The Writer As Hero

 

The drive to write is like any other artistic drive. There’s the deep connection to language, tone, rhythm, color or form, sure—but aside from that in-the-genes need there’s a more conscious and maybe less noble urge to tell our own story, in whatever form it takes. Always wanted to solve a murder? Invent a character who will do it for you. Always wanted to sail a tall ship and steal treasure and make your enemies walk the plank? Sounds like fun.

And a lot safer to write a story about someone else doing those things than living the adventures.

And then there’s the self-righteous need to punish evildoers, the passion to make the miseries of life come out with happy endings.

To justify the dumb things we’ve done in our own lives. To make heroes of ourselves.

I’m not saying any of this is wrong. But we write these stories precisely because we are not really heroes. And oh, how we want to be.

But then I can’t really speak for everyone, can I? I’m really talking about myself. As a child, I wanted to be a pirate, or at least Nancy Drew. The best real adventure was creeping through a secret passageway to call the police while a robber held a gun on my father. Life in a corner store. But there weren’t too many of those. So I made some up. Robbers hiding in a church belfry. A janitor who looked suspicious and needed to be followed until I was late for dinner.

But then I became a teenager and finally an adult and it wasn’t as easy to convince either of those real characters that these stories were true, so I had to resort to making stuff up.

I think it’s best that way. If a story is too true, too close to our souls and our lives, it can become a tortured journey to the bottom of memory and may not work so well as a story. It has to be changed. Formed. Sculpted. And then it’s not that story any more.

It can come down to telling the truth or telling a story. The best art does both. The greatest artists are able to do both.

 

 

Spring! Or … Second Quarter Goals

Lea Wait, here. For anyone who doesn’t know, I live on the coast of Maine. This winter has been one of the coldest and snowiest in recorded Maine history. (I don’t have all the numbers, but February 2014 was the 3rd coldest February since 1945.)

Of course,  I write historicals, and I know the early 19th century was a lot colder than it is now … I’ve seen records, letters, newspaper accounts of rivers freezing hard enough that people walked across them. Rivers than no one now alive remembers freezing.

But, still, it’s been a long winter. I’m looking forward to the day the thermometer hits 50. March boasted a couple of day in the 40s, so I know there’s hope.

First Crocuses!

First Crocuses!

And yesterday I was excited to see the first crocus of the year, near the house, in an area that gets enough sun that the snow has melted. I was so excited I dragged my husband out to appreciate it, and immortalized it in a picture.

But, despite the harsh winter, and maybe even because of it, the first quarter of 2014 (I spent years in strategic planning, and my brain seems to plan tasks in three month intervals) was a productive one.  One book completed. Joined Goodreads. Two books revised and sent out (one to an editor, one to my agent.) Another book outlined and approved. Plus lots of promotional work done for my just-published historical for ages 8 and up, Uncertain Glory. The launch party my publisher gave me was two days ago, and later this week I’ll be speaking at a conference for children’s librarians in Maine (Reading Roundup), and signing books at a children’s book festival (Cape Author Festival) in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

When on April 1 I looked at the list of first quarter goals I’d written January 1, only two things were incomplete.  My diet (Ah, yes. That diet.) And I’d planned to clean out/dust the mysteries in a guest room in my house we call the “mystery and suspense room” because the bookcases there hold just … guess what?

So those two tasks are now on my list of my Second Quarter Goals, which I made out last week. Promotion for Uncertain Glory and my other books will continue … I have quite a few event commitments. I’ll be visiting one (maybe two) of my daughters and their families. I hope to finish the first draft of a mystery I haven’t  yet started (although I have written that approved outline,) but which is due September 1. Plus, I’ll clean out some more bookcases. Do a spring clean up of the yard. And polish brass and copper and silver than is now dull from winter neglect and smoke from our woodstove.  My husband says those cleaning tasks aren’t necessary … that we can live with dusty books and tarnished copper. But I feel more comfortable and, yes, productive, in a clean house. Plus, writing a book takes months. When you clean something you can see what you’ve done. It feels as though you’ve accomplished something. Plus, as Agatha Christie once said, “Sometimes I get my best ideas while I’m washing the dishes.”

