What’s So Funny?

In May I went to see a thought-provoking drama written and performed by Brian Copeland, a Bay Area writer and comedian.

Copeland is the author of the critically-acclaimed one-man show titled Not a Genuine Black Man. It’s the story of his experiences growing up black in San Leandro in the 1970s, at the time when that East Bay community was considered one of the most segregated towns in the United States.

The May performance was a new play by Copeland, The Scion, which opened in San Francisco earlier this year. This particular evening was a benefit for the San Leandro Historical Society.

The Scion, like Copeland’s earlier work, is based on fact – in this case what came to be known as the sausage factory murders.

On June 21, 2000, Stuart Alexander, self-proclaimed “Sausage King” and owner of San Leandro’s Santos Linguisa factory, shot and killed three meat inspectors.

Two of the victims, Jean Hillery and Thomas Quadros, were from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The third victim was U.S. Food and Drug Administration Inspector William Shaline. With them on this particular day was California State Inspector Earl Willis, who escaped.

After Alexander shot Hillery, Quadros, and Shaline, he chased Willis down the street, firing a gun at him. Willis found refuge in a bank. Alexander then returned to the factory and shot Hillery, Quadros, and Shaline again – each one in the head, at close range.

The inspectors’ visit to the sausage factory that day was prompted by ongoing and unresolved issues between the federal government and Alexander regarding federal food safety regulations. You know, rules like cooking the sausage at the proper temperature, in order to prevent food-borne illness like e.coli. The feds also had concerns about the factory’s cleanliness and outdated equipment. They’d already shut down the factory twice, and Alexander had gotten it reopened.

Alexander viewed these regulations, and the inspectors’ visits, as interference and harassment. As far as he was concerned, the inspectors were trespassers. When the inspectors showed up that day, he led them back to his office, where he kept a number of loaded guns. He started shooting. Everything was caught on the video surveillance tape, which was used by the prosecution at Alexander’s trial.

Alexander pleaded not guilty but was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in February 2005. However, he died in prison in December 2005.

Fast forward to The Scion. Okay, I thought. How in the world is Copeland, with his reputation for humor, going to make a play out of this triple homicide?

He succeeded admirably. Taking the stage, he began by saying, “Rules are rules, for everybody.”

Unless they aren’t for everyone, as he demonstrated during the course of his performance. Copeland talked about his own experiences growing up in San Leandro, racially profiled for walking while black, driving while black, riding in a car with a white woman.

Then he contrasted this with Alexander’s upbringing as the privileged scion of a well-known San Leandro businessman. Evidently Alexander did whatever he liked without being called into account for his actions, whether it was speeding a motor scooter the wrong way down a busy local street, constructing a downtown building without getting any permits, or beating the crap out of an elderly neighbor.

Alexander was frequently described as “having a short fuse” or “combative,” a man who “didn’t like the idea of people telling him what to do,” even if it was a group of USDA meat inspectors whose job it was to make sure people who ate that sausage wouldn’t get sick.

Copeland’s theme, as I see it, is that Stuart Alexander went through life feeling entitled to do exactly what he wanted, even if that meant killing three people. Indeed, Copeland said during the play, up until he was sentenced Alexander apparently thought he was going to get away with murder.

So why the title of this blog post? What’s so funny?

On several occasions, as I was describing the play I’d seen, the person I was talking with laughed. Why? What was so amusing?

There were times during the performance of the play that I laughed, too, as Copeland intended for the audience to do. But then he described how he’d watched the surveillance tape, which shows the efforts of mortally-wounded Jean Hillery to reach her cell phone.

That’s not funny. That’s deadly serious, horrific even.

So what it is that made people laugh when I was telling them about the play, and the murders? Was it the term “sausage factory murders”? Was it the way I described it?

I’ve been pondering that, and I’m not sure I have an answer. I just know that I’ve been turning it around in my head for a couple of months.

After all, I’m a mystery writer. I construct fictional tales that revolve around murder. And within the broader mystery genre there are humorous mysteries. So in a way, we mystery writers do laugh at murder. Though fiction is somehow more palatable than real murder.

Brian Copeland will be performing The Scion at the Marsh Theatre in San Francisco from July 19 through August 23.

Go see it.


Note: This essay first appeared in the literary magazine Black Lamb.

