Writing Out Loud

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Fahrenheit 451: When Fiction Evolves Into Fact

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As has been the case with many books that weren’t required reading at the high school I went to during the 1960’s, I only recently familiarized myself with what is considered to be science fiction writer Ray Bradbury’s best all-time work: Fahrenheit 451. Considered a deeply disturbing book when it was first published in 1953, when I was just three years old, it is unarguably more so now for the simple fact that so much of what Bradbury only imagined then has come, or still is coming, to pass.

Set in a fictitious town that is not named in the book, the story centers around a man who works as a fire starter and whose job it is to burn any and all books he comes across. Categorized as science fiction, the short novel examines the possible outcomes for a society that considers books to be dangerous disseminators of knowledge. Early on, the man, called Guy Montag, gets the sense that there is something wrong with that picture, and his instincts are further confirmed when he meets a strange girl named Clarisse on his walk home from work one night. Unlike all the other people in his life, who are controlled by the government via wall-sized television sets and ear pods known as Seashells, the girl is in tune with nature and the world around her, and she inspires Montag to question his role as a burner of the very information that has set this girl apart from everyone else he knows.

Montag also connects at this point with another individual, an elderly man named Faber, who is still clandestinely managing to preserve knowledge through the use of electronic devices he works on in his secret lab. Together with Clarisse, Faber offers Montag hope that there is a way out of his dilemma, and he eventually enlists the old man’s help to plan how he is going to retaliate.

Mildred, Montag’s wife, on the other hand, is totally controlled by her hedonistic environment, as are all her friends and neighbors. More and more, Montag begins to feel like an outcast, and starts salvaging books from among those he is instructed to burn. He is further traumatized by helping to burn down a house whose owner, an elderly woman, chooses to die with her books; and he lives in fear of the eight-legged robotic dog, called the Mechanical Hound, that lives at the fire station and seeks out violators of the anti-book law. When the hound locates a law-breaker, it eliminates the person by injecting it with poison. And this is what Montag believes happened to Clarisse when he no longer comes across her on his nightly walks home.

After a day and night spent with Mildred feverishly reading some of the books he has hidden, Montag comes to the realization that it is the very knowledge in them that keeps people free. He tries to convince Mildred, but she is immovable and ends up turning him in to the authorities who are, in the book, represented by the fire chief and Montag’s boss, Captain Beatty. While Montag ponders his next move, he is commissioned to burn down his own house, and then turns on Beatty himself.

Now considered a criminal, Montag takes what few possessions he can carry and makes a run for it. His wanderings take him to a camp deep in the woods and miles away from his former home where he meets a group of like-minded exiles who have taken upon themselves the task of memorizing all of the world’s greatest literature before it is lost forever. Their mission is to hopefully influence succeeding generations of the value of preserved knowledge, and the book ends with the group walking away from the effects of a nuclear explosion that has wiped out another part of their former world.

That the book is prophetic is putting it mildly. Not long after its publication, Bradbury spoke of being out for a walk one night and being approached by a police officer and interrogated as to what he was doing out at that time. He also told the story of another time when he noticed a couple walk by him who were not talking to each other. The man was walking along lost in thought while the woman was listening to something through a set of ear pods. It was the first time Bradbury had ever seen them, and he was instantly taken aback by the fact that he had written about something he’d only imagined but that actually already existed.

In Montag’s world, the purpose of everyone’s existence was not to trouble themselves with matters best left to others to decide and to just have fun. Given the current world chaos of our time, one passage is disturbingly prophetic, and it is taken from a pronouncement made by Captain Beatty as he tried to explain to Montag why they had to burn all the books:

“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none…Don’t give him any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.”

I wonder what Bradbury would be thinking right now as to society’s current way of “doing business.” News reports whose veracity is never certain and virtually no way to get at the truth, clouded as it is by rapid-fire updates, mired in pointless information, that come at us via all sorts of electronic devices that continue to widen the gap between us. Entire segments of the population who shoot from the hip politically speaking rather than take their time and weigh all the evidence, of which far too many who still believe that the important matters are best left to others to decide. If nothing else, this book should be required reading of all high school and college students, our “succeeding generations.”

