Last January, I announced that I had stepped away from social media. The act was monumental and enabled me to break down the resistance that has plagued me for four years since we published Gaspar, Another Tale of the Christ in 2014. In January 2018, I began work on a new manuscript, inspired in a small way by my friend Jessica Sayles who passed away in December 2017.
Last week, Frank Chura, my freshman soccer coach in college back in 1967 asked me, “How come you are not writing anymore?” His question prompts me to offer this ‘teaser,’ sans spoilers…
“Until the railroads come in 1863, Amersfoort claims nothing of particular importance other than, perhaps, the Tower of Our Lady, one of the highest church towers in the Netherlands – 322 feet, 7 inches to be exact – that reaches well above the inner city that surrounds it. Protestants and Catholics contest ownership until the Protestants gain control after the Reformation. The locals call it Lange Jan – Long John. The original church attached to the tower is victim to a mysterious gunpowder explosion in the eighteenth century. The community embarks on a restorative effort to repair the damage in 1912. Said restoration is not completed until 1932, the year Jessica is born to Aart and Emma Van Dijk.”
It has been my practice since drafting my first novel, The Olympian, A Tale of Ancient Hellas in 2002 to maintain a growing list of research notes and images. I’ve scattered several images through this short post.
It is noon. Time to break for lunch, which consists of a bag of mackerel and a dill pickle. I have added 1,500 words to my new novel-in-progress, which I started at the beginning of the month. With a single day left in January, I will be over 10,000 words into this manuscript when I shut down tomorrow afternoon. I have eliminated resistance.
In his 2002 self-help standard The War of Art, best-selling author Steven Pressfield offers us a close-up and personal look at “Resistance” with a capitol ‘R:’ those things that interfere with our ability to get things done. His book originally targeted writers, but over the years, people from all venues find great value in his book. I have been unable to find the key to my resistance until this month.
I last published in 2014, Gaspar, Another Tale of the Christ, which experienced a mini-run in sales this month with the always present The Olympian, A Tale of Ancient Hellas, my best-seller, though not my personal favorite. Since Gaspar nearly four years ago, I’ve started and shelved no fewer than four manuscripts including a sequel to The Sixth Day. The short of it… for four years, I have been unable to focus. Without the focus, I lacked commitment, without commitment, the stories simply would not come. Resistance was omni-present, but I was unable to identify it. I floundered, even to the point of telling myself I would never complete another manuscript.
That changed two months ago when I received an email from a young friend in St. Louis who I originally met through my daughter and middle son. Greg was two years younger than my daughter Stef and a year older than my middle son Brad. Their common interest was soccer, and it bloomed into friendship. As a coach, I went along for the ride. Twenty-five years later, I still communicate regularly with Greg. He is one of the wisest young people I know, and I have learned much from him over the course of the past two decades.
In his ‘mass communication,’ he informed the recipients that he would no longer participate in social media on a personal level. “You have my email address,” he wrote, “if you wish to communicate with me, you can contact me with an email.” Intrigued, I asked him for more details. He responded with a lengthy email – which I still have on my desk – which began, “Hey, Geno! Here’s some of my thoughts in no particular order. I won’t be brief because I have a lot of thoughts on this subject… I’ve never written this down, so it’s also for me to keep and reference…”
Greg’s email was compelling. After I digested it, I called, and we chatted about it for an hour. Within the week, I backed away from social media and sent an email like Greg’s initial missive to my contacts. Like Greg, I made the ‘announcement’ on Facebook and Twitter over a month ago and have returned to neither since.
The benefits I reap from my disengagement with social media go well beyond my writing, but since this website is about writing, I will limit my comments to ‘the war of art’ as Mr. Pressfield refers to it. My compulsion to get on my computer early every morning to check Facebook and Twitter died the very day I made the decision to abandon them, as has the craving to check social media every 10 to 15 minutes I sit at my desk. Similarly, I removed FB and Twitter from my smartphone and am no longer disturbed and distracted by dings and dongs calling me to see what inane posts and tweets are directed at me by well-intentioned friends, and by less well-intentioned media ‘experts’ who are paid big bucks to see that I cannot overcome my addiction to social media. Guess what? I have.
I am liberated. And with that liberation come two keys essential to my renewed energy and commitment to my new manuscript:
Resistance be damned.
I thank my young friend Greg for giving me the courage to do what he did, and I strongly recommend that you disengage from the distraction of social media. If you are a writer or would-be writer, it is mandatory. Regardless of who you are and what you do, living life in the real world is far more rewarding than living it in the world of social media.
