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Annotative Essay on the book: ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One hundred years of solitude book essay

one hundred years of solitude essay

The term ‘hook-line-and-sinker’ is the eponymous of the way a human reacts to something of interest. Simply put, if a person really likes something they are, “hook-line-and-sinker.” The term comes from fishing, and it relates to the way that if a fish eats a fisherman’s hook (sharp part holding the bait that locks them) the line (fishing string) and the sinker (weight that keeps the line from rising above the water) then the fish is surely caught. Whereas if a fish were to only take the hook, or just the hook and the line, then there is a chance that they might be caught, or might not be caught. The key, though, is all three, “hook,” “line,” and “sinker.” Miss one and you might as well miss all three.

“An author’s job should be to make things, in a sense, as simple for the reader as possible.”

The reason I bring this up and start my essay with this old colloquialism is because although One Hundred Years of Solitude had me hooked from the very beginning, though very well written, it failed to capture me hook-line-and-sinker. And even though the term is based on fishing, the same is held true for writing. A writer doesn’t merely aim to hook his reader; he wants to get them line-and-sinker as well. This, I believe, is where One Hundred Years of Solitude falls short, and it is from this which I learned the most from the novel.

Here are the ways in which I believed One Hundred Years of Solitude lacked a certain amount of joie de vivre.

For starters, from the very beginning I found myself wondering whose story it was that was being told. The novel first introduces us to the character Aureliano Buendia, but then he disappears and we are left with his father Jose Arcadio Buendia. Jose Arcadio then becomes the main focus of the text but only until we are then focused back on Aureliano and then another person and then another. The story moves from Aureliano Buendia to Arcadio Buendia back to Aureliano to Jose Arcadio, then Arcadio, then Aureliano Jose. On and on down the line, etc. The characters were made specific in their descriptions but as a reader because of the similar names I was confused, during some of the busier scenes, and was left wondering who was who, and again, whose story it was. I understood that the author may have been trying to get across a picture of lineage with the usage of repeating familial names but surely there could have been a less confusing manner. An author’s job should be to make things, in a sense, as simple for the reader as possible. Make things too hard and a reader will simply put the book down. Notwithstanding, an author should still challenge his readers; however, the challenge shouldn’t be in remembering a dozen similar sounding names, the challenge should be in finding different levels of depth within the text. By starting the book of with Aureliano and then ignoring him for dozens of pages only to bring him back later and then to toss him aside and then bring another character in with a similar name it only left me feeling jaded.

“What good is a well written sentence if it doesn’t drive the reader to read the next and the next and the next?”

The author initially had me hooked with the story of Aureliano Buendia and instantly I became curious as to the circumstance of his future possible execution, but the story and character of Aureliano Buendia became such a tease, and a story that seemed so far away, that even though I had been hooked, I stopped following the line. Right after I was hooked by the story of Aureliano, things jumped to someone and something entirely different and although there were glimpses of Aureliano and the future execution that would befall him, there was too much distance between the sinker and the hook. I was lost, confused, and most of all, and worst of all, bored. I stopped caring. In a book that encompasses seven generations, I was bored by the first generation and had to force myself through the remaining six. I believe this is specifically because the initial thing that had hooked me at the beginning was not strong enough to carry me through, and there were no further hooks that would have carried me through the entire novel.

The novel was perfectly written with not a single comma out of place; however, well written sentences are meaningless if they have no ends. What good is a well written sentence if it doesn’t drive the reader to read the next and the next and the next?  What One Hundred Years of Solitude lacked was that special something that would keep me reading through the night, or would keep me thinking about it even as I fell asleep waiting to read more the next day. It is a book that I put down, and as all readers and writers know, once a book is put down, it often is never picked up again. As salesmen say, “Make the sale while they’re still in the room, because there’s a good chance that if they walk out that door they’re never coming back.” And even if the person is/does come back, each time you need to treat them as though they’re never coming back. You need to sell them every step of the way, with every word, sentence and paragraph. This is what I believe One Hundred Years of Solitude lacked.

“The sinker is what really gets the fish.”

What I believe was good about reading this book was that, although it was very well written, and although I wasn’t much of a fan, reading the novel taught me that in my own experience as a reader, things need to hook you right away and keep you hooked (a la hook-line-and-sinker). There have been plenty of books throughout the years that I have started reading only to have stopped because I became bored, and there are just as many books that I started reading and liked, but stopped reading and never picked up again because I found something else more interesting. And there are also books where I’ve showed up late to work, skipped class, or missed meals, simply because I was so enamored with the writing and story that I simply couldn’t put it down (Ex: All Quiet on the Western Front). This is where my lesson was learned.

The sinker is what really gets the fish. That’s how you know you’ve got them for sure. And for One Hundred Years of Solitude I was hooked and followed the line but never reached the sinker. I never got to that point. But through an in-depth analysis and meditation on my own writing I have seen how I have used this correctly and incorrectly in the past and how to better use it in the future. The key I believe it to hook the reader at the very beginning, preferably with the first sentence, paragraph or page, and then have them follow the line until they reach the sinker which has to be something big. Once you have them hooked the key is to not have too much distance between the hook and the sinker. If there’s too much distance a fish can figure out what’s going on and break free and a reader can become bored and move on. But the hook and sinker must be on the same line. For One Hundred Years of Solitude the hook went to a different line, I followed that line which only led to another hook, I followed that new line which only led to another hook, on and on down until the book was done and I realized that I had never been hooked-line-and-sinkered, and had only continued reading because it was a requirement for school. In my own writing I now realize that to keep a reader reading it is not enough to merely hook them and have them follow a line but I also need to have something big in the story that will keep the reader reading even if it means missing work or school. Now, how to do that, is the real question, and I will now look for it in the books that have done it to me in the past and that will do it to me in the future.

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The Craft of Writing: Reliable Narrator, in an Unreliable World

typewriter: craft essay reliable narrator in an unreliable worldReliable Narrator

In an

Unreliable World

“Some first lines are so powerful that you absolutely have to keep on reading.” –Noah Lukeman

If a writer cannot hook their reader within the first sentence, paragraph, and ultimately the first chapter, then all is lost. Like a car salesman who knows that he has to make the sale before the customer leaves; “They’ll never come back, make the sale now!” is often the motto.  The same goes for writing.  Once a book is placed down, there’s always a chance that it may never be picked back up.  A writer’s best bet is to make sure that the book is never placed down.  The best way to do that is to introduce a reader to a foreign, often unreliable world—which is somewhat implicit in memoir—and give them a reliable, trustworthy, narrator.

