towers over our house. The tree is in the front yard, but I can see its top, over the roof, from the backyard. It’s thing of beauty and a joy forever, especially with its green leaves yellowed by the afternoon sun.
There is a sound track, too. My favorite part is the catbird’s call.
This small gray bird, Dumetella carolinensis, flits about the backyard, perching in one of our tall spruces, or sometimes briefly in our forsythia, a red cedar, or my wife’s special Montmorency cherry tree.
“But tell me, O New Favorite Writer, how do you know your catbird’s a he? Couldn’t it be a she?”
No, Dear Reader. He could not. Which is something I did not know until I did a bit of research. It’s surprising what you can learn by writing a blog. More on catbird vocal dimorphism below.
For now, suffice it to say that Mister Catbird is a phenomenal singer and mimic, much like his Southern cousin Br’er Mockingbird.
And he does all his vocalizing from a kind of throne. Though our common robins, sparrows, and cardinals use the same trees and bushes, when Mister Catbird perches there, it becomes a special thing.
The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms says, “To be in the catbird seat means ‘to be sitting pretty, to be in a favorable position.’” The book, like other sources, calls it a 19th-century Southern Americanism but admits in a roundabout way that nobody ever heard of it until 1942, when James Thurber publicized Red Barber’s use of it.
James Thurber (1894-1961) was a cartoonist, writer, humorist, journalist and playwright—a literary icon whose work appeared often in the New Yorker. Today he is mostly remembered for his short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” but during his lifetime he published many stories, as well as humorous essays, memoirs, and cartoons. One of his stories is called “The Catbird Seat.”
I won’t give you any spoilers, in case you’d like to read this now somewhat dated, but still entertaining, story. What concerns us here is how it got its title. Its main character, a file clerk named Mr. Martin, is disturbed by a co-worker, Mrs. Bellows, who sprinkles her office repartee with a variety of odd expressions.
It was Joey Hart, one of Mr. Martin’s two assistants, who had explained what the gibberish meant. “She must be a Dodger fan,” he had said. “Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions–picked ’em up down South.” Joey had gone on to explain one or two. “Tearing up the pea patch” meant going on a rampage; “sitting in the catbird seat” means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.
Red Barber (1908-1992), “the Old Redhead,” was a sports announcer who over a long career called major league baseball games for the Cincinnati Reds, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the New York Yankees. A native of Columbus, Mississippi, he spoke slowly, with a soothing southern drawl, countrified and unflappable even when describing the hottest action.
Did Barber ever use the phrase “in the catbird seat” before reading Thurber’s 1942 story attributing it to him? That must remain one of those enigmas lost in the mists of time.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the catbird seat as “a superior or advantageous position.” I guess that’s about right. “He’s sitting in the catbird seat” means he’s got no worries—however things turn out, he’s covered.
If you’re in the catbird seat you can sit aloof and entertain yourself with pretty songs while you wait for others to find out the bad news.
Our friend Mister Catbird perches, sometimes hidden by dense foliage, but always in a place where he can supervise the whole world. And he comments.
The Catbird’s Song
He sings one of the most complex songs of any bird. It’s a long, polysyllabic thing, a startling series of whistles, squeaks, squawks, and burbles. It lasts several seconds and is then repeated, only with its elements re-arranged.
That’s how I know it’s a he, Dear Reader. Because the catbird I’m hearing is not singing a normal “catbird” song, which is relatively brief and simple. Nor is he chirping the single meow-like syllable that gives him his name.
The complexity of Mister Catbird’s call comes from the fact that he’s imitating a series of other birds’ calls. Ornithologists think this is simply a way for a male catbird to show off, attracting the female of the species to his rich repertory of bird sounds. It’s like a guy who gets up at a party and rattles off a series of impressions—John Wayne, Dean Martin, Jimmy Cagney (“You dirty rat!”), Cary Grant (“Judy Judy! Judy!”) and on and on.
Only Dumetella carolinensis is actually a talented mimic, unlike our friend at the party.
Do yourself a favor, Dear Reader, and take five minutes to watch and listen to this YouTube video sponsored by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in which Greg Budney, former audio curator of the Macauley Library, shows examples of catbirdmimicry.
