Author Archive


March 7th, 2009 2 comments






A student I’ll call Clem Callow came to me after class the other day and said, “I always thought I wanted to be a writer, but now I’m having doubts. Newspapers and magazines are shutting down, book publishers cutting way back, and MFA programs are pumping out a gazillion people who have diplomas proving they are superb writers—yet they can’t get published. Do you think I should give up my dream and, like my father, become a radio repairman?”


Coincidentally, I had the previous day been speaking with Stephen King, and he’d told me: “With publishing the way it is, I’m getting out. My last book, The Man Who Loved Key’s Duma, sold only 37 copies. You can’t make a living like that. I’m getting into selling baseball memorabilia on Ebay. I’ve got an autograph of Van Lingle Mungo. There’s a poster of the Chicago Cubs lineup of 1773, the last year they won a series. I’ll do all right.”


As I pondered how to reply to Clem, I remembered the optimism of Monroe Munchausen, the man who invented the Kindle ©®™Notary Sojac, the somewhat amazing device sold by Amazon ©®™EPluribus Munich, which allows you to read books and newspapers and stuff on an electronic thing which looks a great deal like a paperback book and costs $360.00. “This will save publishing,” Munchausen maintained, “and we’ve seen sales soar. Last year they soared to six. Sensational.”


But how, I wanted to know, would the Kindle©®RCA Victor prove publishing’s salvation. Munchausen explained: “This thing can hold 1,500 books—1,500. You know how people are always dropping their cell phones into the toilet and losing all their contacts and fuzzy pictures of casual acquaintances? Well, now one slip, and whoosh! There you go! You’ve flushed away your entire library! Talk about convenience!”


Failing to see how technology would make nice for writers and readers, I remembered a number of my former students who’d chosen the small press alternative to the traditional entry-point(s) into the Literary Life. Two years back, Danny D’Lude had published his first novel, Concrete Christ and the Uproarious Mechanical Persistence, through the University of Air Conditioning Repair’s small press imprint, Sassquamous. D‘Lude’s fondest expectations had been far exceeded by sales numbering over three. “But it’s not about sales,” D’Lude explained, “but I can now get federal, state, private, and personal grants. That’s great, and unlike other welfare programs, you don’t even have to prove that you’re looking for a job. You get money based on once having published something and then saying it’s not impossible you may someday possibly publish something else, maybe.”


Of course, web-publications offer an attractive venue available to everyone. And let’s not forget blogs. Why, everyone is running to the web even as we speak to scrutinize, peruse, and read with minimal lip movement all sorts of blogs. I had my list of “Top 20 Must Read Blogs and Emags” on my Kindle(Add Superscript of Your Choice), which, unfortunately, fell into the toilet the other day.


Perhaps, I thought, still seeking the moment of insight that would provide Clem Callow necessary moral support without being untruthful, I should share with him the words of my friend J. June-Delgado, long-time editor of Hit and Miss House Book Publishing. “The death of publishing? Please,”  J. chuckled as he swallowed his regular dose of Airicept, which seems to be helping, “there will always be books, and always be people writing ‘em. As long as they are books about teenage vampires. No acne, though. Just fangs. No braces, either. Acne and braces, no sir. Just the other day I was talking with Robert Hemingway, or maybe it was Vachel Linseed … I forget where I parked my Hudson. What was the question again? Could I have a cookie?”


And so Clem Callow, here it is. Publishing today is in the worst shape it’s ever been in. Worse than the early 1970s, when everyone was saying: Publishing today is in the worst shape it’s ever been in. Worse, even, than in 1888, when Mark Twain said, Publishing today is in the worst shape it’s ever been in. And far worse than in 1492, When Gutenberg invented moveable type and Louis Illimanteus, the Head Scribe at Moishe’s Monastery, declared, Publishing today is in the worst shape it’s ever been in.


