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.”

For Word Nerds: The Story of ‘&’

It just seemed too good, too pat, too cute to be true. It might be pure bunkum. But as near as I can tell after doing a little research, this is actually correct.

I was looking for something on dictionary.com the other day and they linked to an article on the old ampersand, you know, the “&” character that means “and.” Saving you two keystrokes that could be the difference between – well, between two things that don’t require much time. We’re talking typing here.

Maybe this is common knowledge, but it was news to me and way more interesting that you might think.

The ampersand character is actually more than 1,500 years older than the word “ampersand.” The character was developed by Latin scribes, linking the characters for “e” and “t” in the Roman alphabet. Those two letter form the Latin word “et,” which mean “and.” I suppose when you’re chiseling words into marble saving a character here and there is important.

Latin was the language of civilized people, really the language of civilization itself, for about 2,000 years, and the ampersand came along for the ride. Nothing surprising there. Pretty much the whole English language is stuff we got from somewhere else.

This is where it gets really interesting. “&” was actually part of the English alphabet for hundreds of years. As recently as the early 1800s, kids reciting their ABCs would finish with “w, x, y, z, and and.”

Except “and and” was awkward, to say the least. So instead, they used another Latin phrase, “per se,” which means “by itself,” or “as itself.” So they would say, “w, x, y, z, and, per se, and.”

And that’s where the word comes from. “And per se and” became “ampersand.” Cool. Very cool.

That’s called a mondegreen. If you think the history of ampersand is interesting, look up mondegreen, you’ll love it. But do it before the girl with colitis goes by.

Sometimes You Toss Out the Rules

When Captain Kirk or Captain Picard says the mission of the Enterprise is “to boldly go” where no one has gone before, is it just me, or does everyone else stop for just a second and say, “Split infinitive!”?

Not to get too complicated, “to go” is an infinitive, a verb phrase common in many languages. In English, it’s the verb, the action word, if you will, and a form of the verb to be. And in English, one of the “rules” is that you don’t split the infinitive, you treat it as a single unit.

So “to boldly go” is a split infinitive. But what are the alternatives?

The late pundit and language maven James Kilpatrick once used the Star Trek mantra as an example of why the rules sometimes need to be ignored. (Or if you prefer, why the rules need to be sometimes ignored.) Because language is more than just a collection of words and rules about how to line them up to make sense. There’s a rhythm, a music to a well-written sentence.

And to say, “To seek out new life and new civilizations, boldly to go where no one has gone before …” just doesn’t have the swing. “To go boldly” is better, but it still doesn’t the same zest, the same dynamic rhythm, the (dare I say?) poetry, that the line carries when it “breaks the rules.”

Anyway, that’s all I have to say about it. Not anything profound. Just a reminder to myself to not become fixated on form, and to remember, as the old jazz man used to sing, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

Doo wah doo wah doo wah doo wa doooo.

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.

New Year Resolutions? No, I’ve Got Something Better

I don’t do resolutions, not per se.

I have done them, and like everyone else I have had indifferent success. I think it was 1996 that I figured out the reasons for that.

a) We always make it something huge – I’m going to quit smoking this year, lose 25 pounds, learn how to sculpt or knit or perform brain surgery.

b) We always think making this huge thing a resolution for the new year will somehow make us more likely to achieve the goal, when in reality it just ups the pressure. Failed new year resolutions are legendary. I decided that if I want to lose weight or learn Italian or take up pottery, I’ll do it because I want to, not because the words occurred to me on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1.

So on Jan. 1, 1996, I made a resolution I knew I could keep. I promised I would not wear a tie all year.

And I kept the resolution! All year! First time I’d ever done that. My wife, Tori, commented at the time, “You need better problems.” She was probably right, she usually is, but I thought I’d come up with a winning formula. The next year I made myself a stiffer challenge, one that would require a bit of effort. I resolved that when I went grocery shopping, after loading the groceries into the car I would always take my cart all the way back into the store, every time, rain or shine. Not only did I keep that resolution for the whole year, it actually became a habit that I still follow today.

But that’s been it for me for resolutions. I don’t have any new year resolutions for 2017.

What I have is a schedule.

I know what I need to do this year, know what I want to accomplish. And I know about how long it ought to take to do it, if I’m serious. Which I am, so I’ve got a schedule.

I will finish project 1 in the next two weeks. Project 2 (I’m not ready to discuss most of them in any kind of detail) I think has terrific potential. I’ll finish the first draft by April 1. Then project 3, the movie treatment for “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” That shouldn’t take more than a couple of months – just a matter of adapting the story I know so well to a different medium. That’ll give me the summer to revise the first draft of the project 2. Finally, when fall arrives I’ll get to work on project 4, the sequel to “Chrissie,” which with a little hard work, luck and concentration I should be able to finish by the end of the year.

Ambitious? Probably. Written in stone? No, but I’m going to try to keep on that pace. I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve got a lot of writing to do. I don’t have time for a lot of navel gazing. It’s just a matter of that old adage, apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and keep it there until you’re done.

I’ll have some other things going on – a book festival in March, any other readings and events I can muster. And a trip out west this fall, which will be for family but there’s no rule that says I can’t try to sell a few books while I’m there.

If you made a resolution – more power to you! Keep it up. If, like me, you take a different approach, get cracking.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some work to do.

 

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.