After hearing all the calls the catbird masters in Budney’s video, you may imagine what it sounds like when they’re all run together by Mister Catbird in my backyard.
It makes me think of a general issuing detailed orders to the troops.
It sounds like an NFL quarterback barking a complex cadence before the ball is snapped—half of the syllables to inform his teammates about the play, the other half only to fool the opponents.
It’s the auditory equivalent of the gestures a third-base coach uncorks between pitches. You’ve seen it if you’ve ever been to a ballgame. He pats his left shoulder, rubs his elbow, taps his foot, shakes his head, doffs his cap, etc.—so his teammates will know what to do but the other guys won’t figure it out.
Even though I know Mister Catbird’s song is just an act to impress Miz Catbird, I still can’t shake the feeling that his baffling cascade of sounds must mean something.
He is, after all, in the catbird seat.
One could do worse than be a catbird.
But if it’s not in your power to be a catbird, the next best thing would be to recognize when you happen to find yourself in the catbird seat.
Dear Readers—The following, though almost comic in its brevity, is a concise snapshot of the thrills, glamour, and enjoyment that are part of an up-and-coming author’s daily life.
Sunday, June 4
Church as usual in the morning, and daughter Katie expected for dinner in the evening. That should leave me four or five after-lunch hours for literary work and my Mandatory Nap.
I spend two hours revising the blog post for Tuesday, June 6. It’s about Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans, and how that nasty fight of yesteryear echoes down to our day. What if this post draws fire from Hamilton’s or Jefferson’s 21st-century followers? I must get this right, as near bullet-proof as I can make it. Don’t want to get drawn into politics.
At three o’clock, I took the dog, Fooboo, for a walk. It’s a beautiful day, but quite hazy, due to wildfires in Canada.
Then back to work. I read and digest a new chapter written by a colleague in Tuesdays With Story, one of two writers’ critique groups I belong to. This chapter is a vivid excursion into a dystopian society of the near future. I mark a few passages of tangled syntax or confusing concepts, but it’s a great read. This kind of work is time-consuming, but you’ve got to give feedback so you can get feedback. Otherwise you’re just shouting into a vacuum.
Katie arrives at five, bringing her dog Lucy to dinner with her. Time to put off the literary lion and put on the dad.
Never got my nap. Hmpf.
Monday, June 5
A late breakfast, accompanied by all we could stand to watch of a disappointing 2014 biopic on the late Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. Then it’s time to get to work.
This is one of two or three mornings a week I manage to carve out a few hours for writing new material. I bang away at the first draft of my new World War II novel, tentatively titled Brother’s Blood. This seems to me the most brutal and exciting part of writing. A story does not exist yet, except some fuzzy notion in your head. You make it come to life by writing words, sentences, and paragraphs. How does one do that? I don’t know, but one must do it. Two and a half hours later, out of breath, I emerge with another chapter and a half snug in my laptop.
Time to wash breakfast dishes and clean up the kitchen. Over lunch I read the penultimate chapter of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, the book that prompted my upcoming blog post.
Almost forgot to record that somewhere in the middle of the morning’s writing, I took a few minutes to email my fellow writers in Tuesdays With Story, to make sure everybody understands which chapters we’rre reviewing tomorrow night. I’m the group’s gatekeeper for stories to be critiqued, and I host the Tuesday night meetings, which are a hybrid of in-person and Zoom encounters.
After lunch Fooboo takes me for another walk. His real, official name is Midnight, so I’m walking Midnight at noon. Midnight at Noon. Great title for a book! What would it be about? Alaskans and Norwegians, especially Spitzbergers, are proud of their midnight sun, but this is Midnight at Noon. Arthur Koestler wrote Darkness at Noon, a political thriller about the Bolshevik experience in Russia. But no. This would be Midnight at Noon. I ought to keep it under wraps lest someone steal my title and write the book before I even know what it’s about.
After walking Fooboo I take my nap. Now it’s three p.m. I’d better look at the blog post again, and then read another story for tomorrow night’s meeting. But revising the blog post takes the whole time. I call it quits for now—can’t miss Jeopardy!
