Monthly Archives: November 2017

Symphony 47


Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.

Like most cliches, this one was based on truth. Most people know only the first two-thirds of it, and use it to laugh at the incompetent teachers. Teachers, who know the whole phrase, use it to laugh at incompetent professors of education.

Education is a curious discipline; being essentially without content, it abounds in theories. Neil was more fortunate than most elementary teachers in that he had not had an undergraduate major in education. He had majored in English literature which, although it too abounds in theories, has at least some content. He had not taken any teaching courses until he was back for his masters, again in literature, and then he had taken only the minimum necessary to get a credential.

Even those few courses had shown him the emptiness of most educational theories. Each was a partial solution. Each theorist staked out a particular set of behaviors, explained them, and then proceeded to act as if he had explained all behavior. Since each theorist staked out a slightly different set of behaviors, each theory was right within self-imposed limits. The arguments between theorists could go on forever, since no theorist could either prove himself fully right or his opponents fully wrong.

It was like sociology, but without sociology’s sense of its own limitations.

None of this would matter very much if it remained academic, but educational theories have a profound effect on the real world. Professors of education teach their theories to their students and send them out into the world as their champions. For those who remain in teaching, this is no long lasting tragedy; experience will show them the limitations of any theory. Unfortunately, some teachers move too quickly into administration before they have time to become disillusioned by their pet theories. Worse still, when professors of education serve on state curriculum committees or run for state superintendent of education, they have the opportunity to enshrine their theories as received wisdom.

A pendulum effect results from this. An individual teacher can try out a theory and quickly determine whether or not it is useful in his or her classroom. The ponderous weight of committee politics stretches the period of try-out and disillusionment over years. Any new panacea will go through the same steps. First it will be the hot new idea. Converts will flock to the new banner, and form action committees. These committees will begin a process of political action that will eventually land them in power. Once in power, they will begin, first by persuasion and then by coersion, to see that their theory becomes required practice. All of this takes years. By the time the new theory is enshrined in law and in the educational frameworks that govern the schools, it will already be far along the curve of disillusionment out in the real world. New committees with new ideas will already be starting the process all over again.

This would be bad enough, but the “new” theories are basically variations on old ones. A teacher with thirty years experience can not only recognize a “new” idea as an old friend (or enemy), but can accurately predict the next sad steps as the theorists try to shore up the crumbling edifice of a decade of work.

Neil was only as interested in theory as circumstances forced him to be. It was theory that had set up the classes he taught. Three years ago at Kiernan he would have been teaching reading for one hour to a set of students who were all of similar ability level. If they were reading at a third grade level, their textbook would have been of that level. They would have had language and spelling as separate subjects. more Monday


438. Machine P

               Friends, I am amending this post as of June 1, 2018. I am changing it’s title from Machine P o r n. I have had more hits on this post than on anything I have written, but I have obviously just been generating frustration among those who clicked on purely because of the word P o r n. You will notice that I have also hidden the word itself from the view of crawlers.
              I like hits as much as the next blogger, but I’m not into misrepresentation. I am leaving the post otherwise intact, since it does have something non- p o r n ographic to say.


On Monday, we started talking about steampunk, then wandered into changes in science fiction and in real world technology. Picking up where we left off . . .

I always watch the PBS program A Craftsman’s Legacy. It is very steampunk, although that may not be obvious until later in this post. The most recent episode was a jeans maker. If I weren’t already hooked on the program, that’s something I would never have watched. In actual fact, the making of jeans was boring, but the program turned out to be twenty-five minutes of pure Machine P o r n. Through the whole show, every scene was an orgy of early twentieth century sewing machines of every specialized type, all whirring and clunking with their working parts in naked sight.

The only thing moving on a modern sewing machine is the needle, but there is a computer screen where you can tell it what to do. One modern machine will do more than a warehouse full of old ones, but but everything is hidden. It is a classic black box. It does stuff, but you don’t get to see how.

