Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

September 25, 2014

What I’m learning about writing

Filed under: Literature,On Thinking,Personal — Stephen W. Browne @ 1:04 pm

I have been a professional writer, meaning I get paid for what I write, for going on two decades now. I’ve been making a full-time living at it for six years now.

I started with five goals as a writer:
1) Write regularly.
2) Publish what I write.
3) Get paid for what I write.
4) Make a living writing.
5) Make a lot of money writing.

I like to say I’m on stage four. However each stage is an order of magnitude more difficult than the last, so the jump from four to five…

When I started getting paid for writing advertorials for the English-language press in Poland, I looked on it as paid practice.

When I became a working journalist it imposed a certain kind of structure on my writing: more terse than my usual wont, and organized in the “inverted pyramid” style. It’s not quite how I like to do essays, and I think of myself as an essayist above all, but it’s great discipline.

Opinion columns are great practice too. You have to make your point within a certain word limit, which really makes you think about how to organize your thoughts and what is the minimum necessary to leave in to support your point.

I’ve also written quite a few movie/TV reviews and that is a whole lot of fun.

Now I’ve taken off six months from work to write a book, maybe two short books, and it’s a whole different ball game.

I’ve actually written two books already. One was a book of vocabulary-building essays for English students and teachers who are non-native speakers.

The other was a book on linguistic humor for the same audience. Meaning jokes that cannot be translated because they use a feature of the language, lexical or phonetic, for humorous effect: puns, play on words, spoonerisms, accent and dialect jokes, etc.

Now I’m working on a book with some of my thoughts on politics, “The Progressive Mind and Other Essays.”

Like my other books it’s partly a collection of essays, revised and expanded, and partly new material written to extend my original insight and bring it all together.

A lot of the work so far has been just copying and pasting the essays, writing transitions and editing. And boy has there been a lot of editing!

I have had to ruthlessly prune phrases down to single words or eliminate them entirely. I constantly ask myself, “Does this support the point or did you just include that because you thought it was interesting?”

And I have to organize thoughts I’ve had that previously just rumbled around in my brain.

It’s a challenge for sure, and win, lose, or draw it’ll make a better writer out of me.

But what’s really tough is the self-doubt and failure of nerve that threatens to overwhelm sometimes.

That nagging little voice that asks, “Is this really good? Is anybody ever going to find this insight as fascinating as you do? Have you got it in you to finish this?”

I’m discovering that writing can be an act of courage as much as discipline.

September 9, 2014


Filed under: Op-eds,Personal,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:33 am

Well after a wild and well-spent weekend, both my kids are home sick.

I’d promised my little girl that Saturday we could go to Thermopolis, Wyoming. Thermopolis as the name suggests, is a town built around natural hot springs. My children’s favorite park has water slides and large pools filled with warm mineral water.

Next day they wanted to go swimming at the local rec center. So a great time was had by all.

Monday morning they’re vomiting, coughing and complaining of headaches. I keep them home from school. The girl installs herself in front of the television, big brother retires to bed with his computer.

How nice to know he’ll have a profession he can practice if he’s ever disabled (said Daddy, voice dripping sarcasm).

These days I’m working out of home so I don’t have to worry about checking up on them constantly.

On the other hand my writing schedule is shot and in the midst of running to the store for ginger ale (settles the stomach) and cucumbers (for my daughter the picky eater) their mother emails with links to articles about a new and ominous enterovirus that’s going around.

“Going around” these days means a total of about a thousand kids over a ten-state area have contracted it, a handful seriously. This is not what I’d call a pandemic but it’s enough for a journalist to view with alarm.

So I’m late with my column, have just made my second trip to the grocery store in 30 minutes and have just noticed that suspicious feeling of stuffiness in the sinuses on one side of my face.

Well here I am, about to spend another not very productive day out of the six months I’ve rationed myself for writing projects and looking up statistics about guys in the same boat.

The first thing I found out was, I was wrong about how many of “us” there are. By “us” I mean single fathers. I had thought 17 percent of single-parent households were headed by single dads.

Nope. According to Pew Research Center, a source I trust because they often come up with results they don’t like, of single-parent households 24 percent are headed by dads.

Out of all households with minor children, single dads head eight percent as of 2011, up from one percent in 1960.

In raw numbers that’s about 2.6 million, up from 300,000 in 1960.

During that same period single-mother households increased from 1.9 million in 1960, to 8.6 million in 2011.

Pew said, “Single fathers are more likely than single mothers to be living with a cohabiting partner (41% versus 16%). Single fathers, on average, have higher incomes than single mothers and are far less likely to be living at or below the poverty line—24% versus 43%. Single fathers are also somewhat less educated than single mothers, older and more likely to be white.”