Things are so bad, Clem, that you had best pursue a career as a freelance shepherd or resident philosopher for a suburban park district or personal trainer for a celebrity chef. And that’s the truth.


That’s what I have to say to Clem Callow and that’s what I’m telling you.


With the hope that that will take a few more from the ranks of my competition.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:


February 7th, 2009 1 comment


Very recently, I began reading the 865,000 word prologue to a rather long novel, and then stopped.

Hemingway once wrote a six word story:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Here’s a story, Mort’s UNPLUGGED for this month.



“Can I help?”



Five words if you count the title.

O Brevity.

O Basho.

“The rest is silence.”

Hamlet,” Act 5 scene 2

“And so often should be.”

                  Mort Right Here and Now

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

First Lines

January 8th, 2009 Comments off

First lines, well, they’re important.

See what I mean?

Look at the first line of this UNPLUGGED. It’s like the sad clown face of Emmett Kelly, without the poignant, if faux, pathos.

And if you didn’t love me so much, and did not know that Mort the Ole Trickster, was likely to have something really profound to say, why, you’d not have bothered to read on, would you?

And so, if a first line is, well, important for a brief writing like this one …

–then it’s really, really important as the very first thing you hit when you open up a novel.
Read more…

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December 8th, 2008 5 comments

In a previous STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED entitled LANGUAGE–BY LINGOIST Mort Castle, I established my multifluidity in Spanish, Russian, French, Arabic, German, and Classical Gibberish. In our global, even globular village, it is somewhat essential to be able to express yourself in a number of languages.. The barriers come down between peoples when you can say, “I am not CIA so please don’t employ that red hot nozzle thing in the manner your gestures indicate you plan to, my good friend.”

Today, then, I wish to provide an introduction to a fortunately obscure language that nonetheless is spoken by well over several hundred people in countries throughout the world.

Let’s focus on … HOW TO TALK WRITER

WRITER is a deceptive parlance. To many people, it resembles English. But this is only on the surface.

Let’s take a look at the following statement, often used after the second or third or fourth glass of box wine at an alleged literary soiree:

I had no choice in becoming a writer; it’s my calling.

This is an easily understood cliché, if we concern ourselves solely with literal meaning.

But if we are aware of unique idioms and bodily gestures, have a grasp of social, economic, and psychological issues in a particular context, we understand these words to really mean:

You think I could ever hold a real job?

Let’s take a look at other expressions in WRITER–and their translations.

THE WRITER SAYS: I’m in negotiations with my publisher on the new book.
THE WRITER MEANS: They say it’s garbage and they don’t want it, so I’m begging.

THE WRITER SAYS: I’ve been offered a six figure advance.
THE WRITER MEANS: I’m counting both sides of the decimal point.

THE WRITER SAYS: I want greater control of the marketing and promotional aspects, so I just might self-publish.
THE WRITER MEANS: Nobody wants to publish it. Bastards.

THE WRITER SAYS: Critical reaction was mixed.
THE WRITER MEANS: Some critics disliked it, others despised it. Bastards.

THE WRITER SAYS: Stephen King’s going to blurb me.
THE WRITER MEANS: I sent a book to Stephen King. Bastard.

THE WRITER SAYS: We’ve got some motion picture interest.
THE WRITER MEANS: My brother-in-law just bought a camcorder.

THE WRITER SAYS: I start my book tour next week.
THE WRITER MEANS: Now that gas is cheap again, I’m driving upstate where my cousin will let me stay overnight so I can do a signing at a new 7-11.

THE WRITER SAYS: Now that I’ve attained literary success, I’m thinking about returning to pursue my academic career
THE WRITER MEANS: Once I get my GED, there’s a two year associates program in electrical engineering. Those guys always have work.

THE WRITER SAYS:. I count Hemingway, Balzac, and St. Augustine among my influences.
THE WRITER MEANS: I know other famous names, too: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Hermione Gingold, Douglas Fairbanks, Carole Landis, Van Lingle Mungo.

