Category Archives: Writing

1000 Words: Why A Thousand?

I’d known from my earliest days that writing was my talent, that words were precious gems, that my pen and typewriter would become as indispensable as my arms and legs. Before I really attended school, I knew writing’d be my forte. I missed most of my kindergarten year with some weird chronic fever. I spent the vast majority of that time off thumbing through my family’s World Book Encyclopedia volumes. Slowly but surely, all those squiggles on the page became scrutable to me. I taught myself to read.

So it was almost predestined that words would become my life.

The World Book Encyclopedia.

Whatever that fever was, by first grade it was gone and so I spent my days from age five through 18 in classrooms. I’d much rather have been anyplace else. Any place. The Prussian-style schoolrooms of my youth were, hands down, the least likely places a person of my temperament, energy, concentration, and discipline (or lack thereof) could thrive in. Sitting still, paying attention, keeping quiet, “applying” myself, obeying, following instructions — I had little capacity for any of those talents and abilities. That is, if they are, indeed, talents and abilities.

All I wanted to do was run, jump, laugh, yell, joke, tease, ride my bike, and hit a ball. And read. I was a voracious reader. I knew that encyclopedia. I knew what the atomic bomb was, who Einstein was, what Ancient Rome was, that Woodrow Wilson was a president, that the keeping of critters on a farm was once know as “animal husbandry,” that Churchill was portly, and the Empire State Building was the tallest in the world. I knew this stuff long before any of my classmates did because I devoured that encyclopedia, as well as the daily newspaper. We got the Chicago Sun-Times Monday through Saturday and the Tribune and American on Sunday. I read them all, skipping the middle sections (the obituaries and business). I knew who Castro was and Willy Brandt and Nikita Khrushchev and Dean Rusk and Alan B. Shepard. I knew trouble was brewing in the Dominican Republic and that Charles de Gaulle was pretty much a jerk.

I Knew Who They Were.

Even my love of baseball was based on reading. I collected baseball cards and memorized every statistical line and all the colorful little stories on the back of them. It fascinated me that a fellow named Cookie Rojas, second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, actually wore glasses while playing big league baseball. How cool! I wore glasses, too. I learned Sandy Koufax was Jewish so I had to run to the J-volume of the encyclopedia to figure out what that meant. Houston built its Astros a domed stadium, so I had to do some digging to understand how such a huge edifice could stay standing.

And then, when I was 14 years old, the book Ball Four came out. It was an uncensored, straightforward look at the life of a big-leaguer. Ballplayers drank, chased women, had arguments with each other, felt they were underpaid, resented authority, divorced, remarried, gambled, went bankrupt, took “greenies” (amphetamines), and worried about what they’d do after their careers were over. The baseball establishment threw fits, saying it was all made up or that the author, pitcher Jim Bouton, had no right to write about such things. Me? I ate it all up. The more I read his book, the more I loved baseball.

Books have been my most treasured possessions all my adult life.

Now, here’s the irony. Because, as mentioned above, I wasn’t any teacher’s favorite student, I was constantly being punished. And the single most frequent punishment teachers threw at me was the dreaded 1000-word essay. I didn’t turn in my homework for the umpteenth time? Write a thousand words on why homework is important (now, nearly six decades later, I can complete that essay in two words: It isn’t.) A kid named Dennis Corso and I got into a fistfight during recess. He called me a dirty Jew. At the time I didn’t know what that meant but I could sense he wasn’t implying I was the coolest kid in class. So we blackened each other’s eye. The principal, who was a Jew, made us write a thousand words on a great Jewish person. I chose Benjamin Disraeli, British prime minister a couple of times in the 1800s. I knew of him from reading the encyclopedia, natch. I discovered that his old man had quit the faith when Benjamin was a kid. So, the first thing I ever really learned about Judaism was that people could become not-Jewish if they wanted.

Nevertheless, making me write a thousand words was as daunting as asking me to build a structure taller than the Empire State Building. If I recall correctly, I repeated a number of sentences several times to reach that magic number. I’m surprised the principal didn’t make me write a thousand words on why I shouldn’t cheat on 1000-word essays.

In any case, teachers and principals all did their best to make me hate writing. Writing, they taught me, was punitive and onerous. Writing is what bad kids had to do. It would be impossible to derive pleasure or satisfaction of any sort from the act of writing. And for a while I believed all those things. I learned to hate writing.

But by the time I was 21 or so, I realized writing was the thing I knew how to do best. And what was wrong with that? Hell, Jim Bouton‘s writing brought me huge pleasure. So did Wodehouse‘s and Bellow‘s and Lederman‘s and Allen‘s and Baldwin‘s and Lebowitz‘s and Royko‘s and…, well, the list can go on forever. Or at least a thousand words.

Now that I write for the sheer pleasure of it (and, throughout my adult life, for money) I want to throw a big finger back at all those who did their best to beat the love of writing out of me. Here’s my thousand words.

1000 Words: Inkstained

I actually got assigned a paid writing gig for 2023 a couple of weeks ago.

