George Washington abbreviated

Hello History Buffs! For my next trick I will attempt to summarize an 800 page biography in 600 words. Here are my takeaways from Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow.

The oddity about George Washington’s rise to prominence was the peculiar way stepping stones fell in his path. The young Washington seemed always to be losing a relative to an untimely death. Each time, it left him with more money and a greater position in society. If it had been a less trustworthy person, I’d  have grown suspicious. In his case, I concluded Washington was the hub of a circle of people who were significantly wealthier and unhealthier than he was – until they all died and he got their stuff. Then, they were just that much more unhealthier.

Washington made hay with the power he inherited, but all the stuff didn’t do him much good. Southern planters, for all their apparent wealth, were chronically in debt. Washington, with all his land holdings, inheritances, and whatnot, was not immune to this condition. He could have been the poster boy for it.

Who doesn’t love getting lots of big packages in the mail?

Washington’s habits kept him in debt. He had a taste for nice things. He was forever ordering crockery emblazoned with the family crest. He needed a new uniform for every camping trip and dressed all his attendants alike, as if they were bridesmaids. He kept up the décor like the Mother of His Country.

Washington was often unavailable to manage his own finances. Sacrificing his time to go fight the French, the British, and almost the French again, he had little time to spend maximizing his personal profits. Between running an eight-year revolution and serving as a two-term president, Washington was forced to leave his personal estate to managers less interested in his bank balance than he was.

George Washington could tell a lie. Washington lied in the way normal folks lie. He fibbed to protect his reputation. When a man of sound judgment makes a poor choice, he may feel pressure to fudge on the circumstances, as Washington did in his early military career. Washington also told white lies to smooth over differences with colleagues and to avoid moral dilemmas, like being a slave owner who wished he could be an abolitionist, if he could do so without inconveniencing himself.

The best thing about Washington’s lies are the ones he wouldn’t tell. He wasn’t tempted by the big, political lie. He didn’t spread lies about political foes, although he was the victim of many smears. He left it to his successors to bring official dishonesty to the presidency, which they lost no time in doing. Washington seemed more interested in setting a high bar for the presidency than in getting what he wanted at any cost.

Washington was an ambitious self-promoter. In a country full of ambitious self-promoters it was fortunate the one who rose to the top at the crucial moment was a rare man who, having gained power and fame, was content not to corner the market on it.

George Washington didn’t have the most brilliant mind of his time. He had something more important; he had wisdom. He knew where to turn when he needed help from one sort of genius or another, and he carefully considered something geniuses often overlook: tomorrow.

George Washington wasn’t a perfect man, but he was the perfect man for a particular time and place in history. It is hard to imagine many men who could have made a success out of the losing proposition that was the American Revolution. What other man, standing at the precipice of unlimited power, would have used it so benignly and handed it off so willingly?

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O Pioneers!

You know who had it rough?

Pioneers.

I mean, traveling through strange lands without so much as a highway rest stop; building their own houses out of sticks, mud, and whatever forest parts they could chop to fit; having to live with their entire families in one or two rooms, with no escape from the children – that sounds horrible.

We say, “I’m going out for a beer.” They could only say, “I’m going out to be attacked by a bear.”

But this is a writing-themed blog, so in literary terms, you know who had it rough?

Pioneers.

I’m speaking of all the literary pioneers who wrote books before the age of the word processor. It’s a wonder books were written at all. Up to about the Mark Twain era, they didn’t even have typewriters, and even typewriters seem like some sort of torture device to the modern writer.

Munitions workers count typewriters to be shipped to Europe and dropped from bombers over Nazi Germany.

If I had to write a novel with a pen, it would be the length of a post-it note. That’s when my hand starts cramping. I suppose I could write one post-it note’s worth per day. I can fit about six words on the standard post-it; upwards of three of them are legible.

I guess the literary pioneers had tougher hands than I do. But it’s not just the physical aspect that amazes me. How do you cut and paste on notebook paper? Yeah, you can cross out a word and write a new one overtop, but what happens when you’ve got to move paragraphs around? What happens when you made a continuity mistake five chapters ago and you’ve got to rework all that plot? I think I’d rather build a house out of sticks and mud.

Here’s another thing to think about. Back in the day, many novels appeared as serials in journals. I don’t know the details of this process, but I have a suspicion they wrote the chapters as they went. That is to say, chapters 1-5 were already printed and read while chapter 6 was being written. Imagine writing a novel where you can’t go back and fix the stuff that doesn’t work anymore with the direction you want it to take. You’d have to have a pretty clever mind to make it all mesh without the Delete button.