“How does the reader know that they’re going to be taken through a foreign world by a guide they can trust?”

In this annotative essay, the first chapters of great works will be discussed—particularly non-fiction—and how it is that the authors convince us that we’re being introduced to an unreliable/foreign world with a reliable, trustworthy, narrator. The books to be focused on: A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert, Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt, and Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

As stated, the beginning of a book has the biggest, most important, job.  It sets the tone.  The intensity.  The plot.  The characters.  It introduces us to the world within the pages.  If the world seems too bland, too predictable, too passé, then all is lost.  No person begins reading with the intent to be bored, no person reads to learn something they already know; instead, we read to escape, to be entertained, to become informed.  We can’t escape to the same world in which we live, we can’t be entertained from tired words, and we can’t be informed from which we already know.  A book must introduce a reader to a foreign world, an unpredictable world, a world in which they can see a possibility for entertainment, mystery, escapism, and information. It’s often said that “truth is stranger than fiction,” and in non-fiction authors often have the difficult task of taking extraordinary, unbelievably true stories, and making them believable.  From the man who was hiking and had to cut off his own arm, to the pastor who claims his child went to heaven, to the man who claims he slept with thousands of women.  Books implicitly introduce the reader to a foreign world and once we enter this world, we need to know that we will have a trustworthy narrator to guide us through.  Because if we don’t trust the narrator then we don’t trust the world they’ve created.

“This doesn’t mean that the narrator is boring, simply instead that we can trust them.”

How does the reader know that they’re going to be taken through a foreign world by a guide they can trust? Imagine going to a museum and there’s two tour guides that you can choose.  Tour guide number one is a nineteen year old, high school dropout, named Frank.  Frank’s a slacker who always wears his t-shirt too big and pants too low, he only gives tours so that he has enough money to buy drugs.  Tour guide number two is a sixty-five year old, retiree, named Blake.  Blake has a Ph.D. in art history, and only works as a tour guide because he’s loves art and needs something to do while he’s retired.

If you were going to have a tour of an art museum, and if you had a choice, which tour guide would you prefer? The answer is easy… Blake, of course.

We chose Blake because we trust him.   We trust the bow-tie that adorns the collar of his nicely ironed shirt, we trust the Ph.D. that follows the word “Blake,” on his nametag.  We trust the kind hearted voice of a man who’s poured over books of art, who’s seen the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, and who’s gazed up at the Sistine Chapel.  We trust Blake because when he doesn’t know something he tells us he doesn’t know.  He isn’t here to be your friend or get you to like him or go out on a date with him he’s only here to tell you everything he knows about art.  Everything about Blake, from the way he looks, to the way he talks, is what we would expect.  He’s congruent with himself.

“Dostoyevsky’s narrator may be a horrible, miserable person, but he’s a horrible, miserable person that we instantly trust as our narrator.”

Frank, on the other hand, we don’t trust. He seems unreliable.  He calls it the Sixteen Chapel instead of the Sistine Chapel, and he knows more about Kim Kardashian then Pablo Picasso.  Frank is covered in tattoos but tries to hide them with long sleeves.  Frank contradicts himself.  At one point he tells you that he’s been working at the museum for six months, and at another point he says three months.  He leaves out information about paintings during the tour; he pretends to know more than he does, he misleads you purposely, sometimes for his own amusement, sometimes just to get an easy laugh.  Frank gives tours in a certain way because sometimes he’s trying to impress some pretty ladies that are in the group and sometimes he’s just trying to get a bigger tip. Frank’s intentions as a tour guide are never altruistic, he’s never reliable or congruent, and frankly, Frank is a tour guide that we simply cannot trust.

The key to presenting a reliable narrator in an unreliable world is to make sure that they are more like Blake then Frank. This doesn’t mean that the narrator is boring, simply instead that we can trust them.  If we look at the beginning of Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky:

“I’m a sick man . . . a mean man. There’s nothing attractive about me.  I think there’s something wrong with my liver. But, actually, I don’t understand a damn thing about my sickness; I’m not even too sure what it is that’s ailing me. I’m not under treatment and never have been, although I have great respect for medicine and doctors. Moreover, I’m morbidly superstitious—enough, at least, to respect medicine.  With my education I shouldn’t be superstitious, but I am just the same. No, I’d say I refuse medical help simply out of contrariness.  I don’t expect you to understand that, but it’s so.  Of course, I can’t explain whom I’m trying to fool this way.  I’m fully aware that I can’t spite the doctors by refusing their help.  I know very well that I’m harming myself and no one else. But still, it’s out of spite that I refuse to ask for the doctors’ help. So my liver hurts? Good, let it hurt even more!”

“We need to know that the narrator is a real person, not an amalgamation of different people or ideas, not some idealized version of a person, but a real, flesh and blood, faults and all, person.”

We see that what Dostoyevsky does is set up a strong intense tone of the narrator.  He creates a character that has such a unique intensity that the reader is drawn forward to read more.  And what’s more, he keeps up the intensity throughout the whole first chapter, and ultimately the whole book.  Like Blake, he admits when he doesn’t know something, “I don’t understand a damn thing about my sickness,” he admits his mistakes, “I shouldn’t be superstitious, but I am just the same,” his vulnerabilities, “I’m a sick man . . . a mean man,” Dostoyevsky’s narrator may be a horrible, miserable person, but he’s a horrible, miserable person that we instantly trust as our narrator.  Everything that we read and hear in that first paragraph is congruent with the portrait that the narrator is painting.  We can see him.  Similar to how Blake’s bow-tie matches his shirt, pants, and personality, so too does everything that we see of the narrator match up with the picture being painted.  But the most important part is that we can actually see the narrator.  It’s easier to trust a narrator that we can see.

