The Power of Failure

“Failure is not an option.” Ed Harris in the movie, “Apollo 13”

Sorry Ed, but it turns out failure not only IS an option, sometimes it seems to be almost a prerequisite to success.

I got four books for Christmas. One was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” which is so good I can’t even begin to tell you. I mentioned it before, when I had just started reading it. I finished it a couple of weeks later and it was every bit as good as the first chapters suggested. Great book, beautifully written, easily the best book I’ve read in years, maybe decades, and I read a lot. “Born to Run” is deeply personal and moving, yet sometimes hilarious.

One of my favorite passages is when, as a high school student, he rounded up a couple of other friends who could play a little and formed a band. After their first big gig – an unqualified disaster – the other members got together and voted him out of the band he had formed.

Wouldn’t you love to get those guys together now and ask, “How does it feel to be the guys who fired Bruce Springsteen from a band?”

I’m now reading Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite, who for almost 20 years in the 1960s and ’70s was “the most trusted man in America” as anchor of the CBS Evening News. In this – shall we say? – strained political climate, it seemed appropriate to revisit a time when the media were not only trusted, but some of its members were revered. Cronkite, you may recall, was known as “Uncle Walter” to a devoted public. If Cronkite said it, you could take it to the bank.

In one of his first jobs in the 1930s, Cronkite was the news announcer for Kansas City radio station KCMO. In fact, he was essentially the entire news staff. One day the station owner rushed to Cronkite’s desk with a scoop. The owner’s wife had just called to say City Hall was on fire and three firefighters had been killed. He ordered Cronkite to get on the air right away to issue a news bulletin.

Cronkite reached for the phone, to the owner’s consternation. “What are you doing?” “I have to make some calls and verify it.” “Are you calling my wife a liar?” Of course not,” Cronkite said, but he pleaded the need to verify the report and get more details.

The owner fired Cronkite and went on the air himself with the breathless report of K.C.’s City Hall burning down, with three firefighters plummeting to their deaths. And of course, it turned out to be completely false. There had been a small fire in City Hall, easily extinguished. Nobody injured, let alone killed.

When Cronkite died in 2009, a blogger wrote a piece titled “KCMO: Stupid Enough to Fire Cronkite; Downhill Ever Since.”

Another of the books I received for Christmas was “The Daily Show: The Book.” It’s a conversational, chronological history of the Daily Show during Jon Stewart’s 16-year run. And of course he wasn’t fired from the gig. But as he points out in the foreword, his career until then hadn’t been exactly overwhelming.

“I was a 35-year-old New York City standup comic with a canceled talk show, an unproduced screenplay, an unpublished book of essays, and two upcoming roles in Independent Films critics would almost unanimously hail as ‘speaking parts.'”

So the common thread between the stories of these three disparate men is early failure. And of course, there’s a lot more such stories. Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime, but he’s now considered, if not the most important modern painter, certainly one of them. Erle Stanley Gardner received a rejection telling him not only was his story bad but he should never again be allowed to write in the English language. The story was, of course, the first Perry Mason mystery. Tom Clancy’s first novel was rejected by 26 publishers before it became the No. 1 bestseller “The Hunt for Red October,” leading to a publishing success story that continues today, with a new book on the lists despite the fact that Clancy’s been dead three and a half years.

Such stories are legion, especially in the writing world where we seem to wear our rejections like badges of honor. You’re nobody ’til somebody tells you you stink.

In each of those three books – Springsteen, Cronkite and Stewart – the key was not the failure but what they did with it.

Springsteen was brutally honest with himself, both as an artist and a person. He knew where he wanted to go with his music, and he cold-bloodedly looked at his strengths and weaknesses, then did what he had to do to improve until he not only was able to make a living as a musician, but become one of the most important musicians of the last 40 years. In his personal life, at the prodding and insistence of his wife, he went into therapy and confronted the ghosts of his childhood that were standing in the way of his establishing meaningful relationships, of being the father he wanted to be. He spent years looking for a way to forge a loving relationship with the father he hated (and didn’t realize for many years that he had hated.) He turned himself into who he wanted to become by hard work and unflinching self-honesty.