You can see the procession from hands-on to hands-off, and from visible to hidden in boy’s fiction. Tom Swift (later called Senior) could build anything with his own hands back in the twenties. Tom Swift Junior in the fifties and sixties could design anything, but he usually turned it over to his chief engineer to build the prototype. In the first Rick Brant book (1947), work on their moon rocket was delayed when they couldn’t get a certain type of tube (that’s valve in the British half of the world). By book number nine (1952), Rick was learning how to make printed circuits and was introduced to transistors. We watched him build a control unit, but once it was finished, it was sealed and no one else would ever see its guts.

Real science has followed the same progression. Galileo did his experiments by rolling lead balls down ramps. Today science requires a Large Hadron Collider.

Do I miss the good old days? Not at all. I’ve been living in the future since I was eight years old. I am pointing out that one byproduct of the Good New Days is that the working parts of everything are hidden, and that has consequences.

I spent the majority of my teaching career trying to make up for this loss. When I taught pulleys, I used homebuilt equipment with heavy weights so the kids could actually feel the difference when they changed the mechanical advantage. Every year, students were divided into teams of three or four and they all built gizmos, which were devices of their own design that carried out an assigned task. It was a different task every year and they were not allowed to take their work home, so Dad or older brother couldn’t cheat. All they had to work with was a shop full of tools, a pile of donated materials, and what they had learned. They had to see their gizmos in their heads and build them with their hands. No black boxes here.

Steampunk fits in here, as well. Steampunk is the meeting of the past and the future. As part of the past, it is familiar and understandable. It is also full of all the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries’ hopes and fears. Retrofuturistic is one word used to describe it, and it fits. Of course, as a word, retrofuturistic is as strange as the thing it points toward.

The clockwork aspect of steampunk is certainly one of its charms, especially in steampunk DIY and illustrations. We look at the pictures on the page, or the pictures in our mind while we read, and think, “I understand that. I could build that.”

And we could. Or at least the better, smarter self we all become when we sit down to read science fiction could.

In clockwork, once you take the back off the watch, everything is visible. If you look long enough, you can figure our what makes it tick.

Symphony 46

Neil said, “Don’t prompt. Raul would have figured it out if you had let him.” But privately, he wondered if he would have. It was depressing to teach this way; he could only imagine what a torture it was for the kids.

” . . . he invited Peter to go with him. Once they were out under the shade of the oaks, they ran as fast as they could to the river.”

Actually, the words had been, “Once they were out of the castle and under the shadow of the elms, both boys ran as quickly as they could to the river.” At least Raul had the gist of the story; Neil did not have the heart to correct him further. He called on Tasmeen Kumar, and once again the story flowed forward smoothly for two minutes. Then it was Pedro Velasquez’s turn. Some days Pedro could read a few words, and occasionally he could read a whole sentence. Today he just stared at the book and would say nothing. After a minute of gentle badgering, Neil moved on.

It went on that way until the bell rang, and no one was more relieved than Neil when it was over. The children poured out of the room for their break. Neil sat quiet and depressed.

It was a lousy way to teach reading. In fact, it was a crime. He was teaching his poor readers that reading was painful. He was teaching them to hate reading.

He could complain about the working conditions, about the textbook, and about the fact that the children’s abilities ranged so widely. Every complaint was justified; in the best of all possible worlds none of those things would have been true. But these were the conditions he had to deal with and what he had done so far was not working. It was time for a change.

# # #

The first part of the change was painful. When the children came back in expecting spelling or writing, they found that they had to read again. Neil had set up a scale of one to ten as a mental yardstick, and made notes on each individual reader. Once again, he was struck by how well — and how poorly — faces matched up with abilities. Brandy Runyon, puffy eyed and staring, looked as dumb as a post — and was. Stephanie Hagstrom looked as bright as she was. Oscar Teixeira, on the other hand, hid his intelligence behind a mask of indifference, and Martin Christoffersen, who looked like a young computer whiz, could barely add and subtract.

He made an accidental discovery. He was walking among the students as they read, and when he came to Lydia Ruiz she suddenly lost all ability. It took Neil by surprise. He looked at her, puzzled, until she blushed and lowered her eyes. Then he saw that Lauren Turner was also upset.

He walked away, mulling it over, and ten minutes later he asked Lydia to read again. This time she read with adequate fluency. Neil watched her from the corner of his eye while pretending to follow the textbook, and the mystery was solved. Lauren was coaching Lydia. For four weeks Lydia had been “reading” materials she could not understand at all.