In just the first paragraph of Notes from the Underground we get the sense of a man who is hurting, pleading, who is on bended knees baring his soul.  This is another way to let a reader know that they’re dealing with a reliable narrator: vulnerability.  By being upfront and admitting the faults within ourselves and our story—“I don’t understand a damn thing about my sickness; I’m not even too sure what it is that’s ailing me.”—the reader knows beforehand what they’re getting themselves into, and with whom; they know that the narrator’s not trying to pull one over on them, that they can be trusted.  It is the man adorned in armor who needs it the most.  But a man who takes his armor offer is a man unafraid, and it is the man who doesn’t hide that we trust.  So even though the narrator that we’re being introduced to seems to be a horrible, miserable, loser of a narrator, he is also a trustworthy narrator, he is a narrator that we feel safe with, in the sense that we can see that he’s hiding nothing.  He is vulnerable and we keep reading because we trust that vulnerability.

“We trust this vulnerability because she’s opening herself up, showing us her wounds, she’s not trying to hide, protect, or paint a perfect picture of herself, and it is vulnerability like this which makes a story great and a narrator reliable.”

Another way in which a narrator can set up a tone of reliability is with relatability. If a narrator is too far out-there, then they’ll be seen as unreliable and untrustworthy.  If a character is set up as smart and intelligent but keeps doing dumb things, things that we know no real, normal person would do, then the narrator loses our trust.  We need to know that the narrator is a real person, not an amalgamation of different people or ideas, not some idealized version of a person, but a real, flesh and blood, faults and all, person.

Dostoyevsky follows all these steps perfectly in Notes from the Underground.  The first thing that he does is he sets up the main character, the narrator.  He sets up the narrator so well and so succinctly that with each word, though, idea, and phrasing, the character becomes more and more alive, more relatable.  Within a few sentences we’re no longer reading a book, we’re now hearing a story from the person sitting next to us.  The words suddenly have eyes, and a nose, and a mouth, and fingers, and a beard, and a bald head.  Next he shows us that not only is this narrator a real person who’s sitting next to us, but also that this narrator isn’t like our typical neighbor, co-worker, family member, or stranger on the bus.  This narrator is sick.  He’s depressive.  He’s paranoid.  He’s a man so stubborn, so defiant, that he refuses medical care out of spite.  Spite for crying out loud!  He neglects his own health for vengeance against and unknown, unnamed enemy.  He’s “out-there” but not so far out-there that we would write him off as an untrustworthy, unrelatable, narrator.  He may be telling us that that he’s crazy but we trust him when he tells us that he’s crazy.  His actions are all congruent with who he is as a narrator.  Then combined with the vulnerability we have a narrator who we can see, relate to, feel for, and who we trust to be our tour guide through the pages.  We have our Blake!

Vulnerability, congruence, relatability, a narrator that we can actually see; these are the four things which most convince a reader that they’re dealing with a reliable narrator, and which ultimately keep them reading.  And now that these four traits have been identified in Dostoyevsky’s work, we will look at several other successful, and not so successful, attempts at creating a reliable, relatable, vulnerable, and congruent narrator in non-fiction.

The memoir A Three Dog Life, by Abigail Thomas, begins:

“This is the one thing that stays the same: my husband got hurt. Everything else changes.  A grandson needs me and then he doesn’t.  My children are close then one drifts away.  I smoke and don’t smoke; I knit ponchos, then hats, shawls, hats again, stop knitting, start up again.  The clock ticks, the seasons shift, the night sky rearranges itself, but my husband remains constant, his injuries are permanent.  He grounds me.  Rich is where I shine.  I can count on myself with him.”

“But its objective moments like this, where we may not actually believe that the narrator had the worst of the worst of upbringings, we may not believe that an Irish Catholic upbringing is the worst, but we do believe that the narrator believes it’s the worst.”

Immediately we’re shown a woman “my husband,” older “a grandmother,” who is stuck in a changing, “This is the one thing that stays the same…” never-changing, rut. The one place where she’s grounded, that lets her count on herself, is the one place that also gives her the most misery: her husband Rich.  She invites us into her world, shows us the tedium of everyday life, and she, ultimately, spends the entire first chapter showing us how vulnerable she is: “I got stuck with the past and future.  That’s my half of this bad hand.  I know what happened and I never got used to that.”  We trust this vulnerability because she’s opening herself up, showing us her wounds, she’s not trying to hide, protect, or paint a perfect picture of herself, and it is vulnerability like this which makes a story great and a narrator reliable.  She is taking the armor off, and like a man at a strip-club, it’s the removing of the clothing which is the most alluring.  She’s showing us her tattoos not hiding them under her sleeves.

The narrator of A Three Dog Life is immediately consistent with the picture being painted.  She’s congruent.  From the image of an older women, to the talk of her knitting, to the fact that she has only a twenty-seven inch TV.  Most kids nowadays have iPads that are twenty-seven inches.  But not her.  She’s older.  A writer.  A reader.  She lives in a “cozy house,” with “pretty furniture,” where “Time passes here.”   She sits quietly with her husband, plays with her dogs, talks to her grandchildren.  She immediately becomes a person that we can see and relate to.  We recall images of older women we’ve met or seen on TV.  Wives, mothers, grandmothers, friends, co-workers, the narrator shows us a glimpse of her life and it’s something that we can immediately relate to; a woman who is simply living her life as best she can in the face of tragedy.  These all help us to see the picture of a woman, and when the picture matches up with the words and actions, combined with vulnerability, congruence, and relatability, then we have a reliable narrator, one that we believe we can trust.  This narration is kept up throughout the book and on every page we see a narrator who is giving herself to us, who we can see, relate to, trust, and care about.  This is why Stephen King called A Three Dog Life, “The best memoir I have ever read.”  This means another Blake!

Let’s look at one more good example—Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt—before moving onto an example where the author doesn’t set up a reliable narrator. Angela’s Ashes begins:

“My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene barley one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood; the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.  Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.”

