Category Archives: Family

Hospital Time

Kathleen and I have spent the last week in the hospital. She was taken by ambulance to Franklin Square Medical Center last Sunday with gastric bleeding. Once stable and diagnosed, she was transferred to University of Maryland Medical Center for treatment. She’s doing well in most respects, so we had high hopes she would get out today, but it looks like we’ll be here over the weekend now.

When one enters a hospital, time is altered. An hour on the inside isn’t like an hour on the outside.  The availability of doctors and nurses and facilities changes with the influx and outflow of patients, varying unpredictably with the condition of those patients. You can spend hours waiting for the simplest test or procedure, or you can be called in at a moment’s notice for something more complex.

In our case, a whole week vanished while they got her stabilized, ran a battery of tests, and performed a procedure to reduce the risk of future bleeding. I didn’t go to work during this week and did very little writing. One of our daughters took over the homestead. I haven’t even had a chance to pay the bills. Things await my attention, piling up, preparing to ambush me whenever I return. The cats don’t much like our absence, either, but I suppose they’ll live.

By the time we get home, I probably won’t know what day I’m on anymore. Time on the outside will have moved on, while time on the inside seems to crawl. I’d blame it on some strange effect of General Relativity, but no. It’s just the hospital.

 

One Million Words

Earlier this summer, my father passed away. Like me, he was a writer, although in the main he kept his writings to himself. As a result, I’m not familiar with most of what he wrote. I do know he wrote at least two novels, a fair bit of poetry, and some essays.

Near the end of his life, he self-published his first novel and sent me the second one on CD, which I promptly managed to lose. Fortunately, my wife rediscovered it the other day. I’m planning to edit and publish that novel for family members. In quickly reviewing it, though, I realized that my father’s fiction, like that of many would-be novelists, is what I call immature.

I have to be careful with that word. Call someone’s writing immature and they’re likely to think you’re calling them immature. But no, it’s about the writing, not the writer. Immature writing lacks the craftsmanship associated with professional writing. An apprentice carpenter who hasn’t acquired the skill of cutting a smooth, straight line can’t produce mature, professional work. Likewise, a writer who regularly uses fifty words to say what can be said in ten or mistakes exposition for story can’t produce mature, professional work.

Nearly every writer starts out immature in this sense. We learn through practice, by reading the works of others, by studying the craft–whether formally or informally–and by getting feedback. No writer is expert from the get-go. Even prodigies read before they write. All expertise is acquired, and in many technical fields it’s said one must spend about ten years developing a skill before reaching expert level.

Writing is no different, except the point of expertise is typically given in words instead of years: you have to write one million words before you’re an expert writer. The number isn’t as significant as the concept. Some acquire expertise faster, others need longer. Either way, writing takes consistent practice.

Today, technology makes everyone a potential publisher. There may be good in this, but it comes with a dark side: a great many writers rush their work to completion and publish long before it’s ready. Even if they’ve spent years putting words down, they haven’t spent years developing their craft. Result? Huge numbers of books debut every day, a large percentage of which are poorly written. Immature.

I had the good fortune to suffer through many years of my wife’s critiques and edits. Generally it’s a bad idea to ask a friend or relative to comment on your work, because those close to you may be afraid to give you bad news. Not so with my wife. She once referred to her technique as “Kathy’s slash and burn school of writing.” Her first comment on The Fibonnaci Murders, which I wrote after nearly a decade of not writing fiction, was, “I can tell you’re out of practice.” Honest feedback in invaluable, if painful. I suspect that many writers never get that kind of feedback. If they had, they might not have rushed into print (or electrons).

My father at least tried. At the end of his manuscript he noted the dates when he finished the first draft and several revisions. He also noted the date he sent the manuscript to a friend. Unfortunately, as he also noted, he received no comments. Fortunately, his work is now in my hands. With any luck, I can whip it into shape for him. I promise I won’t publish it until I do.

It Runs in the Family

My father passed away last night after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer. He was 86 years old. I will miss him, but I’m glad that he could slip away peacefully and without the severe pain that so often accompanies cancer.

I’ve noticed as I’ve grown older that some of my father’s mannerisms lurk within me, popping out at unexpected moments. We have a similar sense of humor. Sometimes I’ll realize that what I’ve just said or done was what he would have said or done. And every so often I’ll get a look on my face that prompts my wife to say, “That’s your father’s look. Stop it!”

After I was grown and married, I learned that like me my father was a writer. He’d never had anything published, but he’d written poetry, fiction, and essays. Poetry and I don’t usually get along, but eventually I did have a chance to read some of his fiction. A devoted Christian, religion inspired most of his works. With the rise in digital publishing, he used a print-on-demand outfit to publish one of his novels. A second and probably better novel waited in the wings, but never made it to publication. I haven’t read it in its entirety yet, but I’m considering editing it and arranging for its publication.

One might, therefore, suspect that I got my love of storytelling from my father. But it runs even deeper. A “family story” written by one Wilshire Lehman, one of my distant uncles, details the great westward migration of the Lehman family. Yes, early in the 1800’s, my great-great-great grandfather Adam Lehman (I love to tell people I can trace my family back to Adam!) moved his family from the civilized environs of southeastern Ohio to the “wild west” of Mercer County, practically in Indiana, built a homestead, and in so doing laid the foundations for a story that over a century later would be recorded. Wilshire titled it, “And They Got There.” Decades ago, my father helped arrange the typing and distribution of the manuscript to interested family members, and later had it put into electronic form.

As part of the package, dad wrote a brief introduction to the work, in which he stated, “The Lehmans have always been storytellers.” He noted that Wilshire had, by his own admission, inserted some fictional material into the account in order to make it more interesting. This fascinates me, since my first efforts at storytelling predated any knowledge of such matters. I don’t know exactly how old I was, but I remember composing a very silly little tale when I was young, probably no older than seven. At that time, I didn’t even know how to spell the word “hawk.” (I inserted an “l” before the “w”.) As I grew, I continued to write fictional tales not out of a desire to become rich and famous but simply because I enjoy writing. Why should that be?

Whether nature or nuture I don’t know, but maybe a penchant for storytelling does, somehow, pass from one generation to the next. Other traits do. For example, “And They Got There” portrays Adam as an honest, hard-working man who a weakness: he worries about the unknown. When making plans, he hesitates if he can’t be sure of the outcome and must sometimes force himself to press on. On the surface, this sounds like one of Wilshire’s fictionalizations. The specifics may be. But the trait itself? I have to wonder, because I recognize that as one of my own characteristics: I, too, am prone to hesitation when outcomes are unclear.

So yes, many things may run in families, and storytelling just might be one of them.