And Neil had missed it!

The first step in making things better was a full appreciation of the problem.  Based on test scores and his observations, he categorized his students into excellent readers, readers who were at about grade level, poor readers, and those who could barely read at all. The result was appalling. In the first period class, he had six excellent readers, eight who were about grade level, and eight who were quite poor.

He had ten who could barely read at all.

When he considered the matter by race, it was even worse. Of his top readers, only Duarte and Oscar were Chicano. Only two of the readers who were at grade level were Chicano, and only two of the poor readers were not. Among the children who could hardly read at all, only Brandy, Martin, and Sabrina were not from Spanish speaking homes.

The message was clear. These Mexican-American children had needs which were not being met. They had started school with a language handicap and they were not catching up. more tomorrow

Symphony 45

At that point, Larry Whitlock broke in, “But Mr. McCrae, wasn’t David white?”

“Yes, he was,” Neil replied, “but at that time whites as well as blacks could be sold into slavery. Slavery is older than America, and every race has been enslaved at one time or another.”

Larry said, “Oh,” and asked no more. His world had suddenly become just a little less safe, and his horizons just a bit wider.

After Neil had finished, the children read. Neil had wrestled with the problem of teaching reading to his students, but he had found no satisfactory solution. After four weeks, he was just beginning to realize the immensity of the task. He had gone through the reader to choose the least insipid stories, but simply avoiding two-thirds of the book was no answer. Those who could read were gaining practice, and those who could almost read were able to struggle through with a lot of help from him. The other half of the class was lost.

Tanya Michelson read first:

There once was a far country called Avalon, where knights lived and fought in the service of their King. Serving these knights were young men of good families who were taught courtesy and obedience by being squires, so that when they became knights they would not be too puffed up with their own importance.

Neil had to stop to explain what puffed up meant. Then Casey Kruger continued:

“Among these knights was a kid named . . .”

“Lad. Lad, not kid.”

“Among these knights was a lad named Peter . . .”

Whoever had written the story must have forgotten what else Peter means. The children had not. A giggle ran through the room at the name, and Neil had to patiently explain, “A lot of  words in the English language have more than one meaning. This one doesn’t mean what you think it means, except when you want it to mean that. So read it as just a name and don’t try to make anything else out of it.” He had made that speech twice already; before the year was over he would make it dozens of times more, and it would never do any good. He motioned to Casey to continue.

“Among these knights was a kid named Peter . . .”

“A lad named Peter.”

“Sorry.” Casey stifled a giggle. It was just embarrassment; he was not trying to put on a show. He tried again, “Among these lads was a kid named Peter . . .,” and then he broke down.

The class laughed with him, and Neil smiled. There is a fine line between honest mistakes and goofing off for effect. By not joining them in their laughter, Neil could just keep them on the right side of that line. He said, “Stephanie, you try it.”

Stephanie read beautifully; he kept her in reserve for moments like this, or for when a string of clumsy readers had almost put the class to sleep. She carried them through the introduction of the main character, then Neil called on Richard Lujan.

It was cruel to make Richard follow Stephanie, but Neil had to alternate skillful and unskillful readers to keep the class from bogging down altogether. Richard read, “One day Peter walked . . .”

“Was walking.”

“. . . was walking th . . . thr . . . through the . . .”  Now Richard was completely stumped.

“Courtyard,” Neil said. “It’s the part of the castle inside the walls, but outside the main building. Start again.”

“One day Peter was walk . . . ing through the court . . . yard of the castle when he heard . . . some . . . one call his name.”

“Calling his name, Richard. Thank you. Raul, your turn.”

Raul read, “It was his friend Hollygirth . . .”


“Holingsworth. It was his friend Holings . . . worth. He was going down to the river to swim and he . . . “

“Try it, Raul. You know that word.”

Raul just sat and stared at the book miserably, until someone whispered, “Invited.” more tomorrow

437. Steampunk Clockwork

A great deal of the charm of typical (if such a thing exists) steampunk is that it replicates the sense of wonder of early science fiction, something that is missing 147 years after its beginnings. My math refers to the publication of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870. There have been a lot of stories in that century and a half, so it is just a little hard to come up with something new.