If I am ever at a point where I feel the need to blame someone or something for the sad state of our world today, I will try to remember one of the most profound passages in the book, uttered by one of the book people Montag is moving on with:

“Come on now,” [he says], we’re going to go build a mirror factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them.”










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Trees...the sun and I...

For all who wonder what the purpose is of writing a book, I don’t have a ready answer, as the motivation is unique to each writer. A piece of writing can be the result of sudden inspiration, a message that absolutely must be shared, or a story that just won’t go away until it’s consigned to paper or word processing screen. Some writers become wildly successful, while others enjoy a modest sense of accomplishment. Then there are those who write simply because they have something to say that they think is important enough to share, and they don’t really care if they make a dime.

I’ve come to believe that what a person chooses to write about also says a lot about his or her reason for doing it. In my case, I write primarily about Nature. That takes the literary mantra “Write about what you know” to a whole new level, as I don’t just write about something I know a lot about but because it makes more sense to me than anything else does, especially now in these very troubled times, when NOTHING “out there” makes much sense. And when something makes that much sense and leaves no room for doubt, well, the words just flow.

That’s how it is with Nature and me: I get her and she gets me. And together, we make some pretty good music. In our world, there are no loud voices or disputes, and other than birds twittering, the wind blowing in the tops of pine trees, or the rustling of chipmunks chasing each other through the dry leaves, there is no sound at all. The benefit of that? I get to hear what my thoughts sound like, and what’s more, I hear whatever it is that Nature is trying to tell me. We have secrets, she and I, and from time to time, we share a few, and that is why I wrote this book.

It was time to let others in on it…




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Nothing Else


Yesterday, I took a short drive to a place I’ve only just recently rediscovered and where I sat on a bench beneath a great old maple tree. During the late spring and summer, this tree’s leaves are a bright vibrant green. But at this time of year–late October–they’re intensely yellow almost to the point of glowing when touched by the sun. And yesterday was just such a sunny day, so that tree was literally on fire.

I looked up through its branches from where I was sitting and found there were no words…none at all…that could adequately describe how that felt…to look straight up through a startlingly intense tangle of leaf and bough that was, ironically, in its last throes before the next strong wind or storm decimates it for another year. But that’s the thing…for just another year, not forever, unless someone comes along to cut that tree down, thus ending its life for all time. But in the place where it stands, protected, well-cared-for, and revered, I doubt that will be happening any time soon.

When I first got there, I was alone. And the only sounds I could hear were the wind in those dazzling yellow leaves above me and the calls of birds. Every few seconds, the wind increased and a few more leaves fell from the tree, some doing a small pirouette as they descended, others simply floating on the breeze in a to-and-fro motion. At that point, I heard voices in the distance and noticed two women walking toward where I was sitting.

As they passed, they never stopped chattering, and that, of course, spoiled the silence and serenity for a few moments until they moved far enough away so I couldn’t hear them anymore. It occurred to me how vastly perceptions of certain places and experiences can and do vary. There I was, needing no other sound other than that of the wind and birds, while they walked along talking nonstop. While I can’t be absolutely sure, of course, I suspect that they missed the true wonder of that place, lost as it was in the sound of their own voices.

I hope that, at some point in their lives, they and others like them, DO take a moment now and then to be still and listen to what Nature has to say, because she’s got plenty to talk about in that wordless way of hers that I love so much. Trees communicate, too, and yesterday, that maple I sat beneath was singing for all the world to hear…something along the lines of…”Let your gaze linger on me and you’ll know there is nothing else you need…”



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Proceed At Your Own Risk

Before movies, television, and the internet, there were books, which provided not only knowledge and information but also entertainment to those who weren’t able to get to the theater. In that spirit, perhaps I should have warned anyone who approaches my books expecting to be entertained that they are very likely to be disappointed. Because that is not what I do. I do not write to entertain, and that is perhaps the biggest mistake that I am making. But I will continue to make it, because I truly believe that, if I don’t tell the stories I’m writing, they will never be told. Not by me, nor about the people whose stories they are. They will die with me, and I believe there is too much potential for human commiseration within their margins for me to allow that to happen.

