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On Writing

Don't ask a new friend to like your Facebook page

Stephen H. Provost

If they like me, they’re sure to like my Facebook page!

Right?

Uh, not so much.

I’m active on Facebook, and I’m also interested in marketing, so I have handful – well, maybe three handfuls – of business pages to promote my work.

Other authors and creative types do, too, and I get a lot of friend requests from would-be networkers in my field.

Most seldom, if ever, interact with me online. But more and more of them are sure to do one thing the moment I accept their friend request: They invite me to like their business page.

I used to accept most of these as a sort of favor to build up their egos, but that’s really all it does. I seldom visited these pages after I “liked” them, and I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything based on something I’ve seen there.

That’s the hard reality of Facebook pages: The overwhelming (and I do mean overwhelming) majority of people who like pages do so for the pretty pictures and funny memes. I’ve used pretty pictures and funny memes to accumulate thousands of likes on some pages, even tens of thousands on a few. But do these translate into sales?

Again, not so much.

Still, more and more authors and artists on Facebook seem to have adopted a new commandment. It goes like this: The very first thing thou shalt do when someone accepts thy friend request is invite them to like thy page.  

Unfortunately, this is all kids of stupid.

For one thing, page likes seldom translate into sales. Yes, they will get you exposure, and yes, it can’t hurt. But if you expect to get more than a couple of sales for every thousand likes, you’re deluding yourself.

And more important than that: It’s just plain rude. People who accept friend requests from folks they’ve never heard of, let alone met, are taking a chance. There are a lot of bots, spammers and idiots out there on Facebook, so if you accept a friend request, you’re putting yourself out there. It’s gotten to the point that I don’t accept any requests unless we’ve got mutual friends and the person seems like a real person with at least some common interests.

If it’s someone from Nigeria or Saudi Arabia, a guy with a girl’s name, a “well-endowed” woman with bare-bones profile info ... sorry, but you’re not getting in.

The people who send out instant page requests are none of those things. They’re legitimate Facebook users with credible profiles who obviously don’t realize how intrusive – and presumptuous – they’re being by sending you a page request before so much as bothering to say “hello” on your profile. Imagine answering a knock at the door only to be pushed aside by a “visitor” you’ve never met. He brushes past you, makes his way to your kitchen and says, “Got any beer?”

Same principle.

Another analogy: It’s kind of like the guy in the parking lot who goes around putting leaflets on every car. That hungry landfill down the street might say “thank you,” but will any of the drivers? It’s doubtful. And they sure as hell won’t consider the leaflet-distributor a “friend”!

The instant-page-request strategy would still be rude if it generated business, but I’ve seen no evidence it does that. If I don’t know you, why should I care about your business? It’s far more likely I’ll do business with you if someone else I already know recommends you. You know, word of mouth.

On the other hand, if I’ve known someone for a while, chances are I already know what they’re selling without having to visit their page.

Finally, it’s far easier to build up page likes by spreading those pretty pictures and funny memes than it is by inviting every new friend you make on Facebook. You still aren’t likely to build your business exponentially, but you will increase your reach a lot more quickly and effectively than you can through invitations.

And guess what? It’s not rude. Because when those people like your page, they’re doing so voluntarily, not because you’ve nagged or guilted them into it.

So, please, the next time you’re tempted to send out an immediate page invitation to a new friend on Facebook, stop and think for a moment. Remember: It’s poor way to build a following; page likes don’t translate into big sales; and the person may well think you’re a presumptuous ass – which means she’s unlikely to have a positive impression of what you’re trying to sell.

Think about it. And try, at least for the moment, just being what you said you wanted to be to that person in the first place.

A friend.

Photo by Dave Wild, used under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Writing an Amazon book review: worse than a root canal?

Stephen H. Provost

Note: With reluctant apologies to J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, I following is a lighthearted look at why most writers not bearing those names find turning readership into Amazon reviews more difficult than transmuting lead into gold. Difficult, but not impossible: I’m immensely grateful for readers who take the time to leave reviews of my books. You are a rare and precious breed. I love you eternally.

The Amazon book review. Authors covet them nearly as much as Gollum longs for his precious and Wile E. wants that Roadrunner. Short of the New York Times bestseller list, they’re the Holy Grail for writers. And they’re just as elusive, too.

For the longest time, I wondered why so few readers bother to leave them. But then I hit on something during a recent trip to France that I think explains it all better than even Clarissa could. I’ve never been to France, but that didn’t stop me from traveling there in my mind to visit the abode of famed alchemist Nicolas Flamel. As it happened, the door was unlocked and the place was empty when I arrived, which afforded me the chance to do a little snooping. And, while rummaging around in Flamel’s credenza, I made a notable discovery.

How did I obtain access to the famed 14th century alchemist’s credenza, you ask? Have you ever heard of the phrase “suspending disbelief”? Well, Flamel figured out how to do it: When I arrived in his domicile, I found disbelief suspended a good three feet above the aforementioned credenza. Its arms and legs were flailing madly in the air, a look of, well, disbelief on its face. My point is this: If Flamel can suspend disbelief, literally, you can, too!

“Why a credenza?” you ask? Because the word sounds damned cool, that’s why, and because I don’t believe I’ve ever used it on the printed page (or unprinted screen) before. So, if you would be so kind, please stop asking irrelevant questions and try a query that gets at the heart of the matter. Like – repeat after me – “What did you discover?”

Yes. Now that’s more like it. I think you’re getting the hang of this.

Within said credenza, the alchemist had deposited a caisson – another word I’ve never used in print – and within this caisson was a parchment scroll in a most delicate condition. Upon this scroll was written the following. No, not in English, in French, silly. I could decipher it because I had four years of high school French (actually three, but I skipped ahead to French 4 halfway through my senior year). Or perhaps because I’m making this whole thing up. I’ll let you figure out which. You might derive a hint from the fact that modern French is probably as different from 14th century French as modern English is from Beowulf. You know, that epic poem about the first werewolf that exhorted its readers to “be a wolf!” Talk about inspirational! I will tell you this much: I really did skip ahead to fourth-year French.

Flamel’s plot

However any of that may be, here’s my translation of what Flamel allegedly wrote: “I have discovered the key to immortality, the famed elixir of life!” This elixir, Flamel continued in scrawled, archaic French script, was in fact no elixir at all, but the written word. “It is through the written word that man shall transcend death and vanquish mortality! Thus shall his mind be known throughout eternity!” Flamel knew this, he said, because the philosopher’s stone (not the sorcerer’s stone, you dumbed-down Americanized Potterheads!) was inscribed with, yes, written words!

The stone was the source of all ancient wisdom and treasured lore. Kind of like the emerald tablet of Hermes or the collected scripts of Star Trek: The Original Series. If its secrets were to become known, anyone who might read them could live forever!

Flamel, however, didn’t want that. He was a jealous sort who coveted immortality for himself and himself alone, so he destroyed the philosopher’s stone and made it his sacred mission to limit the spread of the written word thenceforth, in perpetuity.

Being able, like Nostradamus, Agnes Nutter and Grandmama Addams, to see into the future with uncanny accuracy, Flamel deduced that, at the dawn of the third millennium (common era), a “river of words” would begin flowing from something called “the Amazon.” Flamel, like most men of his age, was a bald-faced chauvinist, so he dismissed the idea that this prophecy might refer to a powerful woman, such as, say, Diana Prince or her alter egos, Lynda Carter and Gal Gadot. There had to be another interpretation.

This being the 14th century, no European had yet visited the New World (which was really no newer than the Old World was old). Nevertheless, Flamel, foreseeing the future, knew that this would occur when, in the midst of a prophetic reverie, he penned the following: “Therefore shall the Amazon be dammed up, that no man may review its course, denying all men access to the font of eternal life!” (the “font” in question being Times New Roman).

Flamel did, in fact, speak of “men” repeatedly because he was, as noted above, a bald-faced chauvinist. (Whether the top of his head was bald, too, is unclear, as his famous portrait shows him wearing a hat.) Despite being an alchemist, he wasn’t particularly enlightened. But then, the Enlightenment was still a few centuries away back then.

It should come as no surprise, when this is considered, that no evidence was found in his credenza, the caisson therein or anywhere else that he foresaw the equal rights movement. Even prophets see what they wish to see. Moreover, Flamel was not, by any means, perfect (unlike Agnes Nutter, who was not a man and who was considerably more accurate – and nicer – in her prophecies). But he was accurate enough, if not very nice about wanting to hoard all of immortality for himself!

Yes, indeed, he was accurate enough, even though his prophecies had nothing to do with a then-yet-to-be-discovered river, as he imagined. For at the dawn of the third millennium, a river of words did, indeed, begin flowing from “the Amazon.” A virtual river, to be sure, but still a river, it must be admitted. And that river became dammed – or was it damned? – by Flamel’s curse so that men (and women) had a devil of a time reviewing the words that flowed from “the Amazon’s” digital headwaters. Swimming against the current, so to speak.

I speak, naturally, of the aforementioned book reviews on Amazon, which readers are so hesitant to provide that it became quite clear to me something supernatural was afoot – Flamel’s curse being the most rational explanation. Without even the most curse-ory reviews, fewer books would sell, and a greater share of the eternal pie (or pi) would be reserved for Flamel, who, even though long dead, would continue to benefit (don’t ask me how; I haven’t figured that part out yet) even in the form of his formless specter.

Testing my theory

It seemed a reasonable enough conclusion. Still, I had to be sure. So, seeking confirmation of my theory, I sought to interview a few random readers who had failed to post reviews even though they were known to have purchased books from Amazon. Here are some of the responses I got.

  • “I decided I’d rather clean the toilet.”

  • “Oh, my significant other offered to do the dishes, but I realized that would leave me no excuse for reneging on my promise to post a review. So, I did the dishes and two loads of laundry on top of that!”

  • “I spilled cod liver oil on my hands so I would have an excuse not to gum up my keyboard! Don’t ask me why I was drinking cod liver oil. I had my reasons. Besides, it was better than posting a review!”

  • “I got a written excuse from my doctor. Or nurse practitioner. Or next-door neighbor who happened to be wearing a white T-shirt that would pass for a hospital uniform if you saw him from the other end of a football field. It’s all the same.”

These responses were suspicious enough, but what really got me were the next few:

  • “It’s against my philosophy.”

  • “Dude. Chill. I was too stoned.”

  • “I decided I’d rather reread the last four chapters of my philosophy textbook.”

  • “I was afraid authors of competing books would stone me.”

  • “I’d rather have a kidney stone that write a review!”

  • “I got stuck at Phil and Sophie’s house.”

A definite pattern was emerging around philosophy and stones, and that could only mean one thing: Flamel’s curse was working. And it was working so well that readers would rather do anything except write a book review! Eat kale. Have a tooth extracted or even a root canal. Watch endless reruns of The PTL Club. Beat – or be beaten by – a dead horse. Anything!

(Among the excuses offered, tooth extraction seemed particularly apropos: Extracting reviews from readers can feel like pulling teeth!)

I looked at the parchment again and wondered: What if I were to burn it? Would that remove the curse? I struck a match and held it to the corner, which I was about to set ablaze when it occurred to me: This might be exactly what Flamel was counting on! I would be burning words on a paper, the very instruments of immortality he was trying to destroy (even if they were in French). I would be doing his work for him! I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. Or dammed. Probably both.;

Dejected, I returned the parchment to the caisson and the caisson to the credenza, hung my head and departed. It was plain that I would have to go back to begging and pleading for reviews, crawling to readers on my hands knees like some penitent medieval scribe, for all the good it would do me. Flamel was simply too accomplished an alchemist. I was beaten.

But I vowed, even so, that I wouldn’t stop writing. I’d even thumb my nose at old, dead Nicky Boy and write a little philosophy now and then. That would show him! I might not be able to beat him, but I could still grab a few crumbs from his precious pie of immortality for myself. Reviews or no reviews, I’ve still got a little bit of Harry Potteresque magic in my pen … er … keyboard, and I intend to use it!

Amazonus Scriptorus!

That’s got a nice ring to it. Now if I could just get J.K. Rowling to review one of my books! Who am I kidding, though. I may be a philosopher, but I’m no sorcerer!

 

In Genesis, as in life, we see what we expect to see

Stephen H. Provost

They say Eve tempted Adam with an apple, but man, I ain’t goin’ for that.
— Bruce Springsteen, Pink Cadillac

Virtually everyone knows the story of the Garden of Eden. We learned it in Sunday school, or from our parents.

We know from this story that Satan persuaded the first woman, named Eve, to eat an apple, which Jehovah had forbidden. We know that Eve then seduced the first man, Adam, into doing the same.

Except none of that is true.

I’m not saying it’s false in the sense that, “that’s just a myth, so it never happened” – that’s a different discussion. I’m saying it’s not in the story. No apple is ever mentioned. Neither is Satan. There’s no reference to the woman seducing Adam, and she didn’t receive the name “Eve” until after this all went down. Also, the divine presence in the story is Elohim, not Jehovah. Most of what we thought we knew about this story, it turns out, is a mixture of commentary and assumption that we simply accept as fact because it’s become part of our popular culture.

A god by any other name ...

How did it get that way?

When the story was written, the deity credited with creation was named Elohim – a Canaanite word meaning “the gods.” Plural. That, however, didn’t square with the worship of the Hebrew god Jehovah (singular), in Judeo-Christian tradition that became dominant later on. The name Jehovah, or Yahweh, doesn’t even appear in the Book of Genesis, which was written in its earliest form before this deity was widely worshipped.

When the worship of Yahweh became not only dominant, but exclusive, something had to be done to reflect that. The creation story was already so widely known that it couldn’t simply be erased from the public consciousness. So, it was reinterpreted. “Elohim” was suppressed, and the word itself was passed off as just another name for Jehovah. Both are translated as simply “God” in our Bibles, even though they’re entirely different words.

