Pick up a pen, start writing

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My heroes are writers. I’ve come to realize this in recent years, probably in some small part because of my experiences with this blog. It will be five years next month that I took the plunge and started collecting my thoughts and stories in one place. And I wish I had started it earlier than I did. But it has taught me a couple of things.

The first thing is that it takes a willingness to open up with yourself. Finding an idea to explore is not hard, but turning it over and spinning it around takes some time and some extra thought. The time is something I don’t always have, and that’s the main barrier to writing more often. But going beyond surface-level thought isn’t easy, either. And writing that which deserves to be read, as Pliny the Elder once called it, requires this step to occur.

The second thing I’ve learned is that inspiration is a funny thing. It strikes at odd hours, and it doesn’t linger for too long. It’s essential to capture a thought and preserve it in the moment, because going back to it an hour later doesn’t work. The thought, whatever it is, won’t wait until you decide to address it. Like a deer staring at you from a distance, once it takes off you won’t be seeing it anymore.

The other day I had occasion to meet a fellow left-hander who enjoys writing. I told her I find writing to be therapeutic, and she indicated that it’s cathartic for her. These ideas both come from the notion that writing is beneficial. As the Beastie Boys and Nas once counseled, if you’ve got something on your mind, let it out. My experience is this is reason enough for writing a blog, or anything else.

When I suggested that writers are my heroes, I was asked for examples. I mentioned Lincoln’s name, along with Alexander Hamilton’s. The amazing musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda has inspired me to pick up an old copy of the Federalist Papers, and his writing is exquisite. But there are many more that I wish I had also mentioned, and here are a few: Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Orwell, J.K. Rowling, John Muir, Ernest Hemingway, and Rachel Carson. There are hundreds more, and in three hours I would come up with a list of different names than the ones here. That’s the nature of writing, after all.

I’m not far from the library at Nothwestern where I worked when I was in college. “Library” in an abstract sense for me is pretty much what the old Deering library looks like. But it’s a repository for the work of thousands, if not millions, of writers who managed to create something that endures. I used to handle books written on vellum in the Middle Ages, as well as comic books from the 20th century. The creators of these books, and all the others, committed their ideas to paper, and created something that endures after they’re gone. That’s what writers do. And for five years of my life, I’ve been doing that in this new electronic medium of a blog. It’s been an enjoyable, therapeutic, and cathartic experience, and I’ll keep on doing it for as long as I can.

Beauty with a side of thought

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Last night, I was watching my older daughter’s play at an outdoor venue in the suburbs. The previous two shows had been cancelled because of rain (such are the perils of outdoor performance), and it looked questionable whether last night’s show would meet with the same fate. But the huge puffy clouds in the sky held no rain, and the show went off without a hitch.

At one point during the first act, I noticed that the sunset had started to change the colors of the towering clouds that remained in the sky. I wandered closer to the water, since we were not very far from Lake Michigan, and enjoyed a spectacular sunset, as shown above. The camera didn’t do the scene justice, as it never can in such a beautiful scene. But it was all I could do to capture the moment.

I wanted to be post this picture with a nod to what Henry David Thoreau called “the Great Artist.” Most people consider it to be God (or G-d to those who don’t want to spell out the full name), but I prefer the concept of “The Almighty” which appears in some of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches.

I’m not religious in a traditional sense. I like the way Thomas Paine put it in The Age of Reason: My own mind is my own church. Nobody needs to tell me of creeds and prophets and holy books, because I’ll dismiss all of them. Organized religion has always felt like some way for people to claim a kinship with a deity that can never be fully understood. And giving money is always, always, at the root of this kinship.

Tithing and other forms of religious giving might make someone feel closer to their concept of a supreme being, but for me that money goes to put nice suits on the backs of those who profess their kinship most fervently. I have no quarrel with those who do this, but it’s not something I’m comfortable with doing myself.

Am I cynical to believe this? That could be a fair accusation. But organized religion has no place in my world, and never will. I can recognize the hand of some great power in the beautiful sunset I saw last night, but I don’t relate that recognition with the need to sit in a church, listen to a sermon, and drop some money into a basket.

To repeat what Paine said, my own mind is my own church, and my own church exists wherever I can find a nice sunset. No admission fees are required for that.

That old musty cheese

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Over the past few months, I’ve found great insights in the writings of Thoreau. I pick up an old copy of Walden when I can, and after a few paragraphs I’ve usually found something worth reflecting upon. And so it was today, when I found this pearl buried in Chapter 5:

Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable and that we need not come to open war.

For some reason, the concept of people as “old musty cheese” stuck with me. Thoreau died when he was just forty-four, and nobody would really consider that to be old. But the idea is that we are what we are, and there isn’t much that we can do about it. But still we insist on meeting with each other, anyway.

Some people thrive on the company of others, but Thoreau relished being by himself. And he left lots of great writings for us to consider, too. It might even be said that his solitude has paid off for anyone who reads and appreciates his work. Not a bad legacy to leave behind, really.

The fall of day

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The title for this post comes from a drawing by William Rimmer. It was the inspiration for the Swan Song Records logo, and was the sort of thing that I read about once and never forgot. It’s funny what sticks with you and what doesn’t.

As I get older, my appreciation for sunsets gets ever greater. Thoreau once described sunsets as the work of “the Great Artist” and I like that term. Humans can create whatever they want, but nature will always be the standard for exquisite beauty.

As I write this, I realize that I am–as Pink Floyd once observed–one day (and one sunset) closer to death. One day I’ll run out of sunsets to enjoy, and old rock songs to quote. And until that happens, I’ll be sure to realize how incredibly lucky we all are to be here.

A word count milestone

Early in the process of creating and maintaining this blog, I made a decision to keep tabs on how much writing I actually did. I started keeping an Excel file, and every time a new post is added here I record four things: The number of the post, the date it was first published, the title of the post, and the number of words contained in the post. WordPress provides the word count, and I wouldn’t bother with doing this otherwise.

But knowing exactly how much has gone into this space is helpful, on some level. I’m written more than 500 posts in just over a year’s time, which means slightly more than one new post a day. I try to write and post something new here every day, but some days I don’t get my thoughts finished  and have to get some sleep. But 500 posts don’t create themselves, and I’m sure that a large amount of sleep has been sacrificed to create whatever it is I have here. So be it. This is more fun for me than sleeping, anyway.

The word counts for these posts can vary from less than 100 words if I’m posting a picture or a link to something online, to over 1,000 when I’m rambling on about something that interests me. But 500 words seems to be the steady average of the things that I write. And as the posts keep piling up, so does the aggregate word count.

If somebody had ever told me that I’d write a quarter of a million words, and then put them on the internet, where people in all but a handful of the nations around the world would happen upon them some day, I would have thought that person needed some serious help. But that’s just what has happened. The internet is indeed an amazing thing.

As I reached the 100,000 word mark in this space, I began looking at word counts for well-known books and novels. I had passed George Orwell’s 1984 by that point, which I still consider as the most engaging and thought-provoking novel I’ve ever read.

As time went by, and I kept adding more verbiage to this space, I passed other works like Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (109,000 words), Thoreau’s Walden (114,000 words),  and James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (145,000 words).  But the standard, as far as contemporary books go, is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

By the time I had reached 200,000 words, earlier this year, I had surpassed the word counts of all of the books in the Potter series except for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which was the fifth of the seven Potter books. At just over 257,000 words, it stands as the longest in a series of hefty books.

This is important to me, since I wanted to get to the point where I could take any of the Harry Potter books off my shelf (and I have them all because I’ve read them all) and say to myself “I’ve written more words than that.” And now, with this post, I can say exactly that.

Quantity does not equal quality, and I’m not suggesting otherwise. Jo Rowling could write 100 words, and I could write 100,000 words, and I’m that sure that hers would be far more compelling than mine. She has a storytelling gift that is beyond dispute, while  I can give you 500 words about going to see Star Wars when I was a kid. There’s really no comparison, other than to say that she writes in English, and I write in English, too.

The sum total of all Harry Potter books is well beyond the million words that I’m aspiring to write, before I die or lose interest in the process. And I won’t even be thinking about approaching this number for at least two more years. But my love and respect for what Rowling has created is hereby acknowledged in this space.

I’m trying to develop my writing skills, and this blog has become my vehicle for doing so. Hopefully, my writing now is more engaging than something I would have written a year ago.  Doing anything over and over again, for more than a year, should have that effect. And so for sheer persistence, if nothing else, this is a milestone that I’m happy to put behind me.