The Democrat

In 1915, my great-grandfather, George E. (Edmund) Bowers, purchased a weekly newspaper called The Alton Democrat.  The paper remained in the Bowers family for about 56 years.

Alton is a town in Sioux County in northwest Iowa; its 2010 census count was 1,216.  It is somewhat overshadowed by its more colorful neighbor, Orange City, home of the annual Tulip Festival.

The masthead of The Democrat contained a radiant rendering of Lady Liberty along with the motto “When tongue and pen alike are free, safe from all foes dwells liberty.”

My grandfather George E. (Emmet) Bowers and his sister, Mary L. Bowers, had active roles in operating the newspaper for most of their lives.  Grandfather George (1893-1978) wrote a column for the paper for 60 years with the title “It Seems To Us.”  His column ran under the pen name “Floyd River Philosopher” and whenever he referred to himself in the column, he used the abbreviation “FRPh.”  The FRPh also wrote a crossword puzzle for the paper.

My first publication was a guest item in “It Seems To Us” of December 3, 1964, where I wrote a paragraph about the winter birds in Alton, including nuthatches and downy woodpeckers.  Grandfather helpfully added that “Johnny is seven and in the second grade” and with some amount of pride noted that I typed my own copy.

I remember The Democrat’s office was an intimidating place full of heavy machinery, including a linotype machine, printing press, and folding machine.  The newspaper archives, going back to the paper’s founding in 1885, were in bound volumes along one wall.

My uncle Frank Bowers took over publishing and editing the paper, along with his wife Jan, and in 1971 the Democrat was named Iowa Newspaper of the Year by the Iowa Press Association.  Sadly, Jan didn’t stay, and ultimately Frank felt he had to sell the paper.  He wrote about it in his “Our Views” column of October 26, 1972:

“When things looked bleakest, some of Orange City’s most important businessmen chose to rebel against our independent and irreverent treatment of what they regarded as ‘their’ community.  After a tongue-in-cheek parody introducing new Northwestern college students to Orange City, the local furniture magnate withdrew all support.” 

A depressing list followed, of other businesses who stopped advertising in the paper, and Frank’s column ended with the words “I’m sorry, grandfather.” 

The Democrat continued under new ownership, but stopped publishing for good in 1982.

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If

I love the title of Brenda Ueland’s book If You Want To Write, because it requires the reader make a spontaneous act of creativity to mentally finish the phrase.  If you want to write… go ahead!  If you want to write… write!  If you want to write… what’s stopping you?

Ueland’s book was published in 1938.  She was a writer who found herself leading creative writing classes for adults, often women.  If You Want To Write is a treasure trove of sharp insights she learned helping her students over their own obstacles.  She offers encouragement on every page, right from the very first words of chapter one: “Everybody is talented, original, and has something to say.”

This is not a book of advice about grammar or how to query agents.  Instead it’s a sort of spell of enchantment about the power in self-expression, that starts with giving yourself permission and building a shell against criticism. 

Here’s a creative exercise: For the next ten minutes, behave as if the universe is trying to communicate a secret lesson to you.  Can you decode it?  What are the patterns in the sky and the wind right now?  Why did that song come on the radio at that exact instant?  In these days when we are bombarded with messages all day from social media and news, it’s enlightening to look for indirect significance from the cosmos instead.  This exercise is so effective in altering consciousness that it was cited as basic magic by Grant Morrison in his terrific essay Pop Magic.

One of Brenda Ueland’s nuggets of guidance is to “Keep a slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary.”  It’s advice that is not far from the habit of writing “morning pages,” which I wrote about here recently.  If you’d like a little structure for your honest diary, I could recommend the daily exercises in the newly released book Dear Wellbeing… by my friend and colleague Susan Balogh.

Brenda Ueland’s If You Want To Write is still in print.

And finally, not related to today’s blog post, but not to be missed: The international dance party for the coolest song in the world for 2020, The Weeklings’ “3.”

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Ones

I’ve never advanced beyond the idea I first had when I was twelve, that being a music journalist would be the coolest job in the universe.

Even then, back when Rolling Stone was still on newsprint, I recognized the essential paradox of music reviewing: It is impossible to describe in words what a song sounds like.  You can fling around your adjectives, you can label a genre, you can list the recording and production details.  But you cannot tell a reader whether they will like a song or not.