In the first few pages, McCourt sets up a narrator that we can see. Irish and Catholic we can see those rosy white cheeks and blue eyes.  We can see the tough-as-nails kid with a hard upbringing and a just as hard look at life.  We can see this rough narrator and rough lens which he views the world.  What is set up is a narrator who thinks that he had it the worst; that his upbringing wasn’t just the worst of the worst, it was the worst of the worst of the worst.  We know that this is a narrator who is going to tell us about how bad things were for him, and he does.  But its objective moments like this, where we may not actually believe that the narrator had the worst of the worst of upbringings, we may not believe that an Irish Catholic upbringing is the worst, but we do believe that the narrator believes it’s the worst.  And that’s all that really matters.  Memoir isn’t about perfection, it’s about point-of-view.  We’re reading about a person, their thoughts, feelings, action, and in-actions in life.  We need to see them and know their thoughts, no matter how faulty we may see them as.  We’re not looking to see our reflection but theirs.

“It is hard to trust a narrator that we cannot see. And even harder still when said narrator has covered themselves in armor.”

Like everyone’s infamous Uncle Larry who always says he’s going to stop drinking.  He might mean it every month when he says it, but we all know the truth.  We know that every month he says he’ll quit, then will quit for a few hours, a day at the most, and then is right back at it.  We don’t have to believe everything Uncle Larry says, or the narrator, but we do have to believe that we can trust the narrator.  And just as we trust Uncle Larry to keep at it, so too do we trust the narrator of Angela’s Ashes to keep up with the voice that is set up.  Frank McCourt gives us a reliable narrator.

Throughout the whole first chapter the narrator of Angela’s Ashes is shown as a man with a hard upbringing.  From the stories of his father being hunted by the Irish Republican Army (“a price on his head,”) to the stories of poverty (“dad loses his job,”), alcoholism, and death (“he died of the drink,”).  He shows us that he meant what he said.  That he had a tough upbringing.  He didn’t tell us that he had a tough childhood and then begin telling us about how rich his parents were and how much he loved them and them him. We see a narrator as a person who saw things not for better or worse but simply for what they were.  This is another clear-cut example of a narrator allowing themselves to be vulnerable on the page and stay congruent with the voice and image that they’re presenting.

Most people have dealt with troubles in their life and if we see a narrator who has dealt with similar troubles, whether directly mirroring ours, or in a deep enough sense compared to ours, we will make the connection and relate with the narrator.  If this is combined with vulnerability, congruence and a portrait, then we will once again experience the feeling of having a reliable narrator.

To look at something that isn’t the best of examples of the above mentioned techniques we will look at Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage a memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert. Committed starts off:

“Late one afternoon in the summer of 2006, I found myself in a small village in northern Vietnam, sitting around a sooty kitchen fire with a number of local women whose language I did not speak, trying to ask them questions about marriage.

For several months already, I had been traveling across Southeast Asia with a man who was soon to become my husband.  I suppose the conventional term for such an individual would be “fiancé,” but neither one of us was very comfortable with that word, so we weren’t using it.  In fact, neither one of us was very comfortable with this whole idea of matrimony at all.  Marriage was not something we had ever planned with each other, nor was it something either of us wanted.  Yet providence had interfered with our plans, which was why we were now wandering haphazardly across Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia, all the while making urgent—even desperate—efforts to return to America and wed.”

Although well-written, Committed, lacks several of the tenants which I believe make a reliable narrator, and ultimately, a good story.

For starters, though, we will look at what works well within the story: congruency.  Gilbert comes across as a confused, though congruent narrator.  She is in love with a man, wants to be with him, but doesn’t want to marry him—these feelings fluctuate, but we are shown a narrator who fluctuates, so we can trust those feelings.  We can (at first) picture a young woman, in-love, who is going back and forth on her decision.  But even this congruency eventually works against the reliability of the narrator.

Does she, though, paint a picture of the narrator?  No.  She does not.  What we see is the image of a generic, rich woman (middle-aged?) who is a writer.  We don’t see her wrinkles.  The burn marks on her skin, the cigarette between her lips and drink in her hand.  We see nothing.  A generic woman who has a slight problem.  It is hard to trust a narrator that we cannot see.  And even harder still when said narrator has covered themselves in armor.

“A reliable narrator is someone who puts themselves into the pages. They strip off all armor and make themselves vulnerable.”

The problem with the narrator is that ultimately, throughout the book, we don’t trust the narrator.  Which means that even though the “voice,” may be congruent with the image that’s being present, we don’t trust that voice, so the image doesn’t matter.  There is no vulnerability in the pages.  She is wealthy, in love, and simply has to decide whether or not to marry a man who she claimed “…loved each other unreservedly,” and which she had already made a life-long pact, “We had even sworn lifelong fidelity to each other already…”  She gives us nothing.  Her most famous memoir, Eat Pray Love, was a more personal book, something that showed her vulnerabilities.  But those vulnerabilities are lacking in Committed.  We don’t see a real person with a real problem—a woman getting over an awful divorce, like in Eat Pray Love.  Now, her only problem is that she is wealthy, in a loving, committed, relationship with a rich, good-looking, tall, dark, and handsome Brazilian, someone whom she loves and has pledged her life to.  And yet, her big problem is that she’s hesitant on getting married again.  And these feelings teeter back and forth.  She wants to get married.  She doesn’t.  Maybe she can find another way around this.  Get married.  Don’t.  Etc.  This is a situation that isn’t that relatable.  There’s no vulnerability, so there’s nothing really for us to relate to and this is where she loses us.

Vulnerability and relatability is in the details.  Like Thomas talking about her 27in TV in Three Dog Life.  It just seems so pathetic.  So lonely.  So perfect.  Or like McCourt in Angela’s Ashes.  The hard childhood.  The alcoholism.  The deaths.  The Irish Catholic guilt.  He doesn’t skirt the issues.  He doesn’t skirt the facts.  He gives it to the reader.  Gilbert does not.  She gives a vague problem, doesn’t let us see her, and then gives no real details to the story, or about herself.  Gilbert is the Frank of narrators.  She hides her tattoos and doesn’t let us see her.  We have no choice but to not trust her and cast her off.

As the New York Post wrote about the book:

“Ironically, Gilbert’s heart does not seem to have been in this book

The book is more filler than anything, just pages and pages of rambling encounters with poor Asian people who talk to her about marriage and teach her things, then some Wiki’d historical facts, then some paeans to her worldliness and personal growth — all the while continuing to evade any real personal disclosures.”