In this year of somebody’s lord, 2022, that’s about as rare a statement as “I hate dialing my TV repairman’s number because it has too many zeroes in it.”

Getting paid to put words to paper is a vanishing occupation. For pity’s sake, putting words to paper — period! — is a vanishing occupation.

Let me correct that: vanished.

I made the vast majority of my dough in this life writing things. News stories. Personality profiles. Explanatory articles. Investigative journalism. Newsletters. Press releases. Annual reports. Anything and everything that could emanate from my (1st) typewriter keyboard, (2nd) word processor, and finally (3rd) laptop. See? My scribbling career spanned essentially three writing hardware technological evolutions.

You think that’s something, try this: When I started out in this racket I either had to mail my manuscripts to my editors or deliver them by hand, taking the bus and train or riding my bicycle.

Mail. As is stuffing a bunch of sheets of paper into an envelope, sealing it, addressing it, putting stamps on it, and walking down to the mailbox to drop it in. Imagine that!

It’s like someone born right before the turn of the 20th century trying to explain to a space age schoolchild how he used to harness the horse to his buggy so’s he could git down to the general store to load up on fatback.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Laughably Obsolete

Newspapers are dying. Magazines are dead. Nobody writes letters anymore. Hallmark and countless precious artisans produce greeting cards for every possible occasion and with a seemingly infinite number of cutesy, kitschy, treacly inscriptions inside. For that matter, the card cos. needn’t hire actual human being to write birthday doggerel anymore. Simply invest in the appropriate AI software and let the company desktop write the tripe.

For all we know, newspapers and other news gathering outlets may soon be doing the same thing — letting AI bots write their copy.

I know college and high school students of late have been trying to sneak AI-written term papers and theses past the watchful eyes of their teachers. They’re getting caught, fairly easily, right now as the AI technology still is in its infancy but once the bugs are worked out it’s a good bet English literature teacher Mrs. Bertram or Professor Maher in the poli-sci dept. will be fooled more often than not, sooner rather than later.

I know a couple of guys who persist in actually applying ink to paper even as the craft is swiftly disappearing. Dave Torneo, who runs Ledge Mule Press (itself an anachronism in the publishing industry; Ledge Mule does letterpress, woodblock, and other handmade printing) can be found any day of the week, at any Bloomington coffeehouse, writing cards or letters to friends and loved ones. Addison Rogers, one of the Busman’s Holiday boys, emcees a weekly gathering of old schoolers who also write cards and letters to people, just because.

Thing is, both Torneo and Rogers do their bit more as a lark than as something vital to their existence. They’re like those people who build their own kitchen cabinets — they don’t have to and, in fact, it seems almost silly for them to do so, yet they carry on.

Well silly, that is, to the vast majority of the populace who loathe the notion of any activity cutting into their streaming service-watching time. Hah! I was going to write “TV-watching time” but who in the hell watches TV anymore?

And, in a way, Torneo and Rogers’ shared literary pastime indeed is vital to their existence. For without writing cards and letters everyday, they might be forced to while away the hours…, well, watching streaming services on their desktops. Or, knowing them, still going old school and flipping on the TV.

Once they bury themselves in the TV or computer screen they would be inching nearer to a kind of death.

This recently concluded Christmas season was quite a good one for the Book Corner. And that seems odd because not only are people holding on to their nickels a bit tighter during this current inflation but, conventional wisdom has it, the book industry is dying. I’ve written about this misconception quite recently, maintaining book reading and buying is as robust as it’s ever been in this holy land. Honestly, you don’t figure Clay County farmers were devouring tomes penned by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hannah Arendt, or Ralph Ellison back before people had televisions in every goddamned room of the house, do you?

Reading always has been sort of an elite thing to do in America, which is a damned shame. Oddly enough, people seem to be reading more than ever today, if you consider the intake of social media and other internet chattering to be reading. On the other hand, if you’re reading The Pencil, you are a literary connoisseur indeed.

This has to be a particularly American phenomenon. There’s no end to the number of books written about the Dumbing Down of America — and they’ve been written throughout out the entire history of this great nation. Great, natch, in certain ways only.

Not great as in Umberto Ecco‘s private library.


Eco’s Home Library Reportedly Contained 30,000 Volumes.

In any case, as I do every single year, I’m loading up on books to get me through the winter. Here are three I look forward to reading as I watch the days — thankfully — get longer:

  • Mercury Rising by Jeff Shesol — The story of NASA’s Project Mercury, focusing on John Glenn and his first-American-to-orbit-the-Earth mission as well as President John F. Kennedy’s gambit to one-up the Russkies.
  • Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain — This one’s more than 20 years old now but it’s still a hoot. What a fascinating, adventurous, informative, creative, and ultimately doomed human being Bourdain was.
  • All About Me! by Mel Brooks — Love him or hate him — and plenty of people think his comedy was so lowbrow as to be Neanderthal, Brooks has made the world laugh for more than half a century, so what could be wrong about that?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

%d bloggers like this: