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.

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How “scrib-something” in a podcast changed my writing life.

Rising action (of a mild, reflective kind)

My wall awaited. My stockpile of comic-novel timeline raw materials awaited. I will get to that, I told myself. And told myself. Then one day, tired of the self-harangue, I went on a walk and listened to a podcast interview of author Gail Carriger by a certain Evan Christopher. (I think, Evan; English accent, American ears.) The Christopher fellow briefly waxed gushingly about scib-something writing software. Carriger said she would check it out. Me, too, I thought. Why? Because when I listen to a podcast, I eschew saying things out loud.

Scrivener’s neat yin-and-yang ripoff logo with commas appeals to my aesthetic sensibilities; and that literatureandlatte.com is their website appeals to my “that makes no sense whatsoever but I like it” sensibilities.

Back in the office, I discovered that scrib-something was in fact Scrivener. (Google! Is there a better spellchecker for the severely spelling challenged?) I went to the website. I read. The progression of my comprehension went as follows:

1.) After reading, “Scrivener knows nothing of pages until it comes to exporting or printing and therefore does not have the page layout viewing features of modern word processor applications,” I thought, “What? No page layout view! These guys must be absolute idiots!”

2.) I watched two Scrivener instructional videos and thought, “Actually, it appears these people are pretty smart idiots.”

3.) I watched more videos – “Snapshots” and “Statistics” to be precise – and thought, “My god, they’re fucking brilliant idiots.” (As this blog’s author and editor, yes, I’m allowed to use the f-word as well as many other letter-hyphen-”word” words.)

4.) After the “Outliner & Synopses” videos, I dropped “idiot” altogether and wanted to have the developer’s child.

And so it was that I assumed the full risk of Scrivener’s 30-day free trial offer. This brave decision was helped by the fact I had sent the developer, Keith Blount, an email with whiny questions to which he had responded with a short story of explanations. (As someone adept at testing patience, I especially appreciate it in others.) Or perhaps it had been a slow day in Truro, Cornwall, population 15, 310 (World Book Encyclopedia, 1975) where Blount lives and writing me had been a diversion from boredom.

Falling action (of dubious narrative relevance)

(I was excited to communicate with someone who lived in Cornwall. I’d seen firsthand the striking Cornish coastline on “Coastlines of Europe.” [If you find that amusing, know this: it was in high def.] Add every episode of that Masterpiece Theatre, 18th Century Cornwall-set, soap-opera classic “Poldark” to my body of knowledge and it’s easy to see why I’m considered something of a [modest] expert on things Cornish, especially in the subject areas of game hens and clotted cream.)

Climax (in a narrative sense, a narrative sense!)

Scrivener puts everything before the writer’s eyes and at the writer’s fingertips. It ignores other parts of the writer’s body, but that’s OK.

Scrivener was a revelation. Here was a program designed around the needs of crafting a book-length manuscript without the 18,628 superfluous features that MS Word inflicts (That’s a rough count.) I could, were I of a mind, bore you to tears with how Scrivener has this amazingly simple yet efficient interface, how it breaks writing into manageable chunks, how it enables you to rearrange chapters or scenes in endless ways, how it can isolate a subplot or part of the story from start to finish for viewing, how it creates an index card for each piece of writing and thus an outline as you go, how it takes snapshots of each draft of a scene and then reveals how you changed it from one revision to the next, how the screen splits into two vertically or horizontally so that a picture or website or PDF or some other file can then be viewed in one of the halves, how all the research related to any part of the writing appears with that part for easy reference. But as I say, getting into all of that, even in summary form, would most likely be more than you’d care to hear about. And dear reader, I like you.

Dénouement (for purposes of a blog post anyway)

You’re probably thinking, “But George, was Scrivener easy to learn how to use?” Yes! Indeed it was! Mastering it (more or less) didn’t begin to approach the difficulty of the first time I took Calculus 101 in college. (Or the second time I took it. Or, for that matter, the third.)

Epilogue (of sorts)

Scrivener is all things to a writer wrestling with a novel, non-fiction book, film script, poems, song lyrics, lecture, or any other chunk of writing. Kudos to Keith Blount for realizing the need for such a program and developing it. I love that guy. But we’re both already married.