I’ve been known to have some fun critiquing classic fiction – you know, picking on people who are too dead to defend themselves, because that’s the way I roll.  Beneath those playful jabs is a reverence that inspired me to read all those classics. Can they be wordy and meandering? Yes. For all that, they are still amazing accomplishments. Give me only a pen, paper, and some friends with typesetting equipment and maybe I would become accomplished enough to get mauled by a bear.

I’m not saying my reverence for the literary pioneers will stop me from poking fun at them, but my sarcasm is forged from love. Just ask my kids.

 

 

What’s in your wallet? – flash fiction

I asked the nurse to hand me my wallet. She fumbled it a little and a condom fell out. She kept a straight face, discretely picking it up and setting in on my blanket. Then she left the room, not wanting to burst out laughing in front of me.

Rocky, my roommate, grinned at me from his bed. He was 50 years older than me, with his scraggly beard and glassy eyes.

“Sorry about that,” I said.

Rocky chuckled. “I understand. I was a young buck once. You a college boy?”

“Yeah.”

“I never went to college, but I did have my fun.” He nodded at an inevitable transition. “Then I got married. Margie and me was married 40 years, and I liked that a whole hell of lot better than carrying one of them things in my wallet.” He gestured toward the condom I struggled to stuff back into its home.

“40 years? That’s awesome!” It seemed like the right thing to say.

“It was.” He sighed. “Except for the last few. She got Alzheimer’s. I carried her license in my wallet ‘cause she’d lose it otherwise. She’d lose anything you gave her.” He shook his head. “Then she’d snip at me about it. Finally I said, ‘Margie if this next 40 years don’t go no better, I’m calling it quits.’ That was the last joke I told her.” He frowned. “Not a very good joke.”

“I’m sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say.

“She passed almost two years ago.”

I didn’t want to say sorry again. “Do you still keep her license in your wallet?”

“No. I couldn’t look at it every time. It only reminded me of the past. But I guess she told the last joke. After all that time wedged in that little sleeve, it left a faint impression of her picture on the plastic, like a ghost staring up at me.”

“Did you get a new wallet?”

“Oh no. I don’t mind the ghost. It doesn’t give me bad memories; it says she’s still with me. And being how I already invested 40 years, I guess I’ll keep her.” He turned his wet eyes toward the window and spoke at the sky. “Yup, I guess I’ll keep her.”

If a novel had a baby would it be a short story?

A reader once asked me if I thought short stories were smaller versions of novels with fewer plot turns. It is a good question for writers to consider before transitioning from one form to the other. It’s helpful to remember the form you are writing and what its purpose is.

A short story is as much a mini novel as a chipmunk is a baby squirrel. They are completely different beasts, put on earth for different purposes. When a chipmunk grows into a squirrel, I’ll start writing short stories that are condensed novels.

I define a novel as a set of conflicts, illustrated through a series of plot turns, resolved in such a way as to leave the reader satisfied that some Wisdom was served by the narrative. This Wisdom may be love, justice, retribution, fate, or any other force in human experience that will lay the characters of the story down peaceably to rest.

This is a chipmunk. With any luck, it will grow into a bigger chipmunk and nothing else.

A short story should have one resounding point that will stick with the reader after the story is over. That point is revealed at the end of the story. Everything preceding builds the effect of that revelation.

Since the crux of a short story comes at the end, I often construct them backward. The ending is the kernel of the story, and everything leading up to that is set into place afterward, trailing back to the most natural starting point. Only what is necessary to bring forth the point is built into the story.

Novels demand to be conceived going forward. Even with a general idea of the ending, there will be too many shifting sands there for it to be the foundation. The characters have more say in the direction of a novel. They create the resolution as they travel the narrative, perhaps making the ending quite different than first imagined. Building a novel backward prevents the characters from developing into the people they should grow to be.

Short stories and novels demand different skills. Novels require more devotion to the characters, but they are more forgiving than short stories. A novel can survive a small lull in the narrative; a short story cannot. Each word carries more weight in a short story. A few ill-chosen words, or a few too many words, can quickly derail the narrative.

A squirrel, properly crafted and distinctly its own art form.

Short stories were once more popular than they are now. Their fall might be linked to the decline of literary magazines, but it may also have something to do with writers not appreciating how different the craft is from the art of writing novels.

Some short stories appear to have been aborted novels. Have you read stories that seem to come to a crashing halt, leaving you to wonder, “What was the point of that?” When I encounter one of these stories, I question if the writer set out to write a short novel, waiting to see where the story would take him. It took him nowhere, and he ran out of words.

Storytelling is about coming to a resolution or making a lasting point. The story written as a baby novel does neither. Infant novels labeled short stories are a turnoff. A chipmunk is bound to be a disappointment to his parents if his parents are squirrels.

Do you agree or disagree? Comments are open.