Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood #4

Today we continue our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”

In our first three installments, we covered (1) achieving literary lionhood immediately, (2) actually writing something, and (3) getting feedback on your first draft. 

Once you have gotten that feedback, you can use it to revise the first draft into something better. You might think it will then be time to submit your work for publication. 

But first, Dear Reader, let us mention another step you should not overlook or skip in your understandable haste to be published. You can perform it while you are revising; or earlier, as you seek feedback; or even while you are writing the first draft. 

You can actually do this step from the first moment you become a literary lion. In fact, it is an essential part of being a literary lion.

Step Four: Associate

Writing is a lonely occupation.

Alone, you put words on paper. Alone, you revise those words. Alone, you submit your work for publication. And when your book, story, or poem is not chosen—it is you alone who faces the rejection.

A lonely pen. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

It takes strong character and steadfast purpose to keep going. 

To counter the loneliness inherent in the craft, you will bless yourself and others by forming as many friendships, alliances, and acquaintances as possible in the literary community. Think of it as a “Lonely Pens Club.” 

A quick way to get started on this is to attend a writers’ conference.

The Writers’ Conference

Real testimony from writer and literary lion Larry F. Sommers:

I remember the first writers’ conference I attended, not that long ago:  The University of Wisconsin Writers’ Institute, one of the nation’s premier events, held every (non-COVID) spring in Madison. 
Writers, agents, editors, publishers, and writing coaches thronged the halls and meeting rooms of the conference venue for four glorious days. Some of them I knew already. A couple of the event’s organizers were UW writing instructors, Christine DeSmet and Laurie Scheer, old friends of mine. Three or four members of my writers’ critique group, Tuesdays With Story, were fellow attendees. But there were hundreds of other people, previously unknown, just waiting to be met.
As I chatted idly with these folks, attended workshops with them, conversed with speakers, teachers, coaches, agents, and various kinds of promoters, it dawned on me: “THESE PEOPLE ARE MY TRIBE!”
Some of them are as different from me as it’s possible to be. They’re working on stories and projects far removed from mine. But all of us know the thrill and the terror of writing one’s ideas down on paper, revising and rewriting, showing our work to others and receiving the inevitable critiques.
We may be fighting in different wars, but we’re all in the same foxhole.

Some people you meet at a writers’ conference will become close friends, with whom you feel a deep sympathy. Some, not so much. But even the kooks and the weirdos are worth meeting, listening to, and getting to know. Almost every writer has something to share—some bit of craft, philosophy, or marketing knowledge—that you can use. And they are amazingly generous with their knowledge.

It may surprise you to learn that they consider you a valuable contact and a source of useful information. In this foxhole there are no strangers.

When you attend a conference, it’s wise to go “loaded for bear.” Study the conference schedule to dope out which workshops and learning sessions are musts for you. Bone up on any presentation materials thata may be distributed in advance. Learn the names and reputations of agents, publishers, and other key participants. 

If the conference offers opportunities to share your work or to compete in impromptu writing challenges, figure out what you have to do to be included.

A writers’ conference is like a large, juicy, orange. In view of its dollar cost and relative infrequency—you really should suck it dry.

Bring business cards and hand them to everybody you can hand them to. Accept theirs as well, and write down or remember what you know about each person. The day after the conference ends, send each new contact a message of friendship and hopes for future engagement. 

Follow your new friends on social media. Attend their book launches, readings, signings, and other events. Be a social butterfly in the cage of literary lions.

The Critique Group

In Installment Three: Get Feedback, we touched on the importance of joining a writers’ mutual critique group. We won’t repeat that advice here but will mention a couple of ways this kind of group can help you befriend others in your tribe.

In the first place, some of these writers you interact with month by month may attend the same regional writers’ conference you attend. So you’ll already have friends at the conference; your initial plunge into the larger milieu need not be cold turkey. 

Also, because of frequent contact with these people, you will come to know them and their writings very well, as they will you. 

If anybody’s support will combat the cloud of gloom that may envelop a writer in her solitary task, it is these folks. They are your tribe-within-a-tribe.

Local Events

Make it a point to pop in on readings, signings, or book launches in your community. Be there for your friends. Buy their books, post reviews, and spread the word. It’s a matter of supporting your fellow writers and your local independent booksellers. This support may come back to you when it’s your turn to make a personal appearance—but it’s what you would do for friends in any case. And it also helps you to become known among the writing and publishing community in your locale. 

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In all this, Dear Reader, remember that your writing is a gift. In the first place, it’s a gift to you from your Maker. In the second place, it’s a gift you may give to your community. Only when the gift has been recognized, realized, and given away may the chance arise to earn money as a result. And the fruits of that quest are unpredictable at best.

So don’t get ahead of yourself. Play the long game.

In all your comings and goings with writers, agents, publishers, and others involved in the business of turning stories into the commodity known as “literature,” don’t be afraid to mention and defend the work you’ve been doing—but only within the general context of sharing within the tribe. Never commandeer center stage in order to promote your work.

Make sure to express your genuine regard for fellow writers and your appreciation of their work. 

Be patient, and associate.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: “Step Five: Submit” 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood #3

Today we continue our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be. 

If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.

In our last installment, we mentioned the importance of actually writing a first draft. This time, we will cover what to do once you have written it.

Step Three: Get Feedback

Your baby. Your manuscript. “kinda bw bokeh” by ʎɔ. is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Having typed “The End” on a first draft—and having madly yet responsibly celebrated that achievement—you now have the raw material on which you may Revise Your Way to Greatness.

But revision cannot happen in a vacuum. You need to let someone see—and critique—your first draft. 

This brings vulnerability. Maybe you cannot endure it. In that case, forget about being a writer. 

Feeling vulnerable? Photo by Ava Sol on Unsplash.

There is no choice but to open yourself to others. Or do you write only for your own private amusement?

Of course it’s hard. When we’ve poured our time, effort, and care into a story, it becomes our baby. We see all its beauties and none of its faults. 

For this reason, any revision you may attempt before seeking outside opinions is guaranteed to be trivial. You may fix a typo, change a comma to a semicolon, or break one paragraph into two. Because when something is basically perfect, it needs only little tweaks to become fully perfect. Right?

Perspective

Enter the outside critic. 

That would be anybody but yourself. They go by many names: collaborator, writing group member, beta reader, consultant, developmental editor, spouse. All these sources of valuable feedback have one thing in common. 

They are not you.

They offer a perspective you cannot attain on your own.

Here is what will happen: You will share your manuscript with an outside critic, trembling a bit lest your brilliant writing style go unappreciated. You will fear being asked to make your language a bit less flowery—or a bit more flowery. 

Instead, you will find out that your reader did not even grasp what you were saying.

When you wrote “There was a Prussian cast to Emil’s appearance,” you assumed readers would have the impression of a stiff German soldier, maybe even wearing a spiky helmet. But then your actual reader says, “Why was his complexion blue?” 

Von Moltke. Public Domain.

And speaking of Prussians, Field Marshal von Moltke said, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond first contact with the main hostile force.” 