As to the apple, it’s never named as such in Genesis. The text only mentions “fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden.” There weren’t even any apples growing in the Middle East at the dawn of civilization (the first were cultivated in Kazakhstan, far to the northeast).

Bruce Wayne is Tony Stark

This brings us to the serpent, a central player in the little drama. The snake is never named as “Satan” in the story. This Satan first appears in the Book of Job, and is applied to a figure who is not a tempter, but an accuser.

In fact, satan (lowercase) is not a name at all; it literally means “the accuser,” and appears in 10 out of 12 Old Testament references as “the satan.” It could have been applied to one figure in one place and an entirely different figure somewhere else. To assume that “the satan” referred to the same individual every time it occurs would be the equivalent of inferring that “the actor” always referred to, say, Bill Murray. Or that every reference to “the painter” meant Picasso.

a5de8f529ae6640fd227313750e7e2c8--original-sin-snakes.jpg

How thorough has this transformation from general accuser to specific person been? If you were sitting  behind me at my computer as I write this, you’d know: Every time I lowercase the word “satan,” my software responds with a squiggly red underline, indicating that I’ve got it “wrong.” The word, in the opinion of Microsoft Word, should always be capitalized as a proper noun!

It is only in the Book of Revelation, written thousands of years after the folktale that served as the basis for the Eden story, that “Satan” is referred to as “that ancient serpent.”

The satan was further identified with another character, Lucifer, which meant “light-bringer” and was just another name for the planet Venus, the morning star. According to the Book of Isaiah, however, Lucifer had “fallen from heaven” to “weaken the nations.” The author had, perhaps, heard a reference to Venus descending toward the horizon (falling) and/or appearing to fade as the sun rose. He then equated that with a moral failing or fall.

(For more on this, see my book Forged in Ancient Fires: Myth and Meaning in Western Lore.)

It’s not hard to see how this Lucifer became conflated with the serpent, who had himself fallen in the Eden story when he was cursed to crawl on his belly and eat dust. The serpent was also a light-bringer, in the sense that he promised enlightenment to the woman if she were to eat the fruit: “You will be like the Elohim, knowing good and evil.”

But equating the serpent with Lucifer and, hence, Lucifer with the satan, is like saying Batman and Iron Man are the same character. Both are genius billionaires who disguise themselves in fancy suits decked out with loads of techno-gadgets, then go around playing vigilante to fight the bad guys in comic books. Never mind that one’s named Bruce Wayne and the other is Tony Stark. Such minor details are as easily overcome as the difference between Lucifer and Satan, or Yahweh and Elohim.

Built-in bias

None of what I’ve written here would be surprising if we’d read the story itself before we heard the modern commentary. If we had never known about the story before, had never attended a Sunday school class and knew nothing about the rest of the Bible, we would have no basis for ever even guessing that the serpent was “Satan” or that the fruit was an apple. If we encountered the word Elohim for the first time, without any modern context, we might look it up and find that it meant “the gods.” If we read a separate passage about Yahweh in Exodus, we’d assume it was a different figure.

But we see what we expect to see, because someone has pointed us in that direction. We see gospel truth, when the author intended something else entirely. The story of Eden is, at the heart of it, a fable meant to convey a moral lesson and knowledge about how the universe came to be the way it is. Such stories are called etiological or origin stories; more recently, they’ve been referred to as just-so stories.

Rudyard Kipling wrote a number of them at the turn of the 20th century. Many of the titles are similar:

How the Camel Got His Hump

How the Leopard Got His Spots

How the Elephant Got His Trunk

The Eden account is based in part on just such a story. You might title it, How the Snake Got His Slither. The story offers an explanation, however fanciful, for why the serpent doesn’t have legs and crawls in the dust. It didn’t adapt to thrive in its environment. It was cursed! The tale also purports to explain why people wear clothes (they became ashamed of being naked after eating the fruit), why women experience pain in childbirth, and why the earth in the ancient Near East was hard to cultivate (more curses, which can be fixed by anesthesia and irrigation, respectively).

You can’t fight city hall

In addition to an etiological story, however, the Eden account served as a cautionary tale. The moral of the story, translated into modern terms, would be “You can’t fight City Hall.” (Secondarily, to paraphrase heavyweight champ Joe Louis, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”) The conclusion is that all the knowledge in the world won’t help you if you find yourself fighting against the gods. Only obedience, not wisdom, will save you. This wasn’t an uncommon theme in the ancient world: The story of Zeus punishing Prometheus for stealing fire from heaven and giving it to humanity is a parallel example.

The moral of the story isn’t spiritual and enlightened, but pragmatic and a cynical. It also served those in power well, as they could use it to keep their subjects in line.

But because our culture is so steeped in the false context created for the original story by the priests of Yahweh, by the author of Revelation, by Sunday school teachers and others, we don’t see any of this unless we look at the story with fresh eyes – and dare to challenge the cognitive dissonance that arises when we do so.

Admitting we misunderstood something as basic as the story of our own creation can be a bitter pill to swallow, but there’s a bright side to that realization. We get to create our own awareness and, as a result, our own destiny. That’s a happy ending in my book.

Stephen H. Provost is the author of several books about myth, religion and spirituality, including Forged in Ancient Fires, Messiah in the Making and Timeless Now.

History matters even more if the past is but a ghost

Stephen H. Provost

Timeless Now: The Empyrean Gate is my 20th book, with two more completed and in the pipeline for release next year. It marks a return to subjects touched on in some of my earlier projects, including philosophy and spirituality., and in a sense, it has brought me full circle while at the same time collecting a series of insights gleaned over the years into a new, cohesive whole. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and ebook form, and I’ve made it as affordable as I can because I believe in its message.

If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.
— Rudyard Kipling

How can a historical writer dismiss the past as a mere shadow, a ghost, a phantom? It seems more than a little ironic on the face of it, I have to admit. Contradictory, even.

I spent nearly a decade researching a 1,000-page book on ancient history – my two-part Phoenix Principle, a look at the development of Western religion from the perspective of myth and politics.* It was the first book I ever wrote. More recently, over the past four years, I’ve written five books about 20th century Americana and the biography of a sports legend.**  

But my latest book, Timeless Now, begins by declaring, “Time does not exist,” and makes the point that all we really have is the present moment; the past itself is nothing but a series of ghost stories preserved, imperfectly, through memory. That might seem to diminish the importance of history, but for me, it makes it all the more precious. Because, without those memories, it simply vanishes, as though it were never there – and that would be a shame.

I love those stories, which is why I’m so passionate about history. Besides, stories of the past contain valuable lessons and, as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Memory-stories provide context for the present, and they do exist in the present, even though the events they describe are proverbial dust in the wind.

The very fact that the past no longer exists makes preserving memory-stories that much more important – even though the stories are often flawed, or preserved at a slant because of the storyteller’s agenda. If the past itself existed in the present, we’d have no need for these stories; we could just check the facts directly. The stories preserve a crucial link to what was; they tell us where we’ve been.

Old friends and cold meals

The problem is not with the stories themselves, but with how we treat them. Do we welcome them for brief visits, like old friends and teachers who drop by for afternoon tea? Or do we cling to their coattails and beg them to stay, even as the evening meal grows cold and friends from the present wait outside on the doorstep?

The point is not to forget the past or the stories it has bequeathed us, but rather to refrain from attempting to make it our present. And that temptation is all too real. Instead of looking around us at the single moment we inhabit, at all the joy and wonders that surround us, do we focus instead on the guilt and regret and blame for things that can never be changed? Do we relive these things a thousand times in the hope that we might keep them from happening once in the future?

Or in seeking refuge from the pain of the present, do we retreat to the illusion of a better time, a golden age that no longer exists? Do we live inside our fond memories, hoping that the pain will go away?

We may visit museums or the graves of our loved ones, but we cannot live there, any more than we can live in a future that has yet to happen – and almost surely will not happen in the ways that we expect. We must surely grieve and honor that which took place in our past, but the ghosts of that past are like shadows, only existing in the light of the present.

The point of Timeless Now is not to forget the past, but to appreciate it for what it was – and this moment for what it is. The past can never be now, but now will soon be past, and no longer accessible to us as it is in this brief instant. It’s not something I want to miss out on.

We must remember the past, but seize the day. In this, there is no contradiction.

Be here now.
— Ram Dass

*The Phoenix Principle is available in two parts, Forged in Ancient Fires and Messiah in the Making.

**Those five books are Fresno Growing Up, Highway 99, A Whole Different League, Highway 101 and a forthcoming book on the history of department stores and shopping malls. The biography is The Legend of Molly Bolin.

 

Treasure maps don't inspire me — real people do

Stephen H. Provost

If you’re successful, please resist the urge to utter these five words: “You can do it, too!”

You may think they’re encouraging, but what if they have the opposite effect? How many J.K. Rowlings or James Pattersons are there? I can do it, too? Really?

Still, I’ve heard this kind of statement often enough from writers who’ve found success. I’m sure other creative people – visual artists, musicians, poets – have heard it, too. But let’s change it up for a moment. How would it sound coming from a Wall Street executive telling someone in the inner city how to succeed in business? Do the words “presumptuous” or “clueless” come to mind?

But for some reason, it’s considered OK – even “inspiring” – to speak to creative people like that. Kind of like the old saying that anyone can grow up to be president of the United States. Well, no, not just anyone can. Only people who receive millions of dollars in donations, are nominated by a major political party and receive a majority of Electoral College votes can do it. Oh, and you’ve got to be a citizen by birth and at least 35 years of age. If you’re a naturalized citizen or wind up dying before you hit 35, you’re out of luck.

I know this sounds cynical, but I’m not writing this from a cynical perspective. I’m trying to illustrate how people who have “made it” often view the world through the lens of their own narrative ... and then try to apply it to everyone else. Yet how they feel about their own success is informed by their hindsight; they might remember how hard it was to be a poor or struggling artist, but they no longer feel things from that perspective (not would they, I suspect, wish to do so).

Some people do this intentionally, to augment their income. They want to make everything seem “easy peasy” so they can sell you how-to books containing a “sure-fire” formula for success. But the only thing sure-fire about these books – even those that contain helpful advice, and some of them do – is that the author is going to be making money off each sale.

Most successful people, however, do it unintentionally. Some may suffer from impostor syndrome and can’t believe they deserve what they’ve achieved. They see themselves as frauds, and if they can fake their way to stardom, they assume others can do the same. Others look at how far they’ve come and sincerely want to encourage others – to share the “secret to their success.”

But the effect can be just the opposite: Instead of instilling hope, it can encourage people to place expectations on themselves that they have no way of ever fulfilling, because every situation is different, and everyone has a unique story to tell.

I’m not you

Whenever I hear someone say, “You can do it, too,” the little voice inside me says, “No, I can’t. Not the way you did it.” I want to tell them not to sell themselves short with false humility, because they have a talent I can’t replicate. Nor would I want to, because I’m not them. I can’t do what they’ve done, because what they’ve done is uniquely amazing and should be recognized as such, not downplayed as some sort of happy accident that can be duplicated by me or anyone else.

That being said, there is luck involved in any success, and I’m just as likely to duplicate a successful person’s luck as I am to match their skill.

What most people probably mean when they say, “You can do it, too,” is that they worked their asses off, and they view their success as the payoff for that hard work. Our nation’s Protestant work ethic has drummed it into us: We believe that hard work is the key to success, as though one automatically follows the other. Of course, it doesn’t. Any more than innate talent or even a single stroke of luck does. It’s just not as simple as that.

A successful person’s story can, indeed, be inspiring. I’m not for a moment suggesting that those who have found success “shut the hell up about it.” On the contrary. Those stories are part of what made them who they are, and they should be told – so we can get to know that person and celebrate their successes along with them.

But to suggest that “you can do it, too” is to cheapen those stories, to make them seem more pedestrian than they really are. I can’t live another person’s life or achieve someone else’s success; I can only live and achieve my own. When all is said and done, it will look different than that of another author who made more or less money, sold more or fewer books, became more or less well-known than I did. That’s not only OK, that’s how it should be.

Even if we don’t write books, each of us has a unique story to tell. It’s not a template for someone else’s story, because we aren’t cookie-cutter clones of some ideal. Each of us is unique, and each of our stories is, too. Someone once compared my writing to Stephen King’s, which is certainly flattering, but I’m not the next Stephen King ... and no one will be the next me.

When we stop trying to follow someone else’s treasure map, we stop trying to adopt their expectations as our own. Then, we’re free to appreciate their story as truly theirs, and learn about what makes them uniquely who they are. That’s authenticity, and it’s how we really get to know one another – not as “role models” but as real people.

And it’s real people who inspire me, whether they’re authors working their asses off, people juggling two jobs to make ends meet, stay-at-home parents or scientific geniuses. I’m encouraged by hearing about their unique life journeys, not by listening to two-dimensional success stories that end with false promises that “you can do this, too.”

I already know I can’t. And that’s part of what makes life beautiful.

 

The crucible of open dialogue and the echo chamber of fear

Stephen H. Provost

There’s a school of thought that’s gaining currency. It states that people don’t have a right to an opinion about things that don’t directly affect them.

The argument usually goes something like this: “You can’t possibly know what it’s like to deal with this, because you’ve never gone through it, and you never will. You’re not one of us, so you don’t get a say!”

This is dangerous for more reasons than one.

First, it sets up an adversarial mentality between two “sides” before anyone even gets a chance to express their ideas. It perpetuates the “us vs. them” attitude that has become so pervasive in today’s culture.