I’m so glad, after all these years, to be able to point to a music column I love: “The Number Ones” by Tom Breihan at Stereogum.com.  Mr. Breihan is writing brilliant reviews about every single #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 from its inception in 1955. 

Accumulated years have provided music journalism something today that it didn’t have when I was twelve: history, context, memories.  Writing about songs everybody knows brings music journalism into the realm of archival research, perfect for an old librarian like me.  A number of music magazines/sites today are focused on recycling old information, re-reporting quotes from the past with new headlines.

“The Number Ones” transcends that.  Mr. Breihan’s writing is incomparable.  Online publication makes possible something print magazines could never offer: the chance for the reader listen to the song, and watch the video, at the same time they’re reading the article.  This allows the writer to stop trying to explain music, and instead to delight in a role of accompanying it.

It turns out that there’s something magical about writing in chronology, and it’s this: The readers know what’s coming next and can plan their comments in advance.  Stereogum has attracted an audience of readers who know their music.  The comments section of “The Number Ones” is packed with would-be music journalists themselves, who take the column about the song at hand and explode it into something extraordinary that encompasses the whole universe.

When I was unemployed for a few months in 1986, I started to write a novel about a planet that only used music for religious purposes, and what happened when a scientist on that planet picked up radio waves from Earth from 1955.  Now I have a column that reminds me of that experience.  “The Number Ones” gives me the gift of discovering old music for the first time.

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Pages

Creativity is a process suffused with magic and mystery for me.  Who can explain where imagination comes from?  How did humanity learn to put marks on a page that would become stories in the minds of readers?  One of the reasons writing and writers are so fascinating to me is respect for something so potent yet so little understood.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is a resource that shares this sense of wonder and delight.  At the same time, it’s a practical and effective guide to becoming a better and more productive writer.  I recommend it for people who, like me, believe inspiration is something that can be cultivated.

I was introduced to the technique of “morning pages” by The Artist’s Way.  The idea, and these are my words not Julia’s, is to start the day by clearing away the accumulated load of mental trivia and idle thoughts and anxieties, before starting on the day’s real creative work.  Morning pages are completely free-form and personal, to be written as quickly and as mindlessly as possible.  They have no apparent purpose.  They are not intended ever to be read again. 

Morning pages have made me a better writer.  I’m not able to give a rational explanation why, but I don’t argue with what works.

I don’t strictly adhere to Julia Cameron’s method.  For one thing, I don’t always write them in the morning.  I might need to knock some distracting stuff out of my head in the middle of the day.  I sometimes have the feeling that there’s too much on my mind and it’s blocking me from focusing on my story.  Writing morning pages can help me push that detritus aside.  For me, it’s something of a cousin to keeping a to-do list.  If you write it down, you don’t have to think about it anymore.

Julia wants morning pages to always be written by hand, and for the morning session to always end up with three filled pages.  Again, with my thanks but apologies to Julia, that doesn’t work for me.  I don’t write anything by hand any more except notes and lists.  Truthfully, I think that I never learned to hold a pen correctly, and writing more than a few sentences by hand starts to cause knotty muscle pain in my forearm.  I think faster than I can write (we all do), and for me the speed of using a keyboard is essential.    

“It is harder to be blocked than to do the work.”  — Julia Cameron

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Gratitude

I write a lot every week. I’ve got a novel in progress, and during November, I try to binge on it (I’m currently behind in my NaNoWriMo word count, but I’ve added a scene almost every day since the start of the month). I also keep a journal, post on my blog, stay in touch with friends by email, and do morning pages (more on those in an upcoming post). But the most important writing I do is keeping a gratitude journal.

Both “keep” and “journal” are inappropriate words for me to use in that sentence. I write my gratitude on scraps of paper, frequently on the reverse of to-do lists that are finished. And I never hang on to them, or even read them over. I write them down and into the recycle bin they go. And that’s the way it works for me. The single important thing is the act of writing down what I’m grateful about.

Feeling gratitude is one of a small number of things proven by researchers in “positive psychology” to increase happiness. And that’s about half the reason that feeling gratitude is important: to feel better. And the other half, honestly, is to make the world a better place.

