From talking myself into trouble, I moved on to writing.

The Stella Atomic Fireball scooter, happily upright and devoid of a careless rider. And now on sale for $1,975 with helmet, rain skirt, and battery charger included!

Writing can be a dangerous activity. Not in the way of, say, a bit of cutting-board contamination (Kung Pao chicken) leading to one’s first experience with drug delivery by suppository. Nor in the way of turning too fast and into one’s gravel driveway on a new 150-cc motor scooter and crashing into the shrubbery as neighbors look on in amazement. But writing can be dangerous in similarly peculiar ways, especially when the writer dashes off a piece of writing with insufficient forethought. (“Dashing off” may imply that.)

The progenitor of impulsive writing is, as you might imagine, impulsive speaking.

Thinking back, as I do when searching for examples from my past, those kindergarten days of yore in Chase City, Virginia come to mind. My dirty word lexicon consisted of “wee-wee” and “doo-doo,” making them numbers one and two in usage as well as, well, you know. Uttering either meant an eruption of laughter from the kindergarten intelligentsia – and incurring Mrs. Moseley’s ire and default punishment: a trip to the bathroom to wash out my mouth with soap. Ivory, if I recall. It was a time when teachers were rarely imprisoned for forms of mild child abuse.

Did “The Gray Ghost” TV series about Confederate raider John Singleton Mosby teach me how to elude trouble? No, but had it lasted more than one season, who knows?

I was a repeat offender known to skip the soaping step, so Mrs. Moseley would have a girl classmate accompany me. Once we were safely out of sight, I entreated my witness for mercy, which meant joining me in the lie I had performed the tastebud-abusing deed. (Bless you Nancy Parham, Yvonne Bugg, et al.) It was a standard ploy for us mouth-washers. Even though Mrs. Moseley was inadvertently honing our ability to fib, we loved her and that kindergarten she ran out of her basement.

By fifth grade, teachers still had great leeway; and mine, Mrs. Parker, used all the lee she could get away with. A classmate’s report of my rash comment, e.g., “George said he would beat the snot out of me,” would land me in solitary confinement in the hallway athletic-equipment closet. At least until I came up with a highly effective early release stratagem: bouncing a red playground ball without pause in the darkness. Mrs. Parker left this mortal realm long ago, and sad to say, I still hate that woman.

The habit of impulsive speech tagged along with me to Bluestone High School. An innocent but overheard laugh during assembly once got get me suspended for three days. After that, I became quiet. And read Marvel comic books in class. And had them confiscated. They would’ve been worth a lot today, Mr. Blane, wherever you are.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about religion, morality, culture, philosophy, and science but neglected entirely topics that future college students felt he should have delved into at some length.

It was during the maturation process of college that I made the leap from rash comment to dangerous writing situation. I had been putting off choosing a topic for a philosophy paper; Professor Carlsson pressed me on it.

“Nietzsche’s epistemology,” I blurted. The nature and origin of knowledge had interested philosophers for ages. Nietzsche was among the greatest.

“Really?” Carlsson said, and added, “Very interesting.”

A bit of research later, possibly done the night before the paper was due, I discovered Nietzsche had never given epistemology much thought at all. My esteem for the great man dropped immediately along with that for a certain close-mouthed college prof of my acquaintance. Then I scoured the library for every Nietzsche-ism I could in a bungee-cord stretch contrive to address the subject. It was the first time I had written very creative nonfiction. (It’s a subset of creative nonfiction.) I received an A, and to this day that paper remains among my most treasured writing specimens.

But the greatest danger that writing ever put me in? That was not to come for many years. An account of that life-threatening event and its cast of characters – a careless outdoors writer, an ex-Marine crackpot, an African lion, and a Maasai spear – comes to you next week.

3 Replies

When “Moby Dick” sank me.

