Editing Excellence – Remembering My Father

Forest stream photo“As a journalist in a newsroom, I never worried about how to write. I just did it. I put words on my computer screen to meet a deadline.”

These words from Alexis Grant jumped out at me this morning. I’d left her blog up on my screen when I turned off the monitor late last night, intending to write her a comment, but today the words triggered a whole new chain of thought – about blogging and about my father, Wallace Lomoe, who was Managing Editor and later Executive Editor of The Milwaukee Journal. He inspired my love of writing, but more importantly perhaps, he passed on the perfectionistic standards that make me a ruthless editor of my own work. It’s appropriate to pay tribute to him on Father’s Day.

But first, about the blogging. Alexis was writing about the differences between journalistic writing and tackling an entire book, but “I put words on my computer screen to meet a deadline” is an apt description of my approach to blogging till now. A phrase or a few scattered ideas begin percolating in my mind. Sometimes I jot down some notes in my little blue blog book, but more often I sit down at the computer and lo and behold, the words begin to flow onto the screen. Basically, it’s the same way I go about writing a novel, except that with the novel, there’s an overall story arc that keeps me pointed in a more or less coherent direction. In blogging, I’ve been disregarding the bigger picture, and I’ve decided that has to change. But more on that in tomorrow’s post – today’s is about my father.

Wallace Lomoe was born in northern Wisconsin in 1898. In his youth, he

Library of Congress photo

Library of Congress photo

dreamed of writing The Great American Novel. In search of background and inspiration, he spent most of the1920’s living the archetypal hobo’s life, riding the rails and doing odd jobs throughout the country. By 1928, he was back home, working as a reporter at The Superior Telegram, where two significant events occurred. He met my mother, Viola Wick, also a cub reporter at the Telegram. They married soon after, and as was all too typical back then, she abandoned her career to become a wife and mother. And Calvin Coolidge spent a summer fishing in northern Wisconsin. The Telegram assigned my father to cover the President’s vacation, both because of his writing skills and because he was an ace fisherman and northwoods guide. His stories got picked up by the Associated Press, and The Milwaukee Journal offered him a job.

In the years that followed, he rose through the ranks from City Editor and Managing Editor to Executive Editor. Known as “the bear,” he inspired respect and fear in his underlings. Once a reporter who had just won a Pulitzer Prize came to him for a raise, and he refused, saying, “The Pulitzer has nothing to do with your salary.” Along the way, he abandoned his dream of writing The Great American Novel and ultimately destroyed a lengthy manuscript that would at the very least have made a marvellous memoir. Evidently the book didn’t live up to his own exacting standards.

My father’s memory lives on in the annals of journalism. Googling his name this morning, I found 273 hits, including one in a book I hadn’t known existed: Joe McCarthy and the Press by Edwin R. Bayley. My father was a staunch enemy of the witch-hunting senator, as evidenced in the following quote:

“We think McCarthy is a sideshow barker in dealing with the press,” said Wallace Lomoe, managing editor of the Milwaukee Journal. “First he drops a hint. Then he gives out a name. Third, he gives his version of what the name said or did. And the press carries all three.”

I’ve never seen this quote before, but discovering it delights me this morning, when I devoured our local Sunday paper in under an hour while bemoaning its pitiful contents. My father died in 1975, but if by some miracle he were reincarnated, what would he think of the state of journalism these days? He’d probably be shaking off the gloom and doom and focusing on mastering the internet, just as I am today.

The Milwaukee Journal merged with the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1995. The Journal was an afternoon paper, fiercely independent, whereas the Sentinel was a morning paper, part of the Hearst empire. In our family, “Hearst” was almost as dirty a word as “McCarthy.” The Journal Sentinel now publishes mornings, and the Journal’s glory days are long gone.

A morning service: death and disclosure

My next-door neighbor Mary died Tuesday night at the age of 89, and this morning I attended her service at the Catholic church where she was a longtime member. Officially, the service was called a “Liturgy of Christian Death and Burial,” and I haven’t attended one like it before. Many words of comfort were spoken, and it made me wish I were a true believer. (I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and our beliefs, such as they are, aren’t nearly so reassuring.)

I’ve watched Mary slide downhill over the past couple of years. Her daughter Wendy has been her live-in caregiver, and she’s kept me and my husband up to date on the many changes in Mary’s health – the operations and procedures, whether and how they worked, the trips to the hospital, the transfer to a nursing home, then home again. Ultimately, she died in a hospital – they’d been going to move her to a Hospice, but she was too weak to withstand the transfer.

