Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Publishing with Infinity

This is the cover of Infinity Publishing's free guide, my "bible" for the information I needed to format my book and get it into print. You can get a copy from the website, www.infinitypublishing.com. Check out that site for valuable information, and see the slide show from the 2006 conference.

I attended the Express Yourself Writers Conference sponsored by Infinity Publishing in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, last fall. Infinity is the publisher of my book, Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Retired Professor, published last summer, so I was eager to learn more about this company and the whole business of publishing. You may see my previous account of the conference in my October 9 post here (in the October 2006 archives).

One thing that I didn't emphasize in my earlier post was the joy of meeting my fellow Infinity authors. I was impressed by their enthusiasm, their diversity, and many of the books they had published. The authors represented all age groups and parts of the United States, although there was a concentration of writers from eastern states reasonably near the conference site. As I recall, I was the only Chicagoan there.

To continue the spirit generated from conference discussions, one of the writers compiled a list of the e-mail addresses of many attendees, and members of the Infinity Authors Group have kept in touch occasionally during the past six months. Infinity Publishing has been very cooperative. Now, several members have included all or nearly all of us on their impressive websites. The purpose is to bring attention to books that are not generally known to the public, but deserve to be. While I can't endorse all of them, not have I read all of them, I can endorse the spirit and creativity of the Infinity authors. These are people I am happy to know.

I am glad to have my book included on at least three of these web sites. To see one of them (I hope to have links to others later), click on "links to this post" (below) and then "Infinity Authors-Infinite Talent ." You may be amazed at the variety of books and authors presented there. If a book sounds interesting, order it! And if you're writing a book, consider Infinity Publishing.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Satire and Senior Issues

In satirist Christopher Buckley’s new book Boomsday, reviewed in the April 2, 2007, issue of Time, Cassandra Devine, a 29-year-old blogger, rants, "Someone my age will have to spend their entire life paying unfair taxes just so the Booomers can hit the golf course at 62 and drink gin and tonics until they’re 90. What happened to the American idea of leaving your kids better off than you were?" Cassandra’s solution is to promote "Voluntary Transitioning" by providing baby boomers with financial incentives to commit suicide at age 70.

I’m over 70, and although I don’t play golf or drink gin and tonics, nor do I have kids, I certainly do not advocate "Voluntary Transitioning." That’s generational warfare and self-sacrifice gone mad.

But don’t start writing your angry letters or making your picket signs, boomers and seniors. This is, after all, satire and fiction, and your reaction should be thought rather than rage. That’s what satire is for. Unfortunately, a lot of people probably won’t get it.

Back in the 18th century, some people did not understand Jonathan Swift’s "A Modest Proposal" (1729). The ultimate solution for Irish famine and other social problems? Kill excess babies and eat them. A horrible, sickening idea, right? Apparently some of Swift’s 18th-century readers, and some of my 20th-century students, didn’t get the serious point, stated but couched in irony: "Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: of using neither clothes nor household furniture except what is of our own growth and manufacture: of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming of our women: of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence, and temperance: of learning to love our country. . . of being a little cautious not to sell our country and conscience for nothing: of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy toward their tenants: lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shopkeepers." Anti-feminist humor aside, there are some valid ideas here, and they have nothing to do with killing babies.

In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451, an account of a fantasy society in which firemen no longer extinguished fires; their job was to burn down houses where books were hidden, sometimes burning up the inhabitants with their houses. Bradbury’s real targets, of course, were censorship and book burning and anti-intellectualism in general. In the F-451 world, thought and conversation and human interaction are discouraged through persistent, mind-numbing ads, fast cars, drugs, and wall-sized TV’s, among other things. How did it happen? Unemployed former professor Faber tells the main character, curious fireman Guy Montag, "I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them. And then the Government, seeing how advantageous it was to have people reading only about passionate lips and the fist in the stomach, circled the situation with your fire-eaters." Some of my students didn’t get it, but can’t you see a few connections to American life, even today? And note that the government was not the originator of all this.