I take a back seat to no former English major when it comes to confidently talking about literature that I’ve largely forgotten. Thus it was that at a pre-Chistmas gathering of my wife’s family year before last that I trotted out one of my stock comments. We all have them, stock comments, waiting for the perfect moment. But sometimes the moment lies in wait with ambush on its mind. (Yes it’s true: a noun that means a brief period of time can lose its grammatical way and become a sentient entity with dastardly intent. In such cases, a pronoun rescues the situation by taking over the noun’s shirked duties.)

We were sitting at this long table enjoying our meal of casseroles of a similar hue, i.e., beige, when the subject of Moby Dick came up. My stock-comment switch flipped and I said, “What I want to know is this: What makes ‘Call me Ishmael’ such a great opening sentence to a novel?”

As good as one’s memory might be of Gregory Peck’s 1956 performance as Ahab, it does not serve the onetime English major when crossing literary swords with a newly minted one.

“I can tell you,” said a lovely English accent to my left.

The speaker was Nishani Rose Anam Cadwallender, my wife’s nephew’s girlfriend, who goes by the nickname Shani. (The entire family is grateful.) She and said nephew Thomas CHEWNING Jones (capitalization penance for getting his middle name wrong once) were visiting from England. Shani was a recent graduate of Cambridge University. She has that refined English accent that American ears perk up at. That can make one feel his stock comment landed in the stockyard next to the slaughterhouse.

“You can, huh?” I might have said with bravado, had I not left it at home. Who needs bravado at a family gathering? I’ve never felt the need.

“Oh?” I said. Adding “shit” would’ve been inappropriate; we were eating.

A brief American Lit seminar followed on how the opening sentence to Moby Dick was endowed with a peculiarly American sense of self-determination and confidence. Ishmael was an old name laden with connotations. As Shani ran through them, I tried to recall what I’d learned about the novel decades before. My brain offered up the cover of the comic book of the 1956 movie with Gregory Peck as Ahab. Ahab then morphed into Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. There was a lot of turkey in the turkey tetrazzini, and all that sleep-enducing tryptophan was probably getting a carbohydrate boost from the noodles.

George R. would ask little boys if they’d like to see a spider and then show them the spider-shaped scar on his chest from a bullet wound at the battle of Chancellorsville. I got my sense of humor from him.

I’m not the first man in my family to have said something that got him in trouble. Even keeping one’s mouth shut has been known to cause a Tisdale man problems. Take great grandfather George Renison Tisdale of the 21st Virginia Infantry, for whom the unfortunate term “The Tisdale Temper” may have been coined. George R. had a obstinate streak as wide as a country road of his time. At the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse, George R. simply refused to take the oath of allegiance to the United States. (I would’ve sung it a cappella if they’d asked.) Some Union officer must have said, “Fine. We’ll let you think on it,” and off George R. went to The Prison for Hardheaded Confederates, which may have had a different name, but I know for certain was in Norfolk. Six months later he said, “You win!” as if he were an approval-board of one certifying the war’s outcome, said the oath, and set off on his hundred-plus mile hike home. If there had been walkathons in 1865, George R. might have raised some serious money.

Henceforth, I’m going to be a bit more circumspect about whipping out stock phrases. Besides, I’m a writer. I should whip out a diminutive Moleskine notebook and pen something original on the spot.

 

12 Replies

Me and Julio down by the side yard

We had our carpenter, Julio, do some work for us a while back. One day when he was finishing up, we stood in the strip of side yard between my driveway and the neighbor’s yard and talked about being fathers of daughters.

Julio’s from Uruguay originally. He’s been here for 20-some years, so he speaks only passable English. But no more than every fourth word or so was a verbal black hole from which meaning couldn’t escape. Where language failed Julio and me, we segued smoothly into head nodding and eye rolling accompanied by minimal verbalization.

According to the always reliable World Book Encyclopedia, volume U-V, 1975 edition, Uruguay is slightly smaller than Kansas. But outline to outline, Uruguay's lopsided pear beats the Kansas square hands down. This smallest of South American republics exports excellent meat, wool, and carpenters.