Second, it makes identity more important than the substance of what might be said. It assumes that a particular group is unqualified to weigh in, not because of what they might say, but because of who they are. If any member of the “out” group dares to speak, he or she had better parrot the party line – thereby adding nothing to the conversation – or risk public censure/alienation.

When identity is codified into law as the basis for inclusion, things get ugly. People aren’t allowed to vote because of their gender or skin color. This is both bigoted and undemocratic.

Third, depriving a segment – any segment – of the population of a voice makes dialogue impossible and casts the status quo in stone. Conforming to a status quo without question makes growth impossible, because it shuts down the marketplace of ideas. Only through dialogue can we bounce ideas off one another and find better solutions than any of us might have arrived at on our own.

Shutting people down makes greater understanding impossible, too. But when any group that shuts out people who “aren’t like us” isn’t interested in understanding other points of view. Members of such a group think they know everything already, and that other perspectives hold no value moving forward.

Free speech

Finally, it violates the spirit of free speech.

In the Skokie case, courts ruled that neo-Nazis were allowed to march through a heavily Jewish community that included a number of Holocaust survivors on the grounds that freedom of speech trumped their feelings. They were, essentially, trying to create a “safe space” for themselves. I, personally, disagree with the court on this. I think speech and events designed to provoke an incendiary response add no value to the public discourse.

But the point is, the court thought so highly of free speech it allowed an event most considered repugnant to go forward.

Now, before someone decides to lecture me about the First Amendment applying to governmental limits on free speech, rest assured, I get that. Shutting people down based on their identity doesn’t violate the letter of that amendment, but it sure as hell undermines the spirit of it. That spirit is founded on the notion that we’re all better off when we feel free to share openly – and when we make the effort to listen. Even – and perhaps especially – when what the other person’s saying might challenge our prejudices.

Most places aren’t Skokie, and most people aren’t neo-Nazis. This essay isn’t about such extremists, or anyone whose views are so clearly worthy of disdain. It’s about ordinary, rational people who are being told to STFU because they belong to a specific group – regardless of what they might say. Not a group like the KKK, but much larger groups, many of which aren’t joined electively and hold no abhorrent or even unified views. Not all (fill in the blank) are alike!

Imagine if someone said sports fans had no right to an opinion on free agency because it only directly affects players and owners. Or if people without children were told they had no right to speak their mind about the condition of our schools. Many people are affected by actions indirectly, and many of those people have ideas about those actions. Do they have as much insight as those with direct experience? Perhaps not. But those outside a situation can bring valuable perspectives that, in some cases, offer ideas based on a more detached view. Pre-emptively dismissing such ideas because of their source rather than their merits is short-sighted and foolish.

The crucible

Conclusions and prejudices may turn out to be well founded, but they still need to be challenged. And those challenges need to come from people with different perspectives. Otherwise, how will we know for sure whether they’re valid? We might still believe in a flat Earth, a geocentric model of astronomy, that dinosaurs lived alongside humans and that masturbation leads to blindness. Forming a hypothesis and conducting an experiment are crucial to the scientific method. But how can you form a reasoned hypothesis if you’ve never considered alternatives? And why bother to experiment if you already (think you) know the answer?

When you shut out people you worry might have opposing views based on nothing more than the messenger’s identity and the fear of being offended, you set the table for the kind of insular thinking that spawned Jonestown. An extreme example? Sure. But the principle is the same. And if the principle operates unchallenged for long enough, that’s the kind of thing that ends up happening. The frog will boil.

So, the next time you tell someone they don’t have the right to an opinion because they’re not like you, ask yourself whom you’re hurting. They won’t be the only losers, because it’s not a zero-sum game. Your conclusions might be right. Them might be wrong. Or, just maybe, greater truth and understanding might arise from the crucible of open dialogue.

Without such a crucible, nothing new and beautiful will ever be fashioned. Increasingly, out of fear, we’ve chosen to replace this crucible with an echo chamber.

There are no “safe spaces” when it comes right down to it. The world is a brutal and dangerous place, which is precisely why we need to stop alienating one another. We may not achieve safety, but we can find hope for a better world – not by ostracizing and dismissing others before they even open their mouths; only by engaging.

Like it or not, we’re all in this together.

Book reminded me why I admire the "Father of Christian Rock"

Stephen H. Provost

I met Larry Norman once, backstage after a concert at a church called Bethel Temple in Fresno, California. It was sometime around 1980, and the encounter was brief, but it stuck in my memory.

Others were gathered around, wanting to greet him, and when my turn came, I asked him a question I’ve long since forgotten. What I do remember was his response – not to the question, but to me personally. He stepped forward, and I must have either taken a step or leaned back. He said something to the effect of, “You value your personal space.”

I was maybe 17 years old at the time, and I’d never even thought about that concept before, but I immediately knew he was right. What I later learned about Larry – and seems apparent, as I look back on it – was that he took pride in being “invasive.” In challenging the status quo. It was one of the things I liked so much about his music.

It’s not an exaggeration to put Larry Norman up there with Dylan, Paul Simon and Lennon as a songwriter. In fact, I consider him the most gifted of the lot. The Great American Novel may be the most literate protest song ever written, all the more so because it straddled two worlds, critiquing secular society and Christian culture with equal candor. That’s something Larry did throughout his career.

Reintroduced in print

After that single meeting, I never got another chance to talk to Larry or to know him beyond what he revealed in his lyrics. He died of heart failure in 2008 at the age of 60. But recently, I got the chance to know him better via Gregory Alan Thornbury’s superb biography, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock (Convergent Books, 2018).

Thornbury’s evenhanded approach to Larry’s life stands in contrast with a documentary called Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman, released the same year as the musician’s death. One writer described the video as a piece of “postmortem character assassination,” which doesn’t seem far wrong, considering it contains a number of vicious rumors that range from unsubstantiated to provably false. I won’t repeat those here. The video included interviews with an assortment people who had axes to grind against Larry and took the opportunity to do so; after all, the target of their criticisms was no longer around to answer them.  

Thornbury, by contrast, didn’t rely on recollections that might have been colored by the passage of time and the deepening of grudges. Instead, he was granted access to Larry’s personal archives – a collection of letters, notes, recordings, news clips, etc. – which contain accounts of events as they happened. The result is a sober picture of a man who was at once blunt and enigmatic, who fought a war for awareness on two fronts, challenging both secular seekers and the Christian establishment to look at themselves in a new light.

Two-front wars are hard to win, as reflected in songs such as Shot Down, his response to “rumors and gossip” from the church establishment that he was “sinful,” “backslidden” and had “left to follow fame.” “They say they don’t understand me, but I’m not surprised, because you can’t see nothin’ when you close your eyes.”

But the secular establishment was no more friendly. They didn’t want to hear songs about Jesus unless they were one-off fluff pieces like Jesus is Just Alright. Larry didn’t write fluff pieces.

An intentional enigma

On some level, Larry made himself hard to understand on purpose. But was that such a bad thing? It forced people to think for themselves rather than just accepting someone else’s easy answers. Jesus had done the same: In Larry’s words, “he spoke in many parables that few could understand, yet people sat for hours just to listen to this man.” Larry’s provocative lyrics and concert monologues had much the same effect.

That’s one big reason I related to him – and still do. In my own writing, I strive for originality. Repeating “the same old story” holds no appeal. If all I’m doing is reinforcing others’ biases, that’s neither loving nor illuminating. “I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal.” I don’t know whether Larry ever quoted that verse from 1 Corinthians in this context, but he might as well have. He refused to write songs filled with popular Christian catch phrases, and Thornbury relates that he once said, “I believe that clichés are a sin. Maybe not to God, but to the muse of art.”

Larry wrote in one of the letters Thornbury quotes: “Music is powerful language, but most Christian music is not art. It is merely propaganda. It never relies on – in fact it seems to be ignorant of – allegory, symbolism, metaphor, inner-rhyme, play-on-word, surrealism, and many of the other poetry born elements of music that have made it the highly celebrated art form it has become. Propaganda and pamphleteering is (sic) boring and even offensive you already subscribe to the message being pushed ... which is why Christian records only sell to Christians.”

The second album in Larry’s trilogy of albums was pure allegory, focusing on man’s past in the Garden of Eden. It didn’t mention Jesus by name at all, so the Christian audience assumed he’d “gone secular,” finding further “proof” in the album cover, which featured a naked Larry playing the part of Adam. Never mind that he was only shown in a silhouette that was overlain by the image of a lion: You couldn’t even see his skin. What mattered was the self-righteous Christian establishment didn’t want allegory; it didn’t want to think. It wanted its spirituality spoon-fed in black and white, which was something Larry refused to do.

Outsider looking in

Larry lived his life as a perpetual outsider who once said, “I don’t feel like belonging to anything or anyone.” The cover of his most acclaimed album shows him scratching his head in bewilderment, and its title proclaimed he was Only Visiting This Planet. Lost behind the obvious Christian message was the sense that he must have felt that way on a personal level, too. Indeed, he once said he felt “like an orphan with a small, isolated voice crying out in a cultural wilderness.”

The cover to Gregory Alan Thornbury’s book.

The cover to Gregory Alan Thornbury’s book.

Perhaps Larry’s childhood helps explain why he apparently felt so out of place. Thornbury writes that Larry grew up in a Christian household, but that he found church boring and street preachers joyless. His conversion at age 5 was personal, “without benefit of clergy.” It wasn’t to please his father, with whom he had a strained relationship, but to fill a void left by the man’s absence during a childhood where bullies outnumbered friends. Jesus became his best friend, and he “didn’t feel so alone after that.”

From then on, Larry knew Jesus was the answer, but he still felt he had to ask the questions, and this is what set him at odds with a church establishment that wanted people to accept its proclamations on faith. But Larry’s faith was in Jesus, not doctrines. Never was this more apparent than in the early ’80s, when his Phydeaux record label issued a T-shirt with the slogan “Curb Your Dogma!” (With Phydeaux being a faux-French spelling of Fido, the dog’s name. More wordplay.)

Larry even questioned “sacred cows” like the church’s knee-jerk condemnation of homosexuality. “Is homosexuality a real issue?” he asked. “Well, (in the church) you can’t talk about it on the grounds that the gay (community) wants to discuss it. They say, ‘We were born this way.’ But we ‘know’ that it’s not natural, that they’re not born that way. But do we know that? Have you thought about it?”

The implicit answer was no, they hadn’t. Congregations were merely parroting the judgments they had been thought, rather than thinking for themselves.

Larry didn’t fit in with either the secular questioners who didn’t like his answer or the religious establishment, which didn’t like his questions.

A time of hope

For a while, though, his approach appeared to be working. In the heady aftermath of the 1960s, there was a degree of synchronicity between American culture and the type of Christianity that Larry was espousing. He shared the egalitarian goals of the civil rights and anti-war movements, and listeners were at least open to songs about spirituality by mainstream artists such as George Harrison (My Sweet Lord), Blind Faith (Presence of the Lord), Norman Greenbaum (Spirit in the Sky) and Ocean (Put Your Hand in the Hand). The Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar made Jesus “cool” and helped open the door to a certain degree of cultural commonality between Christians and non-Christians.

Grassroots movements such as The Vineyard, which started as a Norman-led Bible study, helped make Christianity more accessible to those who didn’t care for the formality or hierarchy of a traditional church. This wasn’t really anything new: The concept of the priesthood of all believers (translated in modern language as “a personal relationship with Jesus”) dated back to Martin Luther’s insurgent campaign against the Catholic Church. The 1970s were the same thing happening all over again.

The upstarts weren’t entirely innocent. There was even some ugly, even vicious anti-Catholic propaganda created by, among others, Keith Green, an incredibly gifted but often very judgmental musician whom Larry had steered toward Christianity. There was plenty of animosity to go around. And just as the Catholic Church had struck back against Protestantism in the Middle Ages, the mainstream church struck back against Larry Norman and others like him, branding them wolves in sheep’s clothing who were willing to “compromise with the world.”

Scapegoat and change

It didn’t help that egalitarians like Larry had no idea how to take their movement to the next level. They started out as critics of structure and organization, but when they tried to adapt this model to business, it created a series of misunderstandings and bad feelings. As a result, Larry’s vision of a record label built on a community of artists came quickly crashing down.

When one band signed to Larry’s label wanted to jump ship for a secular record deal, Larry was, by Thornbury’s account, willing to eat his own investment. But he said the band would have to keep its agreement to release an already-recorded album because he’d made a commitment to his label’s distributor. This wasn’t good enough for the band, which led Larry to dig in his heels on other points, as well, and although he wound up with nearly everything he fought for, he was subsequently blamed for much of the acrimony that ensued. This happened in part because of a failed business model and in part because the establishment was just itching to blame Larry for everything that went wrong.

Case in point: Thornbury relates that Larry fought to save his first marriage despite his wife’s drug use, visits to the Playboy mansion, multiple alleged affairs and admission that she had cashed thousands of dollars in checks made out to him. Larry was never accused of being unfaithful himself, but when he slept with a woman as a single man after his second marriage collapsed, he was castigated for it. Years later, the woman claimed he had fathered her child. That claim was never definitively proven (or disproven), but just the possibility it might be true confirmed everything the established church wanted to believe about the old thorn in its side – and provided the ammunition it craved to discredit him.

This all happened even as it embraced such “leaders” as Jim Bakker and Tony Alamo, both later convicted of major crimes, and Jimmy Swaggart, who was forced to admit his own infidelity. But however egregious their actions might have been, none of these people committed the ultimate transgression against the Christian establishment: asking too many questions. This was Larry’s cardinal sin, and even though he arrived at the same answer as they did (Jesus), they cared far more about how he got there. And because it was different than the way they’d gotten there, they condemned it.