I’m not an outwardly-focused person, or a humble person. Writing down my gratitude is a corrective for both those things. I recognize and acknowledge how other people have helped me, and how there are things in the world that I love, and that I wouldn’t be as successful as I am if the universe wasn’t providing an invisible platform of support for everything I do.

I do it with a pen. I don’t stop until the page is full. Certain people get a mention every time — whether it’s near the top or near the bottom of the page may depend on what’s on my mind at that moment. I quite often write them at night, after I get into bed. But I might do one any time, if the sense comes over me that I’m not in balance and I might need to feel a sense of appreciation and love and blessing.

I have so much to be grateful for, and it’s not the purpose of this blog to make those things public, but it is hugely important to me that I know those things myself. A few nights ago I was waiting to fall asleep, after I had already written a page of gratitude notes and tossed it into the bin, I began to be flooded with dozens of other names and images. People who have been in my life, who have helped me in some way with friendship or who have perhaps strengthened me with their antagonism. So many beautiful human souls, starting with my parents and sisters and grandparents and my very first childhood neighborhood friends. I tried to slow myself down and let them flow through me in a systematic way, year by year, remembering people I went to school with, teachers, friends of the family. And for each face, I tried to feel a moment of gratitude and send a blessing. Immersing myself in the memories of all these people who were part of my life, one after another…

It took me two hours to get up to 1990, and that’s where I started again the next night.

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Lyrics

The idea of a songwriting team – a lyricist and a composer – seems anachronistic, an artifact of the past.  Tin Pan Alley, the glory days of Broadway musicals, the American Songbook.  Since the rock era began, it’s much less common to find songs written by structured partnerships in this way. 

I’m a member of one of these quaint collaborations, though.  I have been a lyricist for more than forty years for my very good friend C.P. Butchvarov.  Some of the best creative experiences of my life have been wrapped up in collaborative songwriting.

Both C.P. and I write songs without each other, as well.  As a musician and composer, I’m barely competent; as a lyricist, C.P. is damn good.  But we don’t suffocate ourselves by trying to make every song dependent on each other.

As the person who writes the words, I’m aware that lyrics are the least important aspect of a song.  For most songs, I believe that the lyrics carry less than ten percent of the impact for the listener.  The words can be stupid, they can be nonsense, and the song can still be great.  In my opinion, the primary responsibility of the lyricist is to make vocal sounds that fit the melody and the arrangement.  That’s the fundamental logic behind my preference that the words should be written after the music.

The perfect musical setting can make a line of lyrics vault into the realm of greatness.  Here’s an example from a music-and-lyrics songwriting team, Elton John and Bernie Taupin: “I’ve finally decided my future lies beyond the yellow brick road.”  I’m fairly certain the lyrics were written first and put to music in this case.  The song has a beautiful melody with an unpredictable chord progression.  When it comes to this final line, the vocal takes on a march rhythm, then unexpectedly and brilliantly soars into a different key.  That moment brings chills, and as lovely as they are, it isn’t Bernie’s words that do that to me.

A flawless line of lyrics can make a song more memorable.  Another composer/lyricist team I admire is Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead.  I confess that I get impatient with some of Jerry’s slow, trudging melodies.  I’d probably skip over the song “Candyman” every time I listen to “American Beauty” if it wasn’t for this gem of a couplet: “Good morning, Mister Benson, I see you’re doing well.  If I had me a shotgun, I’d blow you straight to hell.”

Songwriting is a process with magic and alchemy involved. There is no thrill greater than listening back to a powerful song and feeling I can’t believe I wrote that!  C.P. Butchvarov wrote a song called “Mountain Country” that was amazing, but I lobbied him over a barroom table in Grand Teton National Park to let me rewrite the lyrics.  Thanks, C.P., for letting me have a little piece of the credit for this great song.  Listen to the result here.

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Proofreading

At age 13 I read the proofs of my dad’s first book (Designing the Communication Experiment by John Waite Bowers). The original meaning of “proofreading” was the necessary step of closely reading proof pages from the printer, since errors might have occurred when the author’s manuscript was transferred to type at a print shop for publishing. This was the author’s last chance to fix anything before hundreds or thousands of copies of the book rolled off the presses.