Fortunately for science fiction, there is a new crop of readers every generation. Things that seem old and overdone to long-time readers, seem new to them. When I first saw Weir’s The Martian I thought, “Again?”, but a half million readers on Goodreads rated it highly.

In old fashioned science fiction, the hero could do anything. And therefore, so could the reader.

Among that “anything” was a world of inventions that any boy genius could whip up in his basement. When I first read Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle (published 1911; it was left behind by my grandfather and I found it in the early fifties), Tom was just putting the finishing touches on his electric rifle, but before he headed for Africa with it, he whipped up a new flyer which was half aeroplane and half dirigible to use on the trip. Easy; any boy wonder could do it.

I haven’t seen that schtick since I was a kid in the fifties, and then it was usually in books from the thirties. I think we can blame Apollo. We all saw an entire nation spend a decade of time and billions of dollars to get to the moon. Thousands of workmen (and women) in all parts of the nation made the billion parts it took to undertake a moonshot. It no longer seems possible, even in science fiction, for Sheldon to build a moon rocket in a shed out back of the house.

When I was a kid, if I wanted to build a robot, it would have been made from tin cans, old sewing machines parts, and imagination. Now kids can build real ones (if their parents have enough money) out of plug and play components. Is that better? Is it worse? Decide for yourself, but it is different in a fundamental way.

It is all part of the digitalization of the world. And no, I’m not complaining. I’m writing this while sitting in front of a computer that makes my present life not only better, but possible.

Let’s hop into our time machine and watch it all happen. Let’s make it an even century.

In 1917, if you wanted to listen to the radio, the first thing you would do was build one, out of wire, a variable resistor, a capacitor, an appropriate piece of crystal, and a set of earphones. If you were really ambitious (or more likely, really poor) you could build the variable resistor and the capacitor as well. Everything would be in plain sight there on a pine board in front of you.

The next step was tube radios (that’s valve radios in the land of Britain). Tubes were an offshoot of incandescent light bulbs with more parts inside. Like light bulbs, you could see everything through the glass casing. Things had become more complicated, but you could still see the parts and follow their wiring.

Televisions worked like this as well, and as late as my childhood, hardware stores had a device with hundreds of sockets on top where you could plug in a tube from your TV or radio and check to see if it was burned out. They burned out frequently. If it was bad you could buy a replacement right there and fix the radio or TV yourself.

Then came printed circuits. You could still follow the wiring, but you had to turn the board over and look at the back side.

Then came transistors. They took the place of tubes, but they were tiny, anonymous nuggets with three wires and you could no longer see what their guts looked like. It was the beginning of major progress, and the beginning of the end of understanding.

Finally, integrated circuits arrived, and now you could no longer see the parts or the wires that connected them.

Now if something breaks, you throw it away. That isn’t really a problem, because things are cheaper, and the replacement is usually better than the thing discarded. In terms of practicality, things are better than ever.

In terms of understanding how our machines work, much has been lost.

But steampunk brings it all back. (more Wednesday)

Symphony 44

“Stephanie Hagstrom, Cruz Jiminez?”

“Cruz’s gone.”

“He went back to Mexico.”

“He did not!”

“Well, he said he was going to.”

“That’s next month, you i— . . .” Stephanie, who was speaking, suddenly covered her mouth. She knew she wasn’t allowed to call anyone an idiot in class, but she was so used to calling her three brothers idiots that it was hard to remember.

Neil just smiled and continued. “Sean Kelly, Casey Kruger, Tasmeen Kumar, Tanya Michelson?”

They were all present. Rita Morales was absent.

“Linda Muir, Rafael Ortiz, Sabrina Palmer, Delores Perez, David Peterson, Olivia Pinero, Elanor Romero, Lydia Ruiz, Carlos Ruiz, Brandy Runyon?”

“Oscar Teixeira?”

“Here.” Oscar was leaning back in his chair, looking indifferent. He was the picture of a student of small intelligence.

“Bob Thorkelson. Dixie Margaret Trujillo, Lauren Turner, Larry Whitlock, Pedro Velasquez, Duarte Zavala?”

Neil closed his roll book and said, “That’s pretty good.  Only three absent today.” There was just a touch of sarcasm in his voice, but the children were unaware of it. He had been utterly unable to convince them that there was anything wrong with being absent from school.