I was also reminded of the 1973 movie Soylent Green, which brings me back to senior issues. Soylent Green is an early environmentalist film about "The System" as a corrupting influence on the people within it. Charlton Heston plays Thorn, a police detective assigned to investigate the murder of a Soylent Corporation executive. His older assistant, Sol Roth, is played by Edward G. Robinson, who died just nine days after completion of the film shoot. Sol is old enough to tell Thorn how life used to be.

The advertising " tagline" for the film was, "It’s the year 2022. People are still the same. They’ll do anything to get what they need. And they need SOYLENT GREEN." In this society, natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, and meat are extinct. The Earth is overpopulated, with forty million starving, poverty-stricken people living in New York City. The greenhouse effect has raised temperatures so much that country living is out of the question (think global warming; I’m sure Al Gore has seen this film), and people are required by law to live in cities. The Soylent Corporation feeds the masses with Soylent red, yellow, and the more nutritious Soylent green, but Detective Thorn discovers that there is a conspiracy by which the rich still have real food and live in luxury–with women considered as furniture, and other interesting details.

If you haven’t seen this film, do rent it and take a look, but the thing I remember most about it after all these years is an example of what Buckley’s character Cassandra would probably call "Voluntary Transitioning." It is Roth’s (Robinson’s) dying scene. He is in a suicide center, where you could "end your life in a drug-induced euphoria in a peaceful, isolated room, watching projections of beautiful natural scenes and listening to your favorite music." "Going Home" was played for Roth as he enjoyed visions of the Earth’s former beauty. I wasn’t old when I saw this, but the scene still made me cry.

I believe we need satire to make us think about the world’s problems. The issue in Buckley’s book Boomsday is not really "Voluntary Transitioning" or senior suicide, but the less fascinating issue of responsible management of Social Security. I haven’t read this book yet, but I plan to do so. Buckley, age 54, has, according to the unsigned Time review, "an endless facility for mimicking the glossy rhetoric of political spin in a way that lays bare its atrocious underlying hypocrisies." Swift and Bradbury and the author of Soylent Green had this facility too, each in his own way.

Update 11/13/07: See my April 22 post for my reaction after reading this book.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

More on Writing Memoirs

First, some good news:

My book, Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Retired Professor, has been awarded first place in the Biography and Autobiography category of the llinois Woman's Press Association's Mate E. Palmer Communications Contest. I will receive the award in May at the IWPA's awards luncheon.

Also, I will be starting a new column for http://www. seniorsgrandcentral/www.eGenerations.com, probably on or about April 15, 2007, as part of a new feature to be called "MyMemoirs." This is a relatively new senior/boomer web site, and I look forward to contributing. Check out that site, especially if you're over 50. Membership is free.

A memoir from the past by a fascinating senior (see cover photo above):

R. Merle Funston was my stepfather, married to my mother, Violet Funston, during the last eight years of his life. During the final two years, while he knew he was dying of emphysema, he told his life story to my mother. She prepared the copy on an old typewriter; then she paid to have it reproduced in the original Courier typewriter font and published in a slim blue paper volume by Bireline Publishing of Newell, Iowa. Mother hurried to finish the book and begged for a preliminary copy she could read to Merle before he died. She said it seemed almost as if he was living to see the book published. A copy arrived in time, and she was able to read it to him. He was pleased, and asked her to read his favorite chapter, the final one, several times. Merle died on May 9, 1983, at the age of 75, just a few days after his book was published.

Merle Funston was born on July 1, 1908, in Hampton, Iowa. In 1912, the family moved to the farm where Merle’s father had been born in Jo Daviess County, near Galena, Illinois, to the neighborhood known as Irish Hollow. Merle’s life revolved about the Winston Tunnel and the Chicago Great Western Railroad.