I earned a penny for each error that I found in dad’s proofs, but I got a bonus payment of a nickel for identifying a chart that had its X and Y axes reversed. Maybe that positive reinforcement was why I learned to enjoy proofreading.

In my experience, many authors are not good proofreaders of their own work. This becomes a serious problem for somebody who is self-publishing. Get somebody to read it for you before you go to final formatting. You may be blind to your own errors.

When Nobody’s Wife was published, I wasn’t given the chance to proofread before the book went to press. It has some mortifying errors in it. One of the worst is that the word “Foreword” was misspelled “Forward.” It turns out there must be a lot of people who don’t know the difference between those two words, because I’ve seen that same mistake in books several times since then.

In college I worked a couple of semesters at Windhover Press, setting type by hand and proofreading when a book was ready to be printed. We proofread in pairs, backward. One person read aloud from the author’s manuscript while the other person read the proofed pages, but we read the words in reverse, from end to beginning. It’s tedious but it’s a good technique, because reading forward, your mind and eye will skip over errors and fill them in mentally. Reading backward, it is impossible to attach meaning to the words and so you notice them for what they are, artifacts of ink on a page.

I recently proofed the final draft of a book for a friend who is self-publishing. I like closely reading another author’s work; I learn about variations in writing voice and styles. The reading-backward technique is not feasible when solo proofing, because you will fail to notice sentences that are missing words or have words in the wrong order. I adapted a little bit by reading some of the pages from the bottom paragraph to the top, so that I would not fall into the reading trance.

Proofreading is not the same thing as editing. In my mind, a proofreader should only mark real errors, and that means skipping past places where a sentence could have been phrased more clearly or another word would have been a better choice. But in proofreading for a friend, I might find it irresistible to mark the worst of those with suggested revisions. That’s just being helpful, right?

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Waiting

For me, inspiration is much the same thing as realization.  Thinking about a factory setting in my novel in progress, Wash Away, I suddenly realized that the building had been a brewery before it became a chemical plant.  “Realized” is the only appropriate word I could use here; it simply struck me.  Even though this place is completely an artifact of my own imagination, I discovered a piece of its history.

This year for NaNoWriMo – and wish me luck with this approach, because I have no idea if it will work – I decided to write thirty scenes for my novel, one a day during November.  I have a lot of threads in play, and they all need to go in certain directions, but a linear/sequential approach seems more difficult than necessary, since they’re all jumbled up in my mind.  So I wrote thirty scene cards, which I will attack one at a time starting on Sunday.

Writing thirty scene cards required thirty small acts of inspiration.  Inspiration is elusive, and everybody knows that.  The best you can do is increase your odds.  I believe in trying to cultivate a state of active waiting.  The active part is attention and preparedness.  If there is a place in my story and it needs a certain part, I can at least try to define the shape of that part, and be ready to recognize it when it happens to roll by me.

It’s such a presumptuous idea, to write a blog post about inspiration, as if I had it by the tail.  I don’t, and I’m deeply aware that this is an area subject to what Dr. Laurie Santos calls “The G.I. Joe Fallacy.”  The G.I. Joe Fallacy is mistakenly thinking that because you understand something, that understanding will change your behavior.  (It comes from the phrase “Knowing is half the battle!” which I remember well from cartoon PSAs when I grew up.)  I may be aware that active waiting is the best way to cultivate moments of inspiration.  That doesn’t make the waiting any easier for me.

Franz Kafka wrote, in a notebook intended only for himself: “You need not leave your room.  Remain sitting at your table and listen.  You need not even listen, simply wait.  You need not even wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary.  The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked.  It has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

Robert Pirsig, in his unparalleled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, equated waiting for inspiration with the Zen state of nothingness in consciousness.  If you’re trying to remove a motorcycle’s cover plate but you accidentally tear the head off the screw, you’re stuck.  But wait, and “no matter how hard you try to hang on to it, this stuckness is bound to disappear.  Your mind will naturally and freely move toward a solution.  … The solutions all are simple after you have arrived at them.  But they’re simple only when you know already what they are.”