Looking out our windows, seeing the ambulance in Mary’s driveway yet one more time, I’ve often wondered whether I would want to hang on under the same compromised circumstances, but who’s to say? I won’t know till I get there, and I hope that’s at least a couple of decades away. These are the kinds of questions I address in my mystery novel Eldercide, which revolves around a home health care agency, its staff and clients. But it feels highly inappropriate to discuss my book now, in the wake of Mary’s death. I’ll save that for another day.

Today’s experiences raised some thorny questions for me as a writer. Sitting alone during the service, I took voluminous notes, and eventually they may find their way into my fiction, but it’s still far too early. And how much to share online? I considered posting Mary’s full name and part of her obituary, but I didn’t feel I had the right, not without her family’s consent, although they probably would have been pleased. Mary lived a full and fruitful life, with five children and eight grandchildren.  Shortly before Mary died, Wendy told her how lucky she was to have had Mary as a mother, and Mary said, “No, I’m the lucky one, to have had you.”

Etan Patz wasn’t so lucky. Thirty years ago, the six-year-old boy disappeared from his SoHo loft, and the tragic case will be revisited tonight at 10:00 p.m. on ABC’s 20/20. I have a special interest in the program: we lived in the same coop loft complex as the Patz family, and our daughter was in the daycare program run by Etan’s mother Julie. I suspect I’ll be posting more about Etan tomorrow.

Confused by mystery plotting? Try One Life to Live

. . . Marty tells John she remembers everything about their relationship, including the time they made paper airplanes, since she got over her amnesia. They kiss. . . . Todd talks with Tea, who’s regained consciousness in the ICU following her injuries from the explosion. . . . Schuyler tells Gigi that Stacey didn’t actually donate the stem cells that saved Shane’s life. . . . Rex confronts Stacey, accuses her of lying about Stan. . . .Dorian tells Langston and Marco that Lola confessed to murdering her own mother and letting her father do the prison time. . . . Gigi realizes that if Stacey was lying about the stem cells that saved her son, then Gigi’s promise to God to “do anything” if Shane lives was invalid, and she didn’t need to break up with Rex after all. . . . Kyle argues with Roxi about the stem cell hoax. Roxi wonders if the mystery man who contributed the stem cells is really dead as the nurse told her. . . . John and Marty fall onto the bed in a torrid embrace. . . . Blair and Tea discuss the talk they had when they were trapped in the basement with a gas leak and thought they were going to die. Both confessed that Todd was the love of their lives. They agree that “What happened in the boiler room stays in the boiler room” . . . .

So it goes on a typical afternoon in Llanview, PA on the soap opera One Life to Live. And today’s episode didn’t even touch on Starr and Cole’s stolen baby, whom Jessica kidnapped while under the control of her “gatekeeper” alter ego Bess, Natalie’s sudden marriage to Jared, or numerous other plotlines.

I’ve been hooked on OLTL since the actor Michael Easton, who plays John McBain,  moved there after the defunct soap opera Port Charles was cancelled. (There he played a devastatingly attractive vampire, long before vampires were as hot as they are today. More about him later.) I used to watch from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. on ABC, but that cut into my prime work time, so now I usually watch on the Soap Channel at 8:00 a.m. That way I can multitask – watch the soap, read the newspaper (what little remains of it), eat breakfast, cuddle with the cats, then be at my computer by 9:00.

I’ve tried to justify this guilty addiction by tracking and analysing the plot lines as I watch. Twice I made sociometric diagrams linking the various characters and their relationships; both times I counted about 44 active roles. In the year that passed between these two efforts, some characters died or disappeared, and new ones took their place, but the number of characters remained remarkably consistent. More recently, using Word, I generated a table with 31 lines for days of the month and seven columns for major plot lines. (Actually there are many more plots going on, but seven was all I could fit on the page.)

I’m a painter as well as a writer, and I’ve been tempted to enlarge these complicated diagrams and turn them into works of art. They’d look great in a gallery – something like Jackson Pollock – but I doubt anyone would buy them, and I can’t afford the time. A show like OLTL has many writers, and I’m sure they must have a room with wall charts and diagrams somewhere in the ABC studios in NYC near the Hudson where they shoot the show.  I’d love to sneak a peek – who knows, I might even see Michael Easton.

It’s instructive to compare this kind of multileveled plotting with the way we structure our own novels, and mysteries in particular. We’re often cautioned not to introduce too many characters, for fear of confusing readers, but if soap fans can fathom the intricacies of a show like OLTL, maybe our readers can comprehend more than we give them credit for.

OFFICIAL BLOG ENDS HERE

BOREDOM ALERT: THE FOLLOWING MAY INTEREST BLOG BOOK TOURS FOLKS AND MICHAEL EASTON FANS. OTHERS MAY WISH TO STOP NOW.