A reliable narrator is someone who puts themselves into the pages.  They strip off all armor and make themselves vulnerable.   “This is me, blemishes and all.”  No one wants to read a book that is layered in chain-mail.  We see nothing, only manufactured goods, we don’t see the flesh and bones and blood, which is what we want.  To create a reliable, memorable, trust-worthy narrator, someone who we want guiding us through the foreign world of a book, we need someone who is vulnerable, relatable, congruent, and who we can see.  Someone who we may not like, but who we can trust.

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Annotative Essay on the book: ‘Let The Great World Spin,’ By Colum McCann

let the great world spin book

let the great world spin book essay

 McCann grabs you… at first. Starting with a tale of a man on a tightrope, he leads the reader through an interweaving story of human nature and internal and external connectedness. This beginning, and complex weaving of storylines, has shown me certain opportunities, and weaknesses in my own writing, and many ways in which I can improve. However, like all my readings, I’ve learned that every author has weaknesses, which can teach as much as his strengths.

“I see the characters. I feel them. I care for them. I want to know what happens to them.”

One thing that came up for me about the story’s, beginning, middle, and end, was that nothing about the story or plot actually captured me. A man is tightrope walking, so what? A priest is trying to find himself, so what? A mother misses her son, so what? Each theme is somewhat interesting, and each plotline somewhat intriguing, but enough so that it would keep me reading? No. Not for me. What did keep me reading, though, was the writing itself—and what was written between the lines. Although the pages weren’t dripping with philosophy and thinking points about life, there were enough moments scattered throughout which made me stop and think about life and death, and the meaning of everything. And that’s all a writer can ask for; to make his reader stop and think. In the military we say “Mission first, but soldiers always.” In writing this is best parlayed as, “Entertainment first, but thinking always.” McCann’s philosophical readings gave the book a deep ethereal feel, but his real strength is in his descriptions.

A man walking a tightrope across two buildings doesn’t interest me, at all, really. Even if the man’s life is at stake and there’s a chance he could die. Who cares? But… if I had a friend who was tightrope walking across two buildings and his life was at stake, then I would care. And that is McCann’s true strength. Through his physical and emotional descriptions he connects you to his characters. Someone, an event, that typically would not, and should not, interest me, suddenly compels me forward, to read more and more. This happens because of connectedness. I see the characters. I feel them. I care for them. I want to know what happens to them. This is why I continued reading. I didn’t care about some stupid story about someone walking across a tightrope or some stupid woman who lost her son; but it wasn’t just a man walking across a tightrope or some mother missing her son; it was my friend walking across a tightrope, my mother missing her son.

Combined with somewhat intriguing plotlines and inviting, inventive writing of emotional and physical descriptions, and the occasional thinking points, collectively, Let the Great World Spin, comes together to form a truly enjoyable book. Now, on to the lessons learned.

“The power isn’t in the story itself; because the story isn’t unique or original; the power of the story lies in the way it’s told and the way it’s written.”

McCann started his book with a man tightrope walking across two buildings. It wasn’t the best, most intriguing idea, but the writing was so descriptive that I was drawn forward to see more and find out what happens. Then, when I got to the next section, and scant a word was mentioned about the tightrope walker, I was mystified. At first, there appeared to be no connection, and I thought that perhaps the book was merely a collection of short non-conjoining stories. It wasn’t until deep in section three that the tightrope walker was mentioned again, and that I would begin to see how the story would take shape. And seeing how the author was going to connect the pieces, I became even more intrigued; not by the story itself, but by how everything was going to unfold.

In most books I read, and in my own writing, things are written in a linear format of a, b, c and d. There’s the occasional flashback and future whispers, but mostly things are written from point A to point B. But McCann has written his own indirect alphabet. Slowly things began to reveal themselves. And although, once I was done reading the book, I appreciated the uniqueness of it and loved how it was written, had the writing not been so descriptive and inventive and inviting, even a tiny bit less, I would not have finished the book; nor would I have gotten to the point where I would have realize that the stories were connected. What this went to show me is that there is no certain way in which stories need to be told or information to be given. There are other ways and other points of view. Had McCann written his book in the typical linear format then surely it wouldn’t be as highly praised or widely read.

The power isn’t in the story itself; because the story isn’t unique or original; the power of the story lies in the way it’s told and the way it’s written. As mentioned early, the book wasn’t mainly driven by its plotlines, and what really kept it going was the writing. Descriptions went on and on, sometimes too long, but still they somehow managed to capture my eye. Typically, I would find such writing as blowhard and overly verbose; however, McCann’s writing had a different nature to it, once in which I wish I could capture. His words and ideas flowed; because he combines the internal descriptions with the external ones. This can best been seen in an example from the beginning of book two.

“He surfs the thin metal platform as the train jags south out of Grand Central. At times he gets dizzy just anticipating the next corner. That speed. That wild noise in his ears. The truth is, it frightens him. The steel thrumming through him. It’s like he has the whole train in his sneakers. Control and oblivion. Sometimes it feels like he’s the one driving. Too far left and the train might smash into the corner and there’ll be a million mangled bodies along the rail. Too far right and the cars will skid sideways and it’ll be a good-bye, nice knowing you, see you in the headlines…”

One simple paragraph, yet it so powerfully captures the moment. This is the power of the writing and the book. McCann’s ability to combine the description of a speeding train with the internal feelings of one of its passengers; this allows us to see the train and the person, but more importantly to feel them both. In my writing I feel as though I would typically do one or the other; describe the physical aspects of the train, describe the physical aspects of the person, describe the feeling of the train, describe the feeling of the person, etc. But like the whole story itself, McCann combines them, he interweaves the physical aspects of the train and the person, the feelings of the train, and the feelings of the person, just as he weaves each individual story with the stories of the whole. He does this per paragraph. This is what I’d like to do in my own writing.

Like my stories, my own descriptions tend to be linear. The house is red. The man is fat. The house feels haunted. The man feels ashamed. Et cetera. How do I combine the descriptions and feelings of both? This is not a rhetorical question, either; please answer in your response with how I can better do this. Examples would be helpful, too.

For more annotative essays and other book related stuff click here.