There were a lot of people who looked for success in the burgeoning field of radio in the 1930s. Cronkite was one of the ones who made it – and you could argue he made it farther than anyone – by adhering to high ethical standards that he didn’t compromise for the sake of a job or a short-term gain. He also worked at his craft. He taught himself to speak in an easy, conversational style instead of the stereotypical staccato burst of the radio announcers of the day. He forced himself to read the news at 124 words a minute, while the average American speaks at about 165. That allowed listeners to really hear him, and to let the words come through so they could be comprehended. He was the master of the pause, not babbling inanely but allowing the moment to speak for itself.

And Stewart was simply never satisfied. When he took over “The Daily Show” it was already somewhat successful, and the writing staff made it very clear to him that no little failed MTV host was going to tell them how to do it. They were furious that he had his own ideas. So over the first couple of years there were fights and scenes until he was able to mold the show into something that fit , his sensibility. He never intended to create a cultural touchstone, never dreamed that someday he would be compared to Will Rogers and Mark Twain. He just wanted the show give him a chance to say what he wanted to say, to not be canceled too early in the run, and to be funny.

And funny is serious business. It’s hard work. You don’t just go out for 22 minutes a night, four nights a week, and yuk it up. You have to have a point of view. Most days, after the 4 p.m. rehearsal, Stewart, the head writer and one or two others would retire to a small room behind the set and rewrite the show in the hour before they actually filmed it. Sometimes it would just be tweaks. More often than not, they would rewrite the entire show! Because it wasn’t enough for it to be good, it had to be as good as it could be. It had to mean something.

There are thousands, maybe millions, of stories of people turning failure into success, people who don’t allow a roadblock to become the end of the line, a dead end. They know what they want, and aren’t afraid to pick themselves up, learn their lessons and keep going until, by dint of hard work, they achieve their goal or surpass it.

Thomas Edison famously said, when trying to perfect the incandescent light bulb, that he hadn’t failed. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Being honest with yourself, recognizing what didn’t work and why, is part of charting the path to success. As Henry Ford said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

Words to Work By

It’s a little late in the week for a “quote of the week” or “work theme,” but here are today’s words of wisdom as I knuckle down.

“Keep working. Don’t wait for inspiration. Work inspires inspiration. Keep working.”Michael Crichton

Actually, that’s good advice every day, every week. “Inspiration” is for amateurs.

So get to it, John. Get to it.

The count: Yesterday, 652 words, a little behind my goal, but respectable.

Big News and Lots of Work

Bunch of things in the last two weeks – Here’s the best.

jack-and-caseyMy eldest son, Jack, sent me two photos on New Year’s Eve. One was of him and his girlfriend, Casey, a picture we’d requested a little while earlier. When decorating for the holidays we’d noticed that our family photos were getting a little dated – we like the older photos, but we didn’t have anything current.

The other was this. Somewhere in that gray blur is my first grandchild. Yeah, sometime in August I’m going to become a grandfather. Yippee!

I have never pujack-and-casey-21shed my kids to procreate. I’m not against the idea of grandchildren, far from it, I just want them to live their lives. But Tori has noticed for several years that I have been paying more attention to babies in the supermarket and elsewhere around town. Or on TV. It’s all she can do to keep me from playing with their toes. That ‘s not a good thing, touching some stranger’s baby, and I have refrained. Tori says I’ve lapsed into permanent “grandpa mode.”

What can I say, babies are cute. It seems like a pretty great way to start life.

I have friends my age who have been grandparents for 20 years or more. One who is a great grandparent. And that’s been fine for them. Like I said, I never was in a hurry for my kids to reproduce. I want them to get their lives in shape and on track, make sure they’re responsible for themselves before they become responsible for someone else.

Well, Jack is 37, a librarian in the Berkeley Public Library System in California. A respected professional and something of an authority on graphic novels and comics – he’s a regular panelist at San Diego Comicon. I think he’s good to go.

Tori and I have joked that whichever of our kids became parents first, that’s where we’d move. Well, cost of living in the Bay Area is crazy high, so that’ll take some planning (and perhaps winning the lottery. Or at least selling some movie rights.) But for the short term, it sure changes our travel plans for the year. We’ll definitely be heading to the West Coast in late summer or early fall to meet the little sprat. Can’t wait.

In the meantime, I’m working on my new project and I like it a lot. You always do at this stage. It’s when you get about halfway to two-thirds in that things start getting hard. But this is a story with a lot of potential and I’m very excited about it.