At the end of the 1970s, Larry Norman appeared at the White House to play for one of his fans. President Jimmy Carter was a socially conscious Christian who shared many of Larry’s views. But when the ’70s ended, a different kind of Christianity rose up on the wings of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. This more judgmental, less inclusive movement ushered in a new establishment that slammed the door shut on egalitarian brand of Christianity that Larry espoused.

No room at the inn

There was no room for questioners like Larry Norman in the new world of black-and-white Christianity, and he never again attained the level of popularity or acceptance he had achieved during the 1970s. In the end, he died young and relatively unknown to many, despite being recognized as the “Father of Christian Rock” and the man behind the most critically acclaimed Christian album of all time.

Larry may have engaged in a degree of self-pity at times, but that’s a natural human response to the kind of attacks he faced. Given his immense talent, he could have probably made a fortune as a musician catering to either secular or Christian tastes. But he refused to cater to anyone, and that brought both scorn and frustration from both sides of the fence.

As an artist myself, I can relate. I’ve always insisted on asking the hard questions, refusing to settle for clichés in place of real answers. When it became clear the church didn’t want to listen, I stopped going. Unlike Larry, I didn’t start out with the ultimate answer. When I became a Christian, it was a trial run rather than a leap of faith. I recall saying to myself, “I’ll give this thing a chance. If it works, great. If not, at least I’ll know why.” Ultimately, it didn’t work for me, and what drove me away is the same narrow-minded intransigence Larry encountered all of his life.

The same evidence led us to different conclusions. Larry chose to continued the battle, while I stepped away from the war zone. I couldn’t understand why people who followed a prince of peace felt the need to remain continually at war with those they said they loved – even those who shared their core beliefs. I still can’t. And in the years since I left the church, those wars have only intensified. The conformist Christianity that marginalized Larry’s message during the 1980s has, if anything, gained a firmer foothold. The same people who excused men of dubious character like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart now place their hope in a similarly corrupt president, sacrificing their principles for the sake of a worldly kingdom no god would ever claim.

Larry Norman, prophet

Larry’s lyrics from The Great American Novel turned out to be prophetic": “The politicians all make speeches, while the newsmen all take notes. And they exaggerate the issues as they shove them down our throats.” Such are the times we live in, and we need voices like Larry’s today more than ever – voices that challenge us to be a better version of ourselves. Articulating that challenge was Larry’s greatest gift, and it’s why I still listen to his music today, long after I stopped going to church.

Consider this lyric from the same song: “You kill a black man at midnight just for talking with your daughter. Then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water. And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on. And with every meal, you say a prayer you don’t believe, but still you keep on.”

Few others had the insight, integrity and guts to write lyrics like that, even at the height of the protest era. I can only imagine how many evangelicals would react to them today, in an era when most congregants admire a president who also enjoys the ardent support of the KKK.

My affinity with Larry stems in part from the fact that I, too, feel like I’m fighting a war on two fronts, with two things at stake: my personal integrity and my artistic vision. I have no desire to be either a religious robot or an embittered existentialist. Like Larry, I feel like a voice in the wilderness fighting an uphill battle. I refuse to conform for the sake of conformity or stop asking questions for the sake of “peace” – not when that peace is really a thinly veiled form of oppression.

I like to think, in some ways, that I’m following in Larry’s footsteps. Whether that’s the case or not, there’s no arguing that he inspired me.

I’m sorry I didn’t get another chance to talk to Larry Norman after that night in 1980, but I’m grateful to Gregory Thornbury for letting him speak to me again.

A prophet has no honor in his own country.
— John 4:44
The church doesn’t think I’m a Christian.
— Larry Norman



 

Writing the biography of a legend: Molly Bolin

Stephen H. Provost

Some people read romance novels for pleasure. Others read science fiction. In my youth, I was smitten by the Tolkien bug and went on a binge of epic fantasy, but these days, I have a different guilty pleasure: I read rock star biographies. Sammy Hagar. Freddie Mercury. Zeppelin. All four members of KISS.

For a while, I’ve wanted to write a biography of my own. Not a memoir, and certainly not an autobiography. I’m not in the business of putting people to sleep.

My friend Anne R. Allen, an author one of the premier bloggers on the business of writing, makes some good points in a recent piece on memoirs. The three that stood out to me were:

  • Tell a page-turning story.

  • Focus on significant and unique personal experience, especially when tied to a well-known person or event (emphasis mine).

  • Remember that a memoir, like a novel, is read for entertainment.

The first and the third points are closely related, and all three together are the criteria I use when deciding to read a biography. Plain and simple: I want to find out more than I already know ... about someone I already know about. And I want that “more” to be entertaining.

But as an author, I want my stories to be original. I don’t have much interest in writing yet another biography about Freddie Mercury, no matter how big a fan I may be (and I am). That story’s been told, and no one needs me to tell it yet again. One of my main objectives as an author has always been originality. I wanted to write the definitive history of Fresno in the Baby Boom years in 2015 and of U.S. Highway 99 in 2017, because no one else had done it.  

As you might imagine, this quest for originality becomes more challenging in the realm of biography. If you write about a regular, average person, who wants to read that – unless the story is knock-your-socks-off incredible. But most well-known public figures have already been featured in biographies written by better-known authors than I. So, my desire to write a biography has always been unfulfilled as I waited for the “perfect” subject I suspected would never come along.

Then, she did. The result is The Legend of Molly Bolin.

Out of the blue

The irony is that this book came about because of another project that was more a labor of love than anything else. I didn’t write A Whole Different League (AWDL) to be a big seller; I wrote it because I had grown up as a sports fan and had always been fascinated about leagues that didn’t quite make it. I’d spent a decade working as a sportswriter at daily newspapers, yet I’d never written a sports book. I figured it was time to do so.

Writing AWDL, like reading rock star biographies, was something of a guilty pleasure for me – so much so that I wrote it in fits and starts over the course of two years, putting it down to write something I thought would be more marketable before picking it up again between projects. I had the first draft all but done when I remembered the Women’s Basketball League from the late 1970s, which had lasted three years and featured the likes of Ann Meyers, Carol Blazejowski, Nancy Lieberman ... and Molly Bolin.

The odd thing was, I’d never heard of Molly. But what made that even stranger is that she had scored more points than any of them. More points in a season. More points in a game. More points in a playoff game. More points in a half. More points in a career. The fact that the premier scorer in the first women’s pro basketball league had somehow flown under my radar piqued my interest, so I started doing some more research. I found out that she had remarried and was now Molly Kazmer, so I took a flyer and looked her up on social media.

Lo and behold, she answered my request and wound up providing me with some great firsthand information about the WBL for that final chapter. But the more she told me, the more I became convinced that her story alone would make a fascinating book. Had anyone else written one on her? Had she ever considered writing one herself?

By fortuitous happenstance, the answers were “no” and “yes,” respectively. In fact, she had been accumulating a wealth of photos, newspaper clips and other memorabilia to someday document her life and career. I suggested to her that “someday” might be now: Would she consider working with me to tell her story?

Again, the answer was “yes,” and for the next 10 weeks or so, we communicated almost daily as I wove together her life’s story from a combination of her many recollections, media resources and interviews with contemporaries – many of whom had amazing stories of their own to tell. There was Tanya Crevier, the 5-foot-3 ballhandling wizard who played three years of pro ball with Molly and still performs an amazing and inspirational show worthy of the Harlem Globetrotters for people around the world. Then there was Greg Williams, the only person to coach women’s championship teams in three different pro leagues, on top of an impressive Division I college resume. He not only was kind enough to sit for an extensive phone interview, but he agreed to write the foreword.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

An amazing story

Even with all that, though, Molly was the star of the show. Not only was she the top scorer in the first women’s pro league, she was the first player to ever sign. She went from a benchwarmer during the first half of her rookie season – to the team’s offensive star, even though she was young enough to have been a junior in college.

She adapted her game from Iowa’s old 6-on-6 rules (three offensive players always in the frontcourt; three defenders confined to the other half of the hardwood). But not only that, she turned it to her advantage by using a quick stop-and-shoot style that presaged the modern jump shot practiced by the likes of Stephen Curry – to whom she’s been compared. Or, perhaps, he’s been compared to her.

She even won a precedent-setting court case and helped pave the way for today’s merchandising boom by pro athletes such as Michael Jordan and LeBron James, when she came up with a marketing strategy that made her basketball’s answer to Farrah Fawcett. Stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Pete Maravich, Martina Navratilova and Rick Barry play a part in the narrative, too.

I won’t give anything more away (you’ve got to buy the book!), but I will say this: The Legend of Molly Bolin is everything a great biography should be – and not because I wrote it. It was simply a great story waiting to be told, and I had honor of being the one to tell it.

The story isn’t just about Molly. It’s about all the players, coaches and executives who made history by taking part in the WBL and other early women’s leagues. People like Althea Gwyn, Doris Draving, Cardte Hicks, Connie Kunzmann, Robin Tucker, Rita Easterling, Janie Fincher and Tanya Crevier. The league was inducted as a whole into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame last year as Trailblazers of the Game, and deservedly so.

But there are at least a few members of the old WBL who deserve to be inducted individually, as players like Meyers, Blazejowski, Lusia Harris and Lieberman have been. After all, if a Stevie Nicks can join the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Fleetwood Mac and a solo artist, it only makes sense to bestow the same kind of honor on a Molly Bolin.

Like one of her jump shots, it ought to be a sure thing.

 

 

 

A guide to Facebook friendships for authors: 15 dos and don'ts

Stephen H. Provost

I don’t attend church these days, but when I did, I noted a constant tension between “outreach” and what the numbers game, and I realized that all too often, the line between them was blurred. Motives were mixed, and sometimes it seemed like a church was advocating outreach to the poor and needy as a means of putting more rear ends in the pews (and, by extension, more money in the offering dish).

If this seems cynical, it isn’t meant to be. I’m just pointing out that pure and not-so-pure motives can work toward the same ends. But when the latter dominate, they tend to undermine the former – or overwhelm them entirely.

You can exhale now. This isn’t a blog about religion. It could just as easily be about elected officials and the tension between public service and political donations. Or corporations, and customer service vs. the bottom line.

It isn’t about those things, but it’s about the same sort of underlying tension, which is becoming more and more common in the world of publishing, often among independent and self-published authors.

Writing is a tough business: Not many are able to make a living at it, and it’s difficult to get noticed, even if you’ve got an agent or publishing house in your corner. Whenever something’s this hard, it’s natural to look for shortcuts. It’s easy to buy “how to” books and enroll in dubious workshops written by people who promise success. But most such people are merely hoping to line their own pockets by capitalizing on your desperation to somehow make things happen.

One of the things these books and workshops often emphasize is networking. Many of us, as authors, aren’t good at this. We aren’t social creatures by nature, preferring to wrap ourselves up in our next story rather than venturing out into the world at large. We’re not experts at self-promotion, by and large, and most of us tend to shy (or run) away from it ... which makes us even more prone to trying shortcuts. When it comes to networking, we don’t like to schmooze or make sales pitches, we stick our toe hesitantly in the water, pull it back out at the first sign of a chill – and, in the process, do more damage to our public image than we would if we’d jumped right in.

Instead of doing the work, we rely on shortcuts, which seem less painful in the short term but seldom accomplish anything in the long run.

One such shortcut is the Facebook friend request, which has become the online equivalent of handing out your business cards to strangers on a street corner. (Show of hands: How many of you keep a business cards someone thrusts into you hand on the sidewalk?) I’ve been getting an increasing number of friend requests from other authors online, which in itself is fine, but that seems to be as far as it goes. Few of these authors bother to follow up by posting on my profile, and some don’t share much of anything on their profile except pitches for their releases.

Repeat after me: That’s not how networking works.

Real networking

Networking requires engaging with people, and getting to know them as human beings rather than sales marks who “maybe, just maybe, will buy my book” (or review it or share my posts with others). Such friend requests have less in common with actual friendship than they do with childish games like ring-and-run, or with superficial but sometimes guilt-inducing chain messages/emails. Still, this tactic has become so pervasive that I’m more hesitant to accept friend requests from other authors than anyone else except Nigerian princes or porn bots.

Some authors are encouraged to pursue this course because many people will accept their requests simply based on the fact that they’re “fellow authors” and that they have a fair number of friends in common. Then, instead of introducing themselves, they often immediately send you invitations to “like” their Facebook business pages, hoping that this in itself will somehow magically produce more sales. Hint: It won’t.

To return to our church analogy, it’s like passing the offering plate while parishioners are still finding their seats – before the first hymn or chorus is even sung. Or like demanding supporters make cash donations before a politician is even elected ... wait, they do that anyway, but you know how highly people think of politicians, right? ’Nuff said.

Good networking requires a lot more than this, and being a socially awkward author who feels out of his/her element when it comes to marketing will not change this fact, no matter how badly we might wish it.

But the beauty of Facebook is that authors can actually do networking – real networking – without ever leaving their comfort zone. If you’re on Facebook, you don’t have to meet anyone face-to-face (although occasional personal appearances are still a good idea). You can make meaningful contacts without ever leaving the comfort of your home office. If, like me, you’re a lot better at one-on-one interactions than mass marketing, do that! Take Facebook’s friend requests literally and make friends.

This requires, first of all, that you avoid the temptation to send off friend requests willy-nilly to any author who happens to share 50 mutual friends or more. Check to see if you have other interests, a hometown, a favorite band or something else in common – more than just writing in the same genre – before you approach someone. Facebook has tools to help you find these areas of common interest, so make use of them. Then, if someone accepts your request, interact directly. Respond to something on their profile. Engage. And not necessarily about books. About art, philosophy, history, music.