So — onward! I hope by July 1, when I’ll revisit my lists and plan for my third quarter, I’ll have been able to cross off a lot of tasks. And I hope it will also be time to add “wash the porch furniture,” and “trim the bushes.” I hope I’ll even be able to add to my list, “spend a day at the beach.”

Because by July 1 …. I’ll no doubt be complaining about the heat.

And so it goes. Happy spring to everyone!

My Morning Newspaper

For more than thirty years I got up very early in the morning so I could write before going to my day job. Once I established this routine, other things fell by the wayside – eight hours of sleep per night, for example.

And reading my morning newspaper.

I subscribe to the San Francisco Chronicle, and have for most of the thirty-plus years I’ve lived in the Bay Area. While I was writing in the very early hours of the day, I never managed to read my newspaper in the morning. I’d scan the headlines and a few pages of the front section while eating my lunch. But usually, I didn’t get around to reading the rest of my newspaper until the evening.

My Monday through Friday routine was this – I got home from work and fed the cats. Yes, they eat first. If they don’t, I hear about it. After fixing dinner for myself and completing whatever evening tasks needed doing, I finally sat down to read my morning newspaper, right before going to bed, very early, because I got up so early.

On the weekends, what a treat! I got to read my morning newspaper before noon!

I vowed that when I retired, I would read my morning newspaper in the morning.

Yes, I know that during the past few years I could have read the newspaper online. But my morning newspaper is meant to be read after breakfast, sitting on the sofa with a cup of coffee on the end table and a cat on my lap.

I was a newspaper reporter on a small-town daily back in the day when I typed my copy on a Smith Corona manual typewriter, on sheets of paper salvaged from the Associated Press wire machine that clattered behind my desk.

To me, reading newspaper on a computer just doesn’t compare. In the interests of disclosure, I will say that I do have an online subscription to the New York Times. But the Chronicle? No, I want to feel newsprint in my hands.

I always read the daily newspaper, even as a kid. When I was in junior high and high school, my parents subscribed to the Denver Post. It was an afternoon newspaper, and I read it cover to cover when I got home from school. When I went to college, I studied journalism.

I graduated from the University of Colorado’s J school over forty years ago. The practice of journalism has changed so much in four decades that I barely recognize it. And so has reading a newspaper. Falling subscription rates indicate that a lot of people don’t bother with newspapers any more. I keep reading that newspapers are going away.

I hope not.

I retired in November of 2013. Since then, with few exceptions, I read my morning newspaper in the morning, as I drink that last cup of coffee, a cat on my lap. I read the sections in a certain order and toss them on the floor when I’m done.

And about that thirty-year sleep deficit? I’m catching up.

A Favorite Place, a Favorite Song, a Favorite Moon

 

 

Note: Last Saturday, March 29, Wilbur Hot Springs, one of my favorite places on earth, caught fire. The country inn I loved and managed back in the early 1980s, was partially destroyed.  Fortunately, although all 60 guests were evacuated, nobody was seriously hurt by the blaze. But Wilbur Hot Springs, beloved by many, was seriously hurt, and will now be closed indefinitely for costly repairs. With best wishes to Wilbur, I am posting this article, which first appeared in the February 2014 issue of Black Lamb.

My short stint as a part-time, semi-professional musician began in the early 1980s, when I worked as the manager of Wilbur Hot Springs, a country inn and hot springs resort in Colusa County, California. Wilbur Springs was (and still is) twenty-five miles from the nearest town. Wilbur was a wonderful place to live and work, so long as I remembered that it was more a romantic interlude than a life-time commitment. I worked hard managing the hotel, the hot baths, the grounds, and the cook-it-yourself kitchen. There I learned how to rely on lists and schedules, how to remember the names of thirty or more guests each weekend, how to manage a staff of twelve, and how to cope with weather. The weather in the Wilbur winters consisted of rain and mud. Woodstoves and hot baths. But in the summers Wilbur Hot Springs was a place of hot days and hot nights.

At Wilbur I reconnected with the moon. I learned her phases and welcomed them all. The place used no electricity, so nights were dark on the ground and brilliant in the sky. On moonless night the stars dazzled and danced over our heads. Then as the month marched on, the moon took over, first as a waxing blob already high when the sky turned dark, then growing fuller and fuller, rising later and later, until it was plump and enormous as it rose over the hills in the east as the day wound down. This phenomenon of the rising of the full moon got better each summer month until we approached the autumnal equinox, when the ambient sunlight had dimmed and the moon appeared brighter, bigger, more warm and golden. I still can’t think of this sight without hearing, as a pleasant earworm, the chorus of “Shine on, shine on harvest moon.…”

Later every evening, I sat on the piano bench in the lounge and played my guitar and sang for any guests who wanted to hear and sing a song or two before retiring. I was, during my tenure at Wilbur Hot Springs, building a repertoire of American Songbook standards, and as time went on I began to draw a crowd of about a dozen fans every Friday and Saturday night.

Whenever the moon was bright outside, I sang moon songs: “Moonlight Becomes You,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Blue Moon,” “Moon River.” And I never neglected to sing “Shine On Harvest Moon.” The guests always joined in on that one, and I felt as if I had found my life’s work.

I first learned the song “Shine On Harvest Moon” when I was eight years old, in the summer of 1950. My family had just moved to our new home in the country outside Dallas, Texas. As another song had predicted, we found the stars at night to be big and bright, and as a whole repertoire of songs had promised, the full moon over rural Texas was worth singing about. So in the moonshine we sang.

My brother played guitar. My other brother and my sister sang harmony. Their college friends joined in. Outside at night, heedless of the chiggers in the grass, we howled sweetly at the moon. We sang “Blue Moon” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” but mainly we stuck to the barbershop standards:

“We were sailing along, on Moonlight Bay…”

“Oh Mister Moon, Moon, bright and shiny moon…”

“By the light of the silvery moon…”

and of course my favorite, “Shine on.…”

I left Wilbur Hot Springs in September, 1982, and returned to Palo Alto. It was time to leave country living in the country and get on with my life. But I was driven by a dream that I had hatched while sitting on the piano bench at Wilbur Springs. I wanted to be an entertainer. My plan was to find a bookstore job for the daytime and find a club where I could play and sing my standards in the evening—for money and applause.

I’ve written the story of this reality check before. I’ll only summarize this time and confess that I had come to town with no idea of how Palo Alto had changed in my absence. No, that wasn’t it. Nobody cared about old standards or sing-alongs anymore. No, even that wasn’t it. I just wasn’t good enough for a crowd bigger or livelier than a dozen relaxed guests in a country inn who had spent the past hour or two soaking in a hot mineral bath, swapping foot massages.

I gave it a try, though, for full year. I managed a bookstore in the daytime, and I played for tips in an ice cream parlor at night. I started calling myself Jack Daniel. I made a demo tape. I even, briefly, had an agent. The agent was a young couple, Alex and Cyndi, who were just getting started in the entertainment management business, and they were looking for talent: cheap family-style musicians they could book for bar mitzvahs. They listened to my tape and said I was perfect for such gigs. They went so far as to videotape me one evening as I performed for free on a makeshift stage at the Old Mill, a busy shopping center in Mountain View.

Between songs, Alex interviewed me as Cyndi videotaped. The ambient noise was horrific, and I was tongue-tied when I wasn’t singing, but Alex knew what he was doing. When he ran out of standard questions, and perhaps got frustrated by my one-word answers, he asked me, “Jack, what would you really like to do with your talent?”

“You know, Alex, I think what I’d really like to do is to sit around with small group of mellow folks and sing ‘Shine On Harvest Moon.’”

Alex grinned. He grinned at me, then at the camera, and then back at me. “Jack,” he said, “would you sing ‘Shine On Harvest Moon’ for me right now?”

So I did, and I’d like to say that all the shoppers at the Old Mill gathered around and sang along. Well, they didn’t, but I sang for the pleasure of it and for the love of the song.

For better or for worse, my career as an entertainer never took off. Alex and Cyndi broke up before they found me a gig, and I was back in the ice cream parlor, competing with an espresso machine and Ms. Pac-Man. After a year of floundering in Palo Alto I moved to Santa Barbara, fell in love, became a publisher and a writer, and found happiness. But the earworm still haunts me sometimes.

“Snowtime ain’t no time to sit outdoors and spoon, so shine on, shine on Harvest Moon, for me and my gal.”

Farewell, Book ‘em

by Wendy Hornsby

            Just as I head out to launch my new book, The Color of Light, word comes about the loss of another old friend. Book ‘em Mysteries in South Pasadena is closing its doors. My signing event there, with Naomi Hirahara and Sue Ann Jaffarian, at 2:00 on April 6 will be their last.

Book ‘em opened during the early 1990s, during the glory days for mysteries and specialty bookstores, and they immediately became the hub for a large community of mystery readers. Those were heady times not only for independent bookstores but also for many newly published writers, especially women; they certainly were exciting times for me at the beginning of my life as a published writer.

Somehow, with a day job and kids to raise, during that period I managed to write a book a year; the boundless energy of youth, I suppose. Generally in the fall, my publisher would bring out my new book in hardcover, and at the same time issue the mass market paperback edition of the previous year’s book. As soon as the new book was announced, invitations would come from bookstores for signings or, better yet, readings. Every invitation was like an invitation to a debutante ball, a coming out party for the new book: new readers to meet, new places to go.

In the days before Facebook and Twitter and blogs and their ilk—before the juggernauts of Barnes and Noble and Amazon—authors depended on bookstores to get out the word about worthy books. Without the enthusiastic support of independent bookstore owners and their staff, I know that, by my own efforts, I would not have generated the sales numbers necessary to have been offered the next book contract, and the next. That is, I doubt I would have had a writing career, whatever that is or was, as Laura Crum pondered here last week.  But, one after another, those wonderful bookstores have closed their doors, until there are very few left.

 The closing of Book ‘em feels like the end of an era. The owners, Mary and Barry Martin, who opened the store after Barry retired from working in television, announced that, this time, they are retiring, period. I wish them all the best, but at the same time, I feel sorry for the loss of another wonderful independent bookstore, and a lovely old friend. Mary and Barry, and later with Jean Utley aboard, were always gracious, enthusiastic hosts and cheerleaders. They will be missed. Mazel tov.

Looking to the Past for Plots and Originality

A few years ago I was on a panel to talk about creativity and originality, and we were asked to describe the great, original works of our mystery genre. I thought at once of Oedipus the King, who with hubris and anger, strides forth to disprove the prophesy that he’ d kill his father and bed his mother–only to discover that he himself is the murderer. Of course he gets his comeuppance. After his wife Jocasta hangs herself by her hair, he blinds himself with her gold brooches and is led off to a hell of darkness and torment.

I love the chorus of old men who comment on the tragic situation, offering warnings and advice. There is also a lot of plain old detective-like questioning and interviewing: “Is there anyone to whom I should sooner speak?” Until the inexorable ending when Oedipus has to self-convict!

I borrowed this plot myself in a short story when someone digs up the ashes of a 4000-year-old mummy. The cemetery sexton, whose child was buried in a Haitian mudslide, interviews a group of suspects, then discovers that she stole them in her sleep-walk. But the greatest and most original use of the plot was by the Russian writer Dostoevsky in his psychological novel Crime and Punishment. We know from the start that Raskolnikov is the murderer–and then discover that he was, as well, his own detective. His urge to kill was overwhelming, but so was his need to confess, and thereby punish himself.

I suspect we’ve all borrowed bits of plot from 19th-century Edgar Allen Poe, particularly from his short story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” again told in the POV of the villain himself. I’ve written on occasion from the killer’s viewpoint, but never a complete story! The wicked narrator even tells us why he is walling up his prey: because of the “thousand injuries” his friend Montresor inflicted on him–and the latest “insult.” Stone by stone, Fortunato walls Montresor up with friendly talk, and this time we don’t see the murder coming until it happens. A brilliant bit of suspense with no detective at all on the case! And unlike Oedipus and Raskolnikov, with no punishment.

Have your villains ever gone free? I think of Patricia Highsmith, whose amoral Tom Ripley escapes justice in at least five novels. Who can forget the terrifying Strangers on a Train? I’ve mostly stuck to the conventional retribution, but in Harvest of Bones, I had four people involved in a killing and let two of the more “accidental” offenders through the police net, yet still examining their consciences.

Undoubtedly Highsmith had read and, to a degree, emulated the fiction of Dostoevsky. Almost all his novels involve murder, and The Brothers Karamazov, his last and greatest, deals with parricide. The passionate Dmitri Karamazov threatens openly to kill his feckless father who has not only been abusive, but is trying to steal away his son’s true love. The father is indeed murdered, but someone (I won’t be a spoiler here) killed the man at a time when all the evidence would point to Dmitri.

