In case you missed it, below is my new profile picture for this blog’s front page.
I took it just a few days ago, backstage at the Black Box Arts Center, where I am currently appearing in a production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.
It earned first the honor of being my Facebook profile pic, for all my friends to admire. But then I made it public as my Twitter profile, and now here on my own website. It’s not only well-composed for a selfie, but it represents several things about me all at once.
You see me off stage here. I am in my costume, but I am not yet “in character,” because the rehearsal had not yet begun. That is to say, here, it’s still just me being me. But the costume, and the location represent of course the actor side of myself.
The typewriter is a prop I use in the show. It too is part of the theatre aspect of me, but of course is a well-established symbol of the writing profession, even if I don’t, and never have used one for my work.
And yes, I play a writer/editor in the play, by the name of Hovstad.
And I am off by myself in the shot, of course. Theatre is rarely a 100% solitary activity, but I make sure to take time to myself while doing it, just as with anything else. So my introverted nature is also reflected here. As a bonus, I’m not even making eye-contact with the viewer…a nod perhaps to both my introversion and my place on the Autism Spectrum.
It’s important to note that I planned none of this deeper imagery when I took the shot; I just thought me standing next to an old school typewriter would look cool. But it captured so much more than I planned, I couldn’t keep it totally to myself. That happens once in a while. Intriguing that it happened at nearly the exact same time last year.
And if all of this talk of pictures and imagery didn’t have enough levels to it already, I’ll mention one more metaphor that is less obvious when looking. I hope the entire idea of creating something just because I thought it would be fun, only to have it transcend all my plans and radiate unplanned positive effects will occur in my writing as well.
This past Christmas, I got a plug-and-play retro Sega Genesis. It comes with about 80 games built into the unit itself, which you can then attach to your TV, and play, with no cartridges. (Though it also accepts any Sega cartridges you may still have.)
I bought myself the Nintendo equivalent of this last summer, so I suppose it is only fitting; back in the day I had an old school Nintendo and a Sega. I still have my original Sega, in fact. Durable things, they are.
As a young(er) guy, I had a few Sega games. Others I would rent, or borrow here and there from friends. Several of these are among the built-ins. Also among the built-ins: Mortal Kombat 3.
The other night I defeated it. Yes, on easy level, but winning is winning when you are not a video game wizard. Especially when I’d only ever play MK3 on aging machines in the rapidly vanishing attraction known as the video arcade, never on the home console.
If you’re not familiar, Mortal Kombat, and all of its progeny is a one-on-one martial arts fighting game. There are fatalities on screen sometimes, though early example are more comical or satirical than gruesome.
When you defeat your opponent, without them touching you even once during the round, it is known as a “Flawless Victory.” Nothing special happens when you do this, other than a voice saying, “Flawless Victory,” and the words appearing on screen. Though this is the goal for a lot of people, I’ve come to embrace victory in the game with equal satisfaction, flawless or otherwise. For me the game can be so damn hard, I’m happy just to move on, “flaws” in my fight be damned. A win is a win.
I am guilty, however, of seeking a so called flawless victory in other aspects of life. A video game is once thing, but when I make a list of things I want to accomplish, and by what date I wish to accomplish them, I tend to be put off when the whole list isn’t completed, or is completed later than I had planned it to be. My 2018 to-do list for example. That was far from flawless. In fact, it may not have been a victory, strictly speaking. I missed a lot of what I planned to do.
To my credit, I have long ago released the notion of flawless victory when it comes to writing. By that I don’t mean I refuse to proof read or revise. In fact, I could in theory revise everything I have written into infinity if I allowed myself to do so. In all my years of wordsmithing, there are maybe three or four products I would leave untouched even upon further examination. Beyond this, even those pieces of my own that I list among my best are not without some flaw. Tiny ones, perhaps, or those only I would notice, but they are there. They are not a flawless victory. I have to trust my taste and my dedication, and at some point “declare” them finished.
Victory, in this case, creating a polished, finished product, is where satisfaction lies.
Victory, in producing an entire rough draft of a novel or play, without stopping to edit as I go along, is where satisfaction lies.
Victory is stumbling my way through the writing life, even when I’m getting pummeled by the enemy on the other side of the arena.
Certainly, I would rather be victorious, even with flaws, at writing than I am at video games, and at risk of sounding self-important, I do believe I win far more often than I lose when I engage in this writing thing.
So leave “flawless victory” to the true gamers; just get in their and win. Even if you have only a sliver left on your power bar, if you knock the other guy out, you win.
It’s a rainy final day of the year here where I live. (Maryland.) My one prospect for a New Year’s Eve gathering has become tentative. I’ve not been a regular presence on my own blog in months, and I’ve not laid out a grand plan for 2019.