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Success Again

From “The World’s A Madhouse” by Bowers and Butchvarov

Listen live free: https://www.cpbutchvarov.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Madhouse-08-success-again.mp3

Impede, implode, implant your data
Interpose apocalyptic fear
The dead are whispering wise advice
Somehow you cannot hear
The watchers know your search behavior
All your favorite sites for girls and guns
Computer eye, unblinking at you
Compiling all your deeds undone

So God led you down into the shadows
Trapped in hidden mechanism gears
Step on the gas, pedestrians scatter
Trade your life and dreams for a career
Secure your bunker, disguise your weapons
Nervous laughter edged with helpless rage
The drooling gibberish, senseless babble
Push the bird back in the cage
Feeling way too fine, that's the sign
You're about to crash

Your stardust wand, that Disney crap
Match it with your sleek stiletto blade
Spiced up, spaced out, packing heat
Jittered, jagged, and all frayed
That swirling flock of blackbirds
Flat and dreadful as a falling pane of glass
Heartbeat and breath, warmth and sleep
For what, you cannot ask
Feeling way too fine, that's the sign
You're about to crash

Copyright 2020 by J.S. Bowers and C.P Butchvarov

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NaNoWriMo

October is prep time for National Novel Writing Month in November.  I’ll be racing for 50,000 words next month, just like thousands of others around the world.  One of the best books I’ve read about writing is No Plot? No Problem!, by Chris Baty, who is the founder of NaNoWriMo.  At the risk of taking all the fun out of it (it’s a really enjoyable read), here are the notes I took from this book last October while I was prepping for NaNo 2019.  Think of this as a matted tangle of good advice that probably makes very little sense out of context.  I highly recommend you read the book instead.

  • “Writing for its own sake has surprising rewards.” Seek to achieve the zone where the writer becomes a passive conduit for the story. 
  • The deadline is the essential motivator.  Low expectations, high yield, exuberant imperfection. 
  • Find time by analyzing your own daily schedule.  Set aside the internet, non-writing friends, and television.  Approach scheduling with light heart and open mind. 
  • In writing at home, isolate yourself, use uninterrupted blocks of time, limit your writing to those times, don’t write in view of a bed, be comfortable, keep the writing area neat. 
  • Listen to the voice of the universe giving you material; use a notebook to write it down. 
  • Benefits of limited planning: you might stumble across something brilliant; planning becomes an excuse to put off writing; prewriting takes the fun out of writing. 
  • What, to you, makes a good novel?  What is the novel you want to read?
  • What are the things that bore or depress you in novels?  Make these two lists.  If you won’t enjoy reading it, you won’t enjoy writing it. 
  • Pitch the plot to yourself, from start to finish, repeatedly. 
  • What would happen if we added an orangutan to the mix?
  •  The story suggests its own setting.  Model your settings on real-life locations you know. 
  • During week one: Confiscate the inner editor. 
  • Take the challenge seriously.  But do not take the work too seriously.  Ride the momentum.  Don’t delete, but mark sections to be deleted. 
  • Keep a novel notes file. Don’t tell anybody your story. 
  • Write about something that scares you.  Ask somebody to tell you about their strange uncle. 
  • Watch a good TV show with analysis in mind. 
  • Don’t feel like each chapter has to be right before moving on to the next one. 
  • Split up writing sessions, two a day, and write every day during week one. Wake up 30 minutes early. 
  • Week two: Still having no plot is not uncommon.  Characters may rise and fall in importance.  “Don’t get it right, get it written.” 
  • When you’re not writing, be open to “plot flashes.” 
  • Create notes within the story to indicate idea changes, don’t go back and change earlier chapters. 
  • Push yourself to exhaustion because you know you’ve got the potential. 
  • Switch to writing on paper sometimes. 
  • End your writing sessions in mid-sentence. 
  • Week three: Catch up on any word debt.  Feel gravity taking effect as the trail turns downhill.  Let the momentum fly.  Break things, break a character’s arc.  Add more conflict. 
  • Week four: Finish.  Write the ending, regardless of how far away you think you are. Come-from behind victories are a time-honored part of NaNoWriMo.

Good luck to anybody who is participating this November.  God bless NaNoWriMo and Chris Baty.

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