I think most of us leave our novels with the villain’s downfall and just before a trial. At least I do–especially when the case seems clear-cut. But Dmitri’s trial is told, not only from his own viewpoint, but through long speeches by both prosecutor and defense attorney. The latter’s speech is insightful as he intuits the truth of Dmitri’s innocence, “proving” in his own way that there was no robbery (after all, no one saw it), and even no murder. Spectators and readers are convinced of Dmitri’s acquittal. But the jury, composed largely of peasants who hate their landowners, pronounce him guilty. And Dmitri is condemned to hard labor in Siberia.

How many of us allow an innocent protagonist to suffer in this way? Would our readers and editors repudiate us?

A multi-voiced novel, too, is harder to pull off, because one must give each character a distinctive voice and personality. In Dostoevsky we have layers of text echoing other voices (like a Greek chorus), all commenting on one another. Surely many writers have tried this, as I have. Such fun to get inside all those heads! The downside of course, is that some readers find this switch of viewpoints a challenge to read.

Many of us, like Dostoevsky, use our own life experience in our books. His father was allegedly murdered by his serfs, and his son felt guilty because of his absence at the time. Then in Siberia where he himself was sent because of an early brush with socialism, he met a convict who was falsely accused of killing his father. So real-life guilts, angers, and passions poured into his novels, as they inevitably must do in ours, as we look to our own pasts for our plots.

 

 

The puffy sleeves of publishing

I would like to be a writer who writes.

I don’t have a personal fortune, a very rich spouse, or bestselling books. Life isn’t fair.

I love the teaching and consulting, and even if one of those three miracles were to occur, I’d probably do it anyway.

What wouldn’t I do? Promote. I wouldn’t try to publicize my books, or beg people to review them, or any of those other acts of misery. I know I was pretty dumb when I first started out, cheerfully assuming that if my books were good enough they’d rise like hot air balloons. I also assumed that good reviews would cut the ballast loose. Had no idea of what I needed to do to get attention.  So even when I did get attention, I didn’t capitalize on it. I just tootled along merrily waiting to succeed.

Yes, I live in a dream world sometimes, no question about it. Of course, that is part of being a writer, isn’t it? So why are we expected to cope endlessly with reality? Seems wrong.

Babble endlessly on social media. Push everyone you know to get those reviews up on Amazon. Do panels, appearances, bookstore signings, conferences. No matter how little the return.

I’ll stick with the spouse I have, thanks. So what I need is either a personal fortune or a bestselling book.

The personal fortune never has appeared—no rich dead relatives, no buried treasure anywhere. It’s begun to seem like that particular pipe dream is leftover smoke from the 70s. That leaves the bestselling book, which, I’m told, is not possible unless I do all those things I’d rather not do.

Thing is, even when I’ve had a little extra cash from time to time, I had doubts about hiring a publicist. What if I chose someone who couldn’t do the job? Talked a good story and delivered nothing? Took my money and fled to Brazil?

I finally have a publisher who is willing to do some of the promotion, and that’s great. But there’s stuff, still, that I have to do.

And don’t want to.  Reading this, now, I see that I sound like a little kid being told to put on a dress she hates. I don’ wannoo!

So I’ll put the puffy-sleeved poochy-skirted thing on and do it.

 

 

My Career?

                                               by Laura Crum

 

            Someone asked me the other day if I was happy with my writing career. I have to admit that I was so taken aback that I didn’t know what to say. I ended up babbling something inane, like, “Well, sure. Sort of. There are worse things.” And then I spent some time thinking about it. So now I am going to answer the question.

            It’s true that I have had a good long run as a published author. My first novel, Cutter, was released by St Martin’s Press in 1994. Since then, I’ve had eleven other books published. I was paid (perhaps not a vast amount of money, but I got a check) for all of them. In these past twenty yeas, writing novels has been my “job.” So I guess you could call it a career. The thing is, I never really thought about it that way.

            I certainly have not become a “best-selling” author. My books have brought in the grocery money, maybe. I am very lucky that my husband has a job that keeps us solvent. My career as a mid-list author would certainly not have supported me. Does this make me a failure?