While checking my Yahoo Groups today, I realized that I’m still a member of a Michael Easton online fan group. I’m going to post over there and invite them to visit today’s blog. It’ll be an interesting way to expand beyond my usual internet circle of friends. I’d like to thank Enid Wilson from Blog Book Tours for asking about the character Gabriel in my novel Eldercide. I told her he was inspired by the actor Michael Easton, and that got me thinking . . .

If any of Michael’s fans check in here, welcome, and please leave a comment. You can visit my website, www.julielomoe.com, to read the first chapter of Eldercide. There you’ll meet the villainous Gabriel. Although he does kill people, he has a compassionate side, and he’s strangely charismatic. As you read his scene, envision Michael – that’s who I pictured when I was writing about Gabriel.

The shadow side, Carl Jung and Sue Grafton

Yesterday, writing about the shadow side in nature, I promised to blog about Carl Jung and Sue Grafton. But today, determined to fulfill my promise, I found myself under attack by one of my own shadow selves – the harsh academic critic that drove me mercilessly throughout my higher education.

At last month’s MWA Edgar Symposium in New York City, Sue Grafton spoke about a time several years back when she found herself creatively blocked. (Who wouldn’t be, committing to write 26 novels about the same protagonist!) She entered therapy, in the course of which she explored her “shadow side,” the unconscious, more instinctual and irrational side of the psyche we find it hard to acknowledge. The process helped her regain momentum, and she recommended that other authors mine the depths of their own shadows.

I took voluminous notes, as I always do at these events – a holdover from my years in academia. True, I rarely read them again, but at least I know I have them. Today, though, I couldn’t find them, and panic set in. Should I write about Grafton anyway? What if I misquoted her? Ultimately I decided to forge ahead with my memories alone, but the choice wasn’t an easy one.

Then I decided to check out what Carl Jung had to say about “the shadow.” Wikipedia was the easiest choice, but when I read the endless entry on Jung, there were dozens of references and links but absolutely nothing about the shadow. Again, more panic – I started hyperventilating, and my heart rate went up. Had I been wrong? Maybe he hadn’t written about the shadow after all. Fortunately, I did an advanced search, adding “shadow” after his name, and there it was, a long entry under “Shadow (psychology)”. Here are some tidbits:

In Jungian psychology, the shadow or “shadow aspect” is a part of the unconscious mind consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts . . .”Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is” . . . The shadow may appear in dreams and visions in various forms, often as a feared or despised person or being, and may act either as an adversary or a servant.

Hmmm, sounds like the villains in our mystery novels, doesn’t it? I’m reminded of Gabriel, the sensitive, tormented shadow figure in my book Eldercide, who murders elderly folks he believes have outlived their allotted life spans. I relished writing from his point of view far more than I liked writing about the good guys. Guess I’m in touch with my shadow!

Thanks to my inner critic, I achieved the academic goals I set myself. For example, I graduated from Barnard Magna cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa. But that turned out not to do me much good in the real world. Some of my classmates did a bit better – they included Erica Jong, Twyla Tharp and Martha Stewart. Oh well, I’ve still got time, right?

How about the other writers out there – are you in touch with your dark side? And how does it fuel your writing?

James Lee Burke – perseverance furthers

In my mailbox this morning I found the thick glossy program from the Mystery Writers of America ‘s Edgar Awards Dinner. I didn’t attend; it’s too pricy for me. But I did splurge enough to attend the symposium* the day before. I was especially inspired by Julie Smith’s interview with this year’s two Grand Masters, James Lee Burke and Sue Grafton.

The program’s  article about Burke by his daughter Alafair Burke brought back memories of his talk. He published three novels as a young man, but his fourth, The Lost Get Back Boogie, was rejected over 100 times in the next nine years. Throughout that time, he never stopped writing. She quotes from an article he wrote for the New York Times:

“A real writer is driven both by obsession and a secret vanity, namely that he has a perfect vision of the truth, in the same way that a camera lens can close perfectly on a piece of the external world. If the writer does not convey that vision to someone else, his talent turns to a self-consuming bitterness.”

Since he’s published 27 novels and is still going strong, he obviously managed to write his way through that tough period. Note his emphasis on reaching “someone else” through writing. How many readers do we need in order to steer clear of that “self-consuming bitterness”? And how long are we willing to toil away in solitude without them? For me, it’s not all that many and not all that long. That’s why I chose the POD option – for the time being, anyway. Endlessly delayed gratification is not for me.

*The MWA’s Edgar Week Symposium is available on CD’s and/or DVDs. You can order individual sessions, but a better deal is to order a complete set of three MP3 CDs for $35 or six DVDs for $50. I’m not getting them because I heard them all live and in person, but it would be a worthwhile purchase if you have a local writers’ group to share it with, or even just as a treat for yourself and your friends. Details are on the Mystery Writers of America website.