If they buy or review your books, that’s gravy. If not, you’ve done something more valuable: You’ve made a friend. And friends are more likely to read your work because they want to, not out of some sense of duty to a fellow writer.


Dos and don’ts

Here, in a nutshell, is my advice for dealing with other authors, and friends in general, on Facebook.

  • DO send friend requests to people with whom you have something in common in addition to writing.

  • DO engage with new friends on a personal level. Start conversations that have nothing to do with books and even less to do with selling them: Make pitches the rare exception, rather than the rule.

  • DO talk about writing as a craft; give your friends insight into how you work and let them share your excitement at your progress ... but because they’re your friends, not because they’re “marks” for a potential sale.

  • DO stay positive and encourage others to write, regardless of whether they’ve read a single word you’ve written or are ever likely to.

  • DO have a sense of humor, including about yourself. Post funny stuff.

  • DO share a variety of types of posts on your profile, from memes and polls to personal insights and photos to music videos and news stories.

  • DO respond to posts on other people’s profiles, not just your own.

  • DO let people know what you believe in; talk occasionally about your principles and how they’ve helped shape your life and work, but ...

  • DON’T spend too much time on partisan politics unless you want to spend a lot of energy fighting off trolls and risk alienating friends who are sick of hearing about it.

  • DON’T send out friend requests like mass mailers, hoping to put another notch in your gun.

  • DON’T immediately ask a new friend to “like” your Facebook business page. (Hint: You’ll attract a lot more page followers by actually posting interesting stuff there – imagine that!)

  • DON’T treat your Facebook profile as nothing more than a sales showroom for your books.

  • DON’T engage in author wars; no one wins when you presume start telling other authors how to write, and most people outside the author community don’t care.

  • DON’T spend a lot of space complaining about the industry. We all need to vent sometimes, and friends will understand that, but if you’re too negative too often, people will tune you out.

  • And, above all, DON’T get so distracted by all this that you stop writing. That is what makes you a writer, after all.

New book recalls outlaw leagues, forgotten teams

Stephen H. Provost

I’ve always been a sports fan. Well, maybe not always, but at least since I started watching football as a preteen. My father followed all the L.A. teams, so I did, too. I collected baseball cards, followed the box scores in the newspaper and parked myself on the sofa every Saturday and Sunday to watch six hours of football – shouting at the TV every time the ref made a lousy call.

My parents and I attended half a dozen Dodgers games each year, and my dad took me to see a Lakers game and a Rams game. We lived next door to the Dodgers’ left fielder at the time, Bill Buckner, and he got me a ticket to see a game in the 1974 National League Championship Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and a World Series game against Oakland that same year.

But I wasn’t just a fan of the major sports. Dad took me to an L.A. Aztecs soccer game at the Rose Bowl, where the 9,000 fans looked lost in a sea of 100,000 seats. I also saw Steve Young play a game for the L.A. Express. I loved the ABA’s 3-point shot and the USFL’s two-point conversion, and I followed the Southern California Sun in the old WFL. I even remember watching Dick Lane announce “World Champion L.A. T-Bird” roller games on syndicated TV. They were more spectacle than sport, but I didn’t know it at the time.

Memories from my childhood tend to find their way into books, as they did with Fresno Growing Up and Highway 99. So it is also with A Whole Different League, my latest release, an extensive look at outlaw leagues, forgotten teams and the players who made them great – or at least interesting – of only for a brief moment in time.

The work covers more than two dozen big (and wannabe big) leagues, most of which receive an entire chapter’s worth of information. Their founders were innovators who broke down racial barriers and ushered in the era of free agency. They gave us the three-point shot, which changed the way basketball is played today. With names like the WHA, AAFC and All-American Girls Pro Baseball League, they fielded teams with names like the Chicago Whales and Philadelphia Bell. They were upstarts and outcasts, playing in rundown arenas and without TV contracts but making the kind of memories you don’t find in prime time.

Writing the book

I started this project a couple of years ago, picked it up again, then put it down before finally finishing it this year. It was one of those ideas that just kept its hooks in me and wouldn’t let go, and I’m glad it didn’t. It’s the first book I’ve published on my own imprint (Dragon Crown Books) that includes photos and statistical tables, and it’s also the first in a larger format: 8 by 10 instead of the standard 6 by 9.

It was an involved process, to say the least. The research involved sifting through more than 400 newspaper articles, magazine pieces, websites and books on everything from the National Bowling League to the Negro Leagues, from the All-America Football Conference to the All-American Girls Baseball League. Even Roller Derby. I thought I’d almost reached the end of it when I remembered the Women’s Basketball League that ran for three seasons starting in the late 1970s.

I got in touch with Molly Bolin (now Kazmer), the league’s all-time leading scorer, who in turn put me in touch with Cardte Hicks, the first woman to dunk in competition. Both were kind enough to share their memories of the WBL, whose members were inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame last summer as “trailblazers of the game.” If you’ve never heard of either of these great athletes, that’s part of the reason I wrote this book.

Writing historical nonfiction is not only a trip down memory lane for me, it’s also a journey of new discovery. This book was no exception. If you enjoyed accompanying me on my scavenger hunt of old U.S. Highway 99, chances are you’ll enjoy this work, too. And there’s more where that came from: Forthcoming books will focus on U.S. Highway 101 and the history of American department stores/shopping malls.

Inside

A Whole Different League contains stories of:

  • The high-scoring basketball star who was so volatile an opposing team once hired five boxers to stand guard at courtside – and who disappeared, never to be heard from again, on a trip to Africa.

  • The Hall of Famer who came out of retirement at age 45 to play alongside his two sons, leading his new team to a championship and winning the MVP Award.

  • George Steinbrenner’s first big signing: the two-time college basketball player of the year.

  • The NBA legend whose poor eyesight led to him to design the ABA’s red-white-and-blue basketball. 

  • Miami’s first pro football team, which was almost as bad as the 1972 Dolphins were good.   

  • The man who built Wrigley Field and the team that played there before the Cubs called it home.

  • The first pro baseball game played under the lights at Wrigley – more than 40 years before the Cubs played their first night game there.

  • The hard-partying skater who signed the richest contract in pro sports but wound up sleeping on a park bench after he lost it all.

  • The team owner who warned Donald Trump he'd have "no regrets whatsoever" punching him “right in the mouth.” 

  • The batting champion who hit like Ty Cobb but was banned from baseball. (No, it’s not Shoeless Joe Jackson.)

  • The team that was supposed to bring NFL football to Los Angeles nine years before the Rams moved west from Cleveland.Jackie Robinson’s professional debut – in football.

  • The man who set a record for the most points scored in a pro basketball game, even though he averaged fewer than 12 points a game that season.

  • The man who coached pro teams to championships in three different leagues.

And that’s just the beginning. At 334 pages, it’s the second-longest book I’ve written (behind the two-volume work, The Phoenix Principle). A Whole Different League is available now on Amazon. I had a great time writing it, and I hope you’ll have just as much fun reading it.

Movie review: "Bird Box" is what horror should be — and usually isn't

Stephen H. Provost

There’s a Geico commercial playing in theaters these days that trots out several badly overused horror movie clichés. A bunch of teenagers are seen hiding from a creepy guy behind a row of chainsaws (!) rather than escaping in a running car, answering their cellphone and, finally, inexplicably, running toward a cemetery.

“If you’re in a horror movie, you make poor decisions. It’s what you do,” the announcer says.

It’s funny because it’s true: A lot of horror movies are bad. Really bad. That’s why I don’t bother with most of them. If I want to laugh at a horror movie, I want it to be intentional (think Young Frankenstein). I don’t want to go in expecting suspense, and instead have to suspend disbelief to avoid laughing out loud.

This brings me to Bird Box, the newly released Netflix film starring Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes and John Malkovich. I’ve written about the book here before, and I enjoyed it, so I went in hoping the movie wouldn’t entirely screw up a great novel (as movies are wont to do: Think Logan’s Run).

Thankfully, it doesn’t.

One reason it succeeds is that it doesn’t have people make inexplicably poor decisions simply to put them in harm’s way. They do make bad choices, but those choices are rational and — more importantly — driven by human compassion. The characters must decide whom to trust based on little or no information: Do they leave a stranger “out there” to die at the hands of a mysterious, ravening predator, or do they expose themselves to potential harm by letting that person through the front door? The tension between compassion and self-preservation plays a key role in the movie, as it does in the book. Contrast this with your typical low-budget horror film, wherein a bad screenwriter conjures up some false motivation that no one in real life would ever share in order to justify the terror. (Or simply forgoes motivation entirely and makes the “heroes” a bunch of idiots.)

Bird Box, the movie, wisely adheres to the same formula that made Josh Malerman’s book a success: focusing on the human response to horror, rather than the horror itself. This, I think, is at the heart of the formula for successful horror. Often, the more graphic the horror is, the more two-dimensional the characters become. They wind up being little more than props to be bludgeoned and butchered in the next big gore scene; mannequins at the mercy of Freddie or Jason (who are the real “stars” of the show). To be blunt, I don’t care whether those mannequins live or die, so why should I care about the movie?

I’ve seen a handful of horror films in the past year, and this has been the dividing line between good and bad in each of them. The Nun was awful, filled with jump scares and clichés that left me yawning and rolling my eyes. (Just because The Exorcist worked, that doesn’t mean filmmakers need to keep recycling the “Catholics vs. the Antichrist” theme from now until the Second Coming). The Halloween update was another by-the-numbers retread, rendered passable only by the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis.

On the positive side was Stephen King’s It, which succeeded for the same reason Stranger Things works as a series: It reintroduced us to a childhood we all remember through vivid characters placed in harm’s way. The “evil clown” trope wouldn’t have worked otherwise (it helps a little that it’s not a real clown). If you doubt me, check out Terrifier, another “evil clown” film that I turned off halfway through because I just wanted to go to sleep.

Also effective was A Quiet Place, which was, in some ways, similar to Bird Box. In both, society is threatened by a mysterious predatory evil that limits humans’ ability to interact normally with one another and their surroundings. In A Quiet Place, the characters must remain silent because the predators hunt by sound; in Bird Box, they can’t look at their enemy without being driven mad to the point of suicide. Both films feature strong characters, and I highly recommend seeing both, although I think the story behind Bird Box is more original. The idea that our greatest enemies are unseen, and that those enemies can drive us to the brink of insanity and beyond, is powerful stuff.

The movie did deviate from the book in a few respects. The birds play a bigger role in the film than they do in the novel, and there’s a romance between two characters that doesn’t exist in print. (I give props to Malerman’s original version, in this respect, for its subtlety and the recognition that a deep bond can form between characters without having them jump in the sack.)

The movie also gives the evil force a power I don’t remember from the book: the ability to play tricks on the mind by mimicking voices of its previous victims. While this does add some heightened suspense at the end of the movie, there’s little or no indication prior to that of any such ability on the part of the unseen enemy. Some foreshadowing would have helped.

As with Curtis’ presence in the new Halloween, Bullock and Malkovich bring considerable acting chops to Bird Box, but unlike Curtis in Halloween, they don’t have to carry the movie. The story does that, as it should.

Capsule review:

Bird Box is what a horror movie should be — but hardly ever is: tension, suspense, human frailty and courage in the face of terror. Malerman’s book was still better, but it inspired a film that’s several cuts above for a genre that too often relies on cheap jump scares and tired tropes. Malerman understood that humanity is at the core of a good thriller, and the filmmakers wisely followed his lead. It’s an original story deftly told and a strong cast make this well worth seeing.


"Motel California" by Heather M. David (review)

Stephen H. Provost

I don’t often write book reviews in this space, in part because I don’t read many books cover-to-cover these days. Motel California was an exception. I’ll admit it’s a “coffee-table book,” so it didn’t take me long to cover its 184 pages, but it’s worth taking your time for the quality of the artwork, the presentation and the nuggets of information you’ll find there.

Heather M. David has created a beautifully illustrated, record of the motel in California that’s a worthy addition to the library of any highway history buff or fan of 20th century Americana. Motel California chronicles the heyday of the motor lodge in the Golden State, offering a glimpse at the kind of man-made scenery that transformed highways into something like an amusement park ride all their own, even if you didn’t stop for the night.

David approaches the motels from an architectural standpoint, briefly spotlighting the architects themselves before embarking on a series of chapters dedicated to various motel themes and styles: Storyland, The Western Frontier, Desert Oasis, Tropical Paradise, Cosmic Voyage, Seaside Escape and Mountain High. (David points out that these distinct themes allowed motels to distinguish themselves from one another and stand out from the pack.)

Other chapters focus on the restaurants/coffee shops adjacent to many of the motels; rooms; pools; and, of course, the neon and plastic signs that lit up the night, beckoning travelers to their destination.

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David does a good job covering most of the state, dedicating significant space to the Orange County/Disneyland area, as well as Lake Tahoe. I was pleased to find pages on some of the motels I’m familiar with and a few that I covered in my own book on Highway 99 and my forthcoming work on Highway 101. Those include the Motel Inn – the world’s first “motel” – and the nearby Madonna Inn, both in San Luis Obispo.

She also includes a vintage picture of the Western Motel in Santa Clara, with its distinctive cactus sign. I took a photo of this one myself for Highway 101, so it’s still there, although (unfortunately) the neon has been removed.

As a native Fresnan and the author of Fresno Growing Up, I also particularly enjoyed the material on Fresno’s old motels, one of which (The Tropicana Lodge) is featured both on the cover as well as inside. I was pleased to see the chapter on signs included both the old Fresno Hacienda sign and the iconic “diving girl” sign from the old Fresno Motel. The picture of the interior of the old Pine Cone Restaurant was a particular treat, as I remember visiting that place as a child and digging into a “treasure chest” for trinkets they gave away to youngsters.