            I think it depends on how you look at it. Best-selling authors who make good money would probably say I was a failure. People who have always wanted to have a book published by a “real” publisher, but failed to attain that goal would probably say I was a success (twelve published novels and a good many readers over the years looks like success to the unpublished or self-published, I find). From my own point of view, I am content with the way the author gig worked out for me. I wouldn’t mind a few more readers and a few more book sales. I do believe there are horse people out there who haven’t yet read my books who would enjoy my novels, and I’d like to reach those people. It wouldn’t be a bad thing if my books paid for the groceries AND the whisky.

            The main thing in my mind is that I enjoyed writing those novels. I wove a lot of my own life into them and I was really happy to have a career that allowed me to stay home with my beloved animals and garden, and later, with my son. I was fortunate in that I didn’t need to make a lot of money, so the fact that I never did make a lot of money didn’t trouble me. I was just tickled to be paid for doing something that I genuinely enjoyed doing.

            And yes, there is the ego gratification factor. When I first started writing mystery novels (before I was published) I used to think that my life would be complete if I walked into a book store and saw my name on the spine of a book for sale on the shelves (this was before Amazon, too). And you know, it happened. Twenty years ago I walked into my local bookstore and there was a book with my name on it. Yes, it was very gratifying. But in the end, I realized that nothing had really changed. I was still the same person, with the same problems and the same strengths.

            Before I was published I would go to talks given by authors and think that if I were the one giving the talk, if the people were there to see me, my life would somehow be a different life. And now that I have many times been the one giving the talk, I can tell you that my life is not vastly different. Yes, I can say that I am a published author and that does impress people (at least a little), but nothing of real importance in my life has changed. I have good days and bad days, happy times and sad times, just as I did before I was published.
            The lesson here for me is that “fame” (and in my case it was a VERY small amount of fame) doesn’t do the things for you that you might imagine that it will. The admiration of strangers just isn’t as fulfilling as you somehow believe that it will be. That’s been my experience, anyway.

            In the end, writing the novels and having people read them and (sometimes) enjoy them and tell me so has been a very happy experience for me. Being paid (even a small amount) for doing this has been rewarding. It has been satisfying to express my insights about the world and describe the things that I’ve loved in words—words that are read by others. Being able to stay home with my family and critters and garden has been vastly rewarding. So I would have to say that I am happy with my “career.”

            I probably could have made almost as much money working an eight hour day five days a week for minimum wage for the last twenty years, just to be realistic. But you know, I do believe I’ll take being an author. Even a lowly, mid-list author. It suits me.

(Oh and Happy St Patrick’s Day–just realized it was today. This is how it is when you are a hermit who spends her time with garden and critters.)

The Tax Man Cometh

I’ve made a New Year’s resolution, three months late. I resolve that this year I will faithfully keep all receipts related to my writing business and the promotion of my new novel “Ablaze,” in a folder clearly marked BUSINESS EXPENSES. I will note the miles that I drive to each writing conference and every Sisters in Crime or Mystery Writers meeting. I will keep the receipts for the lunches and dinners I eat at conferences. I will print all PayPal receipts for ads etc. and immediately file them in the above mentioned folder. I make these resolutions so that next year I will not spend two days frantically searching through my check book, old credit card statements, and all the papers waiting to be filed that were piled on top of my file cabinet and are now scattered all over the floor of my office.

I can relate!

I can relate!

There is a good reason for this. For the first time in several years, I actually have a gain rather than a loss on my tax return due to the modest success of my “Other Deadly Things” series, and I look forward to more of the same in 2014. I’m thrilled about this.  At least I was until I thought about the tax man confiscating some of it. It’s not that I object to paying my fair share although to be absolutely truthful, my idea of fair share and the government’s may not coincide. Consequently, I want to be absolutely certain that I take all the deductions to which I’m entitled which may make up to some degree for the fact that, like many authors, I work for about a penny an hour. Yes, I know my writing is a labor of love and no one has forced me to do it. Still, it’s nice to be compensated. I could save some money by doing my own taxes but if just gathering all the stuff I need to send to my accountant makes me crazy, imagine how I’d be trying to use TurboTax. I employ an accountant, not because I’ve suddenly been propelled into one of those high tax brackets, but because I am mathematically challenged.