"When I was a boy I often stood on top of the tunnel facing north. To my left I could see across the Mississippi into Iowa. I could also see the single track of the Chicago Great Western Railroad to the Rice Station just east of Blackjack Road. To the north, I could see the roofs of the buildings on my father’s farm."

The Winston Tunnel, a half-mile long, completed in about 1888, became a lifelong interest for Merle. Many of his memories revolved around the railroad and the tunnel. He remembered U.S. soldiers being stationed at both ends of the tunnel for about three months during World War I to protect the soldiers and supplies transported through it. The soldiers bought eggs, milk, and homemade butter from Merle’s mother. He remembered that when an uncle and some friends cut down a neighbor’s "bee tree" to steal the honey, they timed the tree’s fall so that the noise from a passing Chicago Great Western train passing the farm would cover the sound of the falling tree.

The last train passed through the Winston Tunnel in 1970. A few years later, Merle supported a group trying to establish a "Great Western Nature Trail" on the abandoned railroad right of way. He wanted the "atmosphere, the memories, and the beauty of the area" to be preserved. However, neighborhood property owners banded together to buy the land and defeat the nature trail plan.

This book reminds us of how much Midwestern life has changed. While most boys living in Irish Hollow at the time did not attend high school, Merle decided to do so as long as he could ride his pony, Bird, to Galena High School. He started out about six a.m. and "parked" Bird in a barn behind the grocery store. After high school, he worked for the Chicago Great Western Railroad for about ten years, and later became a farmer and cabinet maker near Stockton, Illinois, where he was living at the time of his death. He married and had a son, and was widowed in 1972. He married my mother in 1975.

In his conclusion, Merle states, "A ski resort, eating place, golf course, and fancy subdivision occupy the land where my uncle and I hauled walnut logs. The boys of Irish Hollow are probably watching television instead of listening to stories told by their elders or watching trains going in and out of Winston Tunnel." In fact, the tunnel was fenced off, the openings bulldozed shut in 1973, and parts of it collapsed later.

I did not know Merle Funston very well, but he was a nice, kind man whom my mother described as "always cheerful, always laughing, always telling his stories." Thank you, Merle, for proving that all of us, whatever our life circumstances or lack of fame, have interesting stories that need to be recorded, interesting lives that should be remembered.

This book is not generally available any longer, except possibly in local history collections in the Galena, Illinois, area.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Clare, March 12, 2007

It may be a bit hard to see it from these photos, but The Clare at Watertower, my future home, is beginning to look like a real building. The top photo is a view from the northwest, the corner of Pearson and Wabash. The other photo is a view from the east, near Rush and Pearson.

Spring has arrived in Chicago, at least for a few days, and construction seems to be progressing. I'll have to take my pictures from further away in the future, although these show more than the web cam (see the Clare web site) that looks down toward the top.

I'm happy to report that the sky was blue, the temperature was in the fifties, the sun was shining, and I was able to walk to Rush and Pearson, have my free Monday coffee at McDonald's, and walk back home. Today is an even warmer day, so I expect to enjoy it rather than look toward the colder weekend in the forecast. Stay tuned for another report on The Clare soon.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Photos by the author.

Friday, March 09, 2007

My Mother's Memoir

I spend a lot of time urging seniors to write the stories of their lives. I wrote and published mine in 2006. But where did I get the idea? It long ago occurred to me that my mother's unpublished life story, My First Eighty-Six Years: a Midwestern Life, which I edited and had printed for her in 1997, was my main inspiration. She distributed her life story to family and friends and to anyone who expressed the slightest interest; she was still giving copies to the staff at her nursing home a year or two ago, when she was able to communicate (she still clings to life at 95, but just barely). She has had an interesting life, and of course she was one of those people urged to write. I'm glad she did.

The picture above shows my mother, Violet Marshall Funston, with my brother and me, at her 90th birthday party in 2001. All three of us have changed since then, but my brother (now 72) and I are still active and relatively healthy.

