Baseball, Fishing, and Writing

By Susan Remson

I am somewhere in the middle of middle age, and there are still many things I have never done. Until recently, one was to attend a major league baseball game. But that changed that last month, when I saw the Pittsburgh Pirates break a losing streak in a 5-2 win over the As. I had so much fun that evening at PNC Park, looking down on home plate and up at the Pittsburgh skyline, surrounded by families and food, that I’m now eager to attend my next game and could become a real baseball fan.

Since that time I have moved from Pittsburgh to Wisconsin, and live right on Lake Michigan. From my windows, I can see the open lake and the harbor. We have been here almost two weeks now, settled enough so that my husband went out and bought fishing poles and tackle and a net big enough to catch Moby Dick (yes, he has always been an optimist). He has gone out a few times early in the morning. The first few times he came back, I would ask if he had caught anything. I have learned now not to ask; that if he had, I would hear him shout from the dock, a block and half away from here.

Last night he took me out with him and I cast off for the first time in my life. He explained to me what to do — having learned it himself five days ago from the guy at the rigging store where he bought his equipment. “Hold down this thingee. Pull the rod back. Throw it out. Then release the thingee. Keep the rod low, and reel it back in slowly, occasionally jerking the line ever so slightly. That’s how the fish swim, in jerky motions.”

Sounds easy enough to me. So, I did it, and it was easy. And I did it again. And again. Over and over again. I watched other people on the dock doing it, over and over again, and I didn’t see anyone catch anything. However, they were hopeful, and they were out there doing what they wanted to be doing at that exact moment. Nothing wrong with that.

After about an hour, it was almost dark, so we packed up our stuff and started to head for home. As I turned around, I saw an older man who had been standing about fifty feet away from us, take his net and swoop it down into the water.

“Look, he’s got something,” I told my husband. “Let’s go over and see what he’s caught.”

Several other people had gathered around as he lifted a huge brown fish out of the water. The old guy was kind of nonchalant about his catch, but everyone else was impressed, telling him “Wow,” and “Good for you,” and “Way ta go, buddy.” They walked away with incentive to come back tomorrow, and with renewed hope that the big one with their name on it was out there, waiting for them.

As I walked home, I couldn’t help but think about fishing and some similarities to my recent exploration into creative writing. First, until well into my fifties, I did neither. I have always been a technical writer, but about two years ago I tried my hand at fiction and pardon the pun, I was hooked. My writing comes in jerky motions, sometimes smooth and steady and other times in little spurts, punctuated by immobility. I’ve thrown a few things out to see anyone is interested in my work, but so far, not even a nibble.

Like the fisherman who still hasn’t caught anything, I haven’t published anything in this genre—yet. But I keep trying and I understand that trying is part of the process, just like each of those folks at the end of their rods. It’s also true that like those guys at the dock, right now I am doing what I want to be doing. I may never catch the big one, but I like being here. At this point, I would be happy with a small catch. Fish, I mean, as well as seeing a short story or poem of mine in print. Even a little piece, just to keep me going.

However, I am encouraged when I meet other new writers who are successful, and I appreciate talents who reel in the big fish and get their rewards. Like my husband, I too, am optimistic, and I really believe that there is a fish out there waiting for me, and that a story of mine will be printed, and that it is never too late to become a fan of our national pastime. I just can’t remember if it’s baseball or fishing.

Susan Remson lives in Kenosha, where she write about the environment, politics, and culture of the Great Lakes at Great Lakes Views..

So, You Want to be a Writer?

By Babs Halton

It was a winter’s evening. I lay sprawled on the sheepskin rug in front of a log fire.

“I want to be a writer,” I said.

My husband sat in his leather armchair, pen poised over a crossword. “Do you know another word for ‘spiny anteater’?”

Our youngest piped up. “I know, Daddy. It’s Echinacea,” she replied, her eyes never leaving the television. Her sister looked up from the book she was reading and laughed.

“That’s an herb—it’s not an anteater.”

“Well, I know it’s something like that and I know it’s not enchilada ‘cos that’s a real hot food,” she said smugly.

“It’s an echidna,” I replied. “Native to Oz; belongs to the porcupine family.”

“Wow! How did you know that?” Eyes still glued to the television.

“Because I did last week’s crossword and I looked it up.”

My voice raised an octave. “Anyway, to get back to what I was saying, I want to be a writer.”

“Oh! That’s interesting,” he said.

“Don’t humor me,” I snapped. “You don’t think I’m serious, do you?”

Now I had his attention. “Why, of course, I know you’re serious, but . . . ”

“But what?”