When I was in high school I had a Trigonometry teacher who one day called me up to his desk and asked where my sister went to college. “She goes to Cornell, Mr. Powers,” said I rather proudly.  “You’ll never go there,” he replied, glowering at me over his wire rimmed glasses.  That remark obviously stung because I still remember his name.  (I didn’t apply to Cornell but I did get a rather good education at Carnegie Mellon.  Not, however, in the business or engineering schools.)

I’m told that my fiancé’s father used to say he was happy to be in a position to pay taxes. In theory I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. In practice, however, I could have a problem. I have a feeling that when my accountant mails me my return, all of that good will is going to fly right out the window.  And speaking of my fiancé who, by the way, does his own taxes but has not offered to do mine, I asked if he could think of an amusing story about taxes with which I could end this blog. All I got out of him was a curt, “Taxes aren’t funny.” Obviously we have a lot in common.

I can’t spend any more time writing this blog.  I have to finish my taxes.

Where Have All the Manners Gone?

Lea Wait, here, and today I’m posting about something that has bothered me for some time.

People ‘connect’ on Facebook. They text each other (sometimes) constantly.  They email instead of telephoning.

And I’m not against those things. In fact, I’d rather get an email than a telephone call when someone wants information. It gives me the time to ensure I’m giving the right answer.

What does concern me is so many people’s lack of concern for what used to be called “common courtesy.”

No, I’m not asking anyone to open doors or pull out chairs for me. Although, yes, it would be nice if men removed their hats indoors. I’d like to see their faces.  But we live in a modern world. We’re equal, thank goodness. White gloves and handkerchiefs and removing hats are no longer essentials.

What I’m concerned about is the lack of basic manners.

If you know anyone who’s hosted a wedding or large party recently, you know what I mean. If the invitation says “RSVP” that means – let the host know whether or not you’ll be coming. It’s important for planning purposes. And if you’re invited with a “plus one” – then let your host know whether you’ll be bringing someone. And “someone” doesn’t mean your sister-in-law and your best friend and her current beau.  It means … “one.” And the host shouldn’t have to call you a few days before the event to find out whether or not you’re coming.

If you’re lucky enough to receive a gift — birthday, Christmas, anniversary, Father’s Day, flowers when you’re having a rough time — whatever – you should thank the giver. If you’re critically ill it doesn’t have to be done that day. (Although someone in your family might call.) Maybe it’s my fault that the majority of gifts I send are never acknowledged. I thought I’d taught that basic skill to my children. But I must not made it clear enough. More times than not, I don’t get a call or note to even acknowledge that a gift has arrived … much less a thank you for the specific thing it was. I’d think this was just my problem — they’re my family, after all — but I hear the same complaint from others.

So – I have a family that’s forgotten how to say “thank you.” courtesy. But what about strangers?

During the past few months I’ve received, as always, many email requests from people I’ve never met. Usually the requests have something to do with my antique print business, or my writing, or, increasingly often, with the need for information about Maine history. I’ve been asked to appraise prints, and collections of prints; answer questions for students writing book reports; give advice about agents and editors. One person asked me to trace their family history in a local town. A French on-line journal asked me to write an article (unrelated to my writing, and uncompensated.) Teachers and librarians have asked me whether I make school visits, and could I talk about particular subjects. New authors have asked for advice about self publishing versus traditional publishing. Others have asked me to read their manuscripts. I’ve been asked to speak at libraries (without compensation)  6-8 hours from my home. I’ve been asked for advice about reading lists. Asked to explain the figures on the State of Maine official seal.

And those are only a few examples. In every case, I have answered; in many cases, the answer required research, and, at minimum, the answer took me away from my writing and my family. For the record, I don’t want to discourage teachers or school children from contacting me. And I will probably continue to answer questions, even if the answer is “no,” in the future. And, yes, answering those inquiries is my choice. I suppose I could have ignored them. But I didn’t. It wouldn’t have felt polite.

What makes me angry, and, yes, sad – is that in a very few of those instances did those questioners have the courtesy to my answers with a simple “thank you.”

AT&T used to have the slogan “reach out and touch someone.” They meant “and call someone.”  In today’s world reaching out is easier than ever. That old “six degrees of separation” is probably closer to four.  That’s good.

But that doesn’t mean that saying “please” and “thank you” and “you’re welcome” should be forgotten skills.

Old-fashioned? Perhaps. But to me they make an immense difference.

What about to you?

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