But your “main hostile force” is not hostile at all. It is your reader, who only wants to understand. She wants you to succeed as an author, and all she asks is that you say what you mean, in a way she can understand. Is that so much to ask?

Well, yes. It is. 

Our mother tongue is a marvelous thing. It includes thousands of words, each with multiple meanings. You must string words together in a way that conveys meaning without ambiguity. (We mean, without unintended ambiguity. Purposeful ambiguity is an advanced technique we shall not bother with here.) 

It turns out—stupid as this seems—that the only way to avoid confusing your reader is to go ahead and confuse a few readers, but ask them to report back to you. 

Writing for public consumption is like lobbing artillery shells over a distant horizon. Your first shots fall short, or long, or to left or right of the target. That’s why gunners use spotters—remote observers who report where the shell actually landed. Then they change their aim and shoot again. 

A 155 mm artillery shell fired by a United States 11th Marine Regiment M-198 howitzer. DoD photo by Corporal Branden P. O’Brien, U.S. Marine Corps. Public Domain.

That’s what you must do as an author. 

Feedback

Perhaps you noticed the use of the plural—readers, spotters, observers—in the paragraphs above. That’s because any one outside critic will only trip over a few of the obstacles you have put in the way of understanding. You need reports from several readers to find all, or even most, of them. 

Bill Martinez, a veteran writing coach, calls obstacles of this sort “snags.” They snag the reader’s attention away from the story, to focus instead on some verbal tic or point of confusion. You want to eliminate as many snags as you can.

This kind of feedback is so essential to your success as a writer that you need systematic ways to solicit, interpret, and exploit it. We recommend a tiered approach such as the following:

A first reader. The very first person with whom you share your first draft. It could be your spouse—if your spouse is intelligent and supportive, yet unflinchingly honest—and if your marriage can survive such honest critiques. 

Or your first reader could be someone else with those same qualities. Someone whose judgment you trust, whose views you cannot help but respect. 

If you cannot find such a person, then skip the first reader. But if you are lucky enough to have a first reader, that person can save you time, effort, and embarrassment by short-circuiting your worst ideas before they go any further.

One (or more) writers’ group(s). You need to join a small group of writers—no more than a dozen or so—who meet regularly to read and critique one another’s work. Wherever there are writers, such groups exist.

Writers’ mutual critique groups are all different, but the ones that work well have some things in common: (1) They meet regularly, usually once or twice a month. (2) They have procedures to allot reading, critiquing, and discussion time fairly among members. (3) They operate in a collegial fashion, with members offering sharp, yet supportive, critiques. The guiding hand of a seasoned, congenial chairperson/convener can foster these goals. 

When you find such a group, treasure it and respect its ethic. You may need to lurk for months on its fringes to gain familiarity and to inherit a slot in the rotation of works to be critiqued. 

Whether you are new or well-established in the group: Speak respectfully. Don’t hog the conversation. Diligently read the other members’ work and contribute your two cents’ worth, orally or in writing, or both. As you learn to give criticism constructively, learn also to receive it the same way. There’s nothing wrong with defending your own methods. But don’t do so out of a knee-jerk reflex that blinds you to the benefit of others’ ideas. 

If you can get into one such group, that’s great. If you can be in two, that’s even better. 

Beta readers. When you have revised your first draft, based on feedback from your first reader and your writers’ group colleagues, you may feel the resulting second draft is in pretty good shape. 

Disabusing you of that foolish notion is the task of a small corps of beta readers.

Beta readers agree to read your entire manuscript and give you feedback. Choose them for specific strengths they bring. One beta reader may be expert in a field related to your book’s content. Another may be a writer of strong, graceful prose. Another may have a special connection with your story’s main character. Yet another may know the publishing industry, or may simply be a person of rare perception and judgment.

“Sensitivity readers” are beta readers who can alert an author to passages that may offend readers based on racial or other group identities. People with such insights can be of value—their services may even be mandated by an agent or publisher—to avoid alienating large groups of readers. 

The best beta readers are intelligent, unsparing, distinguised, and willing to work for free. Some beta readers, however, charge for their services. And their advice may be worth paying for. That’s a decision you will have to make.

Application

When you get feedback on your work, what do you do with it?

Evaluate each comment. What’s it worth? Should you make a change, or stand pat? 

Remember: You are the author. It’s your work.

Some notes you get will be well-meant but ill-founded. Thank the originator graciously and move on. 

Some comments will strike right to the bone and force a deep reconsideration of your approach. Major revisions are a lot of work. But it’s better you received this feedback now, not later. The earlier you discover a problem, the better.

Most comments will fall between the two extremes just cited. You should consider them, but how seriously should you take them? 

If you get the same comment from two or three sources, you must address the issue. It’s not one person’s isolated impression.

But there is a danger that revision may lead you away from your first intention. The larger the revision, the greater the danger of undermining your own creative impulse.

Here’s a conservative approach: Correct your draft in the least obtrusive way possible. That is, address the issue, but undercorrect slightly. You may enrich your narrative and short-circuit the snag, yet without changing the rhythm or purpose of your prose.

Editors

Eventually, your outside critics will change from “readers” to “editors.” This change is inevitable if your work is to be published. 

If you achieve “traditional” publication, by a royalty-paying book publisher or an established periodical publication, your work will be assigned to an editor who works for the publisher. If your book will be self-published, then you will hire an editor to prepare the manuscript for publication. (You could skip this step, but we’re assuming you don’t want to publish a pile of crap. And no, we don’t believe that you—besides being the writer and the publisher—have the skills and objectivity to do a good job editing your own work.)

If your work is intended for traditional publication rather than self-publication, you may think you’ve escaped the need to pay for editing, since the publisher will do that. Well . . . maybe.

But if you send your work to agents and publishers, and you find that even those few who actually read the work are not impressed, then maybe you would benefit from hiring an editor for your own enlightenment. 

There are, in general, two kinds of editors: developmental editors and line editors. A developmental editor will help you identify structural weaknesses—major problems of plot and characterization, if you’re a novelist, or of general organization, if you write nonfiction. You may resist, resent, or reject the feedback of a good developmental editor. His advice may send you back to the early stages of story development. You may need to rip out and and rewrite large sections. But if you receive his feedback with an open mind, you may find the extra work is warranted.

A line editor, also called a copy editor, will help you correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and conform the copy to all the requirements of the Chicago Manual of Style or other governing style guide. This is detail-oriented work, with which many writers have little patience. But if you submit a manuscript that falls short of the exacting standards of the publishing industry, its other merits may not be enough to save it.

In a Nutshell

Whether you get their services for free or need to pay, outside critics—be they first readers, writers’ group colleagues, beta readers, or professional editors—are an essential step on your path to publication.

We live in an abundance of riches. The literary world is flooded with so many good manuscripts that your work must be first-rate to attract any attention at all. There is no shame in admitting that you need feedback from others to make it so.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: “Step Four: Associate”

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood #2

Today we continue our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”

 “Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be. 

If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.

Step One was “Skip Straight to Literary Lion.” 

This week we feel compelled to point out that writing is also an essential prerequisite.

Step Two: Write

At some point, every writer asks, “Am I really a writer?” Or, “How do I know if I’m a writer?” 