Well let’s see. Living with a cohabiting partner – no, and it ain’t gonna happen. Any lady I bring home will be thoroughly vetted. Till then there’s a fire wall between my kids and anyone I may date. Any day now. Line forms to the right.

Oh, and did I mention dates have to end early enough for me to tuck my kids in? No coming home at 1 p.m.

Income and poverty line?

Well since I’m currently working at home on a highly speculative literary venture I have no income, so poverty line.

Pfaugh! We don’t act poor or feel poor. Sometimes we’re broke though.

Education? Masters degree.

Older? Check. I could be their grandfather. A fact they tease me about often.

White? Well yes, unless you go by the “one known drop” rule.

So what else do we know about single-dad households?

Virtually nothing.

We know the effects of single-mother headed households. A generation of young men more prone to failure in school and in life in every significant metric: education, prison, drug use, divorce, etc.

This is NOT to denigrate the huge number of single moms doing a great job under difficult circumstances. I know many of them, and as an honorary single mom have been part of their support circles/child care collectives. But there’s not a one of them who wouldn’t tell you they wish it were different.

But single dads are flying blind. As best I can tell there is little to no research as to parenting outcomes. Perhaps because up to recently there hasn’t been a large enough sample size.
How wonderful! My kids and I are participating in cutting-edge research.

Pfffffffffffff! (Bronx cheer.)

September 3, 2014


Filed under: Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:16 am

Well we lost another one. Journalist Steven Sotloff was beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) early this week, two weeks after fellow-freelancer James Foley was decapitated by the same unlovely bunch.

I frankly don’t know how I feel about this right now. It could be that I’ve been enjoying life on the road with my kids so much I’ve been mostly ignoring the news. It could be that getting the kids into school and taking care of all those details I’ve left for the last minute is so consuming it leaves little energy to pay attention.

And it could be that I’m still numb.

In 2005 I was studying journalism at the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at Oklahoma University on a fellowship. I’d gotten into journalism quite by accident while I was working as an English teacher in Poland.

I started out writing “adverticals,” i.e. advertising thinly disguised as articles for The Airport Magazine, a bilingual publication for tourists. As a bennie they’d publish articles I was proud of about the history and culture of the country.

I also contributed articles about the events in that exciting time for “journals of much passion and small circulation,” in Prince Kropotkin’s elegant phrase.

After writing stories such as an interview with the widow of a murdered dissident in Belarus, and covering the election that brought down the Milosevic regime in Serbia from the streets of Belgrade I thought, “I’ve got to get back to the States, get some formal training and turn pro.”

So there I was, getting that training and exercising my bragging rights back in my old university.

It was there that I made the email acquaintance of Steven Vincent.

Vincent was an art critic of all things, until the day he saw the twin towers go down on 9/11.

He was a supporter of the Iraq War, but felt obligated to go and see for himself. He self-funded and went as a freelance journalist to Basra, Iraq, reporting for The Christian Science Monitor, National Review, Mother Jones, Reason, Front Page and American Enterprise, and others.

I contacted him via email and described a project I had started with friends, to organize English-teaching summer camps using the best writings in the English language to explain the principles of political liberty and free markets. That project, The Language of Liberty Institute, is still ongoing in the capable hands of my friend Glenn Cripe.

I thought we could get Vincent to come to one of our camps in Eastern Europe, and maybe he might share our dream of a camp in Iraq someday.

We were never more than correspondents, but I really looked forward to the day I could meet and become friends with this man I admired so much.

Then a day after our last email exchange I got up in the morning, switched on CNN, and read on the news feed that Vincent had been murdered in Basra.

It was like waking up from a pleasant dream to find a nightmare crouched at the foot of your bed.

Ever since then I’ve thought, I should have warned him.

I’ve traveled and worked in some dicey places. But unlike Vincent, Foley and Sotloff I generally go where I don’t look different from the locals at first glance. I usually blend in fairly well if I keep my mouth shut, and in a couple of instances I could just start speaking Polish and let people assume what they will.

What happens to you in these appalling countries where ordinary people are trying to hang on to some semblance of a normal life amidst the horror, is you come to love and respect them – and you feel you have to share their danger or no longer call yourself a man.

What you forget is that these people have a lot more experience dealing with that $#!+ than you do. And that can make you hesitate when it’s time to cut and run.

Vincent, Foley and Sotloff were freelancers, the kind we need these days when the profession of foreign correspondent has almost disappeared, and let’s face it the major corporate news organizations are corrupt and lazy.

They will be hard to replace after this.

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