Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Letters to the editor

Do you read the Letters to the Editor columns in books and magazines? I do. They’re like the comment threads found on blog posts and online articles. I read them to find out what other people think. 

The recent letters page (they call it "Discussion") I found to be incredibly interesting was that of the March 2013 issue of Smithsonian. The comments stemmed from the February 2013 essay titled Write and Wrong.  In it, Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, both former New York Times editors, state that many writers follow some phony grammar rules that stem from “ … misguided Latinists who tried to impose the rules of their favorite language on English.” 

They claim that several rules are actually myths, including the ones that state it is incorrect to end sentences with prepositions, begin sentences with conjunctions, and split infinitives. The myth about prepositions comes from a 1792 book titled A Short Introduction to English Grammar, by Anglican Bishop Robert Lowth, and the one about splitting infinitives comes from an 1864 book titled A Plea for the Queen’s English, by Henry Alford.  And they argue that conjunctions are “ … legitimately used to join words, phrases, clauses, sentences—and even paragraphs.” 

My favorite part about this controversy is that this essay received the most response for the issue, and had some readers “riled and other relieved.” Regardless of whether you believe these grammar rules are fact or fiction, I’m happy that the Grammar Police are alive and well. I love that there is a debate regarding the English language outside the classroom. I love that other people care about this. And I especially love (and hope) that Smithsonian may be more open to running essays or articles similar to this in the future, because their readers care enough to comment.

Write soon,

Sunday, March 17, 2013

All On The Same Page Bookstore

St. Louis is a great place to be a writer. 
I want to give a big THANK YOU to Robin Tidwell at All On The Same Page Bookstore in Creve Coeur for hosting the author's book fair yesterday! Lots of great people and a great time, even though the weather didn't cooperate! 
I've always been impressed with the writers here, because they are willing to share their knowledge with other writers. These people are generous with their time and talent, and always take time to encourage old and new friends.
Write soon,

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Off the Leash, continued

6) What was your writing schedule for this project? Did you blog on the road and then turn it into a book? How long did it take to write? 
               My days were quite long. I'd usually write in the morning, sometimes finishing up a story I 'd started from the night before, but didn't finish because I'd collapsed in a heap in the cheap motel rooms Libby and I inhabited for eight weeks. Once I'd wrap it up, polish it and add a pic or two, the motel maids were banging on the door, so Libby and I'd scare up some food and hit the road again. We'd usually drive until just about sunset. I learned early on that I got really tired and spooked when we were still out on the highway past dark. Sometimes I'd lose track of time though.  I stopped to take a lot of random photos, more than 1,500 to be exact, and lots of videos, many of which are on my website, jeanellenwhatley-dot-com. So, I wrote nearly every day. I'd jot down ideas, or dictate them into my iPhone.
               When my stops involved family visits or staying with friends, I'd lose a day or two, here and there, although, truth be told, I was often the only one up at night, long after my hosts had gone to bed, posting my road stories with my dog. Certainly many of the stories from the blog migrated to the book, but once home, I had to figure out what and in what order those 64 blog posts would fit together in a story arc. I'd find myself completely rewriting and then stop and say to myself, "hey! I already wrote this!"  And I'd go check out my own blog and found it was better the first time. It was more raw. It was real. It's okay when you plagiarize yourself, you know.  I got back from my Off the Leash journey on Labor Day, 2011. I had a rough draft by Memorial Day, spent the better part of 12 weeks rewriting, editing, proofreading and one year later, on Labor Day 2012, my publisher sent my uploaded my revised manuscript to the printer. There were a lot of nights I closed the Webster University library at midnight. 
7)  What did you feed Libby on the road? 
               I fed her dog food, plain hamburgers and pancakes and sausage. 
8) What advice do you have for writers? 
               Don't over think it. Just write. Do it for your own edification and if you're lucky, maybe someone will respond to it. That's dessert. 
9) What’s next for you?  
               In the planning stages of a summer book tour, Off the Leash: The Journey's Just Begun -- where I will be traveling around the country doing book talks at indy book stores and dog shelters/rescue organizations and writing about the people I meet. More soon! 
10) Is there anything you would like to add?
                The St. Louis writing community has been very generous and supportive of my efforts and I am very indebted. We need the support and encouragement and I am eager to give back in any way I can. We're all crazy, you know. We gotta take care of each other, like I say in the book, we're all in this together.  Also, if people would like to see a brief video snippet, here's one I call, The Joy You Give, You Get. 
Thanks so much, Jean, and good luck with the book tour!
Write soon,

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Off the Leash

Some stories just need to be told, including this one about Jean Ellen Whatley and her book, Off the Leash. It’s a great story with a great message. Because I had so many questions for her, I’m breaking this interview into two posts because I don’t want to leave out anything. Thanks, Jean, for being so generous with your time and information!

1) Tell us about your book “Off the Leash”
            On the surface, Off the Leash is a story about a summer-long road trip I did with my rescue dog Libby, a Great Pyrenees mix, but really it's about freedom. Off the Leash is about freeing ourselves from thinking that our lives are destined to be hard, or sad, or screwed up and the power of letting that all go.  Off the Leash is about being quiet enough to hear your inner voice, and sometimes watching your dog send you messages too important to ignore. It's about taking action in spite of the risk. 
               I quit my job with no more than $3,800 dollars to my name. Because I knew too painfully well that time runs out, I loaded my car and took off to revisit every significant purpose and place that had influenced my life. I had lost two brothers and my mother in a few short years, and there was a half-brother who I had never seen, and didn't really know if he existed. So I set out to find him. What I found in the course of eight weeks and 8,600 miles was myself -- seen from deep within me and the eyes of long lost family, friends and wonderful people I met on this life-changing journey. All this inspired by my dog. 

2)  Where did the original idea of a cross-country road trip with your dog come from? 
               Off the Leash was borne out of regret and a message from the universe channeled through my dog, Libby. In August 2010, on a sunny, early Sunday morning, I was sitting on my front porch drinking coffee. Libby was laying on the porch, her pays hanging over the top step. I was thinking about my brother Don, who was in his final days, pancreatic cancer was about to take his life. I'd been to visit him several times in Albuquerque during his eleven-month illness, and had just arrived back in St. Louis after saying goodbye to him. I was crying, knowing that he had little time left.
               I was steeped with regret that I had not been able to take my big brother on a goodbye tour of all the places we'd lived as kids -- in Texas and California. I had meant to, but jobs and obligation and his rapidly declining health prevented it.
               All of a sudden, Libby jumped up off the porch and raced to the edge of the yard, barking like mad, but she stopped short, where my lawn meets the neighbor’s, barking and yelping and writhing in doggie torment. She wanted to chase the neighbor cat, the black and white kitty sandwich not twenty feet away from her. But she dared not go after that cat, because of the Invisible Fence around our yard. I sat there staring at her, thinking, "Damn silly dog ... she doesn't even know the batteries in her collar are dead."  
               That was my epiphany. What was the chokehold around my neck? What would prevent me from going after the writer's life I so desperately wanted to engage in? What really held me back from going back to all my childhood haunts? It was time and money -- of which I realized far too well I'd never have a surplus. I called the dog back to the porch and laid my head of her shoulder and said, "Thank you, my darling mutt, for showing me to myself." It was at that moment, the idea of hitting the road and taking the dog took hold like a low-grade fever that never subsided until I backed out the drive a few months later.

3) What makes this book different from other travel books?  
               I wouldn't want folks to think of Off the Leash as a travel book, it's not. Off the Leash is the story of a lifetime, a lifetime that I've come to discover contains many of the same hopes and fears that so many of us share -- it's about family secrets, loves gained and lost, it's about enduring what feels like unbearable hardship at times and the joy of getting to a place in our lives where all that pain ceases to matter because of the glory of simply being alive. It's about our human condition - and how we're connected as the family of man in ways that don't seem obvious until you leave yourself open to the discovery.  
               For example, the book begins and ends with a fateful meeting between me, a middle-aged woman who's driving across America with her dog, and a young man who is walking across America! We meet out in the middle of nowhere, and I mean NOWHERE, on U.S. Highway 50, called The Loneliest Road in America. I pass him as he's walking along the highway pushing a baby jogger full of provisions. My curiosity gets the best of me. I turn around to investigate this stranger on the highway. It was profound, this meeting. 