After supper and our nightly Scrabble game, I’m back at the laptop, seeking out royalty-free images to decorate the Hamilton blog post. Then I spend an hour entering the text and images in WordPress, adjusting their positions, highlighting and coloring text, etc. I finish around 9:30.
Tuesday, June 6
I’m behind on my reading for tonight’s Tuesdays with Story meeting, so most of today will be consumed with reading the work of my fellow writers and registering comments on same. I enjoy this process, even though some of my colleagues write in genres or subject matter I have no interest in. The fact that I am not the author’s intended audience has notthing to do with my responsibility to read the piece and give intelligent feedback. Sometimes it’s a kind of drudgery, but it’s drudgery that might prove useful to a friend who hopes to break into publication. By suppertime, I’ve finished all six items and have printed out my comments so they’ll be close at hand when we begin our discussion.
So the nightly ritual of Jeopardy!, supper, and Scrabble occurs just as scheduled.
At seven, Mike and Jack show up at the door. Ensconced with wine in the sunroom, we three are joined via Zoom by Amber, Amit, Judy, Suzanne, Bob, Kashmira, and Jaime. Two hours fly by as we comment on one another’s work with comments that swing frequently between praising and challenging. Critiquing is an art. To receive critique with an open and discerning mind is a discipline.
Wednesday, June 7
The morning’s first business: follow up on last night’s meeting. There is a Tuesdays With Story newsletter, with rotating editorship, that summarizes the feedback each author received. After first updating my own list of future dates and presenters, I send reminders to all who presented material last night to send their concise summary of feedback received to this month’s editor. And I send the editor list of who presented last night and who is on the docket next time.
This week’s Blood Pressure Challenge is a letter from the Kia car company advising me that I’d better apply for a free steering wheel lock to protect my apparently all-too-stealable 2016 Kia Soul. I navigate their website and fill out their form. The software does not accept it and advises me to call their 800 number instead.
While waiting for Kia to answer the phone, I peruse other websites in my self-assigned quest to determine whether I am a fool for not switching my weekly blog from WordPress to Substack. I learn that there are different forms of WordPress, and I’ve chosen the wrong one. It appears, by the way, that I should also be considering Medium and Ghost. In addition, I learn that actual reasons to choose any one of these platforms over the others exist only in web marketing techspeak—no matter which forum one reads. None of these programs would stay in business if they had to explain themselves in English. We would all figure out that we don’t need any of the things they claim to do. But as it is, we will never know that, because we’ll never find out what it is they claim to do.
After two hours down this rabbit hole, I hang up on Kia and make myself a sandwich. After lunch, I nap and walk the dog.
Then it’s free reading time. I’ve got a tall stack of books. I order them from the public library and then try to cram them into my head before they’re overdue. Right now I’m on Spencer’s Mountain, by Earl Hamner, Jr. It’s the coming-of-age novel that gave birth to the Waltons TV series. It’s what we now call a young adult novel, a quick read but well worth reading for its distinctive voice, its narrative flow, and the skilful plot management. Even though I’ve seen it all on TV, it still draws tears at all the right places.
After Jeopardy! and a quick dinner of microwaved yakisoba, I’m off to Mystery to Me Bookstore, that magical Madison venue where my friend Kristin Oakley is unveiling her new novel The Devil Particle. It’s the first of a four-book series—a different genre, story line, and approach from her previous novels. But if you liked Carpe Diem, Illinois and God on Mayhem Street, you might like this one, too. Kristin’s launch party brings out lots of good friends—writing guru Christine DeSmet, author Peggy Williams (whose new book will be published next spring!), internet marketing maven Celeste Anton, and Milwaukee publisher Kira Henschel. It’s nice to be together in one room, all unmasked. And I get my copy of The Devil Particle SIGNED BY THE AUTHOR!
Thursday, June 8
The long weekend is already beginning. After two sets of geriatric doubles tennis in the morning, I make my usual Thursday rounds: I pick up the church’s mail at the Struck Street post office, drop it off at the church, and stop at the fish store to pick up half a pound of salmon for tonight’s dinner and a pint of seafood gumbo for lunch.
After the gumbo (After the Gumbo—another great book title!), I’m off to Winnequah school in my Literary Lion persona. Attentive Readers may recall that I read my middle-grade manuscript, Izzy Strikes Gold!, aloud to grandson Tristan’s fifth-grade class last winter. Today they get their yearbooks—yes, fifth-graders get yearbooks now—and spend time milling around in the corridor signing one other’s yearbooks. The teacher, Matt Fielder, has invited me back to see the kids and sign their yearbooks. More than fifty years have passed since I last signed a yearbook. It’s very nice to be asked.
Arriving at home, I face an infrequent chore. We take Fooboo out, drench him with water from the hose, soap him up, rinse him down, towel him off, and turn him loose. He does not like it one bit, except for running around the backyard shaking off water and rolling in the grass. Since he’s still too wet to be re-admitted to the house, I spend quality time with him in the yard, so he won’t be lonesome.
I lounge in my zero-gravity chair and start on my next library book. (I finished Spencer’s Mountain.) The new book is Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons. I saw the movie with Paul Scofield and Robert Shaw when it came out in the Sixties. I caught the last scenes of it recently on TV and was struck by the dialog between Sir Thomas More and his accusers. So I got the book to read it and perhaps get a few clues how a great playwright does it.
After an hour, the dog’s ready to go in, and Jeopardy! is coming up.
Friday, June 9
The day begins on the East Side of Madison. I join a couple of friends, Norm and Karl, for breakfast at a local cholesterol shop. Our geezers’ triumvirate meets three or four times a year to grouse about how life is getting to be strange.
I rush from breakfast to Winnequah school, where Tristan graduates from fifth grade at 9:30—yes, fifth-graders have graduations now. A good time is had by all.
By the time I get home, it’s noon. Besides lunch, I have an email saying that the June issue of Well Read magazine has dropped, featuring my short story, “Beast of the Moment.” I take a few minutes to announce it on social media, complete with a link so people can read it. I’m proud of this, the first short story I’ve published in a long time. Short stories are about as hard to write as novels. Just shorter.
I accomplish a bit of yard work and house cleanup Then Katie, Elsie, and Tristan descend on us, along with my sister, Cynda, and her husband, Steve. We spend the afternoon and early evening celebrating the kids’ graduations from their respective school grades—fifth and eighth—and my approaching 78th birthday. We can’t celebrate together on my birthday, because Joelle and I will be in Budapest, ready to start our adventure cruising down the Danube.
Alexander Hamilton has got me thinking about Republicans.
Hamilton may have been a republican, but he was not a Republican.
Hamilton was the disease Republicans vowed to cure.
I’ve been reading Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow’s scholarly biography. It’s the book that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to create the musical show Hamilton.
Out of respect for your time, Fair Reader—and to put my own subsequent remarks in context—I shall boil down Chernow’s quarter of a million words to a few paragraphs, immediately below.
Summary of Chernow’s Book
Hamilton was a meteor that flashed across American skies in the late 1700s and very early 1800s. The glare of his arc obscured a lot of other guys desperately trying to get noticed.
A poor immigrant from the West Indies, Hamilton became George Washington’s right-hand man during the Revolutionary War, and the postwar confusion, and the early Constitutional period. When Washington was elected president, he chose Hamilton as secretary of the treasury. Besides consolidating and funding the existing Revolutionary War debts, starting a national bank, and putting America’s currency and credit on a sound basis, Hamilton organized nearly everything else about the infant government. He pushed all his many projects, from the Coast Guard to the Whiskey Tax, on to ultimate success.
In his pushiness, he made an enemy of Thomas Jefferson, Washington’s Secretary of State. Besides the fact that Hamilton leaned toward the British, from whom we had just separated, while Jefferson favored revolutionary France, the two men held opposing images of the future United States.
Hamilton advocated a strong central government to protect U.S. commercial interests, foster trade, and preside over an expanding industrial economy. He also abhorred slavery and wished to see it abolished. Jefferson idealized the independent farmer spread across the landscape—including those independent farmeers of the South who owned battalions of slaves to help with their independent farming. He distrusted cities, financiers, and a centralized government.
The Founding Fathers abhorred political parties; but factions immediately arose in the new American republic, based on contrasting worldviews and economic interests—and you had to call them something. Hamilton and his teammates were called Federalists. The name came from the Federalist Papers, a series of essays Hamilton had written, or caused to be written, promoting adoption of the U. S. Constitution.
Jefferson and his friends, including fellow Virginians James Madison and James Monroe, accused Hamilton of trying to sell America back to the British. They suggested that Federalists wanted to replace our elected president with a monarchy—despite the fact that Federalist-in-chief George Washington would never condone such a thing. The Jefferson crowd were called anti-Federalists, or more lastingly, Republicans—simply meaning they favored a republic, not the monarchy they feared the Federalists would impose.
Federalists vs. Republicans: It was the birth of the American two-party system. Things went downhill from there.
Chernow of course adds numerous details, which I have spared you. But that is the gist of it.
Hamilton came to a tragic end, which need not detain us here.
But what of that two-party system? What happened to it? Why is it that, 225 years later, we do not still have Federalists and Republicans?
Hold on a moment, Gracious Reader: Are you sure we don’t?
Around 1800, when France’s woes were an American spectator sport, U.S. fans of the French Revolution organized themselves as “Democratic Clubs.” These clubs aligned with Jefferson’s Republicans, at least on foreign policy. So the Republicans started calling themselves Democratic Republicans and, later on, just Democrats.
Meanwhile the Federalist party shot itself in the political foot too many times and went out of business, to be replaced by a party called the Whigs. Named after a similar party in the United Kingdom, the Whigs were not quite Federalists, but they had a lot in common with them. They wanted a strong central government that would foster infrastructure—roads, canals, railroads—to grow the domestic economy. They also favored a national bank and protective tariffs.
Sound a lot like Hamilton, don’t they, these Whigs?
The Democrats—and remember, Democrats were Republicans—espoused Jeffersonian ideals. They aimed to protect farmers, including the slaveholding farmers of the South. They rejected urbanism, industry, and finance. They opposed a strong central government.
Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, for example, wanted each state to make its own choice on slavery. This idea, which he called Popular Sovereignty, would have allowed Northern states to salve their consciences by prohibiting the immoral institution while simultaneously the Southern states could go on exploiting African American slaves. Douglas thought it was the ideal solution.
As the slavery question came to dominate politics, the Whig party—which was not all of one mind on slavery—withered away. A new party was born to take its place. Founding delegates meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin, thought “Republican” would be a good name. The Democrats having discarded the label long before, it was up for grabs. So old Whigs like Willam H. Seward and Abraham Lincoln became Republicans.
By 1860, the two-party system comprised Republicans, who now occupied the niche the Federalists had carved in the 1790s; and Democrats, who formerly had called themselves Republicans, back when they stood against the Federalists.
All clear so far?
Maybe not? Perhaps a review is in order.
Hamilton led the Federalists, who wanted a strong government fostering industry, trade, and commerce. Jefferson led the Republicans, who wanted a weak central government, states’ rights, and a system tilted in favor of dispersed farmers.
Through a process of evolution, the party that carried on Hamilton’s outlook called itself “Republican” in the mid-nineteenth century, as the Jeffersonian Republicans decades earlier had changed their label to “Democrats.”
When the Civil War came along, it was a war between the Republicans and the Democrats. That’s an oversimplification, but conceptually it is true.
The Republicans won the Civil War and the Democrats lost the Civil War.
Then the Republicans, assuming the slavery question had been settled, went on to other preoccupations: high finance and large-scale industry—typical Hamiltonian concerns.
The Democrats, after losing the Civil War, hoped to restore their party’s good name in the North while restoring society to its antebellum status in the South.
Now, Kind Reader, it is beyond Your New Favorite Writer’s competence to sketch how the two-party system evolved from a quasi-Hamiltonian versus a quasi-Jeffersonian party a century ago to a Big Government party and a Small Government Party today.
I am only here to suggest that today’s Democrats seem to espouse postures of which Hamilton, the Federalist, might approve. And today’s Republicans seem to espouse postures that Jefferson, the Republican, might endorse.
Would it be folly to suggest that today’s Democrats are a continuation of Hamilton’s Federalists, and that today’s Republicans now carry on the tradition of Jefferson’s Republicans?
Perhaps it is folly. Yet there is something in it.
Reading Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, I especially enjoyed one statement by the author: “If Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government.”
Hamilton set the pattern of the federal government as an active partner in setting the United States up to be a great nation—commercially, politically, and on the world stage. Because of Hamilton we have a federal government that is not afraid to step into the lives of its citizens and assume a directive role.
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others were wary of such confident assertiveness by the Executive Branch. They strove to establish primacy of the Congress over the Executive. With almost 250 years of perspective, we can say they largely failed in that mission. Congress today is more an appendage of the presidency than the other way around.
Largely for this reason, today’s Republicans wage a twilight struggle against federal overreach, highlighting many cases where people’s lives have suffered unreasonable intrusion by the federal government. They are opposing a well-entrenched foe—the Democrats, moved by a vision of the good things government has accomplished, and all the good things it might yet accomplish, if only the Republicans would let it.
The chief lesson of our common past is that the passions of today did not spring full-blown from our own brilliant imaginations. They are the echoes of similar passions begun centuries ago and modulated along the rocky pathways of the intervening years.
Lord help us all if we fail to grasp the implications of this fact.
On a nice day in May, as I lay in my zero gravity chair in the backyard, looking up, examining cloud patterns etched in a blue dome, its bottoms fringed round with the yellow-green of spring trees—it occurred to me that however much time this reverie took, I could spare.
Growing older, I become more patient. With each passing year—each step closer to the chasm that ends this life and drops us into the next—I am less concerned about running out of time.
When young I was often impatient.
Now, my impatience is all used up.
In the midst of the storm and strife, the middle years of life, there are things to accomplish that seem time-bound. We must prove ourselves in some minor skill before we can move up the ladder. We must pile up enough gold to send our kids to college by the time they are ready to go. We need to stretch and to strive, to scrimp and to save, to squirrel away assets against the future.
All that is behind me. Now, everything worth doing seems to want all my attention. It is less vital to finish than to engage.
Kipling sketched a remarkable image of the afterlife—only I suppose it applies to my here and now:
When Earth's last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and faith, we shall need it—lie down for an aeon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall put us to work anew.
And those that were good shall be happy: they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comet’s hair.
They shall find real saints to draw from—Magdalene, Peter, and Paul;
They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all!
And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame;
And no one will work for the money, and no one will work for the fame,
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are!
We who have lived beyond the hustle and urgency of mid-life know a secret we could tell to those still trapped in that gosh-awful hurly-burly. But it’s no good; they would not listen.
Or rather, they would not hear. Even gifted with the best intentions and the strongest focus, they could not hear. You don’t have ears for that secret until it becomes your own.
It is the whisper of Eternity. It says: Go. Do. Enjoy. Be. You have all the time there is.
A news story stunned my ears last week, courtesy of Wisconsin Public Radio.
“A bipartisan bill is expected to be released this month that would change the way most public schools in Wisconsin teach reading,” reported Corinne Hess.
“. . . Instead of being taught reading through pictures, word cues and memorization, children would be taught using a phonics-based method that focuses on learning to sound out letters and phrases.
“According to [the Department of Public Instruction], only about 20 percent of school districts are using a phonics-based approach to literacy education. Other reading curriculums that don’t include phonics have been shown to be less effective for students.”
Whoa. Stop the presses!
Bipartisan? Could peace be at hand in the Great Reading War?
When I was a kid in 1951—yes, 72 years ago—our teachers taught us phonics. They leaked the remarkable secret that each letter represents one or more sounds in the spoken English language. (I mean American English, Dear Reader. I hold no brief for British, ANZAC, or South African speakers who utter tortured diphthongs where we would use vowels.)
We learned that “a” can be pronounced long, as in “bake”; short, as in “flag”; soft, as in “father”; and so forth. We learned that “c” is sometimes hard, as in “cat,” and sometimes soft, as in “recess.” Interestingly, “bicycle” has a soft c and a hard c, both in one word. “Y,” also interestingly, can sound like a long “i,” as in “tyke,” or as a long “e,” as in “candy,” or as a short “i,” as in “bicycle.” But sometimes it has a special motive force of its own, as in “Yankee.”
We were taught that phonics rules had exceptions—quite a few of them, actually. For example, sometimes the sound normally represented by the letter f is actually spelled with the two letters “ph,” as in “telephone.” Sometimes the two-letter combination “ch” is pronounced like a hard c or a k, as in “chorus,” not with the soft “ch” sound of “chair.” And so forth, and so on.
Oh, so many exceptions. Yet, even with all these exceptions, the whole thing hung together and made a kind of sense.
When you met an unfamiliar word you could “sound it out,” and nine times out of ten it turned out to be a word you already knew. You could produce a string of sounds from a word’s letters, and you would suddenly recognize the word.
Hallelujah! A light bulb went on in your head.
Sometimes you had to try three or four runs at it, using alternate pronunciations, but eventually you could figure it out.
The opportunity to sound out the words you didn’t know made reading a joy. You could move forward at a decent speed. A great bonus was that when you figured out a word, all its snags and bumps stayed with you. So when you discovered that “diaphragm” spelled dy-uh-fram, not dy-uh-fraggum, you remembered that silent g ever afterward.
It was never a perfect system, but it worked pretty well for those of us who were thoroughly drilled in phonics in the first two or three grades of school.
So what could possibly go wrong?
Politics, that’s what.
In 1955, Rudolf Flesch published a book called Why Johnny Can’t Read—And What You Can Do About It. Flesch’s thesis was that a new method of reading instruction—the so-called “whole word” or “look-say” method—was robbing a generation of youngsters of the power of reading. Instead of learning to associate letters with sounds and thereby sound out the words they were reading, young people were expected to simply recognize words one by one, from their general shape. This made reading into an insurmountable guessing game, according to Flesch—akin to the challenge faced by young Chinese who need to learn thousands of separate characters.
The whole word method was not actually new—education guru Horace Mann embraced it in the 1840s—but it had gradually supplanted phonics instruction in American public schools in the first half of the twentieth century.
When Flesch launched his withering critique in 1955, it met stiff resistance from a liberal educational establishment that had largely adopted the whole word method and rejected phonics. This debate soon went the way of all debates in our fractured society: The politicians made it their own. Reading became just another battlefront in our great cultural war. If you were conservative you favored phonics; if you were liberal, you pooh-poohed phonics and favored the whole word approach (also called the whole language approach).
That frozen paradigm has persisted through six or seven decades. If you were for phonics, you might want to put the 19th-century McGuffey readers back in the classroom; you might also be suspicious of fluoride in the water supply and aspire to Make America Great Again. On the other hand, if you favored the whole language approach, you were probably a card-carrying member of the teachers’ union and wanted to put Critical Race Theory in the classrooms.
A Freshening Wind
Now, there seems to be a shift in the wind. For the first time in my long memory, it seems both sides have tired of treating reading as a political football and are seeking to coalesce on “evidence-based” or “scientific” methods of reading instruction. And scientific evidence has accumulated in favor of phonics to the point where it cannot be ignored.
But here’s what’s really new: The Republican assemblyman drafting new legislation on the matter is working with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to draft a plan teachers can embrace. Liberal Democratic governor Tony Evers, himself a veteran educator, sounds willing to endorse a bipartisan phonics plan.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if educational practices, for once, were not held hostage to partisan ideologies? One would like to think it can happen.
A Personal View
I was taught phonics. My wife, also a product of the 1950s, learned to read by the whole word method. I am a good speller and know a lot about the way words are put together. My wife is not a confident speller and is deaf to many verbal nuances.
On the other hand, there are probably people who became excellent spellers and wordsmiths without ever being exposed to phonics. And there are probably people who learned phonics but did not learn to read very well. No theory can fully capture the natural differences in people’s aptitudes and learning styles.
As a traditionalist, I look askance at laws that would dictate teaching methods statewide. What ever happened to local school boards?, I wonder. Should not they, rather than the legislature or the DPI, control the curriculum and pedagogy in their own schools?
In an era when powerful forces militate for broad uniformity of policy in all arenas, there is something to be said for the idea of local variation—or at least, for the possibility of local variation. It’s hard to imagine that Milwaukee and Black River Falls have the same set of problems and need identical solutions.
Even with that caveat, if current trends bring about a re-emphasis on phonics, that’s probably a good thing—especially if we can bury the hatchet on our longstanding war over how children learn to read.