Saturday, January 29, 2011

Why my computer is my friend

Although my first book (well, I hope it is the first of many) was published just six months ago, I started writing about 25 years ago. My long, rocky road to publishing had many detours and long stretches of not writing at all. What I did write was consigned mostly to the trash. I mean the garbage can outside the house, not that tiny trash can icon on the screen that eats everything up with a little whoosh.

I started writing with a pen on a yellow legal pad. My daughter-in-law, who had just graduated from college, gave me her electric typewriter. I thought this technological advance was the cat's pajamas.

Then I got a word processor. I loved it, but it frequently had to be sent back to the manufacturer for repairs. When it went down the last time and I couldn't retrieve what I thought was a fairly decent romance, it got recycled.

Then we got a computer, more for its word processing program than the Internet. With dial-up, assessing the Internet was time-consuming and frustrating.

Then we got broadband. In two decades we progressed from the kitty's nightwear to groovy to ace, or whatever the current phrase is.

The best thing about the computer is that it connects me with other writers.

Way back when, I did an unprecedented thing. I took a week's vacation from work, spent $500 and signed up for a writing camp at Duke University. Among the presenters were Reynolds Price and Anthony Abbot -- big names then and now. (I was saddened to hear Price had died. He was a sweet, gentle man and a fantastic writer.)

One day, while eating lunch with other attendees, Josephine Humphries came along and sat down at our table. She showed us some souvenir t-shirts she had purchased for her sons. "Gosh," I recall thinking, "She's a famous writer and she acts just like us!"

Then she asked, "Have any of you ever felt like even your own family doesn't understand you?"

Every hand went up. All of us confessed to feeling isolated as we worked, trying to share with people who had no idea what we were talking about when we moped through a difficult scene or had a sudden breakthrough and yelled "Yes!" to an empty room.

That's what I love about the computer (besides the cut-and-paste feature). I am in contact with other writers. I belong to two on-line groups that e-mail daily. I read blogs by on-line friends I will never meet in real life. We support each other during the rough times and celebrate each other's success. We understand.

And that is why I have a computer. I could still write with a ball point pen and a tablet. But they don't help me connect with other writers.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Writing: a lost art?

I read recently that a study has been published that claims that, after four years of college, students are graduating without learning "the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education."

Okay, I know that high school students can't write, as in picking up a pen or pencil and connecting it to a piece of paper. Educators claim they don't need to learn to write in cursive because they all use a keyboard. Nowadays, a little, bitty one on their cell phones. And what they write is in code as far as I'm concerned. It took me months to figure out LOL means "laughing out loud." I thought it meant "lots of luck."

But not being able to write, as in "written communication skills?"

There have been many changes since I attended good old Alfred University including coed dorms and tuition hikes that today could pay for a small home. Whatever happened to essays, term papers, reports and all the other assignments? Looking back, it seems I spent my four years researching topics in the campus library, followed by typing reports on what I had read. On a manual typewriter. Without Wite-Out. You had to be pretty sure what you were going to write made sense before you hit the keys because you couldn't correct it by backspacing. You had to start all over.

I get Internet vs. library. Why get dressed and trudge across the quad when you can do research on your laptop? Unfortunately, it is too easy to copy/paste information found there and present it as your own. Some students have never heard of plagarism. Hey, it's on the Internet, it's free for all, right? Right, but it's not writing. It's copying someone else's ideas and not using your own critical thinking. skills.

When did I learn to write? I think my first assignment was, "You can't play with your new toy until you write and thank your grandmother for it." In elementary school, we started class every fall with "What I Did on My Summer Vacation." Then there were the Regents exams in high school: two facts and an illustration for every essay question.

I know some students are writing. Every year our writers club holds a contest for students from third grade to seniors. I've judged essay contests. And I try to withhold judgment on grammar, punctuation and spelling because I realize it isn't the student's fault he never learned it.

But college? That scares me. Writing is an essential, reasoned and thoughtful form of communication. If our emerging leaders don't learn this skill during their four years on campus, I really fear for the future.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A farewell

Life is filled with losses: at my age, I know that. I have attended far too many funerals in the past few years. And I know that it is not the dead, but ourselves we weep for.

The funeral I attend yesterday was held at a small country church -- way out in the country. Even though we arrived early, the parking lot was full; more cars were lined up on each side of the road and along the adjoining pastureland.

The sanctuary was full, as well as available space on the small porch and vestibule. The number of mourners was visible testament to the many people who had been touched by this special life.

Phoebe had a varied career but her talent showed most clearly in her role as director of the county library. When I first met her, she was learning the job as well as attending college to get her master's degree in library science. It was a full and demanding load, but she handled it with ease and grace. She was never too busy to talk about a book she had read that she thought Imight enjoy, or ask about my own fledgling career.

Phoebe was a nourisher. She brought local writers to the library to speak about their books and the writing life. She was delighted to be told about a new author that she could persuade to come and talk at the monthly Brown Bag Book Club. Held at noon so working people could attend, the idea was that everyone brought something to share. Phoebe loved to cook, so there was always a pot of soup, chili, or corned beef and cabbage as the main dish. She loved photography, so each session was well documented.

She initiated programs for children and adults. Younger readers could find their books in a fairytale castle. Teens were encouraged to paint seasonal murals on the windows. Older adults were entertained with programs that included musical groups and storytellers.

When asked to help with the Carolinas Writers Conference, Phoebe threw herself into the project with her customary enthusiasm. She not only suggested authors and helped with the planning, she persuaded her Friends of the Library to supply goodies for the authors to nibble on between their workshops. It was not her fault if they returned to their homes a few pounds heavier than when they arrived.

Not everyone knew that Phoebe was struggling with her health all this time. A mysterious illness was eventually diagnosed as lupus. The treatment seemed to cause as much damage as the disease. There were other problems, both medical and personal. Phoebe never lost her smile or that great laugh. If you asked how she was, she'd tell you, but somehow you found yourself discussing the latest bestseller instead, or how the conference was shaping up, or if we'd had an acceptance from this or that writer. Her outlook was always optimistic and her goal was to live life as fully as possible.

When she was admitted to the hospital, she was promptly added to prayer lists in nearly every church in the county. People called or stopped by the library daily for updates from the staff. Although the news was seldom good, people never stopped believing that she'd conquer this obstacle as she had so many others. "The doctors don't know Phoebe," we said.

But the complications were too serious. Even her tremendous courage and strength couldn't overcome them.

The minister giving the homily said that Phoebe was now in heaven, using her myriad skills to make the place "more better."

So we grieve for ouselves, for we know what we have lost. But every time I enter the library, I will be reminded of the legacy she left. And, somewhere in the distance, I will hear her laughter.