The simplest answer is best. If you write, you’re a writer.

Author’s Guild logo

This answer does not rest on anybody’s laurels. You need not be a member of the Authors’ Guild to be a writer—though, if you are a writer, it’s not a bad guild to be a member of. 

You need not have won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, or a Newbery Medal. 

You need not even have published a book, an article, or a poem to be a writer. 

If someone asks what you do, just say, “I’m a writer.” This will get you past impostor syndrome. Unless you don’t actually write. 

So write.

As to where you write, when you write, how often you write, how much you write, whether or not anybody reads what you write, whether or not anybody likes what you write—these are details. 

Just get something down on paper. 

(When we say “on paper,” we mean to include virtual representations of paper, as in a computer file.)

Discipline

Maybe you already have something down on paper. Maybe you need to add something to it, so what you have on paper becomes a more complete something. It could be a story, a screenplay, a poem, a novel, a novella, an essay, or a memoir.

Your first object is to write—and to keep writing. We’re talking about discipline, which belongs to what is called “the craft” of writing. 

Writers all have different methods, or different approaches to the actual task of putting something down on paper. 

Some write before breakfast; others write after lunch. 

Some write on a laptop; others use goose quill pens on antique parchment paper. 

Your writing nest. Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash.

Some write from a beach house overlooking a blue lagoon; others write in rented office space to get away from family and friends; others write on the kitchen table while feeding six hungry children. 

Some write in absolute silence; others type to the tune of a Death Metal soundtrack.

It’s all okay. Your way is your way. But the more rarefied your minimal writing conditions become, the more obstacles you place in the way of getting anything down on paper. 

By all means, find the time and place that works best for you—but if things are less than perfect, write anyway. Do not let the perfect defeat the good.

Output

How much, and with what regularity, should you write? How much, and how regularly, can you write? There are no wrong answers to this question. But the more you can write, the more you will write. 

Some well-known authors apply the seat of their pants to their writing chair and do not rise until they have produced a thousand new words. Or they write flat-out for four hours each day and stop in mid-sentence when their buzzer goes off. 

If you need to quantify your efforts in that way, go for it. But one size does not fit all. Some of us just write whenever we can squeeze it in. If a lot of things bubble up inside you that you need to write down, that’s as good a way as any.

So relax. Your Muse will not fail you. Just write. 

We hate to even mention “writer’s block,” but we suppose we must, even though it’s akin to whispering “homesick” at a summer camp full of junior Brownies. 

Some writers insist writer’s block is a myth, that there is no such thing.

We prefer to say that if writer’s block exists, it applies to non-writers, not to writers. And the beauty part of that is, you get to decide each day whether you are the one or the other.

First Draft

We noted above that you may already have something down on paper. We gently suggested that you keep on writing. When you reach the place where it makes sense to type “The End,” go ahead and do so.

Then do a little victory dance, eat a Twinkie, and congratulate yourself. You have achieved that which many people never achieve. You have completed the first draft of a literary work. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

But know that the achievement you just celebrated is the start of a long process. First drafts are inherently defective. 

Some writers have even said, “All first drafts are shit.”  We prefer more moderate expressions.

But the fact remains that all first drafts need to be improved. No author ever rolled a first draft out of his old Underwood typewriter, sent it off to Random House, and received a million-dollar advance in the next mail. 

(Harold Robbins claimed that was his process, but he was a notorious liar.)

Suffice it to say, before you can begin to improve your first draft, you must have a first draft to improve. Thus our constant admonition: “Keep writing.” 

Revision

When you go back and read your first draft, you will want to change something, and that’s revision. 

For many of us, revision is the fun part of writing. We are editors at heart and love to chop away at dull prose, spruce it up, and bring it to life. And that is a good and holy thing. 

But if you are one of us—one of those who would rather edit than write—try to resist the urge.

James Patterson. Photo by Susan Solie-Patterson, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

You may be the greatest reviser on God’s green earth. But if you start with a poorly conceived first draft, no clever amendments to the copy will revise it into greatness. 

That is why they pay James Patterson a lot of money.

We fear, Dear Reader, that you must acquire the knack of putting a good story into your first draft right from the start.

Unless you are a “natural storyteller,” to build a compelling story, one worth writing down with the best words and phrases you can bring to it, is an art that takes many years, and lots of practice, to acquire.

So you’d better start now.

Square One

There you are: Just you and your keyboard. What are you going to do?

You start with an idea. We can’t help you there; it has to be your own idea. The good news is, there are a lot of ideas you could have that will deliver the goods, depending what you choose to do with them.

Let your idea become a person. A specific person, a character with a need and a desire. The story you are going to write will be her story. She is the “progagonist.” Her chief attribute, above all others, is action. 

A protagonist takes action prompted by his or her needs, to meet his or her desires, and despite serious obstacles.

Here is where it gets tricky, Dear Reader. It may be hard to put yourself in the protagonist’s shoes. Unless you are a swashbuckler in real life, a protagonist is different from you and me. 

When faced with the demands of life, we hem and we haw. We shilly-shally and we dilly-dally, in a wishy-washy way.

Not our protagonist. The protagonist plunges right in and commits herself to a course of action, whether impulsively or with a carefully calculated plan. 

She acts. Right now. 

Before you, the author, can catch your breath, the protagonist has dragged you into a conflict, a problem, a nearly-insoluble dilemma. 

The protagonist will have to use her wits and battle her way out. So the one thing the protagonist cannot be is passive.

Protagonism

Writers sometimes say: “The protagonist must protag.”

That may be the main principle to observe in writing your first draft. 

The protagonist must protag.

In your new identity as a literary lion (see Step One), you are no doubt reading books and articles about story structure—books that break or analyze your story’s plot into definable acts, or beats, or “stages of the Hero’s Journey.” All of these concepts are fine and dandy. They will help you out of tight spots. We encourage you to learn and use them. 

But none of them will work out well unless your protagonist is active. And if your protagonist is active, he or she will organically create the story structure, just by protagging all over the story’s landscape. 

Keep your protagonist protagging until you come to some satisfying end. 

Then you can start revising. 

BUT

You cannot revise out of thin air, Dear Reader. For successful revision, you must expose your first draft to intelligent readers and get well-considered feedback. Which will be the subject of our next article.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: “Step 3: Get Feedback” 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood

Today, as a public service (Ta-DA!), we begin a series of articles meant to help You, The Aspiring Author, conquer the himalayas of literary greatness. 

Actual Himalayas. Drukair, Bhutan. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

You’re welcome.

We propose that you achieve this impressive goal in SIX SIMPLE STEPS. 

“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be. 

If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” / Let us go and make our visit.

 (Literary Allusion Alert: File under “T.S. Eliot.”)
T.S. Eliot. Photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell. Public Domain.

Step One: Skip Straight to “Literary Lion”

Cut the line. 

Do not wait for greatness to be thrust upon you. Thrust it upon yourself. 

Since becoming a literary lion is your goal, go ahead and be one. Believe me, if you can’t do this one simple thing, you’re not going to find the other five steps any easier.