“Well, it’s not like writing a letter, you know. It takes determination, stamina, and a thick skin because you’ll have enough rejections to paper a very large room.”

“So you’re saying my work will be rejected.” My voice sounded like cracked ice.

“Of course, bound to be—it happens to all writers.” He warmed to the subject. “Do you know how many books Louis L’Amour had rejected before he had an acceptance?”

“I don’t want to write cowboy stories,” I said miserably.

“Okay! So, you don’t want to write Westerns. I was just making a point.”

I never realized how much wanting to be a writer was about to change my life.

I threw myself into learning like a dervish. I devoured books—classics and trash at an alarming rate—hoping the more books I read the more words would emerge. I’m sure I became the fastest reader in the South Pacific but unfortunately when I began writing, both my stories and style left a lot to be desired (oops—cliché). I also used too many exclamation marks to emphasize a point (sometimes up to three—I was so carried away). I read that one famous author mentioned that if he felt like putting an exclamation mark after a word he would lie down until it passed.

And so, days, weeks, and months passed and I diligently attended workshops, courses, seminars, and lectures by professional writers, teachers, and rip-off merchants. I used masses of exercise books to report what each one suggested. Something I did learn was that with all the time (valuable) and money spent (ouch!), every one of the “experts” seemed to be at loggerheads.

“Forget the adjectives,” said one, a teacher of English literature at a university.

“In my opinion,” said another (this time an author with 100 short stories and seven novels published), “it’s foolish to forget adjectives—if you pare it down too much you’ll have nothing left.”

And yet another: “You can only break the rules of writing when you know them well enough to know which rules can be broken successfully.” (Huh?)

“Write only what you know—write from experience,” said a very successful fantasy and science fiction writer. (Alrighty!)

Confused, weary, and a teeny weeny bit irritated, I pondered. Did Agatha Christie really commit all those murders? Did H.G. Wells really step into a time machine? Was Ian Fleming really James Bond and did he really make love to all those women? Wow! Is there something here that I am missing?

I heard, “I like your story very much, dear. Your style is emerging beautifully.” Beautifully? I blinked and smiled agreeably (no one can say I lack a sense of humor). “But, do take out the fat man. I don’t like him, no, not at all. Ruined it, darling. He spoils the entire story.” The fat man was a “walk on” and uttered two sentences. A budding Hemmingway loved my fat man and if I threw him in the wastepaper basket, one of my most colorful characters would be lost to the world forever.

Tottering to bed at night my ears rang with “flesh out the characters, use body language, create tension, show-don’t tell, talking heads are a no-no” and my very favorite: “Don’t dangle those participles.”

I showed my teeth—but I wasn’t smiling.

Researching is supposed to be very interesting and the sense of achievement that one gets from it can be almost therapeutic (they say). So, away I went to research. You name it, I researched it. I became bogged down in history, religion, murder, love, and comedy. Thousands of pieces of paper surrounded me and to relieve tension I sometimes laughed out loud which sounded oddly like a demented parrot. My eyes crossed and swiveled alarmingly (Oops, sorry. It’s not politically correct to make fun of eyes– even if they are your own). My back ached from hours slouched in front of my computer. My neck stiffened and I needed my neck in good working order because it supported my head that housed masterpieces (which still hadn’t emerged).

And while all this was going on my husband was commissioned to write a manual on airport security and sailed through it as if he was out yachting on the Hauraki Gulf. My smile felt glued to my face (no one can say I lack a sense of humor).

If this is what happened when you wanted to write—Stuff it, I thought. I’ve had enough. I’m not playing anymore!

I stayed away from writing for about a month, seeking new interests. I tried to bring out hidden talents (there had to be some). I would be a great artist—have an exhibition of my paintings. Unfortunately my painting of a thrush looked like a cross between an eagle and Quasimodo. Eventually, I surrendered to the truth. I could only draw stick-men. My flower arrangements looked as if they had been tossed into a vase. Plants withered the minute I touched them. The last straw was my attempt to create tiny rosebuds for an iced cake. I really think my husband went too far suggesting I used concrete mix. Enthusiasm died. So, sulking or glancing longingly at the hideous metal monster which stared back at me (you’ve guessed it), I crept back.

This time I did things at a more leisurely pace. I wrote, enjoying it more and more. Everything became easier and I realized that I must have absorbed a lot of the teaching, retaining what was useful and discarding the useless. I relaxed, became less tense about my writing. Sensitivity was a thing of the past. I had acquired skin like a rhinoceros.

