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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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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