Picture: Flickr/Matthew Allard

Blogishness, Blogishness, ptsd

What is Kratom? And how can it help veterans with PTSD?

large leaf plant kratom ptsdPTSD and the herb Kratom

In this day and age of pharmaceutical giants peddling a new drug every week and then spending the next several decades in court over litigation related to the drug, it’s hard to trust some of these medications. However, with the growing boom of home remedies and homeopathy more and more people are turning to natural cures. While some of these remedies for pain and other issues are still illegal or require a very specific prescription, there are other options on the market to help relieve suffers. Kratom, for example, is one of these newer natural remedies.

 What is Kratom?

Kratom, is a leafy plant indigenous to parts of Southeast Asia. This plant is often used for pain relief and to reduce and assist with the withdrawal symptoms from opioids. Kratom works in a very similar fashion to morphine. While the plant is chewed recreationally it does not produce heavy psychoactive or other major side effects. Additionally Kratom use has been tied to an increase in overall mood. Typical users in Thailand have been said to start around 25 and continue through the rest of their lives.

Kratom side effects

While general use of Kratom doesn’t produce major side effects, chronic use has been known to lead to such things as:

  • constipation
  • darkening of the skin color of the face
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss

Additionally the addictive properties are not fully known but reports of those who inject opioids becoming addicted to Kratom have been noted.

More studies required

Currently there is little to no studies related to Kratom as its use is only just now becoming more prevalent. To add insult to injury many countries have taken legal action in regards to Kratom despite no evidence for or against its use. It is believed that many of these countries are over-reacting due to archaic and draconian beliefs related to similar substances. There are even those that believe the regulation and overzealous reactions are tied to extensive funding from pharmaceutical entities in an attempt to continue to monopolize the health care industries. While some of these beliefs are unfounded the truth of the matter is currently Kratom, its effects and use are not fully understood by the scientific community

Kratom for PTSD

 Compared to most PTSD or other anti-anxiety drugs, Kratom shows considerable promise in the treatment and management of the condition. While, like many psychological conditions, it will not cure the user it does allow them to retain a normal life while getting treatment. Unlike typical pharmaceutical treatments that can have a range of devastating side effects from agitations, hallucinations, or even increase in suicidal thoughts, Kratom is by far a greater option. However, as mentioned further study is still required, Kratom currently tends to work far better and have lesser side effects compared to traditional treatments. Most users describe the feeling as being in the moment. The past and future become irrelevant as you only focus on the here and now. It allows you to let go of any past trauma or any future worries. You only think about what needs to be done to improve your current situation. For people with PTSD this can be like coming out of a fog on a dark, overcast day to a world full of sunlight and smiling faces.

Kratom + therapy

As mentioned Kratom does not cure psychological problems like PTSD however, it does allow its users to better work though their past traumas objectively. This allows them to better understand the core of the trauma as well as address any potential underlying issues without the inherent anxiety or fear that is often prevalent when addressing the trauma. Compared to pharmaceutical remedies that, as mentioned, can have severe side effects in addition only help to mitigate issues tied to the trauma not help deal with the drama; it’s no wonder that some people believe the pharmaceutical industry is behind the blacklisting of this herb.


PTSD is a complicated psychological ailment with ties to other related psychological issues such as, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, etc. Dealing with one element of this all-consuming condition is akin to replacing the flat tires on a car with a busted engine. While pharmaceutical treatments do help mitigate some of the issues tied to PTSD they often only cover one maybe two per individual drug. In many cases people end up having to take 3 or more different drugs just to try and live some semblance of a normal life. Kratom, on the other hand deals with a lot of the issues tied to PTSD, while both causing minimal adverse effect as well as enhancing standard therapeutic treatment. Despite the misinformation campaigns and misguided anti-drug laws Kratom deserves a fair shot if for no other reason than to provide the peace of mind that all PTSD suffers long for and many cases outright deserve.

Picture: Flickr/Ahmad Fuad Morad

Best Of, Blogishness, Blogishness, Book Notes, MFA Notes

Annotative Essay on the book: ‘Netherland,’ by Joseph O’Neill

Why We Read

netherland joseph o'neill annotative essay

An Annotative Essay on: Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill

            Different books are read for different reasons. Textbooks are read so that we can be informed in what matters most to us: math, biology, philosophy, etc. Suspense and thriller books so that we can be entertained by what interests us: vampires, the mafia, war, etc. Romance novels so that we can be enthralled in what eludes us: love, passion, desire, etc. And the classics so that we can be left pondering why certain things matter, interest, and elude us.

“Yet something eluded the book itself which kept it from entering such a category.”

What about a book, though, which fits into none of the previously outlined categories? Or what about a book that fits into all of them? Or half of them? This is where Netherland lays. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book by Joseph O’Neill, when trying to classify it I ran into trouble. Well written and a page-turner, though not as entertaining as a Dean Koontz or Stephen King novel, nor as thought provoking as a classic like Catcher in the Rye; where then, does that leave a book, and all others like Netherland? It is classics which contain ‘All of the above.’ Netherland, I believe, had the makings of a classic. It had suspense, mystery, it informed me in subtle ways about life and philosophy, it enthralled me, though briefly, in passion and desire and things which elude the typical life. All things which make a classic. Yet something eluded the book itself which kept it from entering such a category. Thus, I believe Netherland joins the throws of bastard children. It fits nowhere. And this is where it gave the most instruction.

Even though I believe Netherland to be a good, though, unremarkable book, there was a lot to be learned. Both from the parts I enjoyed and disliked. The first issue, and eventual learning, I dislodged from Netherland was the art or dis-art of description. There were many descriptions which made me stop and appreciate the care and revisions in which the author must have gone through to create such a finely tuned well-crafted sentence; while simultaneously, there were several descriptions that I simply skipped over because they were simply, or un-simply, too much.

“As I repeatedly went forth with him and began to understand the ignorance and contradictions and language difficulties with which he contended, and the doubtful sources of his information and the seemingly bottomless history and darkness out of which the dishes of New York emerge, the deeper grew my suspicion that his work finally consisted of minting or perpetuating and in any event circulating misconceptions about his subject and in this way adding to the endless perplexity of the world.”