The book is handsomely illustrated with postcards, historic and modern photos, souvenirs and vintage ads, all in vivid color on glossy pages. I was struck by the off-kilter sign on the Jump n’ Jack Motor Hotel (page 28), the camel attraction at the Pyramid Motel in Anaheim (page 60), and the outrigger-style architecture of the Palm Springs Tropics (page 76) and San Diego’s Half-Moon Inn (page 78).

In terms of the text, the book is at its best when it traces the history of the various locations, pinpointing when the motels opened and letting the reader know what happened to them. Something I didn’t know: The Palm Springs Tropics was adjacent to a Sambo’s, which also operated a “Congo Room” cocktail lounge on the site. There’s a cool photo of the interior of the Congo Room, too.

I’ve long been fascinated by once-ubiquitous pieces of our culture that have faded from view over time: old motels, gas stations, shopping malls, department stores, sporting venues, concert halls. For me, buying Motel California was a no-brainer, and I wasn’t disappointed. If your interests run parallel to mine, I’m betting you won’t be, either.

Motel California (184 pages, full color, $45, CalMod Books) is available from the author’s website or via Amazon.

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A heroic dragon and a dose of sarcasm: my two latest releases

Stephen H. Provost

What happens when you get two book ideas at the same time? Until this fall, I would have worked on one and put the other on the back burner, but when one idea inspires you and you’re facing a self-imposed deadline for the other, you don’t have that option. Besides, when one book is fiction and the other nonfiction, each tends to provide a nice break from the other.

So, over the course of the past six weeks or so, I wrote them both, which explains why I released The Only Dragon and Please Stop Saying That! within a couple of weeks of each other.

The Only Dragon: The Legend of Tara

In point of fact, both ideas inspired me, but under normal circumstances, I probably would have put off The Only Dragon had I not decided I wanted to release it in time for the local Dragon Festival, which was fast approaching. I’d been fascinated by dragons since my parents bought me a stuffed snake (which I insisted was a dragon) as a toddler, and I had wanted to write a dragon story for years.

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Finally, I had a good excuse. I would create a fable that explained why the dragon is known the world over, how she – in my book, she’s a girl – came to breathe fire and why the dragon is revered in the east as a symbol of good luck and reviled in the west as a fearsome, demonic creature. I’d throw in a pair of noble wizards, a couple of power-hungry kings, a mysterious goddess-like character and a snarky gray tabby for good measure.

(Coincidentally, I just adopted a gray tabby myself. The vet told me she was male, so I named her Ragnar, only to have the vet reverse herself six weeks later; so, now she’s Khaleesi – Kiki for short.)

Most authors don’t write fables these days, but I love the genre, and it’s something I enjoy writing (see The Way of the Phoenix, Feathercap and some of the stories in Nightmare’s Eve). It offers a poetic way to examine the world around us and what makes us human.

Please Stop Saying That!

Please Stop Saying That! is an old idea, as well. It’s a riff on something I did as news editor at The Fresno Bee: I created a local stylebook that included examples of jargon, clichés and buzzwords to avoid when writing stories. It was a serious endeavor, but in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but laugh at how silly and, sometimes, meaningless they sounded; about how we’d use them without even thinking because they were so deeply ingrained in ourselves and our culture.

Now that I’m no longer a working journalist, I can let some of that sarcasm out, and that’s what PSST! allowed me to do. There’s something in there to offend almost everyone if it’s taken seriously, but it’s not meant to be taken seriously, so please don’t (except for a few jabs at bullying and bigotry, which ought to be condemned whether you’re using humor or not). I toyed with the idea of calling it Think Before You Speak, but I liked PSST! better, in part because it sounded cool as an abbreviation.

Psst. I think you’ll like both these books, the fifth and sixth I’ve released this year. That’s a record for me, and I’m proud of it, but I’m not stopping now. I’ve got plenty of ideas waiting in the wings, and more time than ever before to explore them as a full-time author. This is the life!

 

 

Facebook friends aren't notches on your "networking" gun

Stephen H. Provost

Dear potential online friends: I’m not a target in your networking strategy, and I won't be another notch on your gun. Even if you are authors.

There’s a weird trend going around among authors on social media. They hit up as many fellow writers as possible with friend requests, immediately invite them to “like” their Facebook page ... and never have any other contact with them.

Then, they call it “networking.”

Often, these authors only post about their books, sales milestones and positive reviews; they don’t bother to visit other profiles after their request is accepted, and they don’t manage to post anything much about themselves except for industry stuff.

It reminds me why I never liked cocktail parties, where the whole point of the evening is to make contacts, exchange business cards, and talk about inane subjects everyone is certain to forget five minutes after the party’s over – if not sooner.

I don’t know if the same thing happens in other fields, but I do know I didn’t get a lot of requests from fellow journalists when I was working in newspapers.

Common interests

Look, I like connecting with authors because we have something in common. I also like connecting with Star Trek fans, classic rock connoisseurs, old highway enthusiasts and people who are into mythology. But adding someone to your social media “stable” and then proceeding to ignore them isn’t connecting. It’s putting another notch on that Facebook gun of yours.

I remember going to churches where pastors lamented the need to “grow their flock.” There weren’t enough warm bodies in the pews, and the way they talked about attracting new visitors made it sound like a numbers game. The focus wasn’t on getting to know the people as individuals, it was on adding more “souls” (who could put enough money in the offering plate to keep the church lights on and, of course, pay the pastor’s salary.)

Authors have more of an excuse. It’s difficult to support yourself putting out books, and marketing is as much a part of the job as writing – if not more. When book sales slump, people get desperate and start throwing “publicity” at the wall, hoping something sticks. I know what this desperation feels like: I’m going through just such a slump right now. But I also know it doesn’t work: When people start throwing random ads at me, I tune them out. It also alienates people who might be able to help you if you took a different tack.

Like, maybe, trying to get to know them.

What if you treated social media like a visit to a new neighbor’s home? You wouldn’t go over and knock on the door, wait for it to open, then just stare at the person for a moment and walk away. You’d introduce yourself, give them a bit of background on yourself, tell them it’s nice to meet them and maybe say something complimentary about their home.

Perhaps you find you have something in common; perhaps not. After a couple of minutes, you excuse yourself and leave. Maybe you leave it at that. Or, if you enjoyed the conversation, maybe you ring the person up a couple of days later and invite them out for coffee. Maybe then you start talking a little about your books ... along with other things you have in common. You forge an actual friendship.

One thing you probably shouldn’t do when you go over and introduce yourself is push your way past your new neighbor and into the house without an invitation.

Social protocols

On social media, that’s what it can feel like if someone immediately sends you a direct message. Somehow, we’ve had a hard time translating the social protocols we’ve developed in the real world to the online environment. Maybe it’s time we started doing so. (When sending naked or half-naked selfies to strangers has become common practice, that’s a pretty good sign we’ve lost our bearings.)

I’m friends with a good number of authors online – because they’ve let me get to know them, and vice versa, not merely because they’re authors. I’m friends with other folks who aren’t writers, too, and I feel more comfortable with some of them than I do with many of my author friends. Because, even though I’m an author, I don’t like to talk about writing all the time. I like to talk about music and history and science and politics and philosophy and a host of other topics, weighty and frivolous.

Lately, I’ve become increasingly more selective about the people whose requests I accept. I’ve become aggressive about weeding out potential spammers and scammers, and I’ve started watching new friends I do accept closely. Do they bother to comment on something I’ve posted? Do they post their own thoughts, or do they just repost links? Are they continually asking their contacts to buy this product, sign this petition or contribute to this cause?

Or are they people, authors or otherwise, who I can feel comfortable being friends with – even if it’s only online? I’m not trying to make people feel paranoid, as though I’ll drop them if I don’t hear from them for a week or a month. I won’t. I just want people whose company I can enjoy without feeling I’ve got a marketing target on my back.

We live in an era when the hard sell has collided head-on with a case of collective amnesia about how to treat others with respect and courtesy. That makes it even more of a challenge do real networking and cultivate real friendships. It also makes it even more imperative that we make the effort to do so. Not because we’re authors, but because we’re ... human.

Highway 99, the Lost Chapter: Trucks and Truck Stops

Stephen H. Provost

Sometimes, you can't squeeze everything in. You've done your research and you've found a lot of interesting stuff - too much, in fact, to fit in the pages of the book you're writing. So, something has to go. 

Highway 99: The History of California's Main Street originally included a few sections that ultimately failed to make the cut. I had to leave out an entire chapter on big rigs and truck stops that I'd intended to include, but which wound up being sacrificed when the manuscript wound up being longer than I'd intended. So here it is, the "lost" chapter, presented here for the first time with the photos I originally chose to illustrate it. Enjoy!

(If you like what you read here, Highway 99 is available for purchase on Amazon or through the publisher at quilldriverbooks.com)

A big rig passes an old motel sign at Desert Shores along the former U.S. 99, now State Route 86, at the western edge of the Salton Sea.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

A big rig passes an old motel sign at Desert Shores along the former U.S. 99, now State Route 86, at the western edge of the Salton Sea. © Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

More Than Four Wheels

You can’t get too far on the highway before seeing a “Divided Highway” sign. In some places, 99 is divided by a center median, often landscaped with oleanders or other shrubs. But there’s one kind of division you’ll find on the highway no matter which stretch you’re traveling: the division between vehicles with four wheels and those with 18 (give or take a few).

It’s hard to miss the big rigs, buses, tractor-trailers and the like that are so common on the highway. For years, 99 has served as the economic backbone of the state, passing through fertile farmland and industrial centers alike. Warehouses, grain silos and distribution centers line the highway. In the days of the federal highway system, it didn’t matter whether you were transporting raisins from Selma or dates from Indio: U.S. 99 was the way to go.

Still, even today, if you’re behind the wheel of a Mercedes or a Mazda, you might not pay much attention to the infrastructure built around the trucking industry. The average motorist might cross the Tehachapis without taking much notice of signs with messages such as “6% grade 2½ miles ahead” and “Trucks use low gears.” Trucks are supposed to observe a lower speed limit and keep to the right, so swifter automobiles can pass. Runaway truck ramps, with their heavy gravel to slow down out-of-control big rigs, are visible on the downslope from Lebec heading north toward Grapevine. You’ll see the first one on your right, a little more than three miles north of Tejon Summit, and the second on your left less than a half-mile later.

In the highway’s early days, without such precautions, accidents were far too common and, often, tragic. The original Ridge Route had more than its share of hairpin turns hugging steep cliff walls; a single mistake, even at 15 miles per hour, could be catastrophic, and the white picket fences that served as guardrails around dangerous turns were hardly sturdy enough to keep heavy truck from lurching over the edge. The 180-degree hairpin called Deadman’s Curve between Lebec and Grapevine was particularly treacherous.

Once the Ridge Route Alternate was built, the straighter highway reduced the danger of missing a turn but raised a new threat: The straighter road meant trucks could build up a head of speed going downhill that made them even more dangerous if their brakes started smoking and failed unexpectedly.

In 1946, The Bakersfield Californian detailed a truck’s “mad plunge” just before midnight one July evening. It went out of control and sideswiped a passenger car, sending it off the highway and leaving the driver shaken but uninjured. The truck careened on toward Grapevine, where it slammed into the rear of a van, propelling it into a row of gasoline pumps and three other cars at the Richfield filling station. The truck, meanwhile, kept going, plowing into yet another car and shoving it to the edge of the embankment, where both vehicles burst into flames. A passenger in the truck was burned to death, its driver suffered a broken leg, and the driver of the final car to be hit was hospitalized with severe burns.

Other news reports told similar stories. Out-of-control trucks became, as one writer put it, “juggernauts of death” on a stretch of highway that was fast becoming known as Bloody 99: the steep grade just south of Grapevine. During one 10-day stretch in 1943, that single section of road bore witness to nine runaway truck accidents.

Engineers added a concrete barrier to keep trucks from swerving into oncoming traffic, and other proposals surfaced as well. One involved requiring trucks to stop at the summit and switch into low gear before descending, though critics argued that this would merely back up traffic and create a new hazard.

The café, garage and 76 station at the bottom of the Grapevine Grade bore witness to numerous crashes, as trucks came barreling down the incline and careened off the roadway. Photo courtesy Ridge Route Communities Historical Society.

The café, garage and 76 station at the bottom of the Grapevine Grade bore witness to numerous crashes, as trucks came barreling down the incline and careened off the roadway. Photo courtesy Ridge Route Communities Historical Society.

The Grapevine Grade wasn’t the only trouble spot. The Five Mile Grade, heading the opposite direction near Castaic, was also the scene of numerous brake failures and truck crashes. A runaway truck ramp, like those above Grapevine, was built in the 1950s to reduce the number of accidents, but it only remained in use until 1970. It was then that a freeway upgrade created a novel alignment: New southbound lanes were added, following a gentler downward slope to the east, while the old southbound route was converted to carry northbound traffic. As a result, drivers traveling over the five-mile stretch between Castaic and Violin Summit progress British-style, on the left of oncoming traffic. (A significant gap separates the two segments of roadway).

The emergency ramps came in handy, not only for truckers, but also for law enforcement. On at least one occasion, one of the ramps Grapevine Grade halted more than a runaway trucker: They stopped an accused runaway kidnapper. In January of 2008, Highway Patrol officers and Los Angeles responded to a report that a man had assaulted his estranged wife and abducted their child, making his escape in a stolen truck. The officers pursued the suspect northbound over more than 70 miles from Highway 101 onto Interstate 5 before the chase finally ended just north of Grapevine. It seems the man mistook one of the runaway truck ramps there for a highway exit and found his vehicle immobilized by the coarse gravel.

He was arrested immediately.