He lost their attention momentarily as Bill Campbell went by the windows guiding a youngster by the shoulder. Bill remained so busy with discipline and paperwork that the children rarely saw him. He was the unapproachable authority figure and his rare appearances always demanded their attention. Now as he came into Neil’s room, they all fell silent.

Bill was smiling though. He said, “I’ve brought you a new student. New to you, that is; the children all know him. This is Juan Rogers. He has been in Mexico.”

The name Juan Rogers had been on Neil’s original class list the first day of school. The children had told him then that he was in Mexico, but that he would be back eventually. This transience was a thing they accepted; they had known nothing else. They would have been insulted to know how wrong it seemed to Neil.

Neil gave Juan an empty seat. He would have introduced him around the room, but it was clear that everyone knew him already. Neil got him a set of textbooks and took a moment to show him the parts they had already covered and to show him where they would begin today.

Neil had discovered early that they could understand and appreciate far more than they could read for themselves, so he always began the day by reading to them. He opened to the seventh chapter of Kidnapped and read the opening sentences:

I came to my senses in darkness, in great pain, bound hand and foot, and deafened by many unfamiliar noises. There sounded in my ears a roaring of water, the thundering of the sails, and the shrill cries of seamen. The whole world seemed now to go up and now down. So sick and hurt was I and so confused, that it took me a long while to realize that I must be lying bound somewhere in the belly of that ship, and that the wind must have strengthened to a gale . . .

A few of the students were restive, and once Neil had to pause with a hard eye turned toward Rafael until he stopped whispering to Casey; but for the most part, the story of David Balfour had them captivated. It helped that Neil had been to Scotland to see the land of his own ancestors. He did not hesitate to embellish Stevenson’s descriptions with his own experience and with explanations in terms the students could better understand. He had made a collage of pictures from a National Geographic article on Scotland for the students to study on their own time.

The students listened raptly, suffering seasickness and a head wound with David Balfour, making the acquaintance of the drunken first mate Mr. Riach, and learning that David was fated to be sold into slavery in America. more tomorrow

Symphony 43

Like a flock of starlings, they went to earth momentarily, tossing books into their desks, and then they were gone in a body, out the door and out across the playground.

Neil sat down at his desk. Rosa Alvarez had remained behind when the other girls ran out; she stood near him, waiting to catch his attention. He said, “Hi,” and she launched into her morning story.

“Guess what happened last night.”


“My cat had kittens. After we got home after back to school night she acted all funny, so my mother made her a box on the back porch. When I got up this morning, she had five kittens. One of them was black and white, one of them was all colors . . .” Rosa paused, searching for the right word, and twisting her shoulders from side to side as she always did when she was excited.

“Calico?” Neil prompted.

“Right. One was calico, and the others were all gray. They’re so cute!”

“What’s cute?” That was Linda Muir, who had come in for the last part of the conversation.

Rosa turned to face her new audience and said, “My new kittens.”

“You’ve got new kittens! How neat.”

“Who has new kittens?” Bob Thorkelson wanted to know, and the conversation drifted away from Neil’s desk. More students were streaming in now; the buses had arrived.

“Mr. McCrae, we won last night,” Casey Kruger announced.

Neil looked up in mock indifference and said, “Don’t you always?” Then he grinned and Casey danced around the room making batting motions. He was heavily involved in Little League. His father was a coach; supposedly Casey was good, although Neil had not yet made it to a ball game to see for himself. Neil was responsible for the boy’s nickname. Casey’s real name was Kenneth Charles — K. C. — and Neil had started calling him Casey-at-the-bat. Now he wouldn’t answer to anything but Casey.

When the warning bell rang, there were about twenty students in the room. Half of them ran out, heading for their first hour classes, and they met an incoming stream of those students who preferred to be elsewhere before school started. You could find similar groups in every room just before school; sometimes they chose their morning place because of a favorite teacher, or because their friends were there, or perhaps because of some feature of the room itself. Elanor Romero was always in Neil’s room because she loved the idea of travel and he had an extensive display of maps and pictures cut out of National Geographic. Lauren Turner always spent her mornings with Carmen, even though Carmen did not teach sixth grade, because Carmen kept games out for the children to play before school.