When I lived and worked as a country innkeeper at Wilbur Hot Springs, California, from September 1980 to September 1982, I ate well. Mostly vegetarian, with a lot of brown rice, yogurt, tofu and other soy products in all different shapes and consistencies, fruit in season, veggies from the garden, cheese made from our own goats’ milk, lots of granola, and very little alcohol.

At Wilbur Hot Springs I also became a musician, stretching my repertoire from Burl Ives folksongs to the sophistication of Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Rodgers & Co., as I entertained a lounge full of guests on weekend nights with my guitar and serviceable baritone voice.

And another thing: at Wilbur I learned how to manage a staff and run a business, and I took pride in the success of that business, knowing it was partly my success.

But this essay is not about my two years at Wilbur Hot Springs, during which I ate well, became an entertainer on the rise, and managed a successful business. No, this article is about the following year, September 1982 to September 1983, which I spent in and around Palo Alto, California, during which I managed a small business into the ground, tried and failed to perform American standards to deaf audiences, and ate garbage.

Actually, my Year of Eating Dangerously didn’t start out all that bad. Almost as soon as I arrived in Palo Alto (which had been my stomping grounds before Wilbur), I landed a gig at Savoir Fare, a brand new restaurant, playing dinner music for $50 a night, five nights a week, plus tips and a free dinner. Good dinners, too: steaks, salads, dishes with French names.

I also landed a day job, five days a week, managing a small bookstore called Kepler’s of Los Altos for $500 a month. I had worked there before, when the store was owned by Kepler’s Books and Magazines of Menlo Park, the most successful bookstore on the San Francisco Peninsula. By September 1982, the smaller store had been sold off and was going through rough times, threatened by a predatory Crown Books around the corner on El Camino Real and a predatory Tower Books and Records in the shopping center across El Camino. But Kepler’s of Los Altos still had its name, still served some loyal customers, and still functioned in the same shopping center as before, which also featured a fine deli and a health food store. So I started off the year with a good lunch every day, as well as a good dinner. I had to pay for my lunches, but a sandwich was only $1.50 back then.

Off to such a good start, I decided I needed to buy some clothes, so I went to Value Village, a classy thrift store in Redwood City, where I bought twenty dollars worth of tweeds and dark slacks (for country club gigs, say), jackass pants and loud shirts (for luau parties, say), and casual business wear for my day job.

I also found a home, sharing a condo with a woman named Irene. Irene and I were friends only. Nothing intimate: separate bedrooms, separate bathrooms, separate shelves in the refrigerator. We shared the kitchen but did not share food. I ate my breakfasts there: granola with yogurt and fruit. Good, healthy food, at least at first.

Irene, meanwhile, ate her starchy breakfasts and heat-lamp lunches in the cafeteria of the senior retirement center where she was an administrator. For dinner she browsed the happy hour scene. She knew which bars had the potstickers, which the Swedish meat balls, which the nachos, and which the deep-fat-fried zucchini. If she wanted to splurge and get away from the bar crowd and the fried food, Irene took advantage of the salad bar at The Sizzler. A little roughage never hurts, and you could find a bit of protein there if you really looked for it.

I was scornful of Irene’s diet, at first.

Maybe it was Irene who greased the slippery slope to junk food addiction, her and her happy hour hors d’oeuvres. Of course I would never have cruised the cocktail circuit if the gig at the Savoir Fare had lasted. But, like many a brand new restaurant, the Savoir Fare went broke in a hurry. I hoped my music didn’t contribute to its demise, but it was clear I was expendable. They cut me back to two nights a week, for tips only, and then they shut their doors.

Poor Savoir Fare, and poor me; $50 a night poorer, and no more free dinners. I had two choices, and I alternated between them: cook like a bachelor, which meant frozen pot pies and TV dinners, plus a salad consisting of iceberg lettuce doused in Wishbone Italian dressing; or barhop, which meant a drink or two to wash down whatever I had picked out of the hot serving dishes. I got adept at loading a tiny plate high with munchies, carrying my meal around the room, cocktail napkins under my arm and a drink in my other hand. I felt right at home, mingling and cracking jokes with others whose dreams had not yet come true.