The above is merely an example of an eighty word sentence that the author used to get across a simple idea. It is one of many such examples. My issue with such writing is that if there’s a forty-five word sentence about how angry a person is, but by word eight I realize that the author is simply describing a basic state of anger; I say to myself “I get it,” and simply skip ahead. Why would I need to read the other thirty-seven words?

“I can only imagine if O’Neill had managed to write the entire book in such an unassuming yet powerful way.”

I’m reminded, as well, of a one hundred and seventy-nine word sentence that appeared in Netherland. Now, I have to believe that there had to be an easier, more flowing way, to say what O’Neill felt he needed to say than in a one hundred and seventy-nine word sentence. I find myself asking: why? Why did this writer deem it necessary to write in such a garrulous way?   Was it simply to show off his aptitude for verbosity? And the thing is, the sentence in question, is unnecessary. Though very well written, it perhaps could be used stand alone or in a shorter piece. But in a novel length work, when working through a story and trying to get to the meat of the matter, and trying to be entertained, and trying to learn, and trying to be enthralled, such long-windedness comes across as literary arrogance and, perhaps even, laziness. I’m reminded of the Einstein quote, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” If Einstein insists on conveying quantum physics as simple as possible, then why is it that authors insist on convey emotions as complex as possible? Can anger, hatred, love or happiness truly be more complicated than the cosmos?

I’m also reminded of Faulkner who self-admittedly wrote some of his work, in such a way, only for the sake of making it as confusing as possible. I have to, again, ask myself why? What is the point of such an endeavor? I understand the aspect of forcing a reader to figure out something on their own. And I support such a thing when done right, and when necessary. But those moments need to come intermittently and only work best, or seem to have a purpose, when it involves something meaningful and worthwhile. This certainly wasn’t the case for Faulkner and it often wasn’t the case for O’Neill. The additional problem that arose regarding this in Netherland was that O’Neill often got it right when writing his descriptions, which made it so much more frustrating when he got it wrong. A few of his descriptions which I believe were perfectly written and which I pictured perfectly in my mind (both happen to be only fifty-one words):

“He believed in owning the impetus of a situation, in keeping the other guy off balance, in proceeding by way of sidesteps. If he saw an opportunity to act with suddenness or take you by surprise or push you into the dark, he’d take it, almost as a matter of principle.”

“Our lecturer, a destroyed-looking man in his sixties, appeared apologetically before us, and I am certain that a compassionate understanding tacitly arose among the students that we should do everything to assist this individual, an agreeable and no doubt clever man whose life had plainly come to some kind of ruin.”

“If a powerful work can be created using 50,000 words, then I find myself wondering why it sometimes takes people 150,000 or more.”

I can only imagine if O’Neill had managed to write the entire book in such an unassuming yet powerful way. Surely, then it would have made it into my category of classics. But alas, O’Neill had left me skipping sentences and entire paragraphs because even though I enjoyed the style and language they were written in, I found them unnecessary. This led me to my first lesson from the novel and into an inquiry of my own writing.

One of the things I’ve constantly struggled with, and something I believe all writers struggle with, is the appropriate dimensions of a description. How much is too much and how much is too little? The word count for some of my favorite books ranges between 35,000 to 65,000 words—and you can bet that in those books I didn’t skip over a single paragraph, sentence or word. In books such as those, which in the scheme of things have such miniscule word counts, there has to be a severe economy of words—but done in a way without losing anything. If a powerful work can be created using 50,000 words, then I find myself wondering why it sometimes takes people 150,000 or more. This is what I struggle to do in my own writing. Often, when editing my pieces I struggle with the descriptions. I will write a nice basic two sentence long description, erase that, and then write a beautiful three paragraph description, replace that with an abrupt ten word description, delete the description all together, and then in the end, try to find something in the middle. I never feel happy with what I’m left with, and that’s my struggle: trying to find out how to say something as simple, yet eloquently as possible. I can’t say how specifically, or precisely what, Netherland has taught me regarding this; however, since the book provided, in my mind, perfect examples of both extremes, it has made me more aware of it and left me pondering over ways to find the happy medium.

For more annotative essays and other book related stuff click here.


Best Of, Blackout Poetry, Blogishness, Blogishness, Politics / News, Politics / News, Uncategorized

Blackout Poetry: Combat Action Badge

Blackout Poetry Logo DesignThis poem/post will probably be a little more controversial than most Blackout poetry posts. That’s because it involves Combat Action Badges, and the current debate regarding them, and when/how/if/under what circumstances they should be awarded. My position on this is somewhat unique, though I know I’m not alone…

Blackout Poetry: Combat Action Badge

This article originally appeared in the Army Times and was over whether or not Combat Action Badge’s (CAB’s) should be retroactively awarded to soldiers.

“We don’t fight wars for awards.”

Here’s my take: Back when I was in the army, and serving in Iraq, I was awarded a CAB while serving in Mosul, Iraq. Now, at the time, CAB’s were a huge thing. Everyone wanted one. Some people wanted CAB’s so bad that they were even willing to lie to get them and “pretend,” as though they had been in a direct combat situation. It was a sad, sickening, spectacle. Several of my commanders lied about being in combat (and then backed up one another’s stories) just so they could get the coveted “Combat Action Badge.” This, ultimately, led myself and several fellow soldiers to come up with the saying “Never trust a soldier with a chest full of metal, unless the metal is shrapnel.” Lying was so prevalent that towards the end, the CAB, and several other awards, meant nothing to us.

People were trying so hard to get CAB’s that they were petitioning the Army, even back then, to change the regulations. Some soldiers wanted CAB’s for being around unexploded ordnance (I kid you not) others wanted unit-wide CAB’s since some of us had been in combat (that is actually too ridiculous for me to be able to explain in a blog post). And the coup de grace of all this is that at the end of my deployment, several fellow soldiers wanted me to lie about the events of an attack so that another soldier could be awarded a CAB. I refused, and the soldiers got upset with me, as though I was the asshole.

Anyway, if you can’t tell by now, I have no respect for soldiers, or anyone else, who feels the need to bitch, complain, and whine that they don’t have enough awards to pin on their chests.

We don’t fight wars for awards. Act like it!

 Poem Transcription:




The Combat Action Badge

Was made to

Award Veterans

They want to be recognized

 For more military/war related blackout poetry click here.