THE WRITER SAYS: It’s got to be spontaneous for me so I never outline.
THE WRITER MEANS: You think I planned it to come out this mess?

THE WRITER SAYS: I base my characters on fascinating real life people
THE WRITER MEANS: The world may be full of interesting people but those I know visit fabric shops and like French fries and are trying to figure out if it’s the heat or the humidity.

THE WRITER SAYS: It’s just great to see those writers I know and admire hit that #1 spot on the bestseller list!

THE WRITER SAYS: Oprah’s considering it for the club.
THE WRITER MEANS: I sent her a book. Lady bastard.

THE WRITER SAYS: Where do I get ideas? Everybody has his own way
THE WRITER MEANS: I once had an idea but I can’t remember it.

THE WRITER SAYS: Nice guy, but Larry King didn’t know what he was talking about and I had to tell him so.
THE WRITER MEANS: But I was still pretty angry so I turned off the TV.

THE WRITER SAYS: John Grisham? Great writer, great guy.
THE WRITER MEANS: Never met the bastard.

THE WRITER SAYS: I’m not so sure I like the direction my editor wants me to take on the new book
THE WRITER MEANS: What’s she mean, write it in English?.

THE WRITER SAYS: We are working on the sale of foreign rights.
THE WRITER MEANS: Miguel had a copy of the book when he was deported back to El Salvador.

THE WRITER SAYS: Born writer? Well, I know I’m in it until the day I die.
THE WRITER MEANS: Not long from now, because what freelancer can afford health insurance?

THE WRITER SAYS: Writing keeps me young.
THE WRITER MEANS: Goddamn, am I old.

THIS WRITER SAYS: End of year. Happy holidays. Thanks for reading us Unpluggers. See you in a brand new year.

THIS WRITER MEANS: Know you know when I’m being faux curmudgeon, so you know I mean … Happy holidays. Thanks for reading us Unpluggers. See you in a brand new year–a year we enter with renewed hope for the world and its future.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Bonds by Mort Castle

October 8th, 2008 3 comments


Story time, huh?

Okay, here’s one that has only appeared in Polish—

–but you will be able to read it in English next year in NEW MOON ON THE WATER from Full Moon Press.

Which doesn’t mean you can’t read it now.

In English.

right here.


Perhaps all cats are telepathic, but Lyra, yellow, with six toes on her left hind leg, was especially so. Robert decided, one day, that Lyra had mentally told him to kill his wife, Ellen.

So Robert seized Ellen by the throat, and began strangling her.

Ellen could not yell. She could only think.

At which time Maxwell, the Rottweiler, with a forehead that wrinkled when he was alert, bounded into the room. First he bit out most of Robert’s throat. For good measure, Maxwell then snapped Lyra in two.

Perhaps all dogs are telepathic, but Maxwell was especially so.

Categories: Fiction Tags:


September 7th, 2008 2 comments

In her latest Storytellers Unplugged column on screenwriting, Alexandra Sokoloff wisely wrote, “And for those of you who are reeling in horror at the idea of a formula… it’s just a way of analyzing dramatic structure.”

I nodded my head. Indeed, I know an opinion is of value if I agree with it.

And I sure do agree …

But Castle, a nitpicker sayeth, you’re always blathering on and on about quality, about the need to avoid the cliche and …


And what makes you, o picker of nits, think that the formula precludes quality or that it isn’t the engine leading to the creation thereof?

Here’s what I had to say on the subject, oh, back in 1983:

A not so far-out fantasy based on all-too-true reality:

The scene: A cocktail party. Having learned that I am a writer, she approaches. She is middle-aged, pleasant, interested in literature, enrolled in a college course called, “The More
Famous Minor Works of Recently Deceased Contemporary Authors.”

She wants to know: “What do you write?”

I tell her: “Men’s mag stories …”

She frowns.

” … Horror stories. Mysteries … “

She frowns and sneers.