As we approach the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, Korea, I reminisce on my personal experience in the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Winter Olympic Games. During the two years I worked on The Hamsa, I spent much of the time ‘living’ the Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Lake Placid and Garmisch-Partenkirchen with my protagonist, Bronisław Czech, a Polish Olympic skier and jumper who died of typhoid fever in Auschwitz in 1944.
During those early games – the 2nd, 3rd and 4th edition of winter games – television, marketing and materialism were not synonymous with the Olympic Games. Men and women participated for the sole purpose of the joy they received from competing on an international level in activities they loved. Performance enhancement was not a part of the formula to win at all costs. Personal fame and glory was secondary at best to the honor of representing one’s country on the world’s greatest athletic stage.
2,800 athletes will compete in February’s games, approximately 240 will represent the United States. The U.S. team is nearly as large as the total number of athletes – 252 – who represented the 17 countries that participated in the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, NY. The Lake Placid Olympic Stadium had a total capacity of 7,475. That is not large enough to accommodate just the athletes, their support staff, and the media that will converge upon Pyeongchang for two weeks.
If you have a desire to experience sport for the pure joy of the game, I invite you to ‘live’ three Winter Olympic Games with Bronisław Czech in The Hamsa.
The Christmas story from Gaspar…
I love poetry. My favorite book of poems, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, rests quietly with other volumes between a pair of bookends above the bookcase to my right. The original copy I read years ago in the Redemptorist Library was subtitled “Poems for Men.” I studied the collection from cover to cover and was so enthralled with it that I gifted each of my sons and my son-in-law a copy that Christmas. I wonder if any read it …
The book contains six poems by Vermont’s poet laureate Robert Frost, but omits my favorite poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Mr. Frost penned the poem in 1922. He was 48-years old.
I was in elementary school when I was first exposed to the poem. American physician Tom Dooley included the closing lines of Frost’s poem at the conclusion of his 1958 best-seller Deliver Us from Evil, which described his activity in Southeast Asia at the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam,
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.”
Father George Gottwald, quoted the poem in Dooley’s eulogy saying that these were the words that Dr. Dooley lived by. “Tom Dooley could have enjoyed a comfortable life,” Father Gottwald told the thousands gathered in the St. Louis cathedral for the funeral, “Instead he chose to devote his career to ministering to the sick in far-off places.” He concluded his sermon with a final statement to his friend, “The promises, Dr. Dooley, are fulfilled.”
I recall, the book entered our home as a Book of the Month Club selection. Admittedly, I remember nothing about Dr. Dooley’s book, but Frost’s lines were etched in my memory since the day I first read them.
I recite the poem to myself frequently, and most often as I wander my own snowy woods – now in Wisconsin, but in New England as a boy – with my canine companions – Winston in this picture from Missouri and now young Clarence in River Falls.
I share my favorite poem every winter, and hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
An epigraph is a quotation at the beginning of a book. I am fond of them and they have drawn me to a book more than once. Case in point, one of the two epigraphs in Steven Pressfield’s classic Gates of Fire,
“The fox knows many tricks,
The hedgehog one good one.”
Although I did not include one in The Olympian, an epigraph appears in each of my succeeding novels. Here’s the story behind the first, which appeared in The Hamsa …
About a decade ago when I began writing The Hamsa, I returned to the daily practice of ‘praying the hours.’ By the 6th century, there were eight liturgical hours beginning with Lauds at daybreak and concluding with Matins at midnight. The practice has evolved. No, I never prayed all eight liturgical hours, but I prayed at least one every day. One of the first books I used was A Contemporary Celtic Prayer Book by William John Fitzgerald. I found great peace in Thursday’s Midday Prayer, the hour of Nones – the ninth hour – that Father Fitzgerald opens with this scripture reading from the Book of Tobit,
“Raphael answered, ‘I will go with him; so do not fear. We shall leave in good health and return to you in good health, because the way is safe.’”
The reference inspired me to read the Book of Tobit, which is included in the Vulgate version of the Old Testament in the ‘history books’ between Nehemiah and Judith. The short Book of Tobit is a wonderful story that includes a dog. As I wrote The Hamsa, a dog emerged as a significant character. I named him Raphael after the archangel in the Book of Tobit. Raphael first appears in Chapter 14 and accompanies the protagonist Bronisław Czech to the final pages. I fashioned him after my own dog, Caesar.
As I prepared the book with the publisher for release in 2010, there were no words to better introduce this perilous journey than the quote from the Book of Tobit. “But the way is not safe,” you might ponder, “and Bronek does not ‘return in good health.’” I smile and recall the final two sentences of the book
“A mighty angel with outstretched wings descends towards me to take me home. I commend myself to him and to his God.”
Bronek’s commendation is the ultimate ‘return to good health.’