Tori is arranging a time after school when I can read chapters to a group of students, whose feedback will help shape the story. That’s the same way it worked for “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” and it was very helpful.

I can’t even write the title here yet, because it pretty much gives the whole story. It’s not a pirate story. It’s something different. I want it to be equal parts funny and exciting. It’s a stretch for me, and that’s a good thing. What do you learn if you keep doing the same thing over and over?

Sadly, I didn’t get much work done on it that last two weeks. I just finished a 12-day stint of work for my day-job, which is a misnomer since most of it is done at night. Working desk shifts for the Source until 1 or 2 in the morning, then getting up at 6 to get Tori and Max off to school. By the time they’re out the door I’ve been kind of brain dead, so not much writing has been going on.

But my colleague is back and I’m on the job again. Looking forward to getting back to the adventure of Connor and Ronnie and their struggle to save their town from an unspeakable horror.

A Terrific Book

My family knows me.

My Christmas presents included four books. They all look good, but there was no question which one I was going to dive into first – head first. It was Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, “Born to Run.” In fact, I started reading it as soon as I opened it. I was hooked immediately.

My god! The man can write!

It’s not a surprise, of course, because he’s written some of the best songs of the last 40 years. But this is so much more – deeply personal, wry, open and often self-deprecating, colorful, sometimes hilarious. The words crackle and dance off the page. I’m still only about 80 pages in, he’s a teenager forming his first band. After teaching himself to play guitar, he started a band and, after their first disastrous gig, his fellow bandmates voted him out. Wouldn’t you love to find those guys now and ask them how they feel about being the guys who fired Bruce Springsteen from his own band?

“Writing about yourself is a funny business,” Springsteen says. “But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise, to show the reader his mind. In these pages, I’ve tried to do this.” Oh boy, does he! There are moments so poignant, so steeped in personal triumph and tragedy, longing and regret, that they cut right through the bone and into your soul.

In reviewing Springsteen’s first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” rock critic William Ruhlmann said the album “painted a portrait of teenagers cocksure of themselves, yet bowled over by their discovery of the world. It was saved from pretentiousness … by its sense of humor and by the careful eye for detail … that kept even the most high-flown language rooted.”

And that absolutely describes the book as well, at least as far as I’ve read so far. Since I started writing this I have gotten to the point where he’s given up on community college and is now a 19-year-old, on his own in the world and burning with a passion to make it in music. (Gosh, he’s such a likable character, I sure hope he makes it.)

As I said, I got four books for Christmas, and I will certainly be reading and enjoying the others. But “Born to Run” is the best book I’ve read in years.

The Hat Makes the Man

stingy-brim
Me in my leather coat and felt hat, which now has a new name.

The weather was cool as I entered an office building last week, so I was wearing my leather jacket and my black felt hat. As I walked past the lobby desk toward the elevators, the older gentleman at the desk called to me. I wasn’t sure what he said, so I stopped and asked him to repeat himself.

“I like your stingy brim!” he said.

I still didn’t get it, really. And asked him one more time.

“Your hat! We used to call that a stingy brim! You’re rockin’ that stingy brim!”

I’ve never heard that name, but I like it a lot. And it’s the sort of detail that, as a writer, you want to store away. A character of a certain age in a certain time and place – an older black man in New Orleans – might make a passing reference to “a stingy brim,” adding verisimilitude to a character and scene.

It’s the details that make the difference, that separate a generic scene to one that comes alive. And as a writer, you’ve got to be a sponge for them. The way kids talk today, the way your parents talked 30 years ago. You might wash your laundry in Tide. Your grandparents might have used Fels-Naptha. It’s a hundred different, little things, what James Kilpatrick called “the telling details,” the fix your story in a specific place and time. (And the fact that I referenced James Kilpatrick instead of “Grammar Girl” fixes me at a certain age, place and time.)

Most people, when they see you wearing a felt hat – any felt hat, as opposed to a sports cap – say, “I like your fedora!” That’s because fedora is the only word they know. But it’s only one style.

bogart
Bogart in his fedora.