My music career wasn’t technically over yet, even if it had suffered a major setback. I still played gigs around town—or towns, plural, the Mid-Peninsula cities blending along El Camino Real from strip mall to strip mall. At a few of these gigs I was paid real money, although I never again earned $50 for a night’s work. Mostly I got free drinks at bars, or more often free coffee and pastry at coffee shops. That didn’t make for much of a dinner, but that’s what I ate on nights when I was lucky enough to play for tips. By the way, back in the early 1980s there was no rule of etiquette saying tips had to be paper money. I often ended up counting out quarters, dimes, and nickels, then spent them in a bar on the way home from the gig.

My steadiest gig, during this year of eating dangerously, was as the weekend evening entertainer for Uncle Gaylord’s Ice Cream Parlor in downtown Palo Alto, where I competed with an espre-ssssss-o machine and a Ms. Pacman’s doodleoodleooodle as I labored to sell American standards to the deaf generation. Tips from teenagers amounted to zilch-plus. But I got all the free ice cream I wanted, plus coffee, plus cookies. I spent the spare change on a drink on the way home. I parked and schlepped all my music equipment from the car to Irene’s condo, then spent a couple of hours practicing my guitar before bed, to wear off the alcohol, caffeine, and sugar enough to fall asleep.

I still believed I had a future as a semiprofessional musician, if only because I knew the lyrics, melodies, and Sears-Roebuck chord changes to hundreds of songs from the golden age of American popular music, which had to count for something.

Meanwhile, though, my day job at the bookstore was in serious peril. In addition to the Crown Books and the Tower Books and Records, we were at war with the landlord. This landlord (by which I don’t mean a greedy person who wanted to join a country club, but a corporation with no soul whatsoever) decided that Kepler’s Books of Los Altos must die, lease or no lease. The store wasn’t tithing enough, so the landlord hired goons to tear up our parking lot with boistrous jackhammers. The closest places our customers could park were closer to Crown Books or Tower Books and Records than they were to Kepler’s of Los Altos.

Managing a failing bookstore—no customers, all day long—while I was earning shit wages and virtually no spending cash as a musician was a two-pronged assault on my finances and my self-esteem. What does a self-disrespecting musician do when he’s going broke, fed up with his day job? Cut expenses, and eat crap. That’s why, come lunchtime, I quit buying sandwiches from the deli and the health food store and ambled across El Camino, then across San Antonio Road to the Sears shopping center, and saved 50¢ by eating at Burger King. It was comforting food: burger, fries, Coke. And it was lots to eat: “It takes two hands to handle a Whopper, ’cause the burgers are bigger at Burger King.” (I didn’t add that song to my repertoire.) I sometimes wondered why I became suddenly hungry again two hours later, but that was easy to fix with a Snickers bar from the deli. Oops, there went the 50¢.

By the time late summer 1983 arrived, my fancy pants from Value Village no longer fit me.

This decline happened gradually, although looking back on it with time-lapse memory my boredom and bad habits seem to have grown like weeds on steroids. The fact is, it took what at the time seemed like the longest year in my life for me to hit bottom. But come early August, 1983, here it was: bottom:

I wake up at about eight o’clock of a Wednesday morning, shower, dress in whatever is still clean and still fits, and load my amp, speakers, microphone stand, and guitar into the back of my ten-year-old second-hand Volvo, and drive from Irene’s condo to Kepler’s of Los Altos, stopping along the way to pick up a couple of doughnuts and a cup of coffee. I park wherever I can find a spot, on the other side of our shopping center, and walk to the store, open the store, and sit behind the cash register. Another clerk comes in, and we sit. We eat the two doughnuts and sit some more.

Midmorning I take a walk across El Camino to a branch of my bank, where there’s a coffee urn and a stack of miniature styrofoam cups. I wire myself together with more coffee, which tastes like yesterday’s.

About two p.m., I get my lunch break. I use two hands to handle my Whopper. I can’t finish my fries, but I sneak a refill on my Coke.

Late in the afternoon, when one clerk goes home and another comes on, I begin the process of changing the back room into a night club. The store has dwindled, and there are almost no books left in the back room; so the owner has moved in a bunch of lumpy thrift-store furniture, to turn this strip-mall bookstore with no parking lot into a community gathering spot. Nobody gathers, but on Wednesday evenings I try to lure in the world by offering my golden oldies. I put out a bowl of trail mix from the Lucky’s supermarket next to Tower Books and Records, set up my equipment, place a tip jar on a stool, and stand there singing and strumming and entertaining nobody till nine-thirty. By nine-thirty most of the trail mix is gone, thanks to me. Then I start lugging all my equipment back to my used Volvo, which has leaked oil on the parking asphalt but I don’t care, and by the time the car is packed, it’s ten o’clock and time to close the store.