The fact that my own sales are faring so poorly comes as no surprise to me and has been pointed out to me on several occasions now. The word “book” means different things to different people. Judging by what sells and by what most people are reading, sensationalism in one form or another appears to dominate a market literally flooded with stories that deal with sex, violence, horror, mystery, crime, and depravity in one form or another. Sure, these things all happen each and every day in all our lives, as the evening news so obligingly attests to. But are those the only stories happening out there? What about the small dramas that play themselves out in our daily lives? Whatever happened to imagination, to taking a dull commonplace event such as a blizzard or a cancer diagnosis and putting a new twist to it, and making it more accessible?

Are our lives so lacking that we must fill in their mundane moments with as much spectacle and sensationalism as possible? The human mind is a microcosm of the big world out there, and we live out our individual lives according to the scripts we write for ourselves moment by moment, setback by setback, and triumph by triumph. And for some reason, we are fascinated and enthralled now only by the extremes that are possible within the range of human capability.

But what about the small stuff, the little stories, the details that get lost in the sauce as we insist on adding more spices to it to improve its flavor and make it more palatable?

I will continue to write the boring stories, the stories about the “little guys,” as my father used to call them, people who haven’t killed anyone or started wars or lived fantastical lives with their backs constantly arched across beds strewn with rose petals. Because greater than making a few dollars or a name for myself is the imperative to tell the unimportant less sensational stories, the ones that don’t matter, or sell, and to give all those who live on the fringes their due as members of this vast drama called life.

Because if I don’t tell them, no one will. And I think they’re too important not to.



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The Smartest Kid Who Had Ever Lived

I can’t remember now just when I started reading books. In the blue-collar world that I grew up in, books weren’t a familiar sight. My father read the local newspaper, and my mother an occasional True Story magazine. Beyond that, an old used comic book or two might have wandered in past our threshold, and there was always the Sears catalog that was deposited with a loud thunk on our front porch each by paid deliverers. But that was it, until 1960 when the encyclopedia salesman came knocking on our back door.

Some of these guys (and yes, they were all men back then) could be pretty crafty. They knew that, with just a few exceptions, proper Franco-American families rarely opened their front doors to anyone unless it was a very special occasion. The accepted practice was always to use the back door, as that’s how you could be sure that whoever was knocking wasn’t a stranger. In our case, our kitchen window looked right out onto the back porch, which made it easy for us to see a visitor before he or she had even had a chance to knock.

Either this particular salesman was fast or my parents had been distracted and hadn’t seen him pass by the window. But there he was, sitting at our kitchen table giving us his spiel for all he was worth, and my father soaking it all up like a sponge. My poor dear father with his sixth-grade education and his job as a doffer in the mill couldn’t help but be impressed when the salesman asked me which animal carried its babies in a pouch and I automatically and very confidently blurted out “A kangaroo!” I then became, for those few instances and in Daddy’s eyes at least, The Smartest Kid Who Had Ever Lived.

Well, he bought the encyclopedia for a dollar a week, which was, in 1960 and for a man who worked at one of the least-paying jobs in the mill, a large investment. The deal had been made sweeter with the inclusion of a “free” white leather-bound Holy Bible that my mother came to cherish and which I still have to this day. Daddy drew the line, however, at the yearly supplements that would cost more money, and we cheered when the big box arrived to deposit the twelve hot-off-some-foreign-press sweet-smelling volumes of the Wonderland of Knowledge into our lives.

And that was when my reading career began in earnest, as I spent that entire summer reading that encyclopedia. I can’t remember now how far I got, but I seem to remember that I was in the C’s or thereabouts, which might have been the third volume. The only one I am sure of was the last one which I was destined never to add to my list of “Books I Have Read,” and which bore on the spine the acronym “Tie-Zwi Maps.” (The things we remember…)

I’m also no longer sure just when I first visited a public library, but I’m sure it was probably on a school trip. And then there were also the summer reading books, another financial burden for my family; but oh, how I looked forward to the smell of those brand new paperback books each June! Once I finally managed to get my hands on books that bore more than just a few letters on their spines, I was lost in a world not of my own making but of whoever managed to draw me into their seas of words.

I deduced not long into it that maybe I could write stories, too. But it was only after a few more detours and “roads not taken” that I would finally come to the realization that “hey, I can do this!”

So I did, and I still do, and I’m not done yet, not even close!