Archive for March, 2018


Monday, March 12th, 2018


sharp photo by Max Greenstreet

When I taught writing, long ago, one of the most illuminating exercises I gave my charges was to have them write a little something in First Person, and then rewrite that little something in Third Person.

When Todd was in his forties, nearly thirty years ago, he gave writing workshops for adults and oversaw a Creative Writing program for teenagers. One of the more helpful exercises he gave his writers was to have them write a paragraph in First Person, and then have them rewrite the paragraph in Third Person.

Then I would ask my writers to change the tense of the paragraph.

Todd is in his forties, a novelist making his living by leading writing workshops and overseeing a Creative Writing Program for teenagers. He especially enjoys asking his writers to write a paragraph in First Person and then have them rewrite the paragraph in Third Person.

Then I might ask my writers to turn their paragraph into a fairy tale.

Once upon a time in a kingdom by the sea, there lived a scribbler name of Todd. A goodly fellow in his forties, his hair going every which way, Todd was not having much luck gaining patrons for his verse, so to keep food in the larder he set up shop as a teacher of writing. His teaching method was to deploy clever writing exercises that tricked his students into waxing poetic rather than staying stuck in the mundane. And by golly, his method worked.

Another related exercise was to have my writers write a brief story about someone going somewhere to get something.

Michael wakes up craving coffee and something sweet and doughy. Finding he is out of coffee beans and anything resembling a pastry, he dresses warmly and sets forth on this cold winter day for Muffins Galore, his home away from home, conveniently located just around the corner from his studio apartment.

Entering the deliciously warm little bakery, the display cases brimming with muffins and cookies and scones, the air redolent with the divine admixture of coffee fumes and just-baked bread, Michael forgets he is eighty-three, and for a long delightful moment thinks he is twenty-five again, the pretty young woman behind the counter his age peer, his life just beginning.

“I’ll have a bran muffin and a large coffee,” he says, smiling at the young woman—the sound of his raspy voice bringing him abruptly back to the present.

“As per usual,” says the young woman, winking at him.

Story written, I would ask my writers to rewrite the piece using short sentences.

Michael wakes in his lumpy bed. His studio apartment is freezing cold. January he thinks. I hate January. His back aches as usual. With a groan, he arises. “I crave coffee,” he says aloud. Michael lives alone and often talks to himself. “And something sweet and doughy.”

“Damn,” he says, finding no coffee beans in his little refrigerator.

He decides to go to the bakery around the corner from his place. Muffins Galore. He dresses slowly. Getting his socks and shoes on is his greatest challenge. Warmly attired at last, he sets forth into the wintry day.

The blessedly warm little bakery is Michael’s home away from home. He comes here two or three times every day. He sighs contentedly when he sees the display cases brimming with pastries. He breathes deeply of the coffee-scented air. For a short infinity, Michael forgets he is eighty-three. He thinks he is twenty-five again. He imagines the pretty young woman behind the counter is exactly his age. He is suffused with warmth and happiness.

“I’ll have a bran muffin and a large coffee,” he says, smiling at the young woman.

Hearing himself speaking, he is brought back to his present reality.

“As per usual,” says the young woman, winking at him.

I was put in mind of these exercises when I recently had a telling experience with the novel I’m writing, tentative title Flagon With the Dragon. I wrote the first hundred and fifty pages in First Person, Past Tense, and while reading those pages for the first time, I felt the narrator loomed so emotionally large that the other characters were insignificant by comparison, which was not what I’m ever after when I write a story or a book.

So I rewrote those pages in Third Person, Present Tense, and the several main characters were transmogrified into emotional equals (though entirely different from each other) and the story took several surprising turns that never would have happened had I stayed with First Person. What fun!

Having slowly made his way through the thick sheaf of pages of his new novel, Todd realizes his First Person narrator looms so psychically gigantic that the other characters in the novel pale by comparison. This inequality of emotional weight, so to speak, is the quantum opposite of what Todd wants for the characters in this novel, which is, or so it seems to Todd, a study in synchronized rebirth.

Whilst taking his morning constitutional, Todd has another realization about his writing. All the novels he ever sold to big mainstream publishers were First Person novels, yet he much prefers the last ten novels he’s written and failed to find publishers for, all of them Third Person novels. He concludes this is a largely irrelevant line of inquiry except for confirming his preference for writing books in Third Person.

Returning to his studio after his invigorating stroll, Todd decides to rewrite what he’s written so far of his new novel in Third Person, Present Tense—tentative title Flagon With the Dragon.


Todd sets down his pen and applauds the unseen forces of the universe for inspiring him to change the person and tense of his new novel so the several main characters are now on equal emotional footing, though wildly different from each other. What fun!

Used copies of Todd’s book of writing exercises, The Writer’s Path, abound online, and Todd has a small trove of new copies for sale. Email inquiries welcome.