One reason the trucks can be so dangerous on a steep downhill slope is their weight. Big rigs can weigh up to 40 tons, compared to the typical car at only 2½ tons. Once they get going at highway speeds, they can require two-thirds more pavement to stop once the brakes are applied – if the brakes are working. That’s part of the reason California requires trucks rated above a certain weight (currently 11,500 pounds) to stop at scales cleverly designated as “weigh stations.” And it’s no accident that two of the eight or so weigh stations along the historic U.S. 99 route can be found at either side of the Tehachapis, just south of Castaic and slightly north of Grapevine.

The state recognized the need for scales early. In 1938, officials set up a 24-hour truck-checking station at Fort Tejon, near the point where the 99 began the steepest portion of its descent into the San Joaquin Valley. Highway Patrol officers were on hand to make sure loads were within limits defined under state law. “This station,” the California Highways publication declared, “will not only guard against overweight loads, but will also enable the traffic officers to insure that trucks using this mountain route are in good running order, and that all their braking equipment is working properly.”

A small truck scale business operates at the northbound entrance to Highway 99 off Herndon Avenue, north of Fresno.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

A small truck scale business operates at the northbound entrance to Highway 99 off Herndon Avenue, north of Fresno. © Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

Private scales operated by companies such as CAT also opened up and down the highway, with nearly two dozen along the old 99 route between Los Angeles and the Oregon border as of 2014. Such private operations help ensure truckers’ loads are below the legal weight limit. CAT, for instance, offered this guarantee on its website: “If a driver receives an overweight fine after weighing legal on a CAT brand scale, CAT Scale Company will either pay the fine or appear in court with the driver as an expert witness in order to get the fine dismissed.”

Scales are far from the only highway business to have emerged in support of the trucking industry. As the nation shifted from the railroad to the highway as its primary means of transporting goods, a new industry sprang up to support the drivers who spent days away from home, driving long hours cross-country. They needed places to spend the night, to clean up, to grab some coffee and get a bite to eat. They also needed a place to buy the kind of fuel their semis ran on, diesel, which wasn’t always available at traditional gas stations.

Truck stops sprang up to fill these needs. Some establishments that catered to travelers and tourists, such as Sandberg’s, refused to serve truck drivers. But other stops along the old Ridge Route and elsewhere offered various combinations of a garage, cheap accommodations and a diner or coffee shop that suited truckers pretty well. As time passed, some roadside establishments started catering specifically to truckers, seating them first at the lunch counter or offering them a place to shower in the back.

When it came to sleeping arrangements, truckers had to make do. During the early years, some stayed at roadside auto camps, and many roughed it by sleeping in their vehicles, whose wooden seats were anything but the epitome of comfort. Anything more elaborate was usually improvised, and not necessarily any more comfortable. One San Joaquin Valley-based company rigged up a couple of ’22 Packards with wooden boxes over the cabs where the relief driver could sleep. The casual observer might have feared an appearance by Dracula at any moment.

By the mid-1930s, however, a few manufacturers had started offering sleepers as part of the package. The wooden boxes gave way to so-called “coffin sleepers,” cramped quarters usually placed directly behind the cab. These compartments might have been 2 feet wide by 3 feet tall, giving the occupant barely enough room to turn over. Drivers with claustrophobic tendencies need not apply.

In the early 1950s, Kenworth offered a CBE model, which stood for “Cab-Beside-Engine.” The CBE design included a sleeping space for the relief driver between the cab and the engine, a configuration that earned it the nickname “suicide sleeper”: Few occupants could expect to survive a crash while they slept right next to the engine.

As trucks gained horsepower and gained load capacity, there was often no longer room for them at the inn. Many early motor courts included carports alongside their cabins, but they were called CARports for a reason: They didn’t provide enough clearance for trucks. Drivers ran into the same problem at some service stations, where canopies built to shield pumps from the elements were often too low to allow larger trucks access.

A mural outside Clark’s Truck Stop in Indio celebrates the history of U.S. 99.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2015.

A mural outside Clark’s Truck Stop in Indio celebrates the history of U.S. 99. © Stephen H. Provost, 2015.

Truck stops offered an array of services that establishments catering to the auto traveler did not.

Many of the earliest among them, like the earliest motels and gas stations, were independent operations, but larger companies soon entered the fray once they realized they were missing a large segment of the market. Flying A’s flat-top station in Fresno, with its 110-foot “GAS” tower on the west side of 99, was a prime example of an early truck stop. The canopy was 70 feet high, providing ample room for trucks – which got their own separate entrance. Diesel fuel was available; there was a “completely equipped” truck lube pit, a public scale capable of weighing the largest truck on the road, and free shower rooms for all truckers. The expansive parking lot provided room for truckers to park their rigs and get a few hours’ worth of shuteye.

The station was still there until recently (having been removed to make way for the new high-speed rail line), although it sold Valero gasoline at the end, as does another venerable establishment, Clark’s Travel Center in Indio, offering “everything for the traveler, whether you are an RV’er, trucker, river rat or desert rat.” Amenities include a truck wash, long-term parking, self-service laundry, 24-hour restaurant and car-truck wash. Clark’s, which opened in the 1940s, advertises itself as “the oldest operating truck stop on historic Route 99 from Canada to Mexico.”

Klein’s Truck Stop at Herndon Avenue north of Fresno had a reputation among locals as serving some of the best breakfasts in town. But truckers were the most valued clientele: They were always served first.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

Klein’s Truck Stop at Herndon Avenue north of Fresno had a reputation among locals as serving some of the best breakfasts in town. But truckers were the most valued clientele: They were always served first. © Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

The restaurant at Klein’s Truck Stop in the hamlet of Herndon, just north of Fresno, earned a reputation for serving among the best breakfasts around. The restaurant stayed open into the new millennium before finally closing its doors, yielding to a Taco Bell and an am/pm minimart while maintaining a huge parking lot as a place for truckers. One traveler from Los Angeles endorsed it by stating that, no matter how hungry he might be, he always held his appetite in check if he were within 50 miles of Klein’s.

Despite its popularity among the locals, there was no mistaking its target audience: the truck driver traveling the Main Street of California. When a truck driver came in, the hostess would usher him to the head of the line. The waitresses wore beehive hairdos, and each table had its own jukebox, offering up (of course) country music. The cooks made the kind of all-American fare that kept the belly feeling full for hours: hearty portions of chili, barbecue dishes, chicken-fried steak, their famous biscuits and gravy, and “pancakes as big and flat as Fresno.”

As time passed, places like Klein’s were eclipsed by truck palaces called travel plazas or travel centers, giant complexes along 99, I-5 and other major highways that were affiliated with big chains. And as the complexes grew bigger, a funny thing happened: Suddenly, they weren’t just for truckers anymore. Convenience stores served as many travelers as truckers, selling touristy T-shirts and CDs alongside motor oil and citizens band radio accessories.

Flying J, with four locations along the old 99 route, offered such amenities as Subway and Denny’s restaurants, 14 showers, a CAT scale, public laundry, video game arcade and ATMs at its site north of Bakersfield. Pilot, which bought out Flying J and had six locations along the old highway route as of 2014, offered another option, as did Petro Centers (four), Love’s Travel Shops (four) and TA Travel Centers (five).

The Flying J Travel Center at the Frazier Park exit from Interstate 5 is a convenient and popular midway point to gas up and get refreshments between Bakersfield and the San Fernando Valley.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

The Flying J Travel Center at the Frazier Park exit from Interstate 5 is a convenient and popular midway point to gas up and get refreshments between Bakersfield and the San Fernando Valley. © Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

Media Meltdown: Blurb for my new book

Stephen H. Provost

Here's the blurb for my forthcoming book, "Media Meltdown in the Age of Trump," due out June 1. Pictured above is the full cover:

Some politicians use the media to their advantage. Others reshape it in their image.

Had the political force that is Donald J. Trump met the immovable object that was the American news media in the 20th century, the result would have been predictable. Trump would have vanished without a trace, along with such wannabes and also-rans as Edmund Muskie, Howard Dean, Gary Hart and John Edwards.

Today, however, the once-powerful Fourth Estate might as well be in foreclosure, shattered into a million pieces by cable television, talk radio and the internet. Newspapers, their stranglehold on information broken, are on life support. Gutted by cost-cutting and consolidation, they see the very same digital platforms that crippled them as their last, best hope for salvation. Television news, meanwhile, has descended from Cronkite and Brinkley into a three-ring circus of breaking news and talking (or shouting) heads.    

Trump, a carnival barker of a president, has taken for himself the role of ringmaster, using his chaotic style and the power of his office to dominate the spotlight. At once condemning and exploiting the media, he's transformed the presidency into a reality show, complete with multiple scandals and cliffhangers to keep everyone tuned in.

He didn’t arrive out of nowhere. The way for his ascent was paved by the media themselves, hungry for drama to stoke ratings and boost subscriptions. When cable and the internet began siphoning off readers/viewers by targeting their built-in biases, the nation became polarized and the gloves came off. Civility was sidelined, spin became the MVP, and the referees – the mainstream media – were benched.

This is the story of how carnival journalism has supplanted and, in some cases, co-opted what’s left of the mainstream media, and how politicians like Trump have both fueled and profited from the change. Is any of this good for the nation? A game without a referee might be more fun to watch, but is it fair? Media Meltdown provides some of the answers.

Nightmare's Eve: About My New Collection

Stephen H. Provost

A Collection of Twisted Tales

Connoisseurs of the murky and shadowy side of our existence often seem at pains to define the word “horror.” Too often, it brings to mind the B movies unleashed on us every year at Halloween. Or the grainy black-and-white “classics” they used to tuck away at the upper end of the UHF dial on weekends between midnight and 3 a.m. All bloodletting and jump scares and shaky cameras. I’ve never been much for any of that, because (for one thing) it always seemed like a wilted daisy chain of clichés and (for another) it didn’t scare me.

Jump scares startle, they don’t scare. Shaky cameras  make me queasy, and blood loses its impact when it spews out all over the place like Old Faithful.

This kind of thing, admittedly, does scare some people. Everyone’s different. But blood and gotcha scenes and monsters don’t add up to horror in my book — which is one reason I never really thought I’d write horror. It’s a bit of a surprise, to be honest.

It may surprise you, too, if you’ve read some of my other material, say the whimsical Feathercap or the uplifting Undefeated. In many ways, Nightmare’s Eve is the antithesis of the latter, which is a series of true stories about people who overcame seemingly impossible odds. The stories in Nightmare’s Eve aren’t true — and thankfully so, because most of them involve odds that really, truly are impossible.

The essence of horror

That’s where my definition of horror begins. It’s got nothing to do with monsters or gore, specifically. It’s all about what scares you. True horror dawns when you realize that you’re somehow “on the wrong side of things” ... and there’s no realistic way that you’ll ever get over to the right side again.

Horror is being trapped, hopeless, desperate. It’s that sickening feeling that rises up from the pit of your stomach when you recognize there’s no way out. And isn’t that true for all of us, really? You’re stuck there in that body of yours, and you won’t be getting out of there alive now, will you?

But horror is about more than death, it’s about that inexorable journey toward it. Our survival instinct demands that we claw and rage against it, but our very resistance to the inevitable can make it all the more tormenting. In fighting a battle we cannot win, do we merely prolong our agony as we fall apart piece by piece, inexorably? What would be, to you, most terrifying? To lose your freedom? Or your memory? Perhaps a loved one, or your ability to separate reality from illusion. When the things we love, we count on, we take for granted are stripped from us one by one, with no hope of ever recovering them … that is the true, naked aspect of horror.

Horror is the dawning of hopelessness, in that twilight time between waking and sleep when fear and panic mount for we who find no solace in slumber. For those of beset by nightmares that visit us anew each time we close our eyes. We cannot make our eyes remain open forever, yet as we surrender to exhaustion, the Sandman shows no mercy — but throws open the doors of our inner mind to madness.

From The Twilight Zone

The stories and verse you’ll find in Nightmare’s Eve will strike a familiar cord to those familiar with The Twilight Zone. They’re stories of ordinary people in the present day, extraordinary people from the past and imaginary people from a not-too-distant future that might be. Some hope does manage to seep in, on occasion, a solitary beam of sunlight creeping through the blinds into the dusty, vacant prison that is our soul.

What will it illuminate? A way out of the maze, or another dead end?

And a maze it is, this journey, with twists sometimes ironic, sometimes terrifying ... but always unexpected.

There are tales of the occult; of two renowned and noble saints (one named Nick, the other George); of fate and vampires and space exploration. Of psychic powers and time travel; of malevolent entities and genies and dragons and man’s best friend.

This work began as a small collection of three stories: Turn Left on Dover, Will to Live and A Deal in the Dark. The first of these, also the first written, contains a character for whom I named my cat, Allie (not Alley, as in Alley Cat, as many often suppose). It takes place in a city modeled after my hometown. And if you don’t know where that is, just pick up a copy of a very different book I wrote titled Fresno Growing Up.

The collection expanded gradually over the course of about four months to include 16 tales and 10 poems. I’ll share below the table of contents to whet your appetite for a journey that isn’t for the faint of heart or heavy of foot. You’ll want to have a spring in your step for what lies ahead. Read it before bed if you dare; it’s designed keep you awake at night.

Tales

  • A Deal in the Dark
  • Will to Live
  • Just the Ticket
  • Turn Left on Dover
  • Mama
  • Breaking the Cycle
  • Virulent
  • Anatomy of a Vampire
  • The Ends of the Earth
  • The Howl and the Purr
  • Teeth
  • The Faithful Dog
  • Lamp Unto My Fate
  • Nightmare’s Eve (Rotten Robbie's Christmas Comeuppance)
  • Stranger Than Fiction
  • George & the Dragon: The Untold Story

Verse

  • Certitude
  • Lost Soliloquy
  • Unwound
  • Upon Reflection
  • Merlin's LAment
  • Bleed Not
  • Lost at Sea
  • Torrent of Tears
  • A Never-Setting Sun
  • This Vale of Dreams

Catchphrase fatigue: Why buzzwords lose their sting

Stephen H. Provost

“Why are people talking like that?”

