Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Gift -- A Christmas Essay

This is a Christmas essay I wrote, and I offer it for your reading pleasure. I told it as part of an evening of storytelling that was recently put on by the Bucks County Playhouse.

By John McDonnell
Until seventh grade there was still a part of me that believed in Santa Claus. Oh, I would never have admitted that to my schoolmates, but there was still a secret part of my heart that wouldn’t give up the belief in a jolly, red-suited man who brought presents every year at Christmas. If you asked, I would have said it was because I had younger siblings, and I had to keep up appearances for their sake. And it was still fun to dream about what would be waiting for me under the Christmas tree each year, so I had a vested interest in not looking at Santa Claus and his gifts too cynically.In 1964, though, it all changed. I had discovered girls, and the fact that just because you liked a girl, it didn’t mean she liked you back. Actually, it was more likely that she would ignore you, which made you doubt your very existence.
As that Christmas approached I had received my first heartbreak, when a girl I liked made it clear that I was the last person on Earth she was interested in. On top of that, I was developing acne, I was in the middle of a growth spurt that made me feel like my body had been taken over by a lurching monster from a B grade horror movie, and I was hopelessly lost in Math class. All in all, it was not a good time.So, I was already in a depressed state when Christmas morning arrived. When I went downstairs and saw what was under the tree, it left me cold.
There was a pile of new clothes, some books, and a bike. It was a three speed bike with skinny tires, hand brakes, and those curved racing handlebars like European bikes. It was everything my old Schwinn was not -- sleek, lightweight, fast.
But I hated it.
It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate getting a bike from my parents, it was that I didn’t want a bike in the first place. The reason I didn’t ride my clunky old Schwinn bicycle anymore was that I had realized something: nobody my age rode bikes. Well, none of the cool guys did. The girls had stopped riding bikes the year before, and the cool guys had stopped with them. The only boys who still rode bikes were the ones who wore big round glasses, and accidentally spit when they talked, and had scrapes on their knees from falling off their bikes.
Things had changed overnight, and in the ruthless world of seventh grade you had to adapt or you would permanently be tagged as a loser.So, I gave a weak smile, mumbled “Thanks,” to my parents, and went upstairs to my room, where I laid on my bed listening to my transistor radio and thinking about the cruel march of Time. I heard the excited babbling of my little brothers downstairs and I realized I would never have that kind of youthful enthusiasm again.
I was old, there was no doubt. My childhood was forever gone.
It didn’t take long for my father to come upstairs and ask me what was wrong. I told him I just didn’t feel much like Christmas this year.
He figured out pretty quickly that I didn’t like the bike. “You ungrateful child,” he said. “That’s a great bike, and it cost me a lot” (he whispered this so the kids downstairs wouldn’t hear). “Spoiled, that’s what you are, spoiled! When I was your age it was the Depression, and we didn’t have Christmases like this! My father was only working ten hours a week at his job, and that year we only got one present each. You don’t appreciate what you have here. You probably wanted some bigger, fancier bike, right? Well, the hell with it, I’m taking that bike back to the store tomorrow!” He slammed the door and went downstairs and ranted to my mother for awhile about how ungrateful I was.He never took the bike back. My little brothers begged to be allowed to use it, and my father let them ride it after much pleading, mostly because he hated to not get his money’s worth out of something he’d bought. There were times when I actually rode it, too, although that was not till years later, when being cool didn’t matter to me anymore.
I should have known better, but I did the same thing when I was a parent. When my son was in seventh grade he was a great soccer player. I used to love to watch him race down the field and shoot the ball from any angle, and see it go rocketing into the goal. I lived for those soccer games, and that year at Christmas I bought a full-size professional soccer goal from a Web site. It had a metal frame and a mesh net, and although I didn’t put it together on Christmas Eve I had the box and a picture of it under the tree for him.
He seemed excited, but not as much as I thought he’d be.
“It’s great, Dad,” he said. “Really great.”
The weather was warm that year, and I was able to assemble the goal and put it up in the backyard on Christmas afternoon. My son put his soccer cleats on and I played goalkeeper and he took shots for an hour while I dove every which way trying to deflect them. He rocketed one ball after another past me into the net, and I was gleeful at his skill.
But that was the only time we did that. The cold and snowy weather came, and he wasn’t able to use the goal for several months. When Spring came he didn’t seem as interested in soccer, and he hardly ever practiced in the backyard. By the next year he had quit soccer to concentrate on basketball. Basketball was the game the cool guys in his school played.
I had to take that goal down five years later when we moved to another house. By then the net was torn and the metal frame was rusted. It had been a long time since anybody shot a soccer ball at it. I spent an afternoon taking it apart, and then I threw the pieces into a big dumpster we had rented for cleaning out our house.
“Damn spoiled kids,” I said to myself. “All the money I paid for that thing, and he didn’t appreciate it.”
Then I thought of my Dad buying me that bike, and how I always felt bad about not showing enough appreciation for it. I realized he’d probably done the same thing to his Dad. Maybe that year in the Depression when they didn’t have hardly anything for Christmas? Maybe the one thing he got he didn’t appreciate, and he made that fact clear to his Dad. Maybe he always felt bad about that, and it was the real reason he bought that expensive bike for me.Because maybe we buy these gifts not for our children, but for our parents. As a way of saying we’re sorry for never telling you we appreciated what you did for us.