Here are the first five paragraphs of My First Eighty-Six Years. I hope they will encourage other seniors to write their own life stories.

"There was a time when heredity was blamed for whatever was wrong with you. When I was old enough to spell and understand the word 'heredity,' I could only hope that the good, solid, God-fearing Methodists who were my mother's parents would somehow be the stronger influence on my character. As I grew older and wiser, I realized that I was much more like my father's family, and was thankful. They had lots of self-confidence, no fear of giving up a sure thing to try something new. My father taught me I could do anything I wanted to do, and that I should never be afraid to follow my dreams.

"As a child, I spent much time with my father's family and as little time as possible visiting my mother's parents. There was always something happening at my father's home. My father's mother, Harriet Bryant Uhl, was English, and being English, never missed her afternoon tea and cakes. Whenever possible, I joined her. She was short and wide and jolly and could always cure any ache I might have, real or imaginary, by holding me on her ample lap. Then she told me stories of her early married life in Pennsylvania where her eleven children were born, eight boys and three girls, without benefit of a doctor. According to Grandma, child-bearing was a natural process, and a healthy woman should be able to assume her full work load two or three days after childbirth. She didn't think much of the women who used childbirth as an excuse to get a week's vacation.

"One of my favorite stories that I asked Grandma to tell over and over again was about my father. My father had a slight limp, and I never tired of hearing Grandma tell how he got the limp. When he was a small boy, he accompanied Grandma to the woods near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to pick blackberries. He had his own little bucket and picked and ate blackberries. One day, he became tired and sat down under a tree. A copperhead snake crawled into his lap. It frightened him, he hit at it, and the snake bit him in the ankle. Many miles from a doctor, Grandma sucked the poison out and saved his life. He was sick for many months. He would have been in third grade, but he never attended school after that. His mother taught him. She not only taught him reading, writing, and arithmetic, but in the process taught him religion, kindness, and good work ethics. His greatest wish was that both of his children, my brother and I, get good educations, and we did, in spite of some obstacles.

"According to my Aunt Mary, Grandpa Joseph Uhl taught rural school in Pennsylvania when the eleven children were small, and sat evening after evening at the neighbors' home talking, singing, and playing the violin. Grandma did the work on the farm, including milking, raising pigs, raising chickens, and gardening. She got the help of a neighbor when it was necessary to take a few days off to have her babies. She taught the children to help when they were small. To Grandma, farm work could not be done by an educated person such as Grandpa, especially one who played the violin. I never knew a happier person than Grandma, and she raised a happy, well-adjusted family. Ten of her children were God-fearing Catholics who married well and earned their share of this world's goods. Unfortunately, one son was an alcoholic. His wife divorced him and took the two children, and he came home to live with Grandma and Grandpa. Grandma never got over her one failure in raising a child, always blaming herself. Many a time I heard her ask, 'Where did I fail with George?'

"As I grew older and listened to the champions of women's liberation, I thought of Grandma, always strong, always happy, meeting all her problems head-on. Thinking of Grandma gave me courage. It is always nice to have someone to help you, but if there is no one available, you can do it yourself."

While I can't endorse the "woman as martyr" view expressed here, nor have I ever shared it, I am happy to belong to a line of strong women. Most of all, I am happy to have had a mother who loved to read and write and encouraged me to do the same.

Copyright 1997 by Violet Marshall Funston and 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Photo from John C. Marshall's family collection.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Another Brief Update: Diet and Weather

The sun is shining in Chicago, and the sky is blue. Is it waarm? No, but a day like today restores my faith that spring really is on the way. Warmer weather is forecast for the end of the week (perhaps minor snow, too, but I'll try to ignore that).

Virtually all of the snow and ice are gone, I'm feeling much better, and I'm happy to say that I was able to do twenty minutes on my recumbent exercise bike plus a walk around the block today! That may not sound like much if you're young, but considering my recent problems, it's great. Things are looking up.