Fedoras have a wide brim (usually turned down in front, up in back) and a pointed or tear-drop-shaped crease in the crown. It’s the go-to hat of film noir. You see Bogart wearing a fedora in “The Maltese Falcon” (one of my favorite movies) and a host of other films. You’ll see it on Richard Widmark and Robert Mitchum in all of those classics.

THE GODFATHER, Al Pacino, 1972 godfather1-fsc48(godfather1-fsc48)
Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.”

But though the fedora is closely tied to our image of gangsters, the hat Al Pacino wears in the first “Godfather” is NOT a fedora. It’s a Homburg.

The Homburg has a narrowed brim (one might call it a “stingy brim.) The crown usually has a crease straight across, from front to back. It’s called a gutter crease. In the mid-20th century, the Homburg was the hat of politicians and statesmen and the upper class. You can see photos of Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, Konrad Adenauer and lots of others statesman wearing it.

I have two hats, the Homburg and my Panama. They’re my fall/winter hat and my spring summer hat. I particularly love my Homburg.

But of course, from now on, it’s my Stingy Brim.

Win a Signed Copy of ‘Chrissie’

csFINALfrontNews for my friends on Goodreads: Starting Thursday you have a chance to win a signed copy of “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” For the next three weeks Goodreads is hosting a giveaway of four copies of my young-adult adventure pirate adventure novel.

As you no doubt know, Goodreads is an online community of more than 20 millions book lovers designed “to help people find and share books they love… [and] to improve the process of reading and learning throughout the world.” It’s sort of like Facebook without cat videos, pictures of your dinner, and all that.

If you’re interested and haven’t signed up or just want to check it, you can go to Goodreads.com. And signing up is easy and free. If you’re any kind of a reader, you really want to be a member.

One of the things they have at Goodreads is giveaways. With three clicks, Goodreads members can sign up to win books offered by authors. The winners are randomly chosen by Goodreads, so I’ll have nothing to do with choosing.

From Nov. 18 to Dec. 8, you can enter to win one of four autographed copies of “Chrissie.” When it goes online I’ll post the link.

Here are just a few of the comments readers have given the book.

Just finished reading this book. It’s a great read for young and old! … Good job. John Baur! Looking forward to the sequel! – David Garrett

If you like a good book I would like to recommend Chrissy Warren Pirate Hunter … Great reading all the way through. – Sharon Denardo

This is a very compelling story, moving at a great pace. I hope there is a sequel in the works, because the story leaves you wanting more, in a good way. While I am technically not a young adult, I think they will enjoy this, too. – D. Van Middlesworth

Just finished Chrissie Warren! Wow what a journey! I laughed, I cried, and I can’t say I could enjoy anything more. This has to be among the top in my favorite pirate books. I’m so glad this amazing piece of literature found its was onto my bookshelf! – Janine Myers

Summer’s Over, Back to Work

Summer is over. It’s time to get back to work.

Sure, for you – for most people in the northern hemisphere – that’s old news. Summer for most people, at least as a state of mind, ends on Labor Day. For me, it’s a different holiday – International Talk Like a Pirate Day, every Sept, 19.

I’m not very productive in the summer. I’m just not. (Obviously, the includes blogging.)  And the two and a half weeks between Labor Day and Talk Like a Pirate Day I’m even busier. As of the two guys who started the holiday and then took the idea way too far, the buildup is a little like I imagine mid-December would be in Santa’s workshop. Not just getting my own schedule together but dealing with our newsletter – The Poopdeck – and the website and interviews, it all gets a little hectic. It’s slowed down some these days, the holiday has taken on a life of its own. It’s reached critical mass and doesn’t need Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket. It’s reached critical mass. Ten years ago we would do more than 80 interviews in a 36 hour period, radio stations all around the world, starting in Australia and New Zealand and following sunrise around the globe. This year we did a handful, and that’s fine. If something happens to me or Mark, the holiday will go on without us.

I’ll talk a little more about this year’s holiday in a later post this week. (No, seriously, this week.) For now, I’m thinking over what I’ve got to get onto.

I’ve got to keep pushing on. I’ve got three projects lined up in a row, that I’d like to have cleaned up and ready to go in the next year. One that’ll be finished in ten days, one to complete by Dec. 1, and then one to have finished by summer.

It’s all a question of being organized, making a schedule and sticking to it. So far, I’ve got the “making a schedule” part. Now for the “sticking to it” part.