Friday, November 13, 2015

My Christmas Classic

I’ve always loved Christmas. I have happy memories from the Christmases of my youth, and it’s a time when for at least a short while many people seem to be filled with the spirit of joy and love and giving. Wherever you are in your journey, I think those are good values to celebrate. 
Six years ago I wrote a story, The Christmas Gift, that I put into ebook form. It’s a story about a little girl in the Great Depression, and a special doll named Constance that she steals. It’s just a story that came to me one day, and I enjoyed writing it. Back then ebooks were a brand new thing, and not many people knew how to buy one, let alone read it. I didn’t expect much, but I liked the story and I wanted to share it with people. 
It’s the only Christmas story I’ve ever written, and it’s still listed on my Amazon author page, with all my other ebooks in various genres. Each year at this time I am pleasantly surprised to see that people still buy it, and I’m glad that it has become part of some family Christmas celebrations. 
The Christmas Gift is just a simple story that can be enjoyed by both children and adults. It’s also available in printed form here if you don’t have an e-reader. 

It’s a great story to read at this time of year.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Down With The Internal Critic!

I have undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, and sometimes I think they did me more harm than good. Why? Because the one thing I was taught in English Lit class is that great writers agonize over every word. They pull their hair out trying to find the exact right word, the right phrase, and they will revise dozens, even hundreds of times in order to get the words right. There are writers who brag about rewriting parts of their books over and over, and they wear it as a badge of honor, like, “Look how serious I am, I revised my book’s ending 150 times.”
That kind of thinking damaged me for many years. It’s bred the Internal Critic, who sits in his chair with his lips pursed, and as soon as I write a sentence, he says, “No, sorry, that won’t do. Delete it now, before you embarrass yourself, and then start over.”
The Internal Critic has ruined more writers than alcohol, drugs, depression, economic hardship, and all the other obstacles to writing combined. We all have that critic inside us, carping at every sentence we write, telling us we haven’t used the right words, the right spelling, the right grammar, that we haven’t said anything original or clever, that it’s all been said before and why would any reader waste their time reading THIS dreck?
There is a time and place for the critic, but it most certainly is not at the first draft stage. The Internal Critic should be nowhere in site at that stage. In fact, if he shows his prissy face you should tell him to leave immediately or you will do bodily harm to him. When you’re trying to get a first draft of anything written, you should let the words and thoughts spill out as fast as possible, not even caring if any of it makes sense. You should let your fingers fly over the keyboard and just let the words flow. Don’t worry about logic, facts, style, grammar -- don’t worry about anything but getting the words out as fast as possible. 
The time to let the Internal Critic back in the room is when you begin editing your work. However, even then you should keep a tight leash on him. An out of control Internal Critic can make the editing process a nightmare, leading to those horror stories of authors rewriting a single sentence hundreds of times. 
I’m trying to control the Internal Critic, but it’s an ongoing process. He still sneaks back into the room at times when I’m trying to write. However, I’ve made it clear that he’s not wanted, and I’m trying to banish him entirely. 

Down with the Internal Critic!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Finally, I'm on the Web

My kids think I’m cool (well, as much as a Dad can be considered cool, anyway) because I’ve had a blog, Twitter, and Google Plus for years, as well as a bunch of other social networking profiles. However, it’s hard to be an early adopter of every new thing in the digital universe and still keep up with my writing projects. 
I confess I’m late to having a Web site, but finally, at long last, I’ve got one. It’s called simply “My Writing”, and I’m very proud of it. I’ve been fiddling around with it for months, and it’s finally in good enough shape to publish. It’s got links to my books, some information about my freelance services, and excerpts from my novels. Well, right now there’s only one excerpt, from Book One of “Rose Of Skibbereen”, but I have plans to upload more. 

I invite you to check it out! My Writing

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What Would Hemingway Have To Say About The Kardashians?