When the second bell rang, all the children were either in their seats, or rushing toward them. That was Neil’s rule; if you were not in your seat when he called your name, you were tardy and had to go to the office for an excuse slip. After the first week the children had gotten used to it, and it started the morning off right.

The bell rang. All the students were sitting in their places; most of them had their books ready and the rest were quietly sneaking them out of their desks. But, because Neil had taught them his rules with a balance of seriousness and gentle teasing, they were happily ready. Smiling. Not solemn, but whispering to one another at a level that did not disturb the roll call.

“Rosa Alvarez?”


“Tony Caraveli?”


“Martin Christoffersen?”

“Martin isn’t here today,” someone said.

“Flavio Dias, Laura Diaz, Greg Ellis, Raul Fuentes, Tim Galloway?”

All answered yes. Then there was a disturbance that rippled through the room like a sigh of suppressed laughter and Neil glanced up to see Richard Lujan sneaking toward his seat. Without seeming to notice, he shifted out of alphabetical order and called, “Richard Lujan?”

“Here,” came the sheepish reply, and everyone laughed. more Monday

436. Thank You

This is for Thanksgiving, but posted a day early. After all, who looks at their computer while the Macy’s Parade is happening?

If you grow up Christian, God never leaves your bones, even if you lose your faith.

Thank You

Thank you.
Even if you aren’t there, thank you.

We need you so badly,
That it almost makes you real.

Thank you for peace.
We have precious little of it;
Help us appreciate the days we have.

Thank you for bodies that are often without pain;
Help us remember those days, when the pain comes.

But most of all —

For the days when our lovers sit beside us,
Close enough for a reached-out hand,
Thank you.

Symphony 42


The morning after back to school night dawned cloudy and cool. The hot season had passed nearly a week earlier. As Neil walked to his car, he almost wished for a jacket. He also realized that his attitude toward Modesto and the Central Valley had changed. His hatred for it had been three-quarters self pity, anyway. It was flat, and he didn’t like that, but the town itself was full of trees and green grass, and for the most part clean and pleasant. The countryside around the city was interesting, if different than he would have chosen. He had become accustomed to both in the two months he had been there.

He had also become accustomed to his students. He still found them frustrating, but it was not their fault they couldn’t understand Shakespeare, or that they were unable to deal with sophisticated thoughts. They were eleven years old; they were just exactly where they needed to be. He was the one out of synch.

Over the weeks he had begun to understand how to deal with them. At first, he had had to stop a dozen times a day when the confusion on their faces told him that they were not understanding him. That only happened a dozen times a week now, which was progress of a sort.

As Neil drove westward on Kiernan, he passed the Oaks and Johnson apartments. There was a cluster of Hispanic children waiting for the school bus. Some of them recognized him and waved. He waved back, and realized that after his first day’s reconnaissance, he had driven past this complex every day without investigating further. He would have to visit it eventually.

He parked his car and went to his room, dropped off the papers he had graded the night before, and picked up his textbooks. He signed in at seven-thirty in the teachers’ lounge and found that someone had made coffee. He settled in with a cup and began to review what he would teach that day.

Pearl was the next teacher in. She was heavy and always walked a little stiffly. “‘Morning, Pearl,” he said, “How did it go last night?”

“Fine. I had a fairly good crowd, and I got a chance to see some of the parents I had been wanting to talk to.”

Glen Ulrich came in and Pearl greeted him heartily; Neil tried to match her enthusiasm, but Glen’s attitude did not encourage any intimacy. Neil had discovered that he was a bitter, ingrown individual. He was the only teacher at Keirnan who did not visibly love the kids.

Tom and Fiona came in together. She waved at Neil. Their one-kiss romance had not blossomed, but at least Fiona had decided that she liked him. She had drawn him out and made him part of the group. He was profoundly grateful for her efforts; because of her, there were moments like this when his loneliness almost disappeared and his displacement did not trouble him.

At ten minutes until eight o’clock, by unspoken common consent, the teacher’s lounge emptied as they all went off to their rooms to let in the early arriving students.