I so much love the Book of Tobit that I fashioned my next novel around it, Tobit and the Hoodoo Man, A Mystical Tale from the Civil War South. Another dog plays a prominent role. I chose to name him after my pal Caesar. I selected an Epigraph from C.S. Lewis to set the tone of the magical tale,
“I never regard any narrative as unhistorical simply on the ground that it includes the miraculous.”
Next time you browse through a bookstore or view a preview on Amazon, look to see if the author included an epigraph. It might be the thing that tips you in the direction of a book you might not otherwise have considered.
I understand if this chapter disappoints you. It is quite short, but I can assure you, it is full of meaning.
I have contemplated this picture for years. It speaks of inhumanity, fear, hatred, racism … all of the negative things that continue to resurface since Cain slew Abel. As difficult as it is to gaze upon this image, it definitively captures Elie Wiesel’s truism
“To forget means to deny the relevance of the past.”
We cannot avert our eyes and our minds from those things we have done as human beings that we regret. True, the only moment that we can control is this precise moment in time. See what I mean? It is already gone and a part of a past we can no longer influence. Still, our past has relevance and to recall regrettable events is to learn from our mistakes with the intention of making the world a better place to be.
This picture inspired me to write a book. It continues to call out to me, “Do not forget.” I will not, and I will attempt to learn from my past, to repeat the good and avoid the not so good.
Tree Rings, Chapter Six
Tree Rings, Chapter Six
Author Brian Doyle was my good friend, although I never met him. Of course, I often say that my own books define me as a human being. If that is true, Brian Doyle can certainly say that his books define him as a human being, so I suppose I truly have met him. I did send him an email years ago after I read his book So Very Much the Best of Us. It was the first of many Doyle books I read. Truth be told, ‘twas the cover that attracted me to the book, but once inside the covers, I found the cover a mere shadow of the stories that awaited me in the pages. Mr. Doyle made me comfortable with my imperfect Catholicism and encouraged me to laugh at my own failings. Few authors can do that.
Last week, I finished another of his magical books, Martin Marten. Two days later, I gave it to my young friends Cat and Stephanie who came to visit our new puppy, Clarence. They are special kids, and I know they will enjoy this ‘coming of age’ story.
I inadvertently left Mink River on American Airlines as I hastily departed the aircraft in Port-au-Prince. I truly hope a Haitian will read it.
This morning, I searched for a new Brian Doyle book and found The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: A Novel of Robert Louis Stevenson. I love Mr. Doyle’s quirkiness. I was stopped in my tracks as I read the commentary on the Amazon listing,
BRIAN DOYLE (1956-2017) was the longtime editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author of numerous books of essays, fiction, poems, and nonfiction, among them the novels Mink River, The Plover, Martin Marten, and Chicago. Honors for his work include the American Academy of Arts & Letters Award in Literature. He lived in Portland, Oregon.
Past tense leapt off the page … ‘was’ … ‘he lived.’
Confused, I continued to research this fine author and learned that he died in May 2017 of a brain tumor. He was only 60-years old.
Mr. Doyle was a prolific writer with more than 20 books to his credit and countless editorials and essays. If you have never read a Brian Doyle book, you can find one here. Each is a gem in its own, special way.
Billy Joel was right, “Only the good die young.”
As a child, I learned to honor and respect people in positions of leadership and authority whether I agreed with them or not. Those people included my parents, my teachers, coaches, clergy, police officers, mail carriers, elected officials, team captains, referees, young camp counselors … even the lady who served me at the soda fountain in J.J. Newberry’s department store on North Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
The elected official we most revered was the President of the United States. Four Presidents stood out more than the others to me as a young boy: the 1st, the 16th, the 34th and the 35th – Washington, Lincoln, Eisenhower and Kennedy. Each captured my imagination in a special way. While I have tried and will continue to respect the President of the United States, only one since John Kennedy approached the ethereal realm in which I place the four, and that President was Ronald Reagan, our 40th President.
I have great interest in the American Civil War. In my mind, the men and women engaged in that conflict were ‘the greatest generation’ because through the severe challenges they faced, they managed to preserve this nation, a nation that remains the land of the free and home of the brave. In 2011, I wrote Tobit and the Hoodoo Man, A Mystical Tale from the Civil War South. As I researched that book, I learned much about the conflict and the people involved in the War Between the States. I am no expert, but I know for certain, as sure as there were good people on both sides, there were not so good as well. I addressed hate groups in Tobit, and I think I handled it well for a man writing with 150 years of hindsight.
Months prior to all the non-productive jaw flapping and media misinterpretation of ‘confederate’ statues, etc. I was staring at Matthew Brady’s timeless portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Familiar with William H. Herndon’s 1889 biography of our 16th President, I recalled an incident where his boyhood friend Austin Gollaher saved him from drowning. That incident inspired this story.