Can you imagine Ernest Hemingway with a blog? I was thinking that today, when I realized I hadn't updated this blog in awhile. I grew up in an era when writers weren't expected to post daily updates on what they ate for breakfast, who they saw in the supermarket checkout line, and what they really think about Kim Kardashian's latest outfit, so I forget to keep up with all my online responsibilities. I have accounts with Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Pinterest, and of course, this blog, so there's no excuse for me to be so anti-social, right? I should be posting updates every hour, with lots of pictures, video clips, and funny captions, and instead I go weeks -- months, even! -- without posting. 
It's just that I always thought a writer was supposed to be busy creating other worlds, other characters besides Himself. I would rather socialize with the characters from my Rose Of Skibbereen books than spend time creating a John McDonnell character who is Internet ready and appropriately controversial. 
Most writers are not that interesting in person, but in terms of building a following in this social networking age, that's the kiss of death. You have to be interesting at all costs, able to gain legions of followers because of your comments, pictures, and the "events" that you can stage. 
But, like I said, that has never been the way most writers operate. Some of the greatest writers in the world of literature have been the kind of people you'd never even notice at a party. P.G. Wodehouse, who wrote almost a hundred classic books (most of which are still in print 50 years after his death), said many times that he led a boring, uneventful life. He spent his days sitting at a desk, immersed in the radiant world he created, writing down all the adventures of his unforgettable characters, and he went months without doing anything that was worthy of a Tweet or a Facebook post. 
And what about Ernest Hemingway? Oh, he could probably fill up a lot of Facebook with pictures and posts about all his macho adventures -- marlin fishing, big game hunting, boxing, fly fishing -- but you wouldn't see a peep about anything to do with his writing. Hemingway, like a lot of writers, didn't want to spoil the creative mood by posting daily updates about what his characters said or did. He was notoriously close-mouthed about his works in progress, and I doubt he would have posted any of his writing on social media for his fans to read. 
These are just two examples, but the list is endless. Most writers in the past would not have adapted well to social media. I realize there are writers today who embrace it, and good for them. If they can keep up with all the demands of having a public persona and interacting with their fans on social media, while still managing to write beautiful, imaginative literature, well, God bless them. I'm not one of them, it seems, and there's nothing I can do about that. So, I'll just keep writing my stories every day, and once in a while I'll pop my head out of my burrow, blink a few times like a mole who's found his way to the surface, and post an update or two. 

And if Kim Kardashian is still in the news, I'll offer an opinion on her latest outfit. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

48 Really Useful Sites

Have you heard of 48 Really Useful Web Sites? I haven't talked about it much in this blog, but it's an ebook I wrote about some of the most useful free sites on the Internet. Back in the early days of the Internet I wrote an email newsletter called "Really Useful Web Sites", and in it I reviewed free sites I found in my Web surfing, sites that I thought were amazing and worth a visit because of the information they made available. My newsletter had 100,000 subscribers at one point, and people loved it. I closed the newsletter down a while ago, mostly because it was getting harder to find free sites that had valuable information, but I still like to find useful sites in my Web wanderings. So, a year or two ago when I wanted to take a break from my fiction writing I put together 48 Really Useful Web Sites and published it as an ebook. It has my reviews of all these nifty sites, plus links to them so you can go right to the site from your computer, tablet, or ebook reader.
The reason I'm telling you this today is that I'm feeling happy because someone left a glowing review of my book on Smashwords. Here's a quote: 
"Incredible book this one is. It has helped me save a good amount of money and time."

Isn't that great? I'm glad someone found my book useful, and I'm pleased he took the time to post such a positive review.
If you're looking for some Web sites that are definitely worth a visit, check out 48 Really Useful Web Sites!
It's not bad, if I do say so myself!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Here's What I'm Writing

Just a quick update.

I know I haven’t posted here in awhile, but I’ve been keeping busy with my various writing projects nonetheless. Here’s a quick update, to let you know what I’ve been doing. 
  • Fiverr -- I’ve been getting swamped with work on Fiverr, where I am available for brainstorming ideas and writing blog posts. I wake up every morning and find my inbox crowded with jobs from people who need help with things like: slogans for products, plots for novels, marketing input, branding ideas, and blog posts about dozens of subjects. I’m happy to help, and if you read the reviews, my clients are very happy with my work.
  • Fiction -- I’m working up some ideas for a new horror novel that will be out before August, and also the last novel in my “Rose Of Skibbereen” Irish romance series. The “Rose Of Skibbereen” novel will be out by the Fall. I’ll keep you posted about my progress on that. 
  • Playwriting -- I have now submitted my short plays to 16 theaters and festivals, and I’m going to continue submitting till I have 20, 30, 40 or more plays out there. It’s not easy to get a play produced these days, but I believe in my talent, and I am determined to see my theatrical writing performed. I’ll keep you posted about that also!