” … Science-fiction and fantasy … ”

She frowns and sneers and grimaces.

” … Suspense. And confessions stories, yeah, I write lots of confessions …”

And now she looks as though she realizes she has French-kissed a leper!

Zap! She lets me have it: “You write formula fiction!”
And she says it like: “You promise little children candy and comic books if they get in your car…” She says it like: “You operate a lab that does painful and needless experiments on very dogs and sweet cats. . .” She says it like—

Hey, you know how she says it.

But this time, this time, uh-uh, this time,

Bucky, enough is too much.

So I leap onto a coffeetable. And I start off with a scream and I get louder and I’ve got my arms flapping like I’m trying to fly and I’m a sure contender at Oscar time for Best Performance by an Out-of-Control Lunatic as I get rolling:

“Edgar Allan Poe wrote formula fiction. He figured out the formula! There’s this story about a nutty captain looking for an albino whale—and that’s Moby Dick and you can say that Melville wrote formula stuff because it’s an adventure story, huh? And also a how-to book, should you go whaling…”

Woo! (Borrowing from the Rick Flair formula.) Am I into it! “And Charles Dickens and Mark Twain and Steve Crane! Formula,

Oh, yes, I’ve got her, Ms. Lit Crit. She is pale, near catatonic! So time for the barrage! “And Flannery O’Connor and Conrad Aiken, Charles Beaumont, Ted Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison and Paul Boles and Loren Estelman and Ray Bradbury. Fine writers. Ernest Hemingway. Blow up bridge. Bell tolls for thee. Use formula. Rest case.”

So she dared to sneer at “formula fiction,” eh? Look at her now. Right before my pleased eyes, she has turned into a pillar of salt.

A formula, you see, gets to be a formula because it works, it creates a satisfying reading experience.

A builder follows a blueprint (a formula) so he doesn’t erect a house with the basement above the kitchen. A cook follows a recipe (a formula) to create an angel food cake instead
of a molasses-guacamole-hamburger-pineapple-who-the-hell-knows. A driver follows a map (a formula) to get from here to there instead of winding up past the briar patch near where the
woodbine twineth.

And you’d better hope that your surgeon is following the “surgical formula” when he’s got you on the operating table!

And, you ask, what is that formula?

Ah, there are many variations, but these days I articulate it based on comments that fine writer and teacher Brady Udall, author of THE MIRACLE LIFE OF EDGAR MINT, made in a workshop several years back.

The fiction formula: Interesting things done to and done by interesting people.

Whether we’re talking STAR WARS or that other book of battles WAR AND PEACE, if we’re following the adventures of Starman Jones throughout the galaxy or Inman on his journey back to COLD MOUNTAIN, if we’re learning of the dreams OF MICE AND MEN or the cravings of HANNIBAL, we can see that formula at work.

And in the creation of the “interesting things” and the “interesting people,” there we can utilize our knowledge of craft, our insights of the world, our abilities as—dare I say it—Artists, as we follow the formula.

Nothing to it.

Put it in here and it comes out there.


(Some of this column originally appeared as the Introduction to J. N. Williamson’s chapbook fiction collection entitled NEVERMORE, published by Maclay and Associates in 1983. I was younger then.)


August 7th, 2008 10 comments



The title of my entry today has been shamelessly stolen from a book called (what else?) YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS. Edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, it’s published by Harper Perennial, and is subtitled CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN WRITERS INTRODUCE STORIES THAT HELD THEM IN AWE.

 You probably already have a pretty good idea of what the work offers, but Donna Seaman’s BOOKLIST review will give you the details:

 Writers are passionate readers because literature is an ongoing dialogue. And you can learn a lot about writers by knowing what they love to read. Editors Hansen and Shepard decided to ask some of their favorite American writers to identify stories that fell into their you’ve-got-to-read-this category. The end result is an anthology of terrific tales introduced by essays that open windows onto the creative process of 35 top fiction writers. Each story is introduced by the writer who was inspired, intimidated, or moved to extreme emotion on reading it. Here’s some examples: John Irving chose “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens; Mary Gordon selected “The Dead” by James Joyce; Oscar Hijuelos acknowledged his debt to Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Aleph”; Lorrie Moore was stunned by John Updike’s “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car”; Joyce Carol Oates picked Kafka’s unforgettable “In the Penal Colony”; and Louise Erdrich couldn’t get over Robert Stone’s “Helping.” This is almost a two-for-one deal for story-lovers: a glimpse into the reading minds of one set of popular and talented authors, together with a selection of outstanding stories by their mentors and peers.

 All of us who write–and, I dare say, all of us who really read–have had that book or that story or that poem that has sent us out into the madding crowd, grabbing people by the arm, not suggesting, not urging, not recommending, but dictatorially telling ‘em, “You’ve got to read this”–and then adding the essential “because …”

 Of course, your “You’ve got to read this” guidelines can and will change as you change; that’s how it works. As somebody (Lionel Trilling? W. H. Auden? Harold Bloom? Wayne Allen Sallee?) said, “Real books read us,” and US is a dynamic and malleable beast as we live and grow and grow older and grow old. Maybe once you were that 13 kid waving CATCHER IN THE RYE and yelling, “You’ve got to read this because this Salinger guy HAD TO BE living in my house and in my head to know my real true feelings so well … ” Chances are, you’re not that same kid today and CATCHER doesn’t catch you in QUITE the same way. I’ve had two different nephews tell me that STAR WARS was the best book ever written–in fact, all the STAR WARS books were the best books ever written because all the STAR WARS movies were the best movies ever movied, but these fine lads, having aged a tad, are no longer certain that the Skywalker and Co. saga belongs on the same shelf with WAR AND PEACE.

 All the above is by way of wordier than usual prologue, so that now I can say to you: You’ve got to read this.

 My criteria: I’m doing a shout-out only about stuff I’ve recently read–say, in the past year. I’m bringing to your attention a writer whose work can be found relatively easily, and yet a writer who’s not a brand name like Grisham or Patterson or Drano or Ajax. I’m pointing out to you–no, I’m telling you–YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS.

 It’s a story called “Wickedness.”

 It breaks most of the rules of short story writing. Indeed, it might be called “experimental writing,” but unlike much of that oeuvre, this is an experiment which deserves to leave the laboratory because it succeeds. It does not have a single main character, as a proper story (ahem) ought. Instead, it gives us a series of characters and each is as main as the other.

 Nor does “Wickedness” have anything like a traditional “A leads to B, B leads to C” PLOT. Instead, we have a series of vignettes presenting the characters who are caught up in a sudden Nebraska blizzard in 1888. Some of them live, some live but are damaged, some die. (Vonnegut might add here, “And so it goes …”)

 But in its presentation of that blizzard, the story does something to me I’ve never previously experienced in a short work of fiction: It makes me feel the intensity of the cold, the dead white quiet in the center of the winds, the smallness that is our human lot when hit by–apologies for the cliché—a “Force of Nature.” (yes, I’ve had a similar feeling when reading Dan Simmons’s masterful novel THE TERROR, but a short story has intensity that a novel, a lengthy novel, cannot provide.)

 In previous UNPLUGGED columns I’ve quoted Cyril Connolly’s “Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice.” I’ll be reading “Wickedness” again, more than twice, pondering the title, feeling that blizzard, and observing moments in lives rendered in words with the memorability of an Impressionist master painter giving us scenes of the ordinary–and unforgettable.

 Oh, I see I’ve forgotten to mention the author of “Wickedness”; why, it’s none other than … Ron Hansen, YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS! co-editor (with Jim Shepard, also a dynamite fictionist).

