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I spent yesterday afternoon at the combined conference of the Montana Library Association and Mountain Plains Library Association here in Billings. I was on a panel with Ruth McLaughlin (Montana Book Award winner! Woot!), Montana poet laureate Henry Real Bird and Dan Aadland.

Somehow, when I was recruited for this panel some months ago, I got it into my head that we were to deliver speeches. Well, no. We were there to read from our work (which, frankly, is a way better deal anyway). I was happy to make the switch, and I realized that I could just post the speech and PowerPoint presentation I prepared here at the blog.

So here goes: recycling!

THE PUBLIC LIBRARY: AN ESSENTIAL

I’d like to thank the Montana Library Association and the Mountain Plains Library Association for inviting me here today. I’m proud to be able to speak with folks who are doing a job that I consider absolutely essential to a well-rounded community and an informed, engaged populace. Thank you, sincerely, for all that you do.

I came to book writing relatively late. Although I’ve been involved with writing and editing as a journalist for nearly a quarter-century, it was just two and a half years ago that I wrote my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward. And while I sometimes retroactively kick myself in the pants for waiting so long to get going, in some ways I’m happy to have a nascent career at a time of such upheaval and rapid change in the business of words and publishing. You see, I have no time to sit around and pine for how it used to be, back when publishers were proliferate, writers were given three or four books to become overnight sensations and a fella could wear an ascot without getting funny looks. I have to figure out how to make it work with conditions as they are, not as I wish them to be. And if you’re here today, you have the same challenge.

This is just one guy’s opinion, but it’s an enthusiastic one: I think we’re going to be okay. Yes, it’s true: Never have so many things competed for people’s time and attention, and even when reading happens on a cell phone screen rather than a typeset page, it’s a decidedly old-school endeavor against the allure of game consoles and 3-D movies and video on demand. Like you, I hear this sullen phrase more than I wish to: “I just don’t have time to read.” And yet, on the other side, good news blooms: There’s more reading going on than ever before. Everybody and his dog are buying one of those fancy new e-readers. There’s a revolution in reading that certainly does threaten less-than-nimble publishers, but on the flip side, more power to create and bring books to market has fallen into authors’ hands. And we authors are eager to work with you. My friend Dee Ann Redman at Parmly Billings Library need only call and I’ll be there for any program she cares to put together. (Okay, truth be told, she’ll have more luck by pinging me on Facebook, but my larger point stands.) I’m dead serious about this, and I walk my talk. Any library group that wants to work with me will find that I’m a willing partner in presenting timely, informative, entertaining programs. I consider it vital to my self-interest as an author and a library’s role as a community pillar.

In this new world of reading, there is an essential role for librarians to play. We will forever need people who curate books, who put them in the hands of readers, who love them so much that their infectious enthusiasm lights the fuse of patrons young and old. That these tasks are performed in a place that is uniquely positioned as a community gathering place makes your role all the more important. My great hope for you falls along two lines: First, that your local governments and voters will give you the capital you need. (This, I’m afraid, is where my optimism wanes a little bit. It seems that the public arts are too easily considered expendable when tough economic times come along. On the contrary, I believe they’re needed more than ever.) Second, that publishers who adopt a penny-wise-pound-foolish approach to new technology see things in a more rational way. As you have no doubt gathered, I’m speaking here of ridiculous rules regarding limited licenses for e-books. It’s madness, and I sincerely hope that more reasonable people prevail here.

Back in January, my second novel, The Summer Son, was published. To have written and published two novels since November 2008 has changed my life in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I sat down and finally pursued my writing dreams with an appropriate vigor. Among other things, it has afforded me the opportunity to talk about the influences that shaped my decision to pursue a career in letters.

Hurst (Texas) Public Library

In this regard, teachers and librarians – and, of course, my parents – loomed large in my upbringing. Some of my earliest memories of family outings involved going to the public library in Hurst, Texas, and taking home a stack of books. In my high school years, the library was an invaluable source of information and a quiet space for study. In my early twenties, when I could barely afford my rent, let alone books, the public library was a place I could feed my voracious appetite for free.

All of these people – parents who actively encouraged me to read, librarians who shamelessly fed that habit, teachers who helped me shape my thinking and my interests – worked in concert to make me a lifelong reader and someone who loved books so much that he wanted to write them. And while it’s been a long time since I’ve been in school, making me a candidate for viewing that part of my past through a kaleidoscope of nostalgia, I have a hard time believing that times have changed so much that these roles are no longer needed. Again, I have to think that they’re needed more than ever.

So, again, I thank you for lending your considerable talents to the communities that so badly need you.

*****

And here’s a PDF version of the PowerPoint presentation I prepared:

Library Association presentation

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Yesterday’s post of a Toastmasters speech reminds me that I have another one in my back pocket, a (purportedly) humorous one called “Noble Misfits of the Work Force.” It is presented here for your edification:

If there’s a singular reason I’ve survived twenty-two years as a professional journalist – aside from being of questionable character and having no other marketable skill, I mean – it’s the people. Journalists, by and large, are the noble misfits of the professional class. Most of them – emphasis on “most” – are smart enough to be tremendously successful in any other line of work: high finance, the arts, street peddling. Instead, they choose journalism. Why? A million reasons, and some of them actually brush up against the idea of digging out the truth and exposing corruption. (Me, I chose it because I wanted a profession that let me sleep in until noon and made me just enough money to remain well-stocked in pizza and compact discs. I’m glad that this crowd is sufficiently unhip that I don’t have to explain an antiquity like “compact disc.”)