(Caveat: What We Are Not Saying. We are not saying “Fake it till you make it.” You can’t fake literary accomplishment. You have to get it the old-fashioned way, like the guy in that old commercial says. You have to earn it.)

If you haven’t begun to do so yet, then begin now.

You must do all kinds of inherently literary things. Such as, for example, “Write.” But that’s Step Two.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of other literary things you must do in addition to writing.

When you do them, as you must, you will be living the literary life—like it or not. 

Are you prepared for this?

You must readWe don’t mean just “read.” Everybody reads for fun, don’t they? 

(No, not actually. Lots of people never read anything more interesting than a cloned Facebook meme. But if you’re still with us, then you are probably one of those who do read, at least for fun.)

At the risk of repeating ourselves, we don’t mean just “read”—we mean READ

Read everything you can that’s a classic of your genre. And for balance, read things that are poorly-executed examples of your genre. Read things outside your genre entirely. 

Read books and articles on the art and craft of writing. Read pieces about the business of writing, and how to sell your work. 

Read books, stories, articles, and blog posts by friends (more on this in “Step 3: Get Feedback” and “Step 4: Associate”). Read your own work, with a view to improving it. Read miscellaneous books that come to your attention, just because somebody said they were good.

Read good literature. It may help you figure out how to write good literature.

Larry F. Sommers,

An up-and-coming writer of our acquaintance, Larry F. Sommers, testifies:

“I was seventy years old before I got serious about writing. I thought I was quite a reader, but since becoming a literary lion, I’ve averaged fifty to seventy-five books a year—not to mention stories, articles, and poems.”

When you read this much, two things will happen: (1) Your library card will get threadbare from use. (2) Partly-finished, recently finished, and not-yet-started books will occupy every horizontal surface in your vicinity. Welcome to literary lionhood.

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

(Lionhood is the state of being a lion—a literary one, in our case. Lionization—Haha!—maybe in the Afterlife.)

You must gather your tools about you. There are certain things you will need. Some of them cost money, and you must be prepared to invest in them. 

You need a good, standard dictionary such as Webster’s New World College Dictionary or even the Oxford English Dictionary if you can afford it. Either hardcopy or electronic version will cost money. (The many freebie dictionaries found online are about worth what you pay for them.) 

You will need the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s the starting point on important matters of style for nearly all publishers. But you also need a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which in some particulars contradicts the Chicago manual; it’s still worth owning for its brief but powerful advice on how to write the English language. And you will want at least a couple of writers’ magazines; we recommend The Writer and Writer’s Digest for starters.

In order to get your work widely read, you will need to sell it. Therefore you will want some useful compendia of marketing information, such as Writer’s Market or Writer’s Handbook; Jeff Herman’s Guide To Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents; and a $25 monthly subscription to the enormously useful PublishersMarketplace website.

Basic tools of craft are needed just for getting your words down on paper (or its electronic equivalent). Some particular brand of laptop computer, let’s say; or a ruled notebook and pens or pencils of a certain kind; or an antique Underwood typewriter; or goose quills. Every writer has his or her own preferred substrate. But whatever it is, you need to have it, so you can, you know, write (see “Step Two: Write”).

We seriously recommend a good computer and a copy of Microsoft Word. If you originate your manuscripts in any other medium or format, you will still need to copy it over to a computer file before a publisher can use it to bring you lots of fame and fortune. But suit yourself.

You must make your presence known. This falls, really, into “Step 6: Platform.” But the problem is, you can’t wait till the end of the process to build your platform. You’ve got to start now.

A writer’s “platform” is simply the sum total of credible ways by which that writer makes his or her work known to the world. If you’re a major motion picture star, all you have to do is write a book and let the publicist mention it to the world. You have millions of adoring fans already; some of them will buy your book.

For those of us who are not celebrities, it’s harder. You have to acquire fans one at a time and keep them interested in you and your writing until you can publish a book and press it into their hot little hands. It takes time for an unknown author to build a following of people who can be relied on to buy a book. Start now.

You make your presence known by authoring a blog; by frequenting one or more social media engines such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.; by showing up at writerly events in your vicinity, such as book signings and readings, literary chats, etc.; or by attending writers’ courses and conferences. 

As you do these things, more and more people will begin to recognize you as a fixture of that part of the world they think of as “literary.” That’s good. That’s what you want.

You must write. This is self-evident, but we include it here because it is an essential part of becoming a literary lion. “Essential” in this case means, “You cannot omit it.”

But never fear. The writing part is so important we devote an entire step to it. In fact, the very next one in this series, “Step Two: Write.” 

So here and now it suffices to say that writing is the quintessential literary activity. The more time you spend writing, the more time you spend in the world of the literary lion.

THEREFORE, Dear Reader:  When you faithfully practice these key disciplines of literary lionhood—reading, gaining possession and use of essential literary tools, making your presence known in literary venues, and actually spending regular amounts of time writing your work—you will not have to pinch yourself, or poke yourself in the eye (which we would not recommend in any case) to know that you are living the literary life. 

You will have stepped into the Twilight Zone which is the literary world, on your way to the base camp for scaling the literary himalayas.

Bon voyage.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: “Step Two: Write” 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Heg’s Message for 2020

Last Tuesday, I posted a jeremiad. It was my first response to the destruction of a venerable statue here in Madison, Wisconsin.

Friends who saw this lament commented, “Well, at least now, from your blog post, I have learned about Colonel Hans Christian Heg.” Meaning, they now know the name of the man whose statue was destroyed.

But if that’s all you know of Heg, then you need to know quite a bit more before you can begin to understand just why his story happens to be especially important right at this moment. 

So here goes:

Immigrant

Hans Christian Heg’s father, Even Hansen Heg, was an enterprising man who owned and operated a hotel in Drammen, Norway. In 1840, encouraged by letters from two acquaintances, Sören Backe and Johannes Johanneson, Heg took his wife and four children to join Backe and Johanneson at Wind Lake in the new Muskego Settlement in Racine County, Wisconsin.

Heg built a huge barn. It became a social and religious center and a place of first haven for Norwegian families arriving at Muskego. With its burgeoning population of Norsemen, Muskego was a place where new arrivals could adjust to America bit by bit, learning the new language and customs at an unhurried pace, because almost the whole community spoke Norsk. In 1847, Even Heg joined with Backe and editor James D. Reymert to start America’s first Norwegian-language newspaper, Nordlyset (The Northern Light).

Abolitionist

But by then, Even’s eldest son, Hans Christian, had already mastered the language and customs of America. In 1848, at nineteen, he became an active worker for the Free Soil Party, which opposed extension of slavery into the new states west of the Mississippi. The Nordlyset meanwhile had also become the party’s house organ in the Norwegian community.

Colonel Hans Christian Heg. Public Domain.

At age twenty, Heg answered the siren song of gold and joined the army of Forty-Niners headed for California. After two years there, and just when his prospecting was starting to pay, he received word of his father’s death. Since his mother was already dead, duty to his younger siblings called him home.