Actually, I have no official plan at all for 2019. I think I probably will in a few days, but it won’t be anything like the last few years. Those plans were longer, more complex, thought upon more deeply than a mere “to-do list.” And while I hope to rise above “to-do,” I don’t foresee my list of goals for next year rising to the level of specificity or depth as last year and several years previous.
Why? Of the years I’ve composed goal-specific lists for throughout an upcoming year, 2018’s was by far the least checked-off. I don’t mean I’ve accomplished nothing; I’ve gotten some important things done. But compared with what I declared, my completion percentage (to borrow football terminology) was lacking.
I ask myself if the list was too ambitious, and I’ve concluded it was not. It was comparable to lists of other years in terms of amount of goals, short and long term, and requirements for achieving them. Not to mention particular perennial goals that are always difficult for me personally to achieve. I put them on the list in hopes of breaking that pattern, but the lists never revolve around those, and it didn’t this year either.
No, it just didn’t happen this year, on various levels. The current novel is sapping more energy than I thought, the year opened with some unusual and trying circumstances, (carry over from the end of the previous year), employment and economic issues, even some artistic depression. All these things and more would also combine at times to create a soup of apathy as well, which I’ve talked about here a few times; why keep up the pace if my work isn’t reaching people and making them happy?
I’ve tried not to beat myself up over this, and have partly succeeded. A few stray blows land here and there, but I’m holding my own against…myself. One way I plan to regroup is to make a less specific, perhaps shorter list for 2019. Pay a bit more attention to quality of action, as opposed to quantity of activities.
It was a slow year. It happens, I suppose. If it happened to you in 2018 as well, I encourage you to follow the same advice I gave myself; don’t be hard on yourself. What happened, or did not happen, is behind you and me both. 2018 is a done deal. I’m going to regroup, reevaluate, and recover lost productivity for 2019. Join me?
Happy New Year.
Due to it being the most reprinted newspaper editorial in the history of the English language (verified), most people, regardless of their faith, are familiar with this piece, known now to history as “Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus.”
Unsigned at the time of its publication in The Sun in 1897, it was of course written in response to a letter received from eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas. Though over time there has been some amount of scholarly doubt as to whether or not an eight year old actually penned the letter bearing her name (appearing as “Virginia O’Hanlon” in the paper), the woman to whom the letter has been attributed lived a life that was rather well documented. Her Wikipedia page, as well as other more legitimate sources cover her life in plentiful, if not meticulous detail. Virginia herself received fan mail for the rest of her life, to which she graciously responded. She indicated near the end of her life that the attention she received as a result of her famous letter had effected her life in a positive way.
Several movies, animated specials, and other works have been created that tell the story of Virginia and her letter. She has become a rather integral part of the Christmas zeitgeist. At least in the United States.
Coming in a distant second to Virginia in this story, in regards to eventual fame, scholarly investigation, dramatic presentation in various media, and inspiration to generations of Christmas lovers? One Francis Pharcellus Church. Who was he? Nobody special. Just the man who actually wrote the editorial itself.
I don’t want to go on and on about that. But I did think it worthy of mention that the author of the words which move so many of us that love Christmas, and the work of whom sparked the most popular editorial of all time seem almost to be an after thought.
“Oh yeah,” folklore personified seems to say. “He took care of that whole writing part of the Virginia story.”
Folks, nothing against Virginia, but in the end Mr. Church was the story. Mr. Church is the story.
Yet his section of the link I provided is basically just his picture. His Wikipedia entry merely mentions he wrote the piece, where he went to school, that he died childless and where his body is buried. It’s barely longer than the piece for which he is (not so) famous.
Now I am not beating up anybody over this. Virginia deserved some attention and admiration. However I do confess it has over the years annoyed me a bit that though it is Mr. Church’s work that instantly captured that hearts of millions, it continues to be Virginia’s story.
So, that being said, allow me, on this Christmas Eve of all days, to talk a little bit about what this work of Francis Pharcellus Church says about him, and about writing.
Set aside how famous it is. Really think about the piece. The prose is eloquent but concise. Touching on a multifaceted and deep spiritual truth in a manner that is accessible to an eight year old without boring an adult reader. It both confirms the truth about “Santa Claus”, without blowing the mystique of Santa Claus. It upholds the magical in a child’s Christmas experience without telling one single lie or half truth. On top of it all its magnificent diction makes it perfect for easy recitation or performance.
In other words, it is a brilliant piece of writing that accomplished its mission. And far, far more.
There is much we will never know about the circumstances of Mr. Church composing this editorial. We cannot know what exactly Mr. Church was thinking when he wrote the piece. We probably have no way of knowing if it was assigned to him as opposed to being a request he made to write it. And certainly his muse, like those of all us writers, will remain a mystery. Certainly more of a mystery than what Virginia went on to do with the rest of her life.
Still I think we can make a few assumptions safely. It is safe to say that this was more than a staff writer cutting his pay check. There is a superior quality of soul within the words. I find it hard to accept he didn’t believe each and every one of them as he wrote it.