“Ahhhh, mmmmm, yesssss, that isss sooo,” Julio would say.

“Uh-huhhh, uh-huhhh,” I’d reply.

Of course being men, we don’t need to say much to say much anyway. And, too, fatherhood is its own universal language.

Yes, my 20-some years comment was a joke at Julio’s expense. But after five years of taking Spanish in high school and college, I recognize a fellow slow language-learner when I meet one. Not that innate inability is my only excuse. I’ve always been pretty talented at not learning a subject that early on I decided to invest minimal time and effort in.

(The perceptive reader will have picked up on my attempt to add a veneer of rationalization to the sorry core of that last sentence. But I guess only Ikea can do that and get a really attractive result. [Did you know that to slice wooden logs [[as opposed to, say, Duraflame® logs]] to the thinness of veneer requires boiling the logs to soften them first? I did not know that until very, very recently. I’m filing it under “Trivia to bore with.”])

Even understanding some English speakers can give me problems. My friend Marina, a naturalized American citizen from Russia, can have me nodding and smiling in bewilderment in a crowded, noisy room. Her Russian-flavored English is fine. It’s my Rolling Stones-concert ears (going back to maybe The Dave Clark Five) that are the problem.

Speaking of speaking a second language, I came across a Rosetta Stone magazine ad the other day and thought, “Maybe I should brush up on my Spanish,” and guffawed. (Kidding. It was a low-key laugh.) Brushing up suggests a solid foundation to build on. At my current vocab level of five or six Spanish words, the backhoe hasn’t disturbed the ground yet.

I read the ad’s tagline: Live life fluently. Was that supposed to mean we one-language speakers weren’t living life fully? That’s the way I took it. My old Latin teacher, Bernice Owen (who long ago joined her beloved language in the hereafter), may have been blunt in her assessments of me (OK, she was) but she stuck to teaching Latin without once trying to be Tony Robbins.

I’m thinking of looking into Berlitz. They eschew telling us uno-linguals how to live.

4 Replies

Tweet! Tweet! Twit! Or how to make a Twitter faux pas in 10 tweets or less.

The Book Lady Rebecca Schinsky and I were sitting in Urban Farmhouse Market & Café in Shockhoe Slip. It’s her default answer to “Where would you like to meet?” (There could be some kickbacks involved.) I was getting novelist-to-be advice, taking notes, and out of the blue Rebecca said something extremely unpleasant.

Don't let Rebecca's cute, perky persona fool you. She brooks no silliness. (And I'm capable of a lot.)

“You’ll need to be on Twitter.”

Hah ha, what a foolish woman this was, albeit one who’d made that statement with admirable, matter-of-fact composure.

“Nah, Twitter’s not for me.” Simple. To the point. No mistaking what I’d said.

“It’s an intrinsic part of your online presence in conjunction with your blog. They work hand in hand.”

“No.” More direct. More emphatic. Maybe she had a hearing problem. ”How’s your brownie?”

“I’ll get you 50 followers so you’ll be following people and they’ll be following you right from the start.”

“Not doing Twitter. What else would you like to talk about?”

Though we did have further “Twitter discussions,” honestly, none deserve a blow-by-blow recounting of here. Let’s just say I was no pushover for Ms. Rebecca Joines Schnisky.

Now it was several weeks later. Rebecca’s online. I’m online. I’m about to make my first public tweet.

Hold that thought. FYI, my Myers-Brigg personality type is INTJ, which in plain language means I’m an introvert. At social events, I stand off to myself avoiding contact. Contact ups the possibility of an awkward moment. And what is Twitter? Twitter is a virtual social event. Back to my poised, trembling fingers.

“What should I tweet?” I said to Rebecca via DPM (direct pathetic message).

“Say hello or something.”