There's good news on the diet front, too. I've lost a total of about twelve pounds so far during 2007, despite a few eating binges and too much inactivity. Medifast is working for me, and I find it relatively easy to follow the rules. Fortunately, I like veggies (and oatmeal, too). Remember that losing weight is a very individual matter; see my earlier post on the topic. My purpose in writing this is just to keep myself on track, at least until my trip to Ireland in late April.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Writing Classes and Workshops

This is a great time to sign up for a spring term writing class or workshop, either an on-line or a regular class. I've taken both within the last two years, and the four classes have been enjoyable and enlightening. These are not "senior" classes, but non-credit classes for everyone. Check out your local area, of course, but here are one in Chicago and one on line that I can heartily recommend from personal experience. Both have terms beginning the week of March 5, or soon thereafter, so hurry. Search the Internet for other places, other schedules.

Jill Pollack's StoryStudio Chicago (www.storystudiochicago.com), located on the north side of Chicago, offers courses in creative writing, freelance magazine writing, writing personal essays, writing the novel, and others. The eight-week courses usually cost about $360; shorter workshops cost less. Most classes are in the evening. Teachers and students are generally young and talented, and these classes are a good source of inspiration.

Angela Hoy's WritersWeekly University (www.writersweekly.com) offers a variety of on-line courses, usually six weeks long. The cost is about $40. Lessons arrive via e-mail once each week, and students and teacher exchange their writing and make comments at their leisure. See the course descriptions to find a class that interests you. This is fun if you have enough discipline to work independently, but with good feedback from others. There are many other online classes too--do a search. Read on for more information on my own experiences.

I spent my working life teaching writing, mostly freshman composition, so why have I taken four writing classes or workshops in the last two years? Yes, I know the "basics" of writing, including fiction, but I'd done very little writing of my own during my teaching and department chair years. I was busy and full of excuses for not writing. Except for a few minor articles and conference presentations, I published nothing.

When I found myself retired, widowed, childless, and alone in 2005, I asked myself the obvious question: What do I want to do? The answer was write. For more details, see my book. I also needed to get out among people (I live in a young people's condo building where almost everyone is at work all day and long into the evening), so I decided to explore writing classes and workshops.

My first idea was to teach informal workshops, probably for my fellow seniors. However, I live near downtown Chicago, and from my few inquiries, I learned that writing centers and even senior centers prefer younger teachers and/or those who still have college or university connections. My writing background was too limited, my community college ties not very prestigious for a big city that abounds in talent. I don't think most people realized that I was serious about this.

Anyway, I knew I wanted to write. Making money was not the object. I took an evening LifeWriting course at StoryStudio Chicago, and it inspired me to go on with and complete my memoirs. Right now I'm just finishing a Creative Writing I class there. In both classes, I loved the relaxed discipline of having something to write (no grades to worry about, of course) and I loved hearing what others were writing and what they had to say about what I wrote. I was impressed by the writing talent I saw in both classes. Since I have been the oldest member (by far) of both classes, I'm afraid the other students (and probably the teachers) were afraid to criticize my work, but I have learned a lot anyway.

I have also taken two online courses from Angela Hoy's Writers Weekly University. If you are homebound or just want to write on your own, but with feedback, this is an inexpensive source of no-sweat six-week online classes. Participants come from everywhere; I had one classmate writing from the Netherlands (in English, of course). You receive assignments and advice via e-mail once a week, and share feedback with the instructor and with other class members. This is fun! I have "met" students of all ages and backgrounds. There are many on-line writing classes; try one.

Of course you can find free writing classes for seniors at some libraries and senior centers. Check those out, too. And see the Eons Writers group (www.eons.com) and the Writers Forum at www.seniorsgrandcentral.com to meet more interesting people.

As I've said so often before, just write!

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne