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Writers are often asked where they get their ideas on what to write about. Fiction writers probably field this question more than non-fiction writers, but the question seems to be universally on the minds of readers. Many writers like myself lapse into incomprehensibility in trying to answer the question. The fact is, we don’t know. But that’s not a good answer, and it doesn’t make us sound like we know what we’re doing.
The question often implies that there is a dearth of ideas. The opposite is true. There are more ideas than we can possibly consider. Ideas are like weeds in your garden. They are always coming up, and that’s not a good thing. Some fiction writers actually become recluses to wall themselves off from all of the ideas that come their way.
Journalists, of course, never have the problem of a lack of ideas, and they never suffer from writer’s block. There are always interesting ideas, people, and situations to consider writing about.
So, whatever ideas you’re considering, have a great weekend doing it.
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Mercy Otis Warren, the anonymous writer who helped spark the Revolutionary War
When the heavy hand of the British crown grew more onerous on the American colonists in the 1760s and early 1770s, a satirical play appeared in the Massachusetts Spy lampooning Thomas Hutchinson, the crown-appointed governor of Massachusetts. The title of the play was The Adulateur, and one of the main characters was Rapatio, who was a thinly-veiled representation of Hutchinson.
Only a select few knew who had written the play: Mercy Otis Warren.
The play was published in 1773 without naming an author, as was all of Warren’s other Revolutionary-era writing. And there was a lot of it.
Mercy Otis Warren—as much as any of her peers such as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry—influenced the size, scope, and direction of revolutionary thinking in colonial America. But she lacks what they have always received: proper credit.
In addition to The Adulateur, Warren wrote two more plays that made fun of the British and their appointed leaders in the colonies: The Defeat in 1773 and The Group in 1775. Warren was married to James Warren, one of the Massachusetts radicals that led the colonies away from British rule. She and Warren invited those radicals into their home and by every appearance was the model 18th century housewife. She and James had five children together.
Behind the dutiful, supportive wife facade, she and James were active collaborators in their quest for independence. They were joined by her brother, James Otis, whose public and sometimes violent clashes with the British were well-known and infamous. Warren wrote polemics and poetry as well as plays in support of the cause. She carried on active correspondence with Abigail and John Adams, Martha Washington, and the English female historian Catharine Macaulay.
John Adams came to regard her “poetical pen” as one “which has no equal in this country.”
When the Revolutionary War was concluded and independence won, Warren continued to write about the politics of the new nation, and it’s here that one might find one of the reasons for her obscurity. She argued against the adoption of the new Constitution in 1788 in her Observations on the New Constitution, an anti-Federalist document that eventually put her on the wrong side of history.
Finally, in 1790, Warren published Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous, a work that for the first time bore her name. In 1805, she wrote one of the first histories of the Revolutionary times, a three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson was highly impressed with it, but the critical comments about John Adams precipitated a rupture in their friendship that took years to heal.
Warren died in 1814, six years after her husband passed away. They are both buried near their home in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
From the archives: Book of Judith sets forth the story of a strong female character of Biblical times
The Book of Judith presents a rollicking good tale of danger, intrigue, suspense, and high-stakes consequences. Its strong female protagonist takes on a challenge that her contemporary male counterparts shrink from.
It’s too bad that the elders of Protestantism decided that the Book of Judith should be excluded from the canon. Girls and boys alike would like Judith for who she is and what she does. Judith could well take her place alongside David, Joseph, and Joshua.
But this is a different story than those of the boys, and the differences are important.
Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians, makes war on his western neighbors, and in doing so asks his eastern neighbors—including the Jews of Palestine—to join him in his fight. Most of those eastern nations refuse to get involved in the king’s war. When Nebuchadnezzar (in the Book of Judith his name is Nabuchodonosor) conquers his foes, he comes back to Nineveh, the capital city, and has a three-month banquet for his army.
His mind, however, is on the eastern nations that refused to support him in his western conquests. He gathers together a huge army and charges one of his captains, Holofernes, with subduing and destroying those nations. Most of those nations surrender without a fight in order to save themselves, and they readily acknowledge Nebuchadnezzar as not only a king but a god. The people of Judah do not sue for peace, however, knowing that recognizing Nebuchadnezzar as a god would violate their beliefs and tradition. Holofernes turns the wrath and might of the Assyrian army onto Judah, and things don’t look good.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Wilfred Owen, the soldier who wrote anti-war poetry
Wilfred Owen’s poetry profoundly affected the public’s memory of World War I (then known as the Great War), turning it from a glorious conflict to a meaningless slaughter. Unfortunately, Owen was around to see the impact his words had. As a British soldier on the front, he died during the last week of the war in November 1918 as the final armistice was being negotiated.
Owen was born in 1893, the son of a railway worker who moved to several different locations when Wilfred was a boy. Wilfred was especially close to his mother, a relationship that lasted all his life and resulted in a large cache of letters to and from her written when he was a soldier at the front.
Early in his life Owen discovered a love of poetry, especially that of John Keats. He was also passionately Anglican and religious, and his reading of the Bible had a great effect on the poetic forms that he produced. In his early adulthood, he worked as an assistant for a vicar near Reading and became disillusioned with the Church of England and its failures to help those in need.
Owen enlisted in the British Army in 1915, more than a year after the war began, and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He was sent to the Western front and soon saw firsthand many of the horrors that the war produced. He was wounded by a mortar shell and spent several days unconscious on an embankment along with the bodies of fellow soldiers. Finally discovered, he was invalided back to a hospital in Edinburgh and treated for shell shock. There, he composed a great deal of poetry and met Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow poet whose work Owen revered.
Sassoon and Owen spent a great deal of time together, and Sassoon had a great influence on Owen’s developing poetic voice. Despite Sassoon’s urgings to the contrary, Owen returned to the front in August 1918. He was killed three months later. His posthumous citation reads as follows:
2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.
Owen should not be classified as an anti-war poet, but the images and concepts of his poetry have given anti-war activists plenty of ammunition.
Dulce et Decorum est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The Devil’s Dictionary (continued)
A few weeks ago, we took a look at The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, a book you should know more about. Bierce was a Civil War combat veteran who became one of the nation’s foremost writers and cynics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here are some more of the dictionary’s entries:
RAILROAD, n. The chief of many mechanical devices enabling us to get away from where we are to where we are no better off. For this purpose the railroad is held in highest favor by the optimist, for it permits him to make the transit with great expedition.
RAMSHACKLE, adj. Pertaining to a certain order of architecture, otherwise known as the Normal American. Most of the public buildings of the United States are of the Ramshackle order, though some of our earlier architects preferred the Ironic. Recent additions to the White House in Washington are Theo-Doric, the ecclesiastic order of the Dorians. They are exceedingly fine and cost one hundred dollars a brick.
REALISM, n. The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm.
Vince V.: I remember a strange scene from Midnight Cowboy. Hoffman and Voight are crossing the street. A car almost hits Ratso Rizzo and he slams his hands down on the hood and shouts “Hey, I’m walking here.” In a way, that was the underlying theme of the movie: Everyone, even a bum, deserves respect.
Editor: That was one of the defining lines of the movie and was truly iconic. Hoffman later claimed the line was ad-libbed, but it was part of the script and on record there six months before the scene was shot. I think you’re right. It’s about respect. Ratso respects himself enough to demand some from others.
Eric S.: Your references to Midnight Cowboy—a new book about the movie and a related essay—made me wonder why certain works of art stick with us for decades and others are forgotten within days. My unforgettable list (Capote’s In Cold Blood, Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”) is rooted in my young adult experiences. The 1960s, when Midnight Cowboy was made, were such an impressionable time for some of us then-young Americans that much of the art produced since has turned into an ephemeral experience for me.
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: Two coffee mugs
Best quote of the week:
Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. James Baldwin, writer (1924-1987).
Helping those in need
Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
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Last week’s newsletter: The generation after independence, the Irish, and the memories of Midnight Cowboy: newsletter, July 30, 2021
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