Tweet #1 – “Feeling first-tweet jitters, I dip my toe into the Twitter pool. (Dip.) Ooo, cold. Very cold.”

Hey, not bad.

Tweet #2 – “Sitting on the Twitter pool edge now, lower legs in, splashing mindlessly.”

So I was beating the swimming metaphor to death. But, with good reason, with good reason: I was taking my time and getting comfortable. I saw a follower tweet about a flock of birds outside his window. An urge to communicate came over me, and I tweeted I had a cat he could borrow for his bird problem. He replied he was a simple man and only understood messages at the stick-figure level. What? That made no sense whatsoever.

But sitcks. I’d just read an article about boys and sticks on Slate.

Tweet #4: Speaking of sticks, this Slate piece explains why boys like them.

I included the link, hit the send button and waited. Nothing. Strange. Then Rebecca sent me a DM: I’d been sending my bird-guy tweets to some non-bird guy who had no idea what I was tweeting him about. He’d dumped me from his follow list.

Waaaaahhh!

Not ten tweets into my first time on Twitter and I’d already been “unfollowed.” I was a Twitter Twerp. And like an awkward moment at a social gathering, I wanted to go home. But I couldn’t. I was home. So I left home for Starbucks.

I took a several-week break from Twitter and followed it with a several-month break from Twitter. I tried Twitter again. I tweeted people I knew. That helped. I followed people; they followed me back. My list of followers grew. I was getting into Twitter.

A New York friend suggested me on Twitter’s “Follow Friday” thread and a West-Coast film writer picked me up. She liked one of my tweets and retweeted it to her over 14,000 followers. It was one of the proudest moments of my life, after my high school graduation, my college graduation, my first job, marriage, buying our first house, my second job, the birth of our first daughter, making a successful go of freelancing, our second daughter’s birth, a few odd advertising awards I’ve won, buying our second house, the time I shot a 76 on the golf course, both daughters’ high school and college graduations, the pride I felt recently at hanging a ceiling fan, and a few dozen other special moments in my life.

I’ve tweeted several hundred times now. I have 200-plus followers. Among them is an actor and film director in London, a white-rhino conservationist in South Africa, a comedian in New York, and a writer in Australia. I have a program that alerts me when people unfollow me – and I unfollow them right back with pleasure.

Twitter is OK. Especially when one gets people’s Twitter handles right.

 

 

 

9 Replies

When I helped make safe sex more available

The take-one brochure I wrote. Email me for a free PDF to share with friends and neighbors.

Now for a modest account of the historic role I played in bringing condoms out into broad daylight, or rather the cool white fluorescent lighting of convenience stores. This is a true story: I did breakthrough condom work. Make that breakthrough work in condoms. In the advertising sense, I should add.

It was the late 1980s, a time when family planning sections were few. Condom perusal was an unknown shopping concept, and young men lived in fear of having to ask the adult at the pharmacy cash register to show them the condoms. Then along came the AIDS epidemic, and just like that merchants everywhere became pro prophylactics display.

At the time, I was doing freelance work for Williford, Winstead, James, a small ad agency in Raleigh. WWJ had a niche focus: convenience stores, or c-stores in the parlance of the trade. If a company wanted to get its products into c-stores, WWJ had the expertise to do it.

Carter-Wallace, Inc., the maker of Trojan® brand condoms, wanted to make a splash in c-stores nationwide, and they engaged WWJ to create advertising and sales-support materials promoting the profit potential the leading condom brand offered, plus the small-footprint, countertop merchandiser unit they had designed to tempt the titillated, impulse buyer.

An advertising career can be full of painful disappointments, e.g., this brilliant but doomed print-ad concept for the condom merchandiser unit.