He took over the family farm at Wind Lake, married, and immersed himself in Free Soil politics. When the party merged into the new Republican Party, Heg became a Republican. In 1859, he was elected state prison commissioner, a post in which he worked to promote vocational training for prisoners. Two years later, with Republican Abraham Lincoln elected president, the states of the South seceded. The Civil War began. Heg resigned his prisons post and started recruiting fellow immigrants into the Union Army. His “thousand Norsemen” were mustered into service as the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, under Heg’s command.

Soldier

Bronze statue of Heg, by Paul Fjelde. Public Domain.

After leading the 15th through major battles at Perryville, Kentucky, and Stones River, Tennessee, Heg was shot through the gut at Chickamauga, Georgia. He died the next day. His body was shipped back to Wisconsin and buried in the Lutheran churchyard near Wind Lake. In 1925, the Norwegian Society of America commisioned Norwegian-American sculptor Paul Fjelde to create a nine-foot bronze statue of Heg in uniform. The society gave it to the state of Wisconsin and it was installed on the capitol grounds. There it stood, honoring Heg and his regiment for 95 years, until a mob—ostensibly seeking racial justice—tore it down, dismembered it, and threw it into Lake Monona on June 23, 2020.

But Wait—There’s More

If the information just given is all you know about Colonel Heg, you’re still missing the point. For context is everything.

As stirring and sad as Heg’s story is, it’s far from unusual. The reasons why it’s not unusual form the heart of the story. The statue destroyed last week was not so much a tribute to Heg as to the spirit shared by Heg and his comrades-in-arms.

Heg was one of at least 360,000 Americans who gave their lives wearing Union blue and who therefore can be said to have died in the fight against slavery. They were mostly white men, but increasingly as the war went on, many black soldiers also served and died.

Heg commanded the only all-Norwegian regiment in the war. But the 15th Wisconsin was hardly the only ethnic regiment. 

Germans

Prussian troops storm the revolutionaries’ barricades at Alexander Platz, Berlin, 1848. By JoJan – Own work; photo made at an exhibition at the Brandenburger Tor, Berlin, Germany, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17630682.

Many Germans had come to America as political refugees after the Revolutions of 1848-49 in the German states. They and other German-Americans populated all-German units such as the 8th and 68th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiments, the 52nd New York German Rangers, the 9th Ohio, 74th Pennsylvania, 32nd Indiana, and 9th Wisconsin infantry regiments.  Each Northern regiment had approximately one thousand men. Counting all who served in these ethnic units, and many more who served in ordinary regiments from the states where they lived, some 200,000 of the Americans who fought for the Union had begun life in Germany.

Irish

Green Ensign of the 1st Regiment (69th N. Y. Volunteer Infantry), Irish Brigade, Union Army. Public Domain.

The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s and 1850s brought a million and a half Irish people to America. Recent Irish immigrants serving in the Union Army numbered 150,000. Some served in all-Irish regiments like the 37th New York Volunteers and the 90th Illinois Volunteers. The 63rd, 69th, and 88th Infantry Regiments of New York formed the core of what was called the Irish Brigade. The brigade was shredded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, its effective force reduced from 1,600 to 256 men. In the whole course of the war, the Irish Brigade suffered the third greatest number of combat dead of all brigades in the Union Army.

Others

New York’s 79th Infantry Regiment was made up of recently-arrived Scots, who wore tartan kilts as part of their uniforms.

Other ethnic units had soldiers who had come to America from Italy, Switzerland, Hungary, Poland, France, and Spain. 

Many immigrant soldiers joined the fight in mixed units of ordinary Americans. 

My great-great-grandfather, Anders Gunstensen—a second son of a second son who came from Norway in 1853 because he could not inherit the farm—settled in central Illinois, where Norwegians were scarce. There was no local Norwegian regiment to join. The unit he did join—Company K, 106th Illinois Volunteer Infantry—was an outfit from Menard County whose other soldiers all had Anglo-American names, except for a handful of Germans and Irishmen. 

Motives

I wrote a novel, Freedom’s Purchase, a fictional account based on the lives of Anders Gunstensen and his wife, Maria. In making up the plot, except for a few dry, statistical facts—such as Anders’ membership in the 106th Illinois—I had no information about Anders’ and Maria’s lives in America. No letters, no diaries, no heirlooms. So I was free to speculate that a large part of Anders’ motive in serving was a strong opposition to slavery in his adopted land. I dare anyone to prove otherwise.

African American soldiers at an abandoned farmhouse in Dutch Gap, Virginia, 1864. By Unknown author – Library of Congress CALL NUMBER: LC-B811- 2553[P&P], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3819873

But the assumption is not far-fetched. It was demonstrably true of many immigrant soldiers in the Civil War, like Hans Christian Heg. 

Most or all of the African Americans who volunteered as soldiers had fighting slavery as a prime motive. They joined regiments such as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry—the unit celebrated in the film Glory—and various federal units known as United States Colored Troops.

Why?

What’s the point of all this? 

I said when you knew more about Colonel Hans Christian Heg and understood why he was not unusual, you would know the point of the story. What does that mean?

Here it is: Millions of men, women, and children braved long, perilous voyages in sailing ships from Europe to America in the years before the Civil War. Whether they fled famine, political persecution, or simple economic hardship, they came to America hoping for a better life. 

They sought not only the material wealth of this blessed country. They hungered also for the democratic, republican political system of the new nation that had electrified the world with its revolution of 1776 and its constitution of 1789.

Upon arrival, they found themselves part of a dynamic nation, strongly swayed by recent immigrants like themselves. When that nation was threatened with extinction, they came together to save it. 

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln told all Americans, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” And they believed him. 

These immigrants, whether they ate lefse, potatoes, or sauerkraut, came together in a joint cause. People who grew up in autocratic monarchies like that of Sweden/Norway (joined as a single country at the time) and those who came from German states jockeying for prominence in post-Napoleonic Europe came together for a complex of reasons. It was imperative to save the Union and high time to end the system of slavery. 

They joined forces with Anglo-Americans whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, with recent immigrants from other lands, and with undaunted, agitated African Americans whose friends and families still wore chains. 

They did something special for themselves, for black people in America, and for all of us  descendants. What they did, they did at the cost of their lives. Or they left arms or legs or facial parts on bloody fields and lived out their days hobbled. 

What they achieved was noble in conception but turned out to be a far cry from perfect when put through the wringer of a racist society. Their battlefield success was only one phase of a longer war—a struggle for freedom, understanding, and decency that is still being waged today. 

Those immigrant soldiers of the Civil War, men like Hans Christian Heg, did not solve all the big problems they inherited from America’s slavemasters. But they came together; and what they did, they did together. They kept the Union together to face the internal struggles of later times.

We have a gigantic task ahead of us—the formation of a better society—a task which can only be accomplished bit by bit.

The only way it can possibly be done is together.

That is why we should remember Hans Christian Heg and his many brothers in arms. That is why they are important.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Book Review

The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go

A novel by Amy E. Reichert

In the mood for a summer read that will boost your faith in people, yet without being simplistic and sappy? A book that may even compel you to cry real tears—I confess I did—from sympathy and joy?

A Wisconsin woman has written such a book for you. Her name is Amy E. Reichert, and the book is called The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go.