Dinner time. I drive into the heart of Los Altos, park and lock, and walk into Mac’s Tea Room, one of the last piano bars on the Peninsula to hold out against disco and sports bars. I’m well known at Mac’s. I’m a star. Other customers greet me with smiles. Women want to sit next to me. The piano player urges me to the microphone, and I sing. They all applaud, and I’m invited, urged, to sing another. Do I get paid for this? No. In fact I throw dollar bills into the tip bowl, so I’m paying to give my songs away, and it’s worth every penny. Besides, by now Mac’s Tea Room and Uncle Gaylord’s Ice Cream Parlor are my only steady gigs. Only gigs period, lately.

Besides, when I’m singing at Mac’s I get free dinner. Dinner: bowl after bowl of free popcorn, as long as I keep buying drinks.

And I can hear that sweet siren’s song, encouraging me to keep buying drinks until I am flat broke.

I’m pleased to say this story has a happy ending. In mid-August, while I was sitting behind the register at the bookstore with nothing else to do, I read an article in Newsweek about small-press publishers in Santa Barbara. I had spent most of my adult life on the fringes of the publishing industry, I still believed in small businesses, and I had loved Santa Barbara for years. I had a good friend living there, who told me he would house me temporarily and help me find work. And Santa Barbara was populated by wealthy older people who might enjoy my music.

Within a month I was gone from Palo Alto and the Mid-Peninsula happy hours. Gone from Kepler’s of Los Altos, gone from Uncle Gaylord’s Ice Cream Parlor, gone from Mac’s Tea Room, gone from Irene’s condo, and gone from Burger King.

I was off to a new land, a friendly city, where I could make a whole new set of mistakes, perhaps, but a land where I would relearn to eat like a human being instead of a garbage disposal.

How Zen Are You?

Nancy’s post last week had me feeling guilty. When I’m alone on a plane or a train, I like to curl up and pretend to be a surly, antisocial person. It’s my only time without a phone, without interruption, without the family and friends, whom I love, but . . .

I can write, read, or fantasize. I can indulge in the candy bar I sneaked aboard the BART train.

When I saw this posted on a bulletin board, I thought, maybe I can pretend to be Zen and Nancy and her fans will forgive me.

I read through –

UnknownNope. It won’t work I’ll never make it as a Zen-ster.

First, there are inconsistencies. You can’t do #1 (one thing at a time) and also #10 (cook and meditate at the same time). So that’s two down.

Okay, I can sit (#8) but we all know the Zen-sters mean sit and that’s it. Don’t think, don’t knit, don’t watch tv, and certainly don’t FB. Just sit. Can’t do it. At the very least, I’m always PLOTting and WORDing.

Smile and serve others (#9)? Sounds reasonable, but, again, we know the Zen-sters have something else in mind; they mean do it even if you don’t feel like doing it; do it even if the “others” don’t deserve to be served.

In this case, the Zen Thing is like the Catholic Thing: Suffering builds character. There’s also the overall directive from Luke to do good to those who hate you. Worth a second thought, I guess. But I’m also a fan of The Godfather(s). What’s a Zen-ster to do?

#11. What’s necessary? Keeping commitments; meeting deadlines; making sure the fridge is stocked; remembering birthdays; giving gifts. Okay, I guess I can do #11.

#6. Rituals. Even this one is hard for me. I blame my Gemini birth. Doing the same thing, the same way doesn’t work for me, unless you count things like tying my shoes the same way all the time.

There are a few others on the list, that I should address, but I’m conflicted. Shall I follow #3, and do this topic completely, or #3 and do less?

I’ll skip to #12, and go have a simple lunch.

How Zen are you?

And the Winner Is…

by Wendy Hornsby

 A couple of years ago, when asked to chair a book prize nominating committee, I offered a wimpy Maybe next year, instead of just saying No. The next year rolled around and, shazaam, I was tagged, It.

I’m not complaining. I always learn something useful about writing and publishing when I serve on a book or story award nominating committee. It turned out that last year the timing was good for me to take a turn on one. Book submissions would not begin arriving from publishers until after the manuscript for The Color of Light was in Meredith’s hands, and after I had retired from teaching. I thought that maybe that particular immersion in the printed word would be a good first post-retirement project. And immersion it was.