Kristie Freeman, WWJ’s art director, and I developed a sales brochure—“Trojan condoms have come out from under the counter” its cover proclaimed—and a small take-one brochure for a side pocket on the merchadiser. After answering the pressing question of why to choose the Trojan brand, the copy went into “Instructions for condom use. (Reading level: third-grade, stupid about sex.) Step 10—Carter-Wallace wanted to be thorough—read as follows: Remember—never reuse a condom. I won’t even begin to guess at the number of unwanted pregnancies that admonition saved.

I’m proud that I helped bring condoms out of the dark, making safe sex available to more. So proud that I believe a highway historical marker near our neighborhood entrance might be justified. Surprisingly, the Commonwealth of Virginia has not gotten back to me on my application. I’ve heard that some state offices are severely understaffed. Probably a waiting list for historical markers, too, I imagine. If so, I hope my offer to write (or at least collaborate) on the marker’s text moves me closer to the front of the queue.

4 Replies

Here an editor, there an editor

Before launching this blog, I sent the link to a client, John Homs, and asked him what he thought. His office called to say John was out, but he wanted to chat online. I got on iChat and saw John’s robot-head icon with a green “available” dot.

I typed, “Where are you? And how do you like my blog?”

His typing bubble appeared. Pop! “Bogota, Colombia”

Wow, being a hemisphere away didn’t deter John from helping me. Was he a great client or was he a great client?

Pop! “Writing hit me wrong. I found it tiring and self-conscious.”

Or semi-great in John’s case, to be perfectly frank.

I typed, “The entire blog?” barely restraining my left pinky from a string of girly exclamation marks.

Pop! “First post. You’re much funnier, much more sophisticated than that.”

Semi-great, yes, but John does have his moments of sheer greatness.

I dragged the draft of an alternative post into the chat window. John liked it; I decided to go with it. But would another pair of eyes lend confirmation? I asked my wife Maria to read the draft.

Getting too close to the writing is an occupational hazard for any writer. To safeguard against it, I grab the nearest warm body and say, "Read this, and tell me what you think without the least regard for my delicate, writer's psyche."

A quick aside on a long-held theory of mine: When someone asks for advice, then disagrees with it, what the advisee actually wanted was confirmation of an opinion already reached. I return to my story.

Maria said, “I like it, but it’s a little slow in that second paragraph.”

I said, “I worked on that paragraph a lot, and I think it reads pretty quickly,” with a slight inflection of some kind.

“You asked me for my opinion—and I told it to you.”

She had. She had. But I was struck by the value of something else: We’d just proven my advice giving-and-receiving theory—and emphatically, at that.

Could Maria’s take be corroborated? Could mine? I asked the recent college grad to read it. When Anna looked up, I told her, in a neutral tone so as not to prejudice her response, what her mother had said. (Also, Maria may have been sitting there at the moment.)

“I liked that paragraph,” Anna said.

Vindication, baby!

Then she added, “But it does go on about half as long as it should.”

Correction, partial vindication for me (maybe), and for Maria, vindication in the 100-percent range. But after tweaking that paragraph, the debut post would be good to go.

Anna said, “I have some other comments, if you’d care to hear them.”

Huh, she wasn’t finished. “Sure,” I said, in the (perhaps begrudging) spirit of collaboration.

Anna suggested tightening cuts, with such illuminating comments as, “This is too cute!” and “What’s that supposed to mean because I don’t get it?” and “The armpit joke isn’t working.”

What was the joke about? Not much, which is why it wasn’t working. I mean, obviously.

I had two takeaways from this post-writing experience—continue to ask others to read my writing, and when they give advice bite my tongue—and one realization: I had no idea I lived in a household of keen editorial insight.

14 Replies

Private eye for a day

A few years ago, I came home one June day to find a TV news crew two doors away. A neighbor had been arrested on charges of indecent exposure. He’d been luring women to his house by way of Craigslist help-wanted ads, leaving a note on the door saying to come in. What it didn’t say was, “You’ll find me masturbating.” The reporter had knocked on our door; Maria had told her we had no comment.

“Heck, I’ll go talk to her,” I said.