I enjoy the camaraderie that writers give to each other. Why, only the other day I listened attentively while another writer went on about how her characters had a life of their own and did what they wanted to do.

“I can’t do anything with them, my deah,” she gushed. “They refuse to listen to me. Do you get the same problem with yours?”

I thought about the years of learning, of trying to understand everything that had been thrown at me. The struggle, trying to remember everything. Writer’s block. Tears.

Critiques that stung like a sharp slap. Critiques that winded me.

And then I thought about the help, kindness, support, and best of all—praise.

“No—I get very little trouble with my characters. They do exactly what I want them to do.”

I smiled. (No one can say I lack a sense of humor.)

Babs Halton is the author of two children’s books and has published a book of poetry. One of her stories has appeared the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly and she has won awards for local competition entries. Now writing a novel (thriller), she hopes to have it completed by early 2006.

Color and Fire

By Julie Eberhart Painter

Had it not been for Mr. Sklar, my art teacher, I would never have survived college long enough to rediscover writing.

From age eight I’d wanted to write — short stories, poems, books — but my parents insisted I attend Moore Institute of Art in Philadelphia so I could help them run the family’s interior design business. Sixteen years old and powerless, I felt angry and betrayed that my future had been decided with no consideration for my wishes or aptitudes.

I vowed to adjust to college; it was my only choice, although I had no talent for drawing. I identified with one of Jascha Heifetz’s music students who once asked for a progress report.

“How am I coming with the violin?” he asked the professor.

“You have no fire,” Heifetz said.

The student quit the violin and went into another business. He was moderately successful, but not overly so. Years later the young man ran into Heifetz in town. “Thank you for steering me away from the violin. When you said I had no fire, I took up accounting.”

“Really?” Heifetz replied. ”I tell all my students that. The good ones stay.”

In spite of my lack of fire for art, Mr. Sklar helped me stay in art school, inspiring me with his own fire for self-expression. Opening day, he commanded my attention when he informed our class, ’Don’t tell me you have no talent; you have all the talent of the ages. You are forty-million years old.” After a few blank looks, Mr. Sklar wheezed through smoke-encrusted vocal cords, “You have the wisdom of the ages. Art must be a strong expression of your inner fire and contain the full spectrum of emotion. Even monochromatic shadows and colorful highlights from sculpture create excitement.”

A gnarly man, he loved his clay models of grape crushers’ feet. We used them to practice recreating their impression in plasticine clay. His other passion was for Henry Moore’s sculpture. Everything must remind one of something but not look like it.

By my junior year, Mr. Sklar had imparted useful techniques applicable to any artistic genre, including music. I remember a class in two-dimensional design. One day our instructor told us, “Time to add color to your paintings. This will make them or break them.’

For me, adding color had become an opportunity to save my work, but students more talented at drafting grumbled, “Crack!”

Before I realized that writing was my true creative outlet and must be pursued, fear of failure caused me to act as if I already knew the negative outcome of my efforts. I’d fast-forward to the conclusion and abort any chance of success. Writers are known for that scenario. I had difficulty holding enough enthusiasm to sustain me through each endeavor. In my rush to get to the last page, I became my own thanatologist. There were no flames, no excitement.

When I shed the false expressions of my creativity and gave myself up to writing, I rekindled the fire I’d sensed in Mr. Sklar. My stories and essays became a vivid palette of colors.

Using art as a paradigm, I build from the inside out, packing the clay of contemplation and metaphor until I feel the word composition represents my insights. Mr. Sklar feels everything we create must excite us, otherwise it isn’t worthy to be called art. His love of sculptural abstract design and his ingenious approach translates into whatever form self-expression takes. In writing, color equates to description.

Writers color works with examples: metaphor and similes. Form translates into structure. We build scenes, hooking interest and carrying the readers into emotions that resonate with their lives and hook their emotions. Or, the opposite: with that same color and fire we can take readers out of their lives, escaping to places they may never have envisioned.

Years later, when I think of Jascha Heifetz and Mr. Sklar, I vow to stay with writing. Colorful writing excites me and ignites the fires in my heart. Color and fire made me into a published author.

Julie Eberhart Painter was raised in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and studied interior design in Philadelphia. She has lived in Texas, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, and Florida. Her hobbies are duplicate bridge, volunteering, and world travel, but writing is her passion. Her short stories based on Celtic, Chinese, and Polynesian legends appear in publications worldwide. She’s published humorous, motivational, and how-to essays, and three books. Julie is a regular by-line essayist with the Orlando Sentinel and the Daytona Beach News-Journal. Julie’s  novels include  The World, the Flesh and the Devil.