 I’ve been reading Ron Hansen’s books for years and using them in my classes at Columbia College Chicago. He’s a writer of tremendous range, giving us THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and HITLER’S NIECE — and a modern comedy of manners / errors novel called ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?: AN ENTERTAINMENT. Other books include ATTICUS and MARIETTE IN ECSTASY and the nonfiction A STAY AGAINST CONFUSION: ESSAYS ON FAITH AND FICTION, which proves that “religious writing” does not have to be on the level of “God has a Son on the Honor Roll in Heaven” / bumper sticker theology. His writing has never disappointed me …

 –But “Wickedness” astounds me.

 You can find the story in Hansen’s collection NEBRASKA from The Atlantic Monthly Press.

 It’s my “You’ve got to read this!” for this STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED.

 And to my fellow UNPLUGGED STORYTELLERS and all the readers of this blog, I’m asking:

 What’s yours?


PS. Apologies for the early post, but I’m moving around and about some these days–and have to tack stuff onto the bulletin board when I can at a time “close” to when I’m supposed to …


Mort’s 62nd–Happy Birthday to Me

July 7th, 2008 14 comments

July 8. It is my birthday. As of 9:00 AM, I am 62.

This does not bother me, because as all the latest magazine articles focusing on Cootrification and Cable/Broadband/Satellite/God-is-Sending-to-Your Head shows have assured me, “62 is the new 60” or some damned thing.

Truth: Sometimes I don’t feel at all aged, particularly when that Celebrex kicks in and there’s been a power outage so I cannot see the bathroom mirror reflecting Mort and his extra chin.

But, ah, sometimes you do take stock of what you’ve done and all that, and sometimes it leads to disappointments…sometimes

I mean, I had thought at age 35 to have had at least one bestseller.

I figured by now I’d have been awarded at least one Illinois Arts Council grant for creative writing. (Last February, got the word that grant application #4 was a no-go, meaning that once again, I’ll have to rely on readers and not committees to support my efforts.)

I thought it likely that I’d have won at least one Bram Stoker or International Horror Guild award.

This is not to disparage what I recognize I have accomplished as a wordworker: There are books of mine out there and forthcoming and I am proud of every one of them, state with no due humility that they are the best I could create at the time they were created, and I hope they have provided or will provide some worthwhile reading.

But for sure, there is no disappointment in what I have accomplished as a teacher of writing for more than 40 years, because, well, good people have been good enough to remind me.

Last month, I got this from former student and always friend Marc Paoletti:

Today is the official release date for SCORCH. The book is
published in hardcover by Five Star Mysteries, an imprint of Macmillan Library. Any thing you can do to spread the word would be appreciated!

SCORCH is Marc’s first novel.

It’s a good novel. (You think I’d have blurbed it were it not?)

And last month I received this email:

Dear Mr. Castle

I found your email address from your website, which I found on wikipedia.

Ages ago (20 years appr) I was an 8th grader who was allowed to take a writing correspondence course with you. I don’t remember how or why that worked out, save that in 7th grade I took the SAT test and scored high enough to warrant a letter from Johns Hopkins university.

Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks. I still have all the letters and critiques you sent me. At the time, as a 13 year old kid, I hated the criticism you gave me, because as you rightly surmised, all I cared about was writing cheap schlock science-fiction. But I kept all of what you sent me, and the timeless advice made much better sense as I got older. “Readers don’t want to be lied to.” It has always stuck with me.

I’d love to give you some great story of how I’m a professional writer. I’m not. I have a bachelors and a masters degree in biblical linguistics, and I preach at a country church outside Murphsyboro IL. I wrote a lot through high school, but kind of quit when I got to college. Recently I have made a few friends who are published writers, albeit small companies, and that has been fun. I have also made the acquaintance of Michael Moorcock, and the encouragement of these friends has (finally) got me making writing a priority again. And it feels great to write again. And I decided to simply write to you and say thanks. I wasn’t an appreciative 8th grade kid, but at 33 I am so thankful for the writing lessons. And maybe someday I’ll have something to show for it. But even if I never get published, I’m enjoying the writing again.