No, it’s not one of those step-by-step self-help guides guaranteed to make you happy by teaching you to trust your Inner Self. Instead, it’s a novel, the tale of four women—three  generations of one family—who must try out new, unaccustomed paths through life as they cope with dizzymaking love, heartbreaking loss, and hard-wrought social and psychic defense mechanisms. 

The story centers on Gina, who owns and operates a one-woman food truck, serving  gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches for Milwakee’s lunchtimers. Gina’s a pushover for people in real need, yet hard-nosed enough to run a thriving business. She’s also half-numb with mourning for her deceased husband and stumped by the challenge of relating to May, her equally grief-stricken daughter.

Gina, May, and Gina’s younger sister, Vicky, are showered with unwelcome parental supervision by Lorraine, Gina and Vicky’s overbearing mother. When a sudden crisis in Lorraine’s health begins to expose deeply-buried family secrets, all four need to readjust their lives to accommodate startling new realities.

I loved this book, principally because the people in it are so real. They are all people I’ve known, and I’ll wager you know them, too. The family situations they find themselves in both preposterous and absolutely credible. These are just the kinds of things that happen to people in real life.

The characters’ strengths can also be weaknesses, and their weaknesses strengths. Gina is a compulsive organizer, who can only stumble through her hectic days by making lists. Patronizing remarks to the contrary notwithstanding, it is Gina’s listmaking that gradually, persistently, begins to impose order on the chaos of her life—and even on the structure of the novel itself.

The old woman, Lorraine, is almost as irritating to the reader as she is to her daughters and granddaughter. But as her story gradually unwinds, we find ourselves admiring the very adaptations that make her so annoying. 

I would like to go on and on about the strengths of this novel, with its sure-footed narrative style. But if I write any more, you’ll begin to feel I’ve told you the whole story.

And it’s too good a story not to experience for yourself.

Ensconce yourself, at your earliest opportunity, with a copy of The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go. I’ll bet you will like it as much as I did.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Milo Bung: Fact or Fiction

There is a niche of special distinction in the Class Clowns’ Hall of Fame, and it contains a marble bust of Milo Bung, smiling beatifically and crowned with laurel. When we were in sixth grade Milo was a source of much innocent merriment.

Laurel-crowned Milo Bung. Or perhaps, Apollo? Photo © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

Where your average class clown fed on spectacles like putting a thumb tack on the teacher’s chair while she was down the hall grabbing a smoke, or stacking books on a desk corner so they would fall when somebody walked by, Milo was more subtle. 

His specialty was a unique glassy-eyed stare, which he flashed whenever the teacher called on him for an answer. I don’t know whether he was transfixed by the mystery of South America’s principal exports, or just languid by nature. 

Whatever Milo had, subtlety was of its essence.

Masking 

I bumped into him at the supermarket recently, pushing his cart the wrong way up a COVID-directed aisle. “Milo,” I said, “where’s your mask?” 

“Mask?” he wondered.

“Like the one I’m wearing. You know, for coronavirus.”

“Oh, is that why everybody’s wearing masks?”

I nodded, as emphatically as one can nod at Milo Bung. “Without a mask, you might get sick and die.”

His eyes opened wide. “Then I’d better stock up right now on Cheetos.” And off he dashed, up the down aisle.

Looting

That was my most recent encounter with Milo until now; but apparently he has not gotten sick and died yet, for I saw him tonight on the ten o’clock news. A squad car lay burning in the street. Several demonstrators, or maybe outside agitators, stepped through the smashed front window of a store that sells ladies’ foundation garments. They carried boxes and cartons of what must have been frilly unmentionables. 

Despite the burning squad car, no cops were in view; yet here came Milo, strolling down the street, right into camera range. He halted smack dab in the center of all this resistance to injustice. He swiveled his head this way and that, then stared into the camera with an expression that proclaimed, “Is anybody else seeing what I’m seeing?” He shrugged and ambled out the right side of the frame. He had something in his hands. Looked like a bag of Cheetos. 

Knowing they must have taped this earlier in the evening, I surmised that Milo Bung, if not in jail, might now be at home. So I dialed his number. Sure enough, he answered.

“I saw you on TV! In the middle of a riot!” I shouted as calmly as I could.

“A riot?” said Milo. “(Crunch, crunch.) Oh, sure, that’s what it must have been.”

“Couldn’t you tell?”

“Well, something funny was going on, that’s for sure. It’s getting so a guy can’t take an evening promenade (crunch, crunch) without running into out-of-towners.” 

“Out-of-towners!” I roared. “How do you know they were out-of-towners?”

“Well, (crunch, crunch), stands to reason. I mean, how many guys do you know from around here (crunch, crunch) that need so many boxes of lacy underwear for their sweeties?”

“Are you munching Cheetos?”

“Yeah, I got boxes and boxes of them. Come on over, I’ll give you some.”

“But weren’t you even aware what they were rioting about? It was injustice. Racial injustice. What do you think about that?”

There was a moment’s silence on the line while Milo digested my question, and his Cheetos. “One man’s injustice,” he said, “is another man’s free underwear.”

“Is that all you’ve got to say?”

“No, but if I told you, then you’d blab it to everybody else, so I’m clamming up.”

Uniformed Service

Milo was always a step or two ahead of the rest of us. He was the first boy in our class to declare what he wanted to be when he grew up: An elevator operator. “I like the look of a uniform,” he drawled. When we graduated from high school—and, lo! all elevators had been converted to self-service—Milo joined the Marines. 

Imagine my confusion when Ho Chi Minh let Milo live and returned him to our community in his original condition. He may simply have been unshootable. Wouldn’t surprise me one bit.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Desiderata

“Desiderata” is Latin for “things desired.” Often in difficult times, the thing we most desire is peace.

Max Ehrmann. Fair use.

The prolific, inspirational writer Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) of Terre Haute, Indiana, penned a prose poem that was published as “Desiderata” in 1948. It is the only one of his works to achieve enduring fame, and that only after his death. 

For its tone and diction, and because it once appeared in a church publication with the legend, “Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore AD 1692,” it is often assumed to be ancient, maybe even Scriptural in origin. “1692,” however, meant the date of the church’s founding, not of the poem’s writing.

Inspiration

“Desiderata” is neither Biblical nor liturgical nor even very old. But, like Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, it stakes a claim to an authenticity of its own. It swept the nation in 1971, when a voice artist named Les Crane released it as a spoken word recording. That was at the height of our nation’s internal turmoil over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. The serene, contemplative tone of the piece may have boosted its popularity.

Today we are again in a time of stress and conflict. Perhaps Mr. Ehrmann’s poem will be of some use to you. At least, it constitutes good advice.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Love . . . is as perennial as the grass. Photo by Мария Волк on Unsplash.
Do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Photo by Rendiansyah Nugroho on Unsplash.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

You are a child of the Universe. Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Unsocial Media

Never thought this blog would become a soapbox, but here goes—

For decades, we have decried “loss of civility” in our public discourse. 

Confucius said we would be less confused if we called things by their right names. What we commonly call “loss of civility” we ought to call “viciousness.” 