            At first, books arrived in a trickle; one at a time, two at a time in padded envelopes. There was plenty of time to read each one from beginning to end. That does not mean, however, that I actually did make it to the end of every book, or even to the end of the first hundred pages that I had committed to. It doesn’t always take a hundred pages to know that some books are just not award contenders.

Around October, the number of books landing on committee member doorsteps began to surge. That surge grew to a deluge as the December deadline approached. Every day, more cartons, big and small, arrived; I quit counting at about three-hundred. I developed a simple sorting system. As I read, I wrote brief comments. When I was finished with a book, it went into one of three heaps: No, Take another look, Contender.

            For me, one of the more interesting parts of the process was the serious commentary exchanged among committee members: wonderful prose, ingenious structure, snap, plot holes, inconsistent characters, errors. Some books developed cheerleaders who might say, “Yes, this one is good, but is it as good as…?” as a reminder of an earlier submission, being careful that something worthwhile did not get forgotten. It became apparent early on that the five readers on the committee had very different tastes in books, but in the end that didn’t matter very much because everyone appreciated good writing, good structure and story, and that intangible that is author voice. Consensus on who should be nominated was not difficult to achieve.

            Will I consider serving on another writing award committee? Sure, but not this year. Ask me another time.

Who is That Stranger Sitting Next to You?

by Nancy Means Wright

I was stunned by a scene I’ve been reading in Mary Pearce’s historical Apple Tree Saga, when blinded by gas, a wounded British soldier has lost his way during the  WW I battle of La Bouleau,  and blunders into a German trench occupied by a single German infantryman. The latter offers water, bread, a warm (German) overcoat, and a life-saving wound-dressing. Neither speaks the other’s language; nevertheless, they exchange names and slowly become friends. That is, until a contingent of British infantry arrive and when Tom, waking up, asks where his new friend is, a soldier replies: “What, that bloody German? He’s bloody well dead, with 3 or 4 bullets in his rotten carcass.”

I was too devastated to read on. The irony of war!

This is a fictional account, but as everyone knows, Brits and Germans would now and then fraternize across enemy lines in moments of compassionate truce.  I think, too, of what we warn our children: Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t make eye contact. And bad things can happen.  Patricia Highsmith seized on this possibility in her psychological thriller, Strangers on a Train, in which two strangers agree to exchange killings of unwanted family members.

Yet how much do we lose by sitting in a train or airplane, elbows virtually touching, but not a word or smile exchanged? I read in the NY Times a while back that two behavioral scientists approached commuters in a Chicago train station and invited them to try an experiment. One group was asked to open a conversation with a seatmate and the other group to keep to themselves.  By the end of the ride, the commuters who spoke to a seatmate reported a much happier experience than for those who kept quiet. And not one person reported being snubbed.

For myself, I am so aware of the person beside me that I find it difficult, in such proximity, to maintain an un-neighborly silence–unless the seatmate obviously desires solitude by popping on ear buds, or burying himself in a smart phone. Too bad! For myself, I’ve met all manner of interesting people on trains and airplanes, including an African-American artist who showed me photos of his delightful gallery exhibitions, and then an editor who invited me to send a poem to her lit mag–which she ultimately published.  And I always keep flyers of my books in my purse, so if the stranger asks what I do–well, out they come!

Speaking to a stranger is especially helpful for a writer in search of offbeat secondary characters.  Even the woman with the exotic tattoos who bumps into me on a city street and starts a quick conversation can enhance not only my daily well being, but become a bit player in a book. I’ve turned people of all cultures and mindsets into fictional characters for stories and poems–even an eccentric individual I’ve only briefly made eye contact with. And as I walk down a street it’s a deep pleasure to smile and be smiled at by a passerby I don’t know.

For some reason this smile happens more with women than with men–perhaps because the gender taboo rears its foolish head. Does he think I’m coming on to him?  As I grow older, of course, it becomes easier to breach the gap. And what is more depressing than to have someone pass by as if through air–as if one is invisible! The feeling of “disconnect” can be unbearable.

The photographer Richard Renaldi has made a living, in part, by asking strangers on the street to touch or embrace one another. According to a review of his book, Touching Strangers,  Renaldi “creates a moment that wouldn’t otherwise have existed…and we weave narratives around the unlikely tenderness that might exist among strangers.”