Suffice to say that the profession attracts people who skate on the other side of the ice. People who march to the beat of a different drum. People who view life through a different lens. People who overuse metaphors. Some of my older colleagues contend that the heyday for the noble misfit was actually several decades ago, that the most colorful days of journalism ended when newspapers added HR departments and began frowning on those who carried flasks in their desk drawers. Poppycock, I say! The times no doubt have demanded that alterations be made, but I find that the flask fits perfectly fine in my overcoat.

It’s been my pleasure to know some of these irascible characters in my career, and today, I would like to introduce you to a few of them:

THE TWISTED WIRE EDITOR

A wire editor, my friends, is someone who gathers the news from the various cooperatives – the Associated Press, etc. – and condenses that huge pile of offerings into a daily report inside your newspaper. When you’re a wire editor, you quickly become numb to man’s ghastly capacity for unmentionable cruelty. Whether it’s police brutality in Poughkeepsie, shootings in Saratoga, murder-suicide in Milwaukee or beheadings in Birmingham, a wire editor reads it all.

One of my colleagues in San Jose, Calif., who held this job would meticulously harvest the lead paragraphs of stories of mayhem and transplant them onto a take he kept squirreled away in his personal queue. There, he would perform a bit of mad-genius surgery to the snippet of story, removing the name of the perpetrator and inserting a new one:

Mother Teresa’s.

Thus, someone reading this take would come across items like this:

“SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – Police say that Mother Teresa was arrested Friday after a traffic stop and search that revealed she was carrying three tons of marijuana in the trailer of her semi-truck.”

“ELKO, Nev. – Mother Teresa was taken into custody Wednesday after a four-hour armed conflict in which two police officers were shot, one critically.”

“JORDAN, Mont. – Mother Teresa is being held on $15,000 bail after being arrested and charged in the poaching of seven elk.”

We don’t know why this wire editor did this. (In truth, we don’t know why he’s still walking around as a free man.) But the point is, he was perfectly at home in a newsroom. Celebrated, even.

THE RECALCITRANT SPORTS EDITOR

I didn’t witness this, but I have it on good authority that it went down this way.

It’s a Friday night in 1968, and the sports desk at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is humming along at a brisk pace when the elevator pings and two men who don’t belong in a newsroom step off. (When you work in a newsroom, you develop a sixth sense for interlopers. They have personal hygiene. Their socks match. That sort of thing.) They make a beeline for Charles Clines, who was working that night, and say, “Is Charles Clines working tonight?”

Charlie, as he was known, says, “I’m not sure. Let me check the schedule.” He walks to the opposite wall, puts his finger on the schedule, and says, “Nope. He’s off tonight.” The two men thank him and head back to the elevator. Unfortunately for Charlie, his coworkers launch a long, cascading laugh, and the two men pivot and walk back into the newsroom, past the sports desk, on their way to the managing editor’s office. Charlie, figuring he’s done for but showing the can-do spirit of a desperate fugitive, dashes into a side office, shuts the door and turns off the light.

It’s all for naught. The managing editor and the two men show up, unlock the office door, and place Charlie in handcuffs. The men were cops, and the reason they came for Charlie is that he hadn’t paid his parking tickets. Ever. He was paraded through the newsroom and received a standing ovation.

(The reason I know this story? Charlie is my stepfather.)

FINALLY, A LOVE LETTER TO THE PEOPLE WE COVER

The first two examples I cited were people inside the newsroom. But at least half the fun of the profession lies in who you get to know outside the office.

Down in central Texas sits a town that’s spelled M-E-X-I-A. It’s famously mispronounced even by longtime Texans; it’s not MEX-ia, but MA-HEY-UH. Back when Grant Teaff coached the football team at Baylor, he made a recruiting visit to that town and, as the story goes, he stopped off at a local restaurant for a bite to eat.

“Ma’am,” he says to the woman behind the counter, “I always get this wrong. Could you tell me again, real slow, where I am?”

The woman looks at him and says, “DAI-REE QUEEEEEN.”

Finally, here’s one that actually happened to me:

Early in my career, maybe 1990 or 1991, I’m covering the Texas Golden Gloves at the Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth. One of the championship fights comes down to a Dallas fighter against a Fort Worth fighter. Given the pro-Fort Worth bias of the crowd, the Dallas fighter is lustily booed, both as he enters the ring and throughout the fight. Despite facing this hostility, the Dallas fighter ends up winning in a knockout.

I hightail it back to the interview area and catch him as his gloves are being cut off.

“So,” I say, “did the boos motivate you?”

He flashes with anger, balls up his fists and says, “Naw, man, I don’t drink.”

Too bad. I had this flask, right there in my overcoat …

It’s not much of an update, as I’ve been chasing a hundred little tasks that collectively add up to … well, a hundred little tasks.

  • Books sent to Texas? Check.
  • PowerPoint presentations finished? Check.
  • Remarks written? Check.
  • Bags packed? Check.
  • Computer, memory stick and other materials packed? Check.
  • All files e-mailed to myself because I don’t trust the memory stick? Check.
  • Dogs pissed off because I’ve been doing all this other stuff and not playing tug with them? Check.
  • Wife forced to listen to my worrying and obsessing to the point that she’s thinking of staying home? Check.

It seems, then, that we’re all set.

When I get back to the Big Sky, I anticipate having some additions to the list of places the book and I will be in the coming weeks. In the meantime, check out the current events and if you happen to be around for one of them, please stop by and say hello.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t say, again, how happy I am that I ducked out of NaNoWriMo this year. Progress on the new project has been impeded by a hundred little things (a partial list above), so I’ve been able to move only a few hundred words at a time. By my count, those of you still hanging in there should be at least 28,339 words down the road by the end of today. If you’re there, or beyond, I salute you.

More in a few days …

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