Safe, also, is the assumption that Church had no idea of the impact he was about to have on an entire nation’s holiday experience over the next hundred-plus years and counting. Anybody who sits down to pen something with that as a goal needs to be locked up someplace.
He did know, as we know, one thing; he was a writer. It was his job to write, and to do so well. To live up to the standard’s expected of him by his employer and by himself. Pursuant to that, he sat down (as so many of us have before and since) with a goal, a resource, his experience, his talent, and his words. And he penned something. Something to which he could not (or would not) attach his name originally. And as a result of his gift for words, he changed not only Virginia’s life, but millions of others. Perhaps even Christmas itself to some degree. And all of that would be true whether or not the “Virginia” letter was really written by an eight year old.
This is why I write. This is why I seek out places and opportunities to make use of this talent I apparently have to assemble words in such a way as to effect, inspire, change, entertain, inform, provoke, and perhaps on occasion save other people. It is why I chose to be a starving freelancer for now. (Unless some perfect staff writing position should show up.) It is why I do my damnedest to write even though I know that nobody is reading. Why, despite a hiatus here and there I muster up within myself time after time that exhausting, that perplexing, that frustrating, that miraculous and inexplicable component within my spirit that accounts for me being a writer.
This stuff isn’t easy, folks. But it can be worth it, when you get it right. Even more worth it when the right people read at the right time what a writer composes. Just as they did for Francis Pharcellus Church. Just as they still do 113 years after he submitted it to the paper.
Was that ubiquitous yet beloved editorial a fluke? Did Church merely get lucky, and strike a cord or two, or a million? Maybe. But I think not. He was, as history tells us a “veteran” journalist, which means he had been writing large amounts of copy for at least quite a few years. That experience may have sharpened him and his words over time in just the right way to make his tapping into the consciousness of a whole culture more likely than it otherwise would have been. But that isn’t being lucky. That’s showing up. We get rewarded for showing up.
Thus far I have shown up to write far more often than I have been rewarded for same. And I get weary of it. Sometimes I even step away for weeks at a time. But the knowledge that showing up can lead to that one moment, article, sentence, speech or novel that changes everything eventually brings me back to the bottom of that hill, ready to push that bolder ever upward. I wonder if Francis Pharcellus Church ever felt that way.
As I mentioned, we know Church died having had no children. But did he? If children be extensions of ourselves and our love, while also taking on a life of their own as time goes on, I say perhaps the man did have at least one child. That child was an unsigned editorial in the September 21, 1897 edition of the New York Sun. And look at how many children, of all ages, it has touched in the decades since.
All because there was once a writer who showed up.
-Originally blogged December of 2010.
A few days ago, I published the final post in my blog, Always Off Book. I had only posted on the blog three times this year, but it has been officially active for 13 years.
That’s a long time for me to do anything, not to mention a long time to keep anything alive on the internet that isn’t somehow subsidized or sponsored by a third party.
It was bittersweet, I won’t deny it. Sure, with one single exception in all of that time my posts about acting and community theatre made somewhere around zero impact on the world. Regular readership with low to non-existent. Engagement there (much like here…) was rare. I posted less detailed thoughts as the years went on.
Still, whenever I found myself in a production, I would keep those I called my “loyal blog readers” in the loop with my experiences and observations. Some years I was in more shows than others, and hence built-in content would ebb and flow, but there hasn’t been a year since the blog’s inception wherein I posted nothing.
It will be odd to be in my next show and not think about what to post there after any given night.
The very same night I signed off on that blog, I went to Amazon to make a purchase. (About which I had done my research.) It is supposed to arrive tomorrow.
What did I purchase? The first basic equipment needed to podcast. The old closing a door, opening a window dance. Or in this case, potentially closing a window and opening a door.
I will continue the thoughts and conversation about community theatre by way of this podcast. It will involve discussions with other local community theatre participants, sometimes one on one and at other times as a panel. They don’t know it yet, but I’ll be asking a lot of people to take part in it around here.
I’ve already got a good name for this podcast picked out, though you can probably guess what it is.
The title will also belong, in all likelihood, to my first non-fiction book I will publish late next year, wherein I share advice and thoughts about the world of stage acting for (not) a living.
Both projects are new territory for me. By no means will they replace my status as a novelist. In fact, I hope that both will enhance my both my novelist and actor tendencies. Along the way, of course I hope I will engage with people, and make a positive impact on their lives and minds. This time around, I hope to accomplish what the labor of love that Always Off Book was could not.
And if I do not? I will be disappointed. I will be discouraged and I will wonder what it is all for. Again. But I haven’t failed yet. I’ve only just now begun to embrace these new projects and approaches. The future of them are still rich with potential.
Yet like all of my previous (and there are many) failed creative attempts to make a difference to people, I hope that a podcast and a non-fiction book, if less than successful, will in the very least add on to my list of things worth attempting.