I ask that question a lot, especially when I see some new linguistic trend go viral … the way the term “go viral” went viral, for instance.

The answer I get most often is: “Get over it. Language is always evolving.”

Perhaps. But the process has accelerated since the advent of social media, which introduces new mutations to the literary gene pool at a frightening rate.  

Buzzwords and catchphrases used to be appear every so often, then fade gradually from our consciousness over the ensuing decades. One generation might say “keen,” another “groovy,” and another “cool” or “awesome.” We’ve always been prone to putting our own stamp on things by creating synonyms, but these days, new words appear, wear out their welcome and vanish at a dizzying pace.

Media in general, and social media in particular, have given us all immediate access to a national (or global) conversation. And this conversation has introduced us to words and phrases that, in the past, might have spread slowly or never caught on at all. Some remained confined to one region or another: Many words and phrases that “go viral” in the 21st century would have been subject to a natural geographic quarantine a few decades ago. “Y’all” has become more than a Southern affectation; and “dude” is no longer confined to the SoCal surfing culture.

Filter removed

Maybe that old-fashioned quarantine was a good thing. Widespread access to the internet —and social media in particular — has removed a filter that kept the language relatively stable. Now, it careens all over the place like a pinball. Buzzwords can go rolling down the black hole at the bottom of the table without warning. Or they can get stuck between two bumpers in a frenzy of repetition that tries the patience of the most dedicated arcade aficionado.

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It’s not evolution so much as mutation mania. Words and phrases become so pervasive that they can go from innovation to aggravation in a matter of months — or even weeks. That’s one thing about a virus: You get sick of it damn fast.

Are you already sick of hearing words like these: woke, snowflake, (blank)splaining, mindful, bae, GOAT, cuck? I know I am. How about phrases such as “fake news”? Some words seem to have been made up out of whole cloth; others are borrowed from the existing lexicon and reformatted with new or narrower definitions. “Privilege: comes to mind.

New and redefined words appear out of nowhere and leave us scratching our heads, asking ourselves, “What the hell does that mean?” That question soon gives way to a plaintive plea as we’re bombarded with these buzzwords time and again: “Please, make it stop!”

Redundant pundits

Further frustrations stem from the fact that some of these words don’t add anything to the language. We already have words for them. You can find them in any good dictionary. But we’ve put down our dictionaries because we’re too busy creating new entries for our own personal thesaurus. We’ve become redundant pundits.

Woke? Mindful? What’s wrong with just being aware? (“Woke” is particularly galling because it appears to be a bastardization of the perfectly good adjective “awake.”) And you don’t need to talk about ’splaining when you know the meaning of condescension. Are four syllables too many for you? (Yes, I know that last remark was condescending. I’m making a point.) Once upon a time, we called fake news propaganda … or bullshit.

Then there’s "privilege," which has become pervasive in the lexicon as a pejorative term against a person’s status. Once upon a time, we denounced people’s actions and attitudes — bigotry, racism, chauvinism, etc. Now, instead of condemning them for what they do, we berate them for who they are. They’re “privileged.” But isn’t this, ironically, just another form of bigotry? Because the target’s different, it’s supposed to be OK.

Really?

Adapting words like "Nazi" and "retarded" — a la "feminazi," "Grammar Nazi" and "libtard," for example — is distasteful, to say the least.

His jargon conceals, from him, but not from us, the deep, empty hole in his mind.
— Richard Mitchell, Less Than Words Can Say

“Snowflake” implies that it’s bad to be different. I don’t buy that: Conformity for the sake of conformity is downright dangerous. “Cuck” is just rude, and “bae” is … well, I don’t know what it is.

GOAT is a funny one. As an acronym, it’s short for “Greatest Of All Time,” and it’s become pervasive in sports commentary. But once upon a time, it meant virtually the opposite: A goat was someone who made a mistake that cost his team the game. Talk about confusing!

How many of these terms and definitions will still be in use fifty, twenty or even ten years from now? My hunch is that most of them will wear out their welcome and become fading footnotes in the evolution of the English language. That’s how evolution works, if you think about it: The vast majority of mutations aren’t helpful; they’re damaging or, at best, irrelevant.

Keep that in mind the next time someone defends the latest new buzzword on the grounds that “language is always evolving.”

Most mutations backfire. And most of these buzzwords are better off going extinct.

Literacy on life support: The decline and fall of written language

Stephen H. Provost

Motion pictures didn’t kill writing. Neither did television.

We who love the written word took comfort in the fact that authors such as Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown could still use it to captivate mass audiences. Good writing was alive and well, we thought. Reports of its demise were premature and, we believed, greatly exaggerated.

Or were they?

Death can come suddenly, but far more often, it creeps up on us. It hides in the shadows of our own denial. Lurking there, it bides its time, numbing us to the signs of its looming presence. We barely notice that we’ve embarked upon a long, slow walk toward our demise. Our decline is subtle, our transformation gradual.

One day, we stop running. Farther down the road, we labor to walk … and then to stand. If we notice this regression, we do so reluctantly. Fatigue whispers in one ear and apathy in the other: “Accept it. Ignore it. It’s not really as bad as it seems.” And so forth. We acclimate to a “new normal” and forget what the old normal was, because it’s too painful to remember and even more painful to pursue — until, at last, it eludes our grasp entirely.

Movies weren’t the end of books, and television didn’t kill magazines or newspapers, but the regression from the age of literacy continues apace — indeed, accelerates. This is no seasonal illness; it’s become a chronic condition, and the symptoms are no longer just a few, but myriad.

  • We favor sound bites over policy proposals.
  • We accept tweets as our favored form of prose and elect their foremost proponent as our president.
  • We shutter bookstores, and we learn about novels only when Hollywood makes them movies; then we don’t bother to read them, because we’ve seen the ending on the big screen.
  • We value “keywords” over complete sentences.
  • When we go online, it isn’t to read; it’s to “game” or to veg out on YouTube.
  • Romantics used to send love letters by parcel post; now players send “dick pics” by email.
  • Editors? Who needs them when we’ve forgotten proper grammar? Who has time for them when we demand our information now.
  • Newspapers? Ink on your hands and waste for the landfill.
  • Magazines? Exiled online, if they survive at all, ghosts in the same machine that slew them.

If literacy isn’t dead, it’s on life support. You can’t read if there aren’t any writers, and there won’t be any writers if no one pays them — if they’re too busy marketing, posting and promoting to knock out that sequel you’ve been waiting for. The more time writers spend doing the work of agents and editors, publicists and promoters used to do, the less time they’ll have to actually write. The more rushed and the less robust their stories will be.

How can we create memorable prose when it disappears in the blink of an eye on Snapchat? Will any library preserve the tweets and texts of this impulsive generation?

Readers have it in our power to provide the answers. It is we who create the demand, or refuse to, and the supply increases or dries up in response to our decisions. That’s just the way it works.

Downhill trajectory

In the world we’re fashioning, we value tweets and memes and Facebook Live. Quality writing? Not so much. You might want to debate that point, but until you’re willing to do so with your pocketbook, it’s all just empty noise. Yes, there are exceptions. Some people still make a living by writing, even a comfortable one. This proves nothing. A patient with a chronic, wasting illness still enjoys occasional “good days” and periodic bursts of energy. They’re no proof that the patient is any less ill, the condition any less serious.

Such “good days” will become less frequent with the passage of time, until at last they’re whittled down from few to none.

Is that what will happen to literacy? Time will tell. It would be cruelly ironic if some hothead’s reckless tweets were to result in a catastrophic war — a war that might reduce our “information superhighway” to cyber-rubble. Such a tragedy would obliterate our carefully crafted virtual world of denial and convenience, and if that were to happen, we might need writing again, just to communicate.

Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. ... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.
— Kofi Annan

This is not to suggest that our only choice lies between a nuclear and literary wasteland. Far from it. With some luck and just a little restraint, the nuclear button will never be pushed, and we can avert a literary apocalypse, as well. There are, after all, alternatives. Most notably, we could celebrate writing again — something we haven’t been doing.

We denigrate reporters as purveyors of “fake news,” dismiss authors as hobbyists and degrade those who instruct us in the language by quipping, “Those who can’t, teach.” Is writing really a marketable skill? Shouldn’t university students be taking practical courses like business, engineering or computer technology?

Such thinking could lead us to a real-life Tower of Babel, that engineering marvel from the realm of lore that remained unfinished because all those talented architects and builders forgot how to communicate ... just as we're doing right now.

But what if, instead of devaluing the written word, we exalted it once more and encouraged those who sought to master it? What if we invested in the authors and reporters and editors and English teachers who have made it their passion? The more we value writing, the more people will aspire to fill these roles; the more accomplished those people will become, and the greater the rewards will be, not only for those who read their work, but for society as a whole.

That’s not fake news. You have my word(s) on it.

Why I don't write negative book reviews

Stephen H. Provost

I have a simple policy when it comes to reviewing books: If I like them, I give 'em props. If I don't, I keep my mouth (or my keyboard) shut.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, reactions to books are largely subjective. Some books are more popular than others, and that can speak to quality, but it also can speak to successful marketing, name recognition and other factors. A few highly praised works have bored me to tears, and some obscure volumes have been, to use my wife's term, "unputdownable."

(This is a great word, even if you won't find it in the dictionary, because it has two meanings: The book's so engaging you can't stop reading it, and it's so enjoyable, you can't find anything to criticize.)

Secondly, I like to support other artists. I know how hard it is to sell a book, and I also know how tough it can be to deal with numbing criticism from strangers who seem to take almost perverse glee in dismantling a work you've spent months or years creating. You put a big part of yourself into it, and it's hard not to take it personally if someone reams you over it. Having been on the receiving end of slow sales and (only occasionally, thank goodness) critical reviews, I know what it's like to feel that sting, so I strive to follow the Golden Rule and spare other authors any scathing rebukes from my pen.

From my close observation of writers... they fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.
— Isaac Asimov

The Grammar Hammer

What about more objective issues? What if the book contains a ton of misspelled words, switches tenses in the middle of a chapter or treats subject-verb agreement like it's a temporary truce at best?

As an editor, these things drive me nuts, but what's even more galling is a review that consists largely or solely of grammatical critiques. Such reviews come off as holier-than-thou, and they tell me nothing about the plot or the characters. Reviewers: I want to know what you think of the story. I won't give you a gold star for digging up the most errors in some fanciful literary scavenger hunt. 

So, I won't blast an author by name in a public forum for using "it's" as a possessive or "comprise" instead of "compose," even though I may grind my teeth and roll my eyes when it happens. Those things aren't as important to me as the story, and no author can catch every mistake. (In fact, we tend to read right over our own typos, seeing what we think we've written rather than what's actually on the page. That's why we need editors. And it's why I'm more likely to hold an editor accountable for a slew of errors than I am to blame the writer.)  

If I have a criticism of a book that I believe is worth sharing with the author, I do so in private, not in a review. I may poke fun at grammatical mistakes on line, but I don't attribute them to particular writers. I like to say, as a professional editor, that I'm not getting paid to do that, but the reality is, I don't find shaming writers to be either fun or noble. I'd much rather encourage them.

Ask yourself: of all the jobs available to literate people, what monster chooses the job of “telling people how bad different books are”? What twisted fetishist chooses such a life?
— Steve Hely, How I Became a Famous Novelist

What makes a good review

So, how do I go about writing a constructive review? Here are a few things I try to include:

  • What's special about the story? What makes it stand out from the crowd?
  • You'll enjoy this book if you've enjoyed ... (fill in the blank with one or more similar titles you've enjoyed.)
  • Who was your favorite character, and why?
  • What did you like about the writer's style? Did the description stand out; if so, how? Was the dialogue crisp and realistic? Was there a twist you didn't expect?
  • If the book was "unputdownable," say so!

If I do include any critical info, I build it on a positive foundation. For example, "I enjoyed this character so much, I would have liked to see more of her. I hope the author considers telling readers more about her in a sequel."

And, of course, no spoilers.

But wait, you may say, "If you never leaves a negative review, how will potential readers know if the book isn't for them?"

That's easy. The descriptions you give might be positive, but if you mention elements of the book that appeal to some readers, these same ingredients might not interest others. If you describe the story as fast-paced, readers who don't like to feel rushed through a story line might pass. If you highlight a passionate relationship between the two main characters, that might flag those who aren't into romance to steer clear. If you label it "dark and brooding," that might not appeal to readers in search of an uplifting tale. And so on.

Believe it or not, eliminating readers who wouldn't be interested in a particular book benefits the author, too. It means that those who do read the work as the result of a review are more likely to enjoy it ... and leave a review of their own.

A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.
— Iris Murdoch

A lousy review isn't the end of the world, which should come as good news to authors and bad news to self-important critics who think of themselves as king-makers and book-breakers. S. Kelley Harrell calls online review sites "the slushpile of feedback," and Iris Murdoch said, "A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia."

If you're an author with a leaky roof who happens to live in Patagonia, that might be a concern, but otherwise ...

A positive review probably won't make you a bestselling author, either. Still, I love getting them; most authors do. If you don't have time to leave a review, but you like a book, just rate it. That's great, too. It shows that you've read the book and (hopefully) that it kept you interested enough to reach the end. 

Speaking of the end, I've gotten there myself. At least for today.

Thanks for reading, and happy reviewing!