Jason Brandon
Murphsyboro IL

And the other day, there was this email:

I was sitting here at work this afternoon with nothing to do, and decided to check the internet, and see if anything came up under your name.

Vwaaallaaahhh, here I am. I just wanted to say hello. I have a son now who is going to be a senior at Brother Rice HS (BRHS), and I often talk to him of my experiences with the English department at CMHS. At BRHS they are still teaching very structured grammar, and traditional literature. No Sinus Friction classes there!!! I loved the English curriculum we had at CMHS.

I hope all is well with you and your wife. You can count me as at least one student you had a huge, lasting impact on.

Daniel Heine

So, here’s the reply to Dan, one of those students of years back at—You too can break the DaVinci Code!—CRETE MONEE HIGH SCHOOL – CMHS—get it?

Yeah, Dan, all is well.

Jane and I celebrated our 37th on July 4.

The 6th was her birthday.

Tomorrow—when this reply appears at (tell your friends, quick)—is my birthday.

And, thank you, and thank you to all my wonderful students over many wonderful years, you bet we are all doing just fine.

Happy birthday to me.


Categories: Writers Tags:


June 8th, 2008 3 comments

by Mort Castle

We writers know that research is absolutely essential if we are to create works of either non-fiction or fiction that do not trigger the reader’s built in BS detector.

So, let’s examine the etymology of the outdated slang term doughboy to see what we might learn about the nature of research and its uses in our work.

Before mostly lovable and resoundingly dim Homer acquired the title D’oh Boy, for reasons obvious to anyone who knows THE SIMPSONS, there was considerable debate about the origins of the term doughboy, meaning a US infantry soldier.

Some claim the term originated during the Civil War, with the big brass buttons on the uniforms of Union soldiers. Big brass button = Lump of Dough … hence, doughboys. A number of scholars accept the word’s Civil War roots, but instead say that the cleaner used to polish those buttons was a clay-like blob not unlike wall paper cleaner or Silly Putty. It was that lump of dough which gave us …

Another school of doughy thought maintains the expression originated with the soldiers led by Black Jack Pershing on the incursive foray into Mexico in 1916 to find and punish Pancho Villa, who had led a raid into the USA. Covered in the white dust of Old Mexico, our soldiers looked like The Clay People from the Flash Gordon serial — or Doughboys on the march!

Then there are those who believe that doughboy began with the draft of World War I, which brought into our military ranks many fine young lads of healthy appetite fresh from farms and yokelburgs; when they saw hearty breakfasts every morning, gazing droolingly on “all the biscuits y’all could eat” – Some wag observed, “Those guys fill up on dough!”

Enough speculation: I, fortunately, learned the true facts regarding doughboy and because I’m the kind of guy I am, I will share those true facts with you, because you are the kind of guy you are.

The above mentioned General Black Jack Pershing led the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. He is credited, perhaps wrongly, with uttering the classic, “Lafayette, we are here,” upon his arrival in Paris.

But Pershing was less than satisfied with the quality of troops at his command. They had been too quickly and poorly trained. They were proverbial lambs to slaughter. That is why one day, after reviewing his soldiers, Pershing shook his head sadly and said, “Lord, look at them, these callow youths, these innocents, these doe-eyed boys.”

Get it? Doe-eyed boys? A little corruption and …

It was a Noted Journalist (Wired and MSNBC) who must remain anonymous, who told me about Doe-eyed boys. And if anyone ought to know about this issue, it’s the Noted Journalist–because he made it all up.

Black Jack Pershing and “Lord, look at them, these callow youths, these innocents, these doe-eyed boys …”

Nowhere is it recorded that BJ ever said anything like that. He did not say, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” he did not say, “It takes a heap o’ heapin’ to make a heap a heap,” and he did not say jack about doe-eyed boys, doughboys, or d’oh boys.