“Confucius” by Gimli62 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Recently, as an antidote to the throbbing toothache that social media has become, I posted on Facebook the following:

ATTENTION

This brief message is my own. It is not a pre-manufactured meme that I picked up somewhere, or a quote from somebody else that I thought would be fun to appropriate for my own use. This is the actual view of Larry F. Sommers.

We are called to love one another. The most elementary way to practice this commandment is to be kind and forbearing.

What does “kind and forbearing” mean? It means we do not speak ill of others or wish ill to others, even those who are not present with us. Even if they are public figures such as politicians or movie stars whom we do not know. Even if they are unknown members of the general public whose views disagree with ours. Even if our speech is not really our own but is copied from somebody else, such as a professional manufacturer of nasty memes. Even if our speech is only on social media, and everybody else on social media is speaking the same way. Even if the targets of our invective spoke ill of us first.

Our society’s public discourse has become a cesspool of narcissistic, poisonous invective. Nobody will cure that unless we do. Let us be generous in our estimates of one another, and act and speak accordingly.

Blessings, and thank you for your attention to this matter.

I probably should have added, “Even if they are in a category of people we have decided to dislike.”

Kindness Controverted

I hardly thought this manifesto would be controversial, nor was it meant as an experiment of any kind. But it turned out to be an experiment, and an illuminating one at that. 

Many of my friends agreed in general with my remarks, but some added caveats. None spoke directly against kindness and forbearance. But they did seem to think there were larger issues at stake in our human conversations.

Their implication—or was it only my inference from their remarks?—is that sometimes, in the pursuit of justice or of holiness, we must employ vilification.

I disagree categorically. What could be a larger issue than our need of kindness and forbearance? 

The only thing I said was that people ought not to speak ill of one another or wish ill upon one another. I did not suggest revoking the First Amendment.

Justice and Injustice

Micah the prophet, Russian icon from first quarter of 18th century. Public Domain.

“. . . and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”—Micah 6:8. 

I’ve always felt the prophet’s words “do justice” referred prima facie to one’s own acts, as in “deal justly with others.” But some folks would interpret those words as mandating that we police injustices commited by other people as well. 

This interpretation proposes that when we see injustice in the doings of others, our perception is true and accurate. The absurdity of this assumption is just what Jesus was addressing when he said, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” 

I will stipulate that if you can transform your neighbor’s acts through the use of sweet reason, you may be onto something. But the moment you resort to obloquy, it’s a sign your case is weak.

Horace Greeley. Matthew Brady photo. Public Domain.

Apart from the aforementioned sweet reason, we have not even the ability, much less the authority, to compel others to do right. And calling names will not help. Nor will venting our anger with such colorful expressions as “Fuck you!” or “Fuck (So-and-so)”—phrases I see often in what passes for civic discourse on the Internet.

Even milder expressions may cross over from reason to invective. Horace Greeley (1811-1872), teetotaler and Republican, is reputed to have uttered: “I never said all Democrats were saloon-keepers; what I said was all saloon-keepers are Democrats.” This nice distinction matters little. Whether you’re a Democrat or a saloon-keeper, you know that Horace Greeley has consigned you to the deepest circle of Hell.

Besides the business about a log in one’s eye, Jesus also said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” No wonder the Book of Proverbs tells us to guard our mouths.

Control

God has placed us in a very large world, a large world inside an even larger universe. In that universe, and in that world, a great many things take place—almost an infinite array of different objects, patterns, and events. There are more people, more cultures, more habits, more motives than you can shake a stick at. 

You need not be a cultural relativist, or an amoralist, to see that in this vast carnival of life—in what Delmore Schwartz called “the scrimmage of appetite everywhere”—almost the only thing we may control is our own conduct. As a corollary, almost the only way to influence the conduct of others is by our own example.

Feel free also to look at this from the other end of the telescope. By absolutely relinquishing the cheap options of calumny and hostility, one is freed for the grander game: The slight chance to improve others’ ideas and attitudes through patient, persistent persuasion. (SPOILER ALERT: Such persuasion is a lifetime project and offers no guarantee of success.)

Unbridled Passions

Modern American society has canonized the practice of giving free rein to one’s passions. But I am here to suggest that not every emotional impulse need be shared with others, especially if it be shared in the manner of a bludgeon. Society will work better when more of us cultivate a studied reticence, giving only blessing and encouragement to our friends—and making everybody, as much as possible, our friends.

High principles which require ad hominem salvos for their defense may not be such high principles after all. If they cannot be advanced by calm and logical argument, perhaps they should be exchanged for others that can be. 

O Inky Wretch,” you may ask, “do you always practice what you preach?” 

Of course not; I am only human. But, with great persistence, I do try. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

John Adams, per David McCullough

One day, when I was about five, Daddy took me for my haircut. In those days, a barber shop often had a large wall calendar showing rows of small, oval-shaped portraits:  All the presidents, from George Washington right up to Harry S. Truman. 

I recognized Washington, the Father of Our Country. But I had to ask Daddy who that fat old man beside Washington was. 

“That’s John Adams. He was the next president after George Washington.”

In an instant, I pegged the unprepossessing Adams as a second-rater. 

Boy, was I wrong

That’s the message, in a nutshell, of David McCullough’s John Adams, a monumental biography I have just read, only nineteen years after its publication. 

John Adams, the Real Deal

John Adams was born in 1735 to Deacon John Adams and Susanna Boylston Adams of Braintree, Massachusetts. Adams junior inherited the deacon’s farm. He would be a farmer, on and off, all his life—persistently, passionately, and successfully.

Oh, and by the way: He attended Harvard University, was admitted to the bar and practiced law; joined the movement for American colonial rights, becoming the most forward champion of Independence in the Second Continental Congress; nominated George Washington of Virginia to command the Continental Army; went to France as a commissioner, helped  negotiate the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, and became the first U.S. minister to the Court of St. James, where he exchanged decorous greetings with the spurned monarch George III; was elected vice president of the new Constitutional republic; became our second president, after Washington’s two terms; was defeated for his own second term by his old Revolutionary friend, Thomas Jefferson; retired to an active life managing his farm in Braintree; lived long enough to see his son, John Quincy Adams, inaugurated as sixth president of the United States in 1825; and died the following year on the same day as Jefferson—July 4, exactly fifty years after the two of them had, with 54 other patriots, declared the Independence of the United States.

Abigail Smith Adams. 1766 Portrait by Benjamin Blyth. Public Domain.

Throughout this remarkable journey, John Adams associated with the most remarkable people of a remarkable era—including his own wife and best ally, Abigail. To our immense good fortune, John and Abigail and their children kept journals and wrote letters, to one another and to many historic figures—thousands of letters, written over many decades. And all of them, or most of them, were preserved.

Well, Who Wants to Read a Bunch of Old Letters, Anyway?

David McCullough. Nrbelex at English Q52, licensed under CC BY-SA.

David Gaub McCullough, that’s who. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1933, McCullough earned a degree in English Literature from Yale University. According to his Wikipedia biography, “He said that it was a ‘privilege’ to study English at Yale because of faculty members such as John O’Hara, John Hersey, Robert Penn Warren, and Brendan Gill. McCullough occasionally ate lunch with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder. Wilder, says McCullough, taught him that a competent writer maintains ‘an air of freedom’ in the storyline, so that a reader will not anticipate the outcome, even if the book is non-fiction.”

