Monday, May 28, 2007

Start honing your craft

Writing is a craft where, the more you do it, the better it gets, or at least that’s what we’re told by people like Stephen King and others. I tend to agree.

While I wouldn’t put myself in league with the likes of King, J.K. Rowling, or even a best-selling non-fiction writer, like Christopher Hitchens, my writing style has improved immensely, even since I wrote When Towns Had Teams. I consider myself a much stronger writer and am much more sure of my voice and where I want to go, than I’ve ever been.

Since November 4, 2004, I’ve put up over 500 posts, primarily at Words Matter (467) and here, where I post much less frequently and limit my posting primarily to the craft and business of writing. As King said in On Writing, in order to get published you have to be a good writer. Unless you are absolutely horrible, you should improve enough by writing regularly to reach the publication stage.

What’s been most interesting to me over the past year has been going back to work full-time, which was a concern for me, at first, as I thought it would result in fewer writing opportunities and the potential loss of writing momentum. On the contrary, the enjoyment of my new job, along with its many challenges, has injected my writing with a new enthusiasm, urgency and I am more productive and prolific now than I was when I was calling myself a full-time writer. In reality, I’m writing more now, for work and pleasure, than I was then.

As I travel about for work, I often meet people and have the opportunity to share with them my passion for words and writing. On several occasions, I’ve had one of these folks remark about how they’d like to write a book and are planning to when they have more time. My experience tells me that you’ll never have more time than you do right now. With that being the case, seize the moment and begin working on your craft, building towards writing that book that many people seem to think they have within them.

Writing is a mindset. If you are looking for the perfect situation, it probably isn’t going to happen. If you can carve a mere one or two hours out of your day and can spend some additional time on weekends to hone your craft, you can accomplish whatever you set your mind to do. Whether you’re looking to begin freelancing articles, become a specialist in crafting op eds, or you are determined to write the "Great American Novel,"start today and build towards your goal, one word and one sentence at a time. In order to do this requires some compromises. You may have to give up a favorite television program, or forego time at the gym. Maybe you’ll have to set the alarm to get up an hour earlier, or work later into the evening. Each writer is different. Find a routine that works for you and stick to it. You’ll be able to look back and point to your decision as your own personal writer’s signpost on the road to success.

Better yet, start a blog. It’s simple and easy—just make sure you are ready to commit to posting more than once or twice per month. While this blog in not regularly updated, Words Matter is and I challenge you to build your own volume of writing, just like I have. You don’t get to 500 posts by procrastination. Rather, you get there by making a pact with yourself to find something you’re passionate about and determine to write 500 or 600 words on that subject on a regular basis. If you can do that, you are well on your way to writing success.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Beach reading, part I

Racial Politics and Urban Planning: Gary, Indiana 1980-1989, by Robert A. Catlin (University of Kentucky Press, 1993)

I’ve spent much of my last 20 years, avoiding beaches, less by choice and more because of circumstances. You can read about it, if you care to.

What I’d like to do here, throughout the rest of the summer, is to review the books that I end up reading over the summer. Because I’m committed to getting to the beach more, inevitably, some of my reading is bound to be with sand between my toes and an ocean breeze in my face.

Recently, I spent time in northwest Indiana, including Gary, Indiana. I’ve written about that trip and you can read about it over at Words Matter. My time in Gary produced a fictional account of a presidential debate that should occur, but for many reasons, won’t. The account was good enough to get picked up by Counterpunch, which I was thrilled about.

My time in Indiana during my early 20s was a formative experience, although I didn’t realize it for about 15 years. Only recently have I fully grasped all that those five years meant in my development, politics and worldview. Obviously, going back to “the region” was powerful on many levels, particularly the brief time I spent in Gary.

Robert Catlin’s Racial Politics and Urban Planning: Gary, Indiana 1980-1989 is a comprehensive look at the many issues plaguing cities of 50,000 or more residents that are majority-black. Catlin looks at Gary, a city he came to in 1982, to interview for the faculty position of chairman of the Department of Minority Studies at the Indiana University Branch in Gary (which goes by the name of Indiana University Northwest).