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Word doesn’t have it. But does another app?

When The Blog of George editorial office held its brainstorming session for this week’s post, one suggestion was an account of my switch from Microsoft Word to a writing app designed for book-length manuscripts.

I said, “That would make an entertaining read? Who would give a Muridae Rattus‘s ass about that?”

To my utter surprise, this suspect idea carried the editorial day. It’s a problem of brainstorming sessions. A poor idea can be put forth and catch on like wildfire. And then? Then somebody has to write it.

Introduction

How does the most ubiquitous word processing program on the planet, Microsoft Word, facilitate novel writing? Word gives you folders. What can you do with them? Put them into other folders. (You can also take them out.) In manuscript management tools, Word, in a word, sucks. But I had never found anything better to use. Had I looked? Sort of.

Prologue

After finishing the second draft of my novel’s manuscript, I deconstructed it, i.e., did a reverse outline, to see what I had in those 98,000 words.

I had problems in those 98,000 words.

I spent weeks moving parts of the story forward and parts backward, expunging a subplot here and a chapter there, adding notes on where the storyline had to change and new narrative had to be written, and umpty-umpth edits later, arrived at a 13-page synopsis. Mind-numbing process, really. Almost drove me insane. My right hand still trembles a bit. (Benign tremor; had it since childhood.)

The story begins. (Or does it?)

The problem with a 13-page outline is that, visually, it’s a 13-page outline of words. (True of most outlines, actually.) I couldn’t look at it and see the story arc. And so it was that I devised My Brilliant Bayeaux Tapestry Plan: a wall timeline of my novel synopsis.

In illustrative style, the Bayeux Tapestry had set a low bar I knew I could top. But does writing allow time for embroidery? No. Special thanks to the Barnaby’s Picture Library, London and the Bayeux Museum, Bayeux, France for their permission to World Book Encyclopedia for use of this image in the 1975 edition, volume E, page 246a. And my personal, heartfelt thanks to Canon, Inc. for its easy-to-use MP460 printer/copier/scanner.

The next two questions were simple enough: How long would it take me to learn needlepoint embroidery? And then, to create the tapestry? Way, way too long, I discovered.

I changed the name to My Brilliant Bayeaux Tapestry-like Plan.

Careful measurements revealed that at 30-plus chapters, the timeline would cross a wall of my office, exit the door, jump over the old pine wardrobe on the landing, go around an outward-facing corner of the wall, go into and through an inner corner of the wall, and end somewhere to either side of our guest bedroom door. Careful measurements I made after going to Staples and purchasing sheets of foam-core board, packages of Velcro hanging things, shrink-wrapped stacks of index cards, bubble packs of colored gel pens, boxes of pushpins, a package of Post-It notes (not on my list, but multicolored and on sale), triple-A batteries (two-for-one deal!), a pencil cup (clearance bin!), and a trashcan-sized barrel of sourdough pretzels (irresistible bulk-buy savings!). I hauled all of this stuff home to my office, opened each item, and laid it all out in staging readiness. I was justifiably proud of what I’d accomplished so far. Staples is a great store. But is everything on one aisle? No.

Is Howarth's book an enjoyable read? Absolutely. Should I have read it in preparation? Maybe not.

Is Howarth’s book an enjoyable read? Absolutely. Did I need to read it in preparing to do my timeline? Probably not.

Break time! I retired to the den to veg out watching the tube and enjoy a light snack of one or two dozen pretzels and a half-gallon of iced tea. (Is there any snack drier than hard pretzels? I don’t think so.)

I had writing to do; I moved on to it. Time passed. (Have you noticed that, too?) I contemplated beginning the construction of the timeline. I also thought about what it would mean to have it hanging on display. Such as having one of my daughters’ friends who was sleeping over say to me, “Mr. Tisdale, this scene where Scott tries to get that girl’s attention and rides his motor scooter into a hedge. I was thinking, what if you moved that over, um, to here? I really like that. What do you think?”

I think I’ll conclude this story next week.

Memorandum to The Blog of George editorial staff: There will be no brainstorming session on next week’s post. Enjoy your weekend!

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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