“You will not.”

“Will so.”

We repeated this exchange several times, suggesting one of us was being childish.

I said, “Look, I’ve seen that scumbag at the end of his driveway fetching his mail with only a bath towel around his waist. Now we know why his rear neighbor put up that Berlin Wall of a side fence: He’s like living next door to a live peep show. I’ll just talk to the reporter for a moment.”

“George Tisdale, you will not.”

“Oh yeah, little woman?” I would’ve said if I’d been braver. Instead I opted for, “OK, I won’t talk to the stupid reporter.” Because one, it’s entirely possible a given reporter could be dense, and two, I recalled that when my mother began a comment with my full name it was akin to the sound of a diamondback’s rattle.

An essential tool of the private eye, the magnifying glass can be repurposed at career's end as a handy phone-book-reading aid.

Our pervert-neighbor’s arrest shed a disturbing light on his rental of a room to female tenants. The renter’s car would always be parked on the street by the entrance to his driveway; but after the arrest, no car parked there. Then about a year later, a small, two-door coupe began parking in the spot. One day I saw a woman driving it. God, I thought, she has no idea who she’s living with. He’s probably spying on her through hidden bedroom and bathroom peepholes. What if I were to warn her? The idea gripped me; I had to do it. A copy of a news article on his arrest would do the trick. No need to tell Maria. Obviously.

Days later, we had a moonless night. I folded a print-off of the story into a thick, playing card-sized rectangle, walked to the woman’s car, paused for a 360-scan, and wedged it into the crack between the driver’s door and the panel behind. The good deed was done; and I’d done it.

The next morning, cup of coffee in hand, I assumed the air of taking the air on our wraparound front porch so I could look down the street. The car’s brake lights were on. The woman was inside. She had to be reading—and shocked.

“What are you doing?” Maria said, from behind me, to my flinch.

I divulged all, adding, “She’ll move away now and be safe—thanks to me, your husband the hero.”

“George?”

“Hmm?” I said, my eyes on the street.

“That woman doesn’t live in his house. She lives across the street.”

Had some woman mimicking Maria said that? I looked around. Just the two of us. Unfortunately. Then something struck me: I’d had my fill of the air and it was time to go inside.

“Are you sure?” I said, pausing in our doorway.

“Uh-huh. See for yourself.”

I didn’t exactly feel the need to, but Maria was doing that come-here thing with an index finger. I crept along the wall—I often do that for the sheer fun of it—and stopped where the side porch met the front to peer around the corner. The woman from the car was talking to Mr. Pervert’s across-the-street neighbor. They were walking together to the neighbor’s house where, to my utter surprise, they went in together.

“Oops,” I said.

Not long after, I retired from being a private investigator. I was about halfway to the kitchen at the time.

5 Replies

How I became a writer, part three (and the end)

An untitled painting from my Blue Period at VCU, a.k.a. "I'm painting abstractly and have no idea what I'm doing."

After two more (mostly trouble-free) years at Virginia Military Institute, sprinkled with compliments on my writing from English profs along the way, I earned my BA and took the traditional route of the English major: left college without a job. But with typical English-major practicality, I had a plan: Go to art school.

I had four years of higher-education abnormality to make up for. And what better way to do a 180 from VMI than to go to Virginia Commonwealth University and work towards an MFA? I say “work towards” for a reason: Due to VMI’s lack of an art curriculum (a void it and other military colleges ignore to this day), I would have to rack up a sufficient number of undergraduate hours to be eligible for a graduate program. But fun undergraduate hours, which was the point. I painted. I sculpted. I declared sculpture my major. Art school was indeed liberating. Baffling for someone fresh from six years of military school, but liberating.

In art school, I eschewed traditional sculpture materials for those that fit my budget (e.g., scrap cardboard). What exactly was I thinking when I created this piece? "Hope I get an A."