So why not reach out to the next stranger you happen to be seated by? And let us know in a story or blog what happens? You don’t have to wait until you’re the only two misfits alive in a war (as described in my opening.)  And who knows–you might gain a wholly unexpected life friend!

Some (Not So) Ancient Advice on Writing

“It has been too long since I picked up a book or a pen . . . . The pressure of business has brought my writing to a complete stop.”

That complaint might have been voiced by any of us who try to write in whatever time we can snatch from our jobs or other responsibilities. But the quotation is from Pliny the Younger, who lived and wrote in Rome ca. 100 AD. He’s a figure I’ve studied for years and, more recently, have enjoyed turning into an amateur sleuth in a series of mysteries. The fifth, The Eyes of Aurora, will be out in September from Perseverance Press.

Pliny (rhymes with Minnie) the Younger was a lawyer and government official, following in the footsteps of his uncle and adoptive father, Pliny the Elder. Like his uncle, he carried out a variety of official duties, but in his letters we find that he considered himself “devoted to literature” and begrudged every minute spent doing anything other than reading or writing. One of his biggest complaints about government work was having to write “unliterary letters.”

By the time he was thirty Pliny was considered one of the best writers of the day. His letters, available today in paperback or online, are really short essays on various topics. His account of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD is a classic text for vulcanologists. (The elder Pliny died during that disaster.) Pliny’s letter about the Christians is the earliest and most valuable non-Christian description of the church that still survives.

Scattered throughout the collection, however, are Pliny’s observations on the craft of writing. He shows us how little the writer’s problems and aspirations have changed over the centuries.

Writing must be a fulltime job, Pliny says, even if you earn a living doing something else. The elder Pliny was a challenging example to his nephew. He got up before dawn to write. He read and made notes during meals, while traveling, even during his bath. The younger Pliny learned from his uncle. He took notebooks along on hunting trips so that, if he (his servants, actually) failed to catch anything, he could still utilize the time and the inspiration of the countryside. In one letter we find him at his desk during the Saturnalia (the Roman equivalent of Christmas/New Year). In another he refuses to waste time at the chariot races. (I substitute “television” and find the advice uncomfortably applicable to myself.) For Pliny, his literary activity “brings me joy and comfort. It increases every happiness and consoles every sorrow.”

Pliny’s advice on writing is not merely theoretical. He suggests a kind of training regimen to increase a writer’s productivity:
• Keep yourself physically fit. “It is amazing how physical activity sharpens one’s wits,” he says in one letter. In another he mentions “the exercise which makes my intellect ready for work.”
• Write passages on subjects that others have written on, then compare yourself to them. This is a basic technique used in some modern writing courses (and is a standard method of producing TV programs and movies).
• Revise things you wrote earlier. This will “rekindle your fire.” It might also result in a sale, as I learned when I revised and sold a piece I had written five years earlier and put aside after a couple of rejections.
• Try writing in different genres. In Pliny’s words, “the ground is renewed when planted with different kinds of seed.” My own writing career—if that’s not too pretentious a term—began with a number of non-fiction articles in newspapers and magazines. Then I took a stab at writing stories for children’s and women’s magazines. Not only did I enjoy some success in those fields, but I found that everything else I wrote benefited from the emphasis on plot development and characterization in those genres. For Pliny, “this is the principle which permits me to mingle my more sober works with amusing trifles.” He wrote speeches, essays, even smutty poetry (none of which survives).
• Read, especially in your primary field of interest. “A writer must read deeply, not widely,” Pliny advises.
• Persevere. Pliny shames all of us who have an unfinished novel in the bottom desk drawer when he says, “If you don’t finish the work, it is the same for posterity as if you never started it.”

Such is Pliny’s philosophy of writing on the large scale. He also has advice on handling a work in progress.

First, keep your focus. “I consider it a writer’s primary responsibility to read his title, to constantly remind himself what he started out to say, and to remember that he will not say too much if he stays with his theme.”

Second, be certain your style is appropriate to the type of piece you’re writing. In one letter Pliny refuses to write history because at the moment he is working on some speeches, and he doesn’t want to risk mixing the two genres, “for fear that I’ll be carried away in the confusion and treat one genre in a style more fitting for the other.”