As he weighed options for his life, McCullough gravitated towards research and writing. He served apprenticeships at Time, Life, the United States Information Agency, Sports Illustrated, and American Heritage. While working at American Heritage, McCullough found a subject that interested him deeply and spent three years writing the story of the Johnstown Flood of 1889. The Johnstown Flood, published in 1968, established him as a top-shelf historical writer. Since then, he has written nine more books. He has received two National Book Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes, the second of which was for his Adams biography. 

“History ought to be a source of pleasure,” McCullough has said. “ It isn’t just part of our civic responsibility. To me it’s an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is.” 

McCullough on Adams

John Adams may be the most magisterial, and perhaps in the long run will be the most influential, of McCullough’s works. Few, if any, Adams biographers have had the ambition, tenacity, and skill to produce such an illuminating book.

Like any good writer, McCullough begins his story in medias res: On a bitter January day in 1776, the 40-year-old Adams sets out on horseback, first to a meeting with General Washington at his headquarters in Cambridge, then onward to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Before long, the author doubles back to fill us in on the essentials of Adams’ early life and the arc of destiny that brought him to the brink of rebellion in 1776. He then proceeds on through the main acts of Adams’ portentous life. 

Benjamin Rush portrait by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1818. Public Domain.

What raises this book above a standard scholarly biography is the way McCullough tells the story. His deeply researched narrative unearths the humanity in the Founding Fathers. We are given Dr. Benjamin Rush’s contemporary estimate of Adams in the prime of life: He was “possessed of another species of character” than his firebrand second cousin Samuel. “He saw the whole of a subject at a glance, and . . . was equally fearless of men and of the consequences of a bold assertion of his opinion. . . . He was a stranger to dissimulation.” 

The journals, letters, and other writings of Adams, his family, and his friends are quoted so extensively, and so appositely, that the reader comes to know these people—especially John and Abigail—intimately. McCullough’s third-person narration serves merely to set a context in which this marvelous conversation—this ongoing lifetime argument about liberty, duty, morality, religion, and the deep things of life—takes place. 

Stand advised, Dear Reader: The Adamses were no ordinary letter writers. Their sentences bounce and sparkle with informed passion on everything from the mundane to the sublime. The marital love between John and Abigail, as shown in the letters, was deep and abiding. Each suffered greatly when separated from the other; yet neither would put personal happiness ahead of the stern duty that often led to long separations. Abigail, as fierce a patriot as her husband, championed his revolutionary and political role always.

“You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you, an inactive spectator,” she wrote. “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.”

Their language is felicitous. When a constituent from Massachusetts wrote Adams in June 1776, wondering why the Continental Congress was dithering over Independence, Adams wrote in reassurance:

Some people must have time to look around them, before, behind, on the right hand, and on the left, and then to think, and after all this to resolve. Others see at one intuitive glance into the past and the future, and judge with precision at once. But remember you can’t make thirteen clocks strike precisely alike at the same second.

This wisdom from one well known for his own headlong impatience.

Feeling every bit the New England rube gawking at the fineries of the French royal court, Adams wrote this description of Marie Antoinette:

Marie Antoinette in Court Dress, portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1778. Public Domain

She was an object too sublime and beautiful for my dull pen to describe. . . . Her dress was everything art and wealth could make it. One of the maids of honor told me she had diamonds upon her person to the value of eighteen million livres, and I always thought her majesty much beholden to her dress. . . . She had a fine complexion indicating her perfect health, and was a handsome woman in her face and figure. . . . The Queen took a large spoonful of soup and displayed her fine person and graceful manner, in alternatively looking at the company in various parts of the hall and ordering several kinds of seasoning to be brought to her, by which she fitted her supper to her taste. When this was accomplished, her Majesty exhibited to the admiring spectators the magnificent spectacle of a great queen swallowing her royal supper in a single spoonful, all at once. This was all performed like perfect clockwork, not a feature of her face, nor a motion of any part of her person, especially her arm and her hand could be criticized as out of order.

Though obviously impressed by royalty and its trappings, Adams was no friend of monarchy—despite the scurrilous bandying of precisely this charge by Jefferson’s Republicans. Neither was he a country bumpkin. His voracious lifelong reading habit encompassed Shakespeare, Milton, the Scriptures, Virgil, Voltaire, Bolingbroke’s Letters on the Study and Use of History; Justinian, Cicero; Benjamin Franklin,Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine; Hume, Johnson, Priestley, Livy, Tacitus, Plutarch; Walter Scott, Jane Porter, James Fenimore Cooper; Rousseau, Condorcet, Turgot, Mary Wolstonecraft; Adam Smith, Bishop Joseph Butler, Pascal. His personal library numbered 3,200 volumes. 

John Quincy Adams, age 29. Portrait by John Singleton Copley. Public Domain.

History, he advised his eldest son, John Quincy, “was the true source of ‘solid instruction’. . . . He must read Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War. There was no better preparation, whatever part he was called to play on ‘the stage of life.’ It was best read in the original Greek, of course, but he could find a reliable translation among his father’s books.” 

McCullough describes the mature John Adams, at age 40, on the eve of the Revolution:

He was a man who cared deeply for his friends, who, with few exceptions, were to be his friends for life, and in some instances despite severe strains. And to no one was he more devoted than to his wife, Abigail. She was his “Dearest Friend,” as he addressed her in letters—his “best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in the world”—while to her he was “the tenderest of husbands,” her “good man.”

John Adams was also, as many could attest, a great-hearted, persevering man of uncommon ability and force. He had a brilliant mind. He was honest and everyone knew it. Emphatically independent by nature, hardworking, frugal—all traits in the New England tradition—he was anything but cold or laconic as supposedly New Englanders were. He could be high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous, self-absorbed, and fiercely stubborn; passionate, quick to anger, and all-forgiving; generous and entertaining. He was blessed with great courage and good humor, yet subject to spells of despair, and especially when separated from his family or during periods of prolonged inactivity.

Despite the aptness of McCullough’s words, you won’t really begin to understand all those things about Adams the man—let alone many other things about his place in the Revolutionary and early Republican era of our country—unless you actually read the book. So read the book.

What It Took

We owe a great debt to David McCullough. He spent six years of his life researching Adams and writing his book. He read all of John’s and Abigail’s letters, all of their diaries, many letters written to them or about them. He also read the books that John Adams read, to immerse himself in Adams’ mindset. 

He set out to write a book on Adams and Jefferson, concerned at first that Adams would fare poorly next to the charismatic Jefferson. He soon found the reverse to be true. Jefferson was a more private man, who did not share his true feelings in letters as easily as Adams did. Moreover, fewer of his papers still exist. Eventually McCullough decided to leave Jefferson alone and focus on Adams. Jefferson enters the book only in relation to his dealings with Adams, which were considerable.

At any rate, it’s a fine book and one which will give you a glimpse of one of the most remarkable couples in the history of any country.

So do give it a read.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

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