My confusion didn’t last long. Mid-first semester, fate intervened in the form of an invitation from the United States Army to attend its upcoming three-month armor officer basic course at Ft. Knox, KY. The letter may have may begun with, “You are hereby ordered to attend …” It was a good while ago.

Near the end of those three months of playing in the winter mud of Kentucky and pulling the triggers on guns so large they were not then or now available for purchase at a Bass Pro Shop, I learned the army needed young, innocent lieutenants. In an impulsive act that makes me shake my head to this day, I chose to go on active duty. (Ever since, I have looked kindly on the temporary insanity defense). In less than 24 hours, I had orders for Tok Mok Nowhere, South Korea. Not once did Lillian admit her joy at the thought of me being stationed halfway around the world at a remote, hilltop missile battery, with little to do but play ping pong and write her letters. My mother never acted on the stage, but she had the talent, she really did.

Two years later, I left the army and came home for an extended period of relaxation. After a few (and possibly six) months of this, Lillian threw up her parent of a-mooching-adult-child hands and showed me the door. But I was ready to leave. The time had come to venture forth into the world and ask an important question: How long would my sister put up with me? Fairly long, it turned out, as my residence agreement included no-charge babysitting services. I did find time to poke around for a job. I found one in a small advertising agency and made a significant discovery: they paid writers to write advertising. I had written flowerly award citations in the army; I could do this. And so I have ever since, working in several ad agencies and, for a long time now, on my own. My clients not only pay me to write, they pay to edit my writing. It’s a pleasing arrangement.

Of course advertising writing is writing about subjects one would not choose to write about without pay. I couldn’t help but wonder what I might write on my own. A number of years ago, I started a novel. And in the best tradition of all budding fiction writers, I put it in a drawer and forgot about it. I was off to an auspicious start! Then I did National Novel Writing Month and in 28 days (I’ll have you know) wrote a 50,000-word novel. See “This is all about me” for what happened next. (I hate to repeat myself.) In a nutshell, that novel is the reason for this blog. What kind of nutshell? Pecan. I’m a Southerner.

When I finish the latest draft of my book tentatively titled Honestly, Scott, beta readers await. Then come the agent query letters.

Letters! I can hardly wait.

4 Replies

How I became a writer, part two (incarceration)

A few years back, I edited a client’s draft of a website page about his company’s headquarters location. The text began, “Ah, Petersburg.” Now, in George’s Style Manual (Make-believe Publications, 2008, page such and such) that expression falls under “Corny clichés to avoid,” where I give it a five-ear rating. (One ear equals the annual harvest of a leading, corn-growing state.) Is there any instance when one may write “Ah, (something)”? Not really. And in certain cases, the expression would be laughable as well as inconceivable. Take “Ah,  totalitarianism,” for example, or “Ah, Virginia Military Institute.” Some subjects simply cannot be romanced via trite expression or otherwise.

Hand-tinted postcard of VMI barracks

Marching was a popular activity at VMI, as was standing in formation.

From the moment I arrived at VMI, I discovered that Augusta Military Academy was its secondary-school equivalent in imagination only. How bad was VMI? It was back-of-fridge, mayo-based, eons past sell-date bad.

One’s first year was the worst. VMI didn’t allow freshmen, or as we were affectionately called in the corps of cadets, “Rats,” to have radios or stereos. The only respite was mail. To encourage its daily arrival, I wrote letters night and day, often revising them, sometimes illustrating them. I wrote to anyone who’d write back—the furthest of distant cousins, the slightest of casual friends, even my sister. When I discovered that certain businesses loved having pen pals, I struck up ongoing correspondence with them. (In industry terms, they are often referred to as “direct marketers.”) I wrote so many letters that I neglected the world of letters along with the worlds of science, mathematics, et al., and as my Rat Year drew to a close, I found myself in a world of academic hurt: academic probation.

My Rat photo in the VMI Bomb

What did I have to smile about for my first VMI yearbook photo? Not much.

My problems didn’t end there. I was also on conduct probation for one too many demerits. Well, to be precise, it was not one; it was a 72-ish number. And I was on confinement to barracks for an I-don’t-remember-what transgression. Unlike my poor GPA, however, these other problems had nothing whatsoever to do with excessive letter writing. No, they were the natural effects of an extended period of incarceration. But at least my first year at VMI was over, and I had a nice break coming before I had to return to VMI for both summer school sessions and more letter writing.

My sophomore year at VMI, life began to look up as I undertook the only major I was suited for: English. Under the onslaught of essays, letter writing waned. Then came the day I called an Air Force Captain an SOB for giving my roommate a demerit. Fortunately, the officer had just left our room. Unfortunately, he was standing outside the door listening. The next day, I stood before the Commandant of Cadets (read “unfriendly dean of students”) who said to me, “Tisdale, you’re not the kind of cadet we want at VMI.” In principle, I agreed with him, but VMI’s Superintendent (read “aloof but kind college president”) took pity on me and let me stay for the cost of a months-long penalty of confinement, which included 40 hour-long personal tours of the front of barracks with a rifle resting on my shoulder. And so, restricted to VMI and its environs, I returned to my default coping mechanism: writing letters by the bushelful.

Was that Air Force officer an SOB? Yes, indeed he was. And as much as I might liked to have lied about it, VMI has a rather strict honor code. I had no choice but to tell the truth. It was a real-life Catch-22.

Next post, my circuitous route to becoming a writer takes me from art school to the U. S. Army to advertising, all in all, a natural progression.

15 Replies

How I became a writer, part one (abridged version)

My first writing teacher, Lillian Tisdale, a.k.a., Mother, schooled me in the art of the brief thank-you note. My birthday and Christmas fell a week apart (and still do, actually), and so each January became a bulk, thank-you-note writing time of misery for me.

(I could digress here on the enduring disappointments of “Merry Christmas/Happy Birthday” presents, but I won’t.)

Writing those notes was a chore, but years later the practice paid dividends when Lillian threw up her parenting hands and shipped me off to Augusta Military Academy, a sort of prep-school gulag for underachievers. This was during the days when long distance calls were major purchase decisions, so I began to write letters. I discovered that all that thank-you-note writing had given birth to a special talent: I could tell a story in an entertaining way. The letter-writing bug bit hard, and I began to dispatch letter upon letter to almost everyone I knew.

Augusta Military Academy in the guise of an idyllic picture postcard

For the benefit of younger readers, here’s an historical note: Long before email, chatting and texting, people actually sent one another handwritten letters on pricey stationery by way of the U. S. Mail. (Few people know that stationery has an archaic second meaning: infuriating handwriting mistakes in ink.) One could write friends, cousins, that aunt one’s parents admonished one to write—and they would all write back. A letter would typically travel from the East to West Coast in days, a week at most, unless it was mailed with insufficient postage from, for example, a tourist trap in Germany. Then it might not arrive until months after a girlfriend had written one off as uncaring and moved on to a new boyfriend.

Letters enabled me to be creative in telling what I’d been up to. “George writes such interesting letters,” my many correspondents relayed to Lillian. Had I suspected the unintended consequence of those reports, I might have looked at stamp or coin collecting to while away the lonely hours. For when college-choosing time rolled around, I barely got the “Uni” of a University-of-Montana wish beyond my lips when Lillian said, “You’re going to Virginia Military Institute.” Like it or not, I understood her logic: AMA’s military educational model had worked for her son, so why mess with a winning formula, especially one that had such a delightful, epistolary byproduct?

And so VMI it was. VMI had a longer tradition than AMA of young men being coerced into attending it. But since AMA had been modeled on VMI, I wasn’t worried. I was an old hand at the military school business. How bad could VMI be?

Next post: How bad VMI was (and other things)

9 Replies