As Neil approached, a small knot of girls were giggling together. Their faces came up an they piped good-mornings in their liquid, bird-like voices, smiling and brimming with life. “Good morning, girls,” Neil replied, then added, “Good morning, Rosa,” for the benefit of the round faced, solemn one who stood a little away from her companions. She rewarded him with a brief, shy smile, and a murmured greeting.

Neil unlocked the door and propped it back. They flowed around him like water, never thinking to let him in first. All the formal politeness that had characterized their first few days with him was gone now. They had accepted him completely, like family, and his room had become their second home. more tomorrow

435. Looking for Louis L’Amour

To revise or not to revise, that is the question. Actually, the question is how much to revise.

There are legendary writers who write rapidly, never revise, and turn out books like Hershey’s turns out chocolate bars. I recently read a third hand account of a writer who churned out a (very bad) science fiction novel over a long weekend. It was published, although probably it should not have been.

And then there’s Walt Whitman who was still changing parts of Leaves of Grass long after it was published. I guess I must be in the latter camp, since I’ve written three paragraphs of this post so far, and I have already changed three dozen words.

All this makes me remember the words of Luther Perkins, guitarist for Johnny Cash. He was famous for playing essentially the same riff on every song, and it always sounded great. Other guitarist were flying all over the fretboard at blinding speed, and being as quickly forgotten. Perkins said, “They’re looking for it. I’ve found it.”

I guess once you’ve found it, it gets easier. After four decades, I’m still searching. And rewriting. And revising, And polishing. It’s actually very soothing, but it is slow.

Louis L’Amour found it relatively early in his career. I became something of an expert on him during the seventies and eighties by reading and rereading his novels while taking breaks from my own writing. As a young writer, I could write a few paragraphs or even a half page, then I had to look at the ceiling for a while, waiting for the next thought to come.

Take heart, new writers; after four decades, things come a lot faster.

There were times, lots of times, when I had to do something to get my conscious mind off what I was writing so my subconscious could do its work. And not science fiction or fantasy; that is what I was trying to get away from. I needed something soothing and predictable, but written with a professional touch.

That’s a definition of the works of Louis L’Amour.

If my taste for L’Amour seems out of character for a science fiction and fantasy writer, remember I grew up on an Oklahoma farm in the fifties when every hero on TV rode a horse. I worked cattle every day, myself — but they were dairy cows and I was on foot. Everybody wore Stetsons and cowboy boots, and every farmer out on his John Deere tractor was a cowboy on a horse in his secret heart.

Go listen to some country western music; you’ll get the idea.

A single word description of L’Amour’s westerns would be consistent. A few were weak, a few were superb, most were strong examples of a type. His excellence was within a limited canvas. His historicals were weak and his one fantasy was a total dog.

Over a couple of decades, I read all his novels multiple times while waiting to find out what I was going to say next. (Except for The Haunted Mesa (1987); I could never get through that one a second time.) The same characteristic phrases appear at frequent intervals.

If you have written a long chunk of text, novel or not, finished or not, try this test. Choose a phrase that seems characteristic of you. Use the find function. If that phrase shows up fifty-seven times, you might want to think about that.

L’Amour’s moral and political positions are simple, firm, and unvarying — much like Heinlein, actually. An unsympathetic critic would say he wrote the same book fifty times. I think that pushes criticism of consistency too far. It would be better to say that he had a consistent moral position that channeled him into a certain type of story.

Personally, I tend to see both sides of every argument, whether in life or in my writing. Given a certain fictional situation, L’Amour would solve it in a certain characteristic way. I would see a hundred ways to solve it, and then go searching for solution number one hundred and one. It makes for slow writing.

L’Amour did not revise. I discovered that the first time I read Reilly’s Luck (1970). Early in the book the hero meets Wild Bill Hickok; when they part, L’Amour says that he never saw Hickok again. Forty pages later, Hickok and the hero meet up a second time, and Hickok loans him a gun.

You couldn’t make that kind of an error if you did even the most cursory revising. But that isn’t really surprising, considering how many books L’Amour’ wrote. He knocked them out like a chicken laying eggs. He couldn’t have done that if he had agonized over every book.

The two different styles of writing lead to two different approaches to revising. As writers, I don’t think we get to choose which camp we fall into. It’s a blessing or curse you are just born with.