But the Noted Journalist proclaimed Pershing did in on a call-in radio show. What the hell. Sounds plausible, right? Voila! The power of modern communication! You can find this explanation both hither and yon and also on a number of websites that aren’t even about conspiracy theories: Why the Swedes sunk the Lusitania …

The facts in your writing?

I am directly borrowing–and crediting–our Noted Journalist: The facts are very important–so always make up good ones.

Categories: Entertainment Tags:


May 7th, 2008 4 comments


There are questions that many new or would-be writers ask me, an old or has-been writer, and I thought this a good month in which to share those questions.

Also my answers.

Q: Is it true that a good title is the most important selling point for a book?

A. Yes. For that reason, you should call your novel GONE WITH THE WIND.

Unless it’s a diet book, for which you might find a more suitable title.

Unless your original diet book title was THE LOW FAT, NO CARBS, FAT ASS DIET, which is almost as good as GONE WITH THE WIND.

Q. I’ve heard that poetry is booming. Should I pursue my interest in poetry with a thought to making it my career?

A. Take a look and you will see that most major cities that still have newspapers have column after column of “Poets Wanted” in the job listings. Poets are in every bit as much demand as radio repair technicians and buggy whip socket installers.

Think … Your Future in Poetry!

Q. If Oprah chooses my book will I become an overnight sensation, wealthy beyond my wildest dreams?

A. Yes, but it won’t happen. Oprah and I spoke yesterday. She says she doesn’t like you.

Q. There are many colleges offering degrees in creative writing. Should I think about creative writing as a major as opposed to computer science?

A. Definitely. There are over 400 USA colleges in the Associated Writing Program granting degrees at Bachelor’s or Graduate levels and more than a few of them employ my friends–while Columbia College in Chicago employs me. I’d like to see that employment continue.

Q. What can a writer expect to earn a year?

A. I don’t feel like showing you my W-2s or 1099s, but you should know that I now set aside one day a week, the day the Purolator truck arrives, just to count money.

You will not earn money like, say, a podiatrist or a the Minister of Recreation and Leisure in Iraq, but you’ll do more than all right.

Q. Why do so many writers have trouble with alcohol?

A. I’ll tell you if you buy me a drink.

Q. Should writers be active politically?

A. If I didn’t think this were so, if I didn’t believe that writers must be engaged in and active citizens of their world, then I wouldn’t be supporting Norman Thomas in the race for the White House.

Q. How come so many bad books get published every year?

A. You are buying into a common misconception. Research clearly shows that no bad books get published. Only good books get published.

Okay, there was once a bad book published. It was called GONE WITH THE BREEZE.

But Oprah didn’t choose it.

So it tanked.

Q. Why do so many writers like jazz?

A. They dig jazz, they dig it. That’s because Louis Armstrong gave advice to the band and to all of us when he said, “Not too slow, not too fast. Not half slow, not half fast.”

Q. Why isn’t there more substance to your column this time around?

A. Because last night I worked late to finish up a novella you’ll be able to read in DOORWAYS magazine. It’s called THE DOCTOR, THE KIDS, AND THE GHOSTS IN THE LAKE and it’s part of my “Imagined Hemingways” fictions and I’m at least 86% pleased with it.

Because today I taught a four hour class in writing and had conferences with two students, one of which was kinda tough, because the student is working on some reality based fiction dealing with his harrowing experiences in a recent war.

Because soon SOUTH PARK will be on and my wife Jane and I like to watch SOUTH PARK, thereby proving that we are hip AARP members.

Because sometimes these STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED columns can be just a little fun fluff foo-foo to write without the world suddenly shifting off-axis and heading for a collision with the planet Mongo.

Because I need a wee break before—tomorrow–I undertake writing my big new novel: GONE WITH THE MONSOON.

(Which Oprah’s already said she likes.)

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