Monday, March 5th, 2018

headland sky by Ian of Zo

Headlands and Sky photo by Ian of Zo

“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself.” Conan Doyle

In 1972 I was living in a twelve-person commune in Santa Cruz, part of the commune movement that sprung up spontaneously across America as the housing component of the cultural revolution known as the Sixties. And from 1968 to 1975, I was very excited to be part of that housing component and hopeful about the positive social, political, and cultural impact that widespread communal living could have on American society.

The first commune I lived in was an eight-person affair I started with a friend. I left after a year of frustration because my fellow communards were extremely reluctant to subsume their individual needs, even a little, for the betterment of the collective. We gave lip service to that idea, but aside from shared meals, it was largely every man or woman for him or her self.

So I was excited to join a commune with much more collectivity built into an operating system that quite effectively served twelve members and our many guests. I planted a huge vegetable garden and organized the eager volunteer gardeners, we shopped and cooked and cleaned collectively, and the entire group met once a week to discuss practical and emotional problems.

I felt there were a few duds in the dozen, but overall the communal living experience was economical, ecological, healthy, and emotionally satisfying. Four heterosexual couples and four singles, two straight, two gay, composed our twelve, and my only secret complaint was that most of my fellow communards were not particularly creative.

After a year and a half in that commune, my girlfriend and I were on the verge of breaking up, and our dyadic divide coincided with two members of the commune moving out, thus creating two vacancies to be filled through our well-established selection process. Our commune was famously successful in Santa Cruz, we were right on the beach, and we had dozens of people applying for those two spots on the roster.

Eventually we winnowed the applicant pool down to four finalists, three men and one woman. One of the men was Ted, twenty-five, boyishly handsome, charming, a fine musician and actor, a graduate student at the university, and one of the most brilliant, funny, interesting people I’d ever met. The other two men were boorish stoners and I was baffled every time either of them made the next cut. The woman, Tina, was twenty-four, a zealous gardener, poet, yogini, dancer, professional cook, and bright and funny.

I assumed we would immediately and unanimously elect Ted and Tina, and I was so excited about them joining the collective that I kicked off our final group discussion before we voted by extolling their many virtues and speaking of Ted wanting to host a Drama night and Tina wanting to help me expand the garden and lead a daily yoga session.

To my horror, only one of the five women in our commune voted for Tina, and only one other man joined me in voting for Ted. All the women voted for Ted, and all the men voted for Tina, but since eight votes were required to win a place in the commune, Ted and Tina were not invited to join, while the two boorish stoners got the nod. Two weeks later, I broke up with my girlfriend and moved out of town.

But before I moved away, I spoke privately to each of the men who voted against Ted, and I spoke privately to each of the women who voted against Tina; and I asked them why they voted against such wonderful people and for such boorish dopes?

Three of the women admitted to being threatened by Tina’s charm and talent, and especially by how much the men liked her. One of the women said she felt Tina was too good to be true and didn’t trust her. One of the men said Ted was “hyper”, another of the men said Ted was “too intellectual”, and the third male dissenter said he was intimidated by Ted’s talent and by his girlfriend’s attraction to Ted.

Thinking about that turning point in my life—I might have written a hit song with Ted and married Tina and had three kids and moved to Denmark—I am reminded of when George W. Bush was running against Al Gore. In a large national poll conducted a month before the election, seven out of ten American men said they would rather have a beer and hang out with George than with Al, and in that election 75% of all male voters, Democrats and Republicans, voted for George, and 75% of all female voters voted for Al.

And that reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the movie Blazing Saddles when Gene Wilder is explaining to Cleavon Little why the townsfolk won’t accept an African American as their sheriff.

“What did you expect?” says Gene to Cleavon. “A welcome sign? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter? You’ve got to remember these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know…morons.”

And that reminds me of a recent and shocking study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center that found only 8% of high school seniors across America today identify slavery as the main cause of the Civil War, while 57% say tax protests caused the Civil War. How can this be? And isn’t it interesting that this phenomenon exists throughout the United States, not in isolated areas of the former Confederacy.

I am often chided by friends for being a conspiracy theorist, so I will not elucidate my theory about how and why one of the most important historical facts in American history is not properly taught in our schools. I will say that this monstrous educational lapse cannot, in my opinion, be accidental. Who would be best served by misleading entire generations of Americans about the cause of the Civil War?

And that reminds me of when I watched Jimmy Carter debate Ronald Reagan prior to the 1980 Presidential election, the last Presidential debate I ever watched. I howled with delight as Jimmy made a fool of Ronald at every turn in the debate, and I danced out of my house overjoyed that Jimmy would soon be re-elected, only to read the next day that multiple polls revealed well over 90% of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, felt Ronald easily won the debate.

Which is why, conspiracy theories aside, it didn’t surprise me even a little bit when Donald Trump was elected President of these United States.