4)  What lessons do you want readers to take away from this book?  
               As for lessons, I tend to give my dog Libby a lot of the credit for what Off the Leash taught me. She taught me five things that become some of the central themes of this book:  to go along for the ride, to live in the moment, to not hold a grudge, to love with abandon and at the end of the day, or the ride,  or your life, and to ease someone's fear. Sometimes the fear you ease ends up being your own. 
               One could argue that my life has been a bit challenging at times. A divorced mother of four, after my "we had it all" marriage and picket fence (yes, we had a picket fence) life collapsed like a house of cards, insult was added to injury when my former husband was sentenced to seven years in prison for sex crimes. My children were in mid-school up to college at that point, I was living a thousand miles from any family, the instant reaction was to pack up and get the hell out of town (STL) but we toughed it out, through a lot of media, what I thought were endless tears, turned to rage, turned to resolve to protect my children and not have them pay the price for his shame -- which all eventually got sorted out and settled, as I dripped tears like an oil leak across America on this solitary  journey of  healing and peace.
               Even though people have not experienced precisely what I may have gone through, most people have wounds. Most people have unattended longing to do that one thing they've always wanted to do, to see that one person they've been longing to see, to rise to their own definition of personal greatness. My message is this: do it today. Do it as soon as possible. Call people you love today, tell them you love them. Book the trip, make the call. Do it now. 

5)  I understand the publishing process for this book is two-fold – traditional and ebook. Tell us how this works, and the benefits and drawbacks of combining the two.  
               I self-published the ebook and was picked up by an indy publisher for the print edition. Having an imprint on the spine of your book helps get you distribution and some degree of credibility. But even with a publisher, the heavy lifting on marketing and promotion is left to the author.  Readers can get Off the Leash at any book store, if they don't have it in stock, they can order it and have it sent to your house. You can also order if from my publisher,  Blank Slate Press and you can get it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

To be continued Thursday –
Write soon,

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Mathew Freeman's got something good

Whenever I need a language fix, I read poetry. Right now I’m re-reading Matthew Freeman’s book, The Boulevard of Broken Discourse, one of four he’s written. Freeman graduated from Saint Louis University, where he was twice awarded The Montesi Prize for his poems. He’s currently at UMSL working on an MFA.

I heard him for the first time when he spoke to a group at St. Louis Community College at Wildwood, and knew within minutes that he was an extraordinarily talented poet. It’s not that he knows how to use language, because he does, but it’s like language is the needle he uses to inject us with his vision of a world that is both familiar and strange.

I think we’ve all felt the loneliness of that strange world, but may be afraid of spending too much time there. He bravely examines, deconstructs, and analyzes it without losing its essence. Every poem takes us on his journey and allows us to come full circle, so that by the end we are satisfied with the experience that played out in the poem, while still contemplating the initial question. Amazing.  Here’s a sample from a poem titled Highfalutin Hooker:

You know it’s bad when
A prostitute makes you feel terrible about yourself.
But that’s the way things go at Parkview Place.

When asked by a member of the audience how to get from the intermediate level of writing to the advanced, Freeman said “Despair.” After a big laugh, he explained that there are a lot of talented poets but they don’t have that little extra something. “I think if you get at the root of why you are doing this, and can pick out the most intense moments, that can help your writing.”

i don't worry too much about what a poem means or is supposed to be about, i worry about the intensity of the language and the authority of the writer...we comment about the little things in a work but we have to get to the root: meaning the way a writer looks at the world, the writer's most intense experiences, the 'why' of the writing...the only poems that ought to be written are the ones which MUST be written...we have enough poems unless someone wants to dig deep....PLUS anything is possible in writing if it is done in the right way, you can get away with anything!
He also said the best artists are usually the ones who work the hardest.” You have to lay the groundwork and when inspiration comes, you will know what to do with it. You have to be disciplined. It wasn’t until I got discipline that I got something good.”

He’s definitely got something good, and you can find it on, Coffeetown Press, Left Bank Books and Subterranean Books.

Write soon,