Third, accept criticism and revise. This is one of the most frequent themes in Pliny’s letters. He sent copies of his works to friends or read things to them and asked for criticism. In one letter he describes how he supplied desks and writing materials so his listeners could make notes while he read them a piece he had written. In another letter he sends a piece to a friend, confessing that he is thinking of publishing it, “if only you give me a favorable reply.” He expects to receive, and promises to give, honest critiques to fellow writers: “my sting may be duller than usual, lacking some of its sharpness, but it has not been completely pulled out.”

Pliny and his friend, the historian Tacitus, exchanged manuscripts for critique. One of Pliny’s letters accompanied the manuscript he was sending back to Tacitus with his suggestions on it. What we wouldn’t give to have a copy of Tacitus with Pliny’s marginal notes!

Revision can be overdone, though. Pliny tells one friend to stop revising his book and publish the thing. “Your book is finished, I would even say perfect. Further revision won’t polish it. All it will do is dull the finish.” He tells another friend, “I’m glad that you go to so much trouble in revising your work, but you must put a limit to this. In the first place, too much polishing blurs the outline instead of sharpening the details, and then it . . . prevents you from starting on a new piece.” That’s a point I’ve tried to make with a couple of people in my writers’ group.

Pliny shows us vividly that the difficult process of writing has changed little in two millennia, no matter how much the technology surrounding it has improved. He would feel at ease, I think, having coffee with a group of modern writers and talking about our craft. One question that would inevitably arise would be, If it is so all-consuming a thing to be a writer, why do we do it?

For Pliny the answer wasn’t money. Like most of us, he never made money from his writing. (They didn’t even have royalties in those days.) But he found the self-satisfaction which law and politics couldn’t provide. He was gratified to learn that his books were selling as far away as southern Gaul. People stopped him on the street and said, “You’re Pliny, aren’t you?” I still recall with pleasure the day my first article appeared, while I was in graduate school. Another student in one of my classes turned around and asked, “Are you the Mr. Bell who writes for the Christian Century?”

Pliny would also say that immortality can only come from creating something which outlives us. Without getting metaphysical he advises his friends that they don’t know what lies beyond death. Only by publishing something can they “leave behind some monument to prove that we ever lived.”

Pliny’s letters brought him the immortality he hoped for. And they have much to teach modern writers about the fine points of their craft. They show us that writers, in any time period, are ultimately seeking the same objective, which Pliny summed up in this challenge: “Create something. Perfect it so it will be yours for eternity.”

Card-Reading, Astrology, Palmistry and Fame

A few decades ago, when such things were fashionable, I studied astrology and read Tarot cards. The cards were a gift in 1970, in Chicago. The Aquarian deck, of course, since I am of that sign and we were barely out of the Sixties, the dawning of etc.

I got into astrology soon after. I moved to the Bay Area and took a class in it from a guy in Marin County, where I was living at the time. Back then, you had to work a chart out mathematically, with the help of an entire library of books. The whole thing seemed like a crock to me. I was doing it because I thought I could prove it was a silly fad. All this time, of course, I was consulting the Tarot cards about every life decision. Not that I had much of a life. Where did I ever find all that time to dabble?

Anyway, the teacher was honorable, a believer, and charged next to nothing, so I studied. Ridiculous, I thought. Then came the day when we looked at our own charts and interpreted them. I felt like I was reading my biography. It was creepy. But I was a lot less skeptical than I’d been.

I drifted away from the class. Drifting was one of the things I did best, then. Kept on reading the cards for reassurance when things got hairy and for reinforcement when things felt okay. Then sometime in the late Seventies, I met a woman who read palms. Well, why not?

She looked at my right hand, did a double take, looked at my left hand and then at my right again.
“You’re going to be famous,” she said. I was kind of hoping for that. I hadn’t written much of anything in the way of fiction at that point but I certainly planned to. Soon.

“When?” I said, remembering that my chart had also said something about that. Something depressing at the time: I would be famous, but not until I’d reached an advanced age.

The palm reader said she couldn’t tell when, but it would happen. Then she turned my hand over, looked at the side, and turned it back again.

“You will have one child,” she said. “And that child will bring sadness. Wrong! I never intended to do such a thing. I scowled at the poor woman. “That’s impossible,” I said. So maybe I wouldn’t be famous after all. She was a fake.
But I’d done my own astrology chart, and that hinted at fame. And I wasn’t a fake, was I?

So far, everything that the cards, and the chart, and the palm reader have said has come true, except for the fame. But that was supposed to be late in life, right?

I’m still waiting. How late can it get?


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