Catlin would ultimately leave his teaching position at the University of South Florida, in sunny Tampa and move his family to Gary, with its billowing smoke from the U.S. Steel plant and its grimly, depressed downtown, with boarded up storefronts, products of the white flight of the 1970s.

Having lived in northwest Indiana, arriving a year after Catlin did, I can empathize with how he must have felt. I also drove Broadway (Indiana state road 53), Gary’s main artery, north/south and experienced the desolation of downtown Gary.

Unaware of it when I lived there, Catlin points out how the local daily, the Gary Post-Tribune, now called the Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana, went out of its way to portray longtime Gary mayor, Richard Hatcher, in an unfavorable manner. The paper, run by conservative, business-oriented whites, was about maintaining the status quo. Hatcher, who was first elected in 1967, became the first African-American mayor of a major U.S. city. Hatcher would hold the office for 20 years. The Post-Tribune was obviously threatened by Hatcher’s outspoken positions on civil rights and his unwillingness to cede Gary’s assets to the Democratic political elites of Lake County, “the machine,” as Catlin refers to them. Basically, Hatcher was a man who commanded respect in the black community, used that respect to acquire power and his power and pride made him a threat to those whites in Lake County and nearby, who wanted to extract what few assets remained in Gary, for their own benefit and to the detriment of the majority of African-Americans living there. The case study of Metrolake is a powerful example of this and an indictment of crooked politicians everywhere, craven only to power.

The strength of Catlin’s book, in my opinion, is his detailed look at the many issues that the Hatcher administration had to contend with. The desertion of downtown by business, the aging housing stock and crumbling city infrastructure, as well as the loss of nearly 30,000 jobs at Gary’s U.S. Steel plant, jobs that provided the majority of blacks in Gary, with a comfortable middle-class standard of living.

While the book is scholarly, Catlin’s writing style is also very readable. The majority of the book looks at three case studies that Catlin was directly involved in, as he served as a direct advisor to the Hatcher administration, in addition to his duties with the university, in Gary.

Catlin was certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) and it’s his urban planning orientation that serves his readers so well. He supervised the planning of Gary’s revised Comprehensive Plan, as well as taking an active role in a number of other planning capacities, including opposing the proposed Metrolake Plan and the expansion of Gary Regional Airport.

Catlin’s book isn’t for everyone. If you prefer Oprah’s book-of-the-month club, then please look elsewhere. If you are like me, however, seeking to increase your understanding of the competing complexities that should inform our politics, but too often don’t, then Catlin’s book will be an eye-opening read, particularly as it relates to entrenched racism and the disastrous effects of Reagan’s cuts on northern industrial cities like Gary. Also, you see what might have been done 20 years ago, to address the shift from an industrial economy, to a more service-driven model, if those in Washington actually cared for anyone other than their wealth benefactors.

Fast-forwarding nearly two decades after Catlin’s observations show me how important public-private partnerships continue to be, particularly in light of our current federal cuts and shifts away from sending any help to cities such as Gary. It’s tough to fight a war, spend $450 billion and have anything left for the citizens at home.


Friday, May 18, 2007


I don’t know a lot about poetry. At one time, I tried to learn about poetry and even tried to write some, but realized that, like golf, my time and energy was better served by other pursuits.

I know that I’ve read poetry that I’ve liked—Whitman, T.S. Eliot and some William Carlos Williams—but never enough to speak with any authority about what’s good, valid, or proper.

Today, on my drive to a graduation of a training class I had some hand in putting together, I caught Garrison Keillor, hosting his morning The Writer’s Almanac spot and he read a wonderful poem, “Mrs. Krikorian,” about a teacher that makes a difference in a young boy’s life. How fitting that he read that poem, on my way to this graduation, a ceremony of significance for nine people, jumpstarting their lives.

The poem was written by a poet named Sharon Olds, who I knew nothing about until Mr. Keillor read her poem. But I now know that Ms. Olds, when summoned in 2005, by Laura Bush, to the National Book Festival, indicated she could not, saying “she could not face the idea of breaking bread with you. I knew that if I sat down to eat with you, it would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush Administration."

Maybe it’s time to read some poetry?