To read more about the military experience and CAB’s check out the following book:

Best Of, Blackout Poetry, Blogishness, ptsd, Uncategorized

Blackout Poetry: Veteran Suicides

Blackout Poetry Logo WarIn case you’re not familiar with Blackout Poetry, Blackout Poetry is the act of creating poems by blacking out words that appear in newspaper articles (or books, but typically newspaper articles). I was inspired to give it a shot after being introduced to it by Austin Kleon. I’ve got a six month subscription to The Army Times and I’ll be experimenting with it throughout the next few months.

 —Blackout Poetry veteran suicides

This was an article that appeared in the April 13th 2015 edition of The Army Times. The article discussed veteran suicides across active duty and reserve/national guard soldiers. In 2014 suicides decreased for active duty soldiers but increased for reserve soldiers. With 22 veterans killing themselves every day in the United States (we’ve lost two to suicide from the unit I served with in Iraq) this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. I tried to boil down the article into its major points and through the redaction process I came up with the poem pictures above (and transcribed below).

Suicides Up

Suicides confirmed

it was their own


Suicides Down

Service members

protect us

support them.

Crisis line, 800-273-8255

 For more military/war related blackout poetry click here.

To learn more about the war-time military experience check out the following book:


Happy People At War – Paulo Coelho – The Zahir

paul coelho on warHey!  I was reading through an old Paulo Coelho book that I had lying around the house and I came across a passage that I wanted to share (no context is really needed–and emphasis added is mine):

“Yes, the answer lies in some words written by the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, the same man who said that our world is surround by a layer of love.  He said: ‘We can harness the energy of the winds, the seas, the sun.  But the day man learns to harness the energy of love, that will be as important as the discovery of fire.'”

“And you could only learn that by going to a war zone?”

“I’m not sure, but it did allow me to see that, paradoxical though it may seem, people are happy when they’re at war.  For them, the world has meaning.  As I said before, total power or sacrificing themselves for a cause gives meaning to their lives.  They are capable of limitless love, because they no longer have anything to lose.  A fatally wounded soldier never asks the medical team: ‘Please save me!’  His last words are usually: ‘Tell my wife and my son that I love them.’  At the last moment, they speak of love!”

“So, in your opinion, human beings only find life meaningful when they’re at war.”

“But we’re always at war.  We’re at war with death, and we know that death will win in the end.  In armed conflicts, this is simply more obvious, but the same thing happens in daily life.  We can’t allow ourselves the luxury of being unhappy all the time.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“I need help.  And that doesn’t mean saying to me, ‘Go and hand in your notice,’ because that would only leave me feeling even more confused than before.  We need to find a way of channeling all this, of allowing the energy of this pure, absolute love to flow through out bodies and spread around us.  The only person so far who has helped me understand this is a rather otherworldly interpreter who says he’s had revelations bout this energy.”

“Are you talking about the love of God?”

“If someone is capable of loving his partner without restrictions, unconditionally, then he is manifesting the love of God.  If the love of God becomes manifest, he will love his neighbor.  If he loves his neighbor, he will love himself.  If he loves himself, then everything returns to its proper place.  History changes.”

“History will never change because of politics or conquests or theories or wars; that’s mere repetition, it’s been going on since the beginning of time.  history will only change when we are able to use the energy of love, just as we use the energy of the wind, the seas, the atom.”

“Do you think we two could save the world?”

“I think there are more people out there who think the same way.  Will you help me?”

“Yes, as long as you tell me what I have to do.”

“But that’s precisely what I don’t know!”


{{This passage really spoke to me when I initially read it–I came across it because I had it highlighted–and it spoke to be again finding it all these years later.  Originally, I had read the book that the passages comes from (The Zahir) while in Iraq, and that passage was filled with so much truth.  Especially this part: “”…people are happy when they’re at war.  For them, the world has meaning.  As I said before, total power or sacrificing themselves for a cause gives meaning to their lives.  They are capable of limitless love, because they no longer have anything to lose…..””

It’s 100%.  War is and was hell for me, and all of us who served, but the truth was that even amongst all the bullshit that comes with a  deployment, we were all also (for the most part) happy at war.  The world does tend to have a little more meaning while you’re at war, while you’re so close to death and know it.  I worked in a hospital in Iraq and all of us who worked in there dealt with death on a daily basis and I can tell you from first hand experience that it’s true: “”A fatally wounded soldier never asks the medical team: ‘Please save me!’  His last words are usually: ‘Tell my wife and my son that I love them.’  At the last moment, they speak of love!””

That’s what it’s all about!}}


Picture: Flickr/Paulo Coelho


Graduated From Lesley University: MFA in Creative Writing

lesley university low-residency mfa in creative writing

So… I just graduated from Lesley University with an MFA in creative writing, and it looks like good times, and bad times, are ahead for this newly minted graduate.

The Good: Being done with school is going to be great, in a sense. No more deadlines, no more reading books that someone else chooses for me, and I’ll finally be out in the real world again with my writing–instead of waiting to finish my MFA to get back out there.

The Bad: I’ll miss the intense learning that went along with the program. No deadlines means no room to slack, and throughout the years I actually enjoyed several assigned books that I wouldn’t have normally read, and now I’ll be back out in the real world of writing, instead of in the warm embrace of an MFA program.  Publish or perish and all that ballyhoo!

The Future: I’ll be spending some time searching for a teaching position here in Massachusetts (English or creative writing) and will be working towards publishing my thesis (a post-war, post-Mass Casualties, memoir). I’ll start blogging again at the Good Men Project where I’m the editor for the War and Veterans section.

The Reflections: Several months back I briefly covered my thoughts on whether or not it’s worth it to get an MFA, and I still feel the same.  An MFA is definitely worth it, as long as you put in the work.  But really, it’s the years afterward, which I can now only assume, that makes the difference. I’ve heard too many stories of people graduating from MFA programs only to do nothing with it later.  Either they give up writing, or put it on the back-burner only to pick it up again five or ten years later.  Some will go on to become teachers, some will never finish the novel/memoir that they worked so hard on, some will finish but never publishing, and I suppose there’s a few who will actually make a splash for themselves in the writing world. The goal now, I guess, is to become one of those few.  How to accomplish it though, I don’t know.