That’s it for now, but I’ll post more updates as I have news to report.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

On Stage Again

If you've been reading my blog in the last year you know that I have developed an interest in theater. I still love writing fiction, and publishing "Rose Of Skibbereen" has been a high point for me, but I have realized that I really get a kick from writing for the stage. I love writing dialogue, just hearing the rhythm of voices and trying to get it right on the page. Then, seeing it translated to a stage with real actors saying the lines -- what a high that is! There's nothing better than working with talented people to bring your vision to life.
So, I want to let you know that one of my ten-minute plays will be featured on April 30 and May 1 at the New Voices Festival, put on by the Bucks County Playhouse. Both evenings feature the same plays, so you can come either night and see some great short plays. Here is the link, if you want to order tickets.
Also, on May 2 I'll be appearing at the Playhouse in "Talk/Story In Love and War: The World of Rodin", a performance based on sculptures of Auguste Rodin which are being featured in a show at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown. I am part of a group that has written the show, and we will be performing our work. You can buy tickets for that performance here.
I don't know where this will all lead, but I do know I enjoy it immensely, and I want to pursue it. I've met some creative, talented people in the last year, and I want to continue working with them. So, come out, if you're in the area! I promise that you'll enjoy the show, no matter which performance you come to.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

A Video Interview With Me

I was recently interviewed in the Doylestown Intelligencer newspaper about my "Rose Of Skibbereen" ebook series. They posted an excerpt of the interview at their Web site. In this clip I'm talking about the genealogy research that gave me the idea to write the novel. You can find it here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A Toast To The Immigrants

St. Patrick's Day is coming, and every year around this time I start to think about the people I based my "Rose Of Skibbereen" series on. They are people from my family, my ancestors, and I learned about them through the meticulous genealogy research my mother did. She told me often about her old Irish grandmother, who died in the 1940s, and how she came over to Philadelphia as a young girl and worked as a servant in the houses of rich families. She had three sisters who moved here also, but she left a brother and a sister back in Ireland with her parents, and she never saw any of them again.
It was a hard thing the Irish did, the same as all immigrants do. They left their native land because of poverty, and they traveled thousands of miles to a new country, and often had to start out at the bottom rung of society, scrabbling to make a living the best they could. Many of them never had the money to buy a steamship ticket back to their homeland even for a brief visit, so they never saw their parents or the world they grew up in again. 
I think of that often when I think of my great grandmother, who is the person Rose is based on. She grew up in a rural part of Ireland in the 19th century, a place where there was no electricity, and none of the modern conveniences. I'm sure the first city she ever saw was Cobh, which was the town in Ireland where she boarded the ship to take her to America. Philadelphia, where she disembarked in the 1880s, must have seemed overwhelming, with all its traffic and people and sights and sounds. To make that transition, not only from one country to another, rural to urban, but also to live, like she did, for 60 more years and see all the changes that the 20th century brought, must have been a bewildering experience. When she died the world had been through two world wars, cars and airplanes had been invented, the telephone was a part of daily life, and there were a thousand other changes that must have made the world of her childhood seem like a dream. It's something I can hardly imagine, to see all that change in one lifetime, and even though I've seen some wonderful things in my life I haven't seen that rate of change. 
So, this year on St. Patrick's Day I'll lift a glass and toast my grandmother, and all the other immigrants who lived through so much. Because, through it all, they endured. 

I hope they found peace at their journey's end. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Fiverr And Swimming With The Current

This is going to be a controversial post, I think. The reason is that for people like me, who’ve been in the creative fields for a lot of years, the Internet has not always been a good thing. There was a time before the Internet when freelance writers could make a princely sum for their work. You gained experience, put your articles (called clips) in a portfolio and showed them to clients, and the clients gave you work commensurate with your ability and experience. It was a great system, right?
And then the Internet came along. The Internet allowed clients to vastly expand their pool of freelancers. Anyone with a computer and a modem could call themselves a writer, and the clients could make all these millions of freelance “writers” compete against each other to offer the lowest bid for the job. That’s why you have writers making $5 or less for a blog post. 
For awhile, I held my nose up like a lot of other experienced writers, and I said, “There’s no way I’m going to stoop to those kind of rates. I’m too good for that!”
But, you know what? I’ve seen the light. I’ve realized that the Internet is like a mighty river, and it’s better to swim with the current than against it. 
I joined Fiverr. Fiverr is a site where people advertise that they’ll do all sorts of odd jobs for five bucks. Really, you can find someone there who’ll do just about anything. 
It’s outrageous, right? Why would a person who’s got decades of experience writing for companies and publications, who has a Master’s in English and is a published novelist, why would he sell his services for five bucks?
Here are five reasons why I’ve done it.
. If you price the job right you can make decent money. People aren’t giving away the store for five bucks. You can structure your offer so that your time invested is equal to the payment you receive. The ones I’ve posted, “I’ll brainstorm 12 ideas for $5,” and “I’ll write a 250 word blog post for $5” are things I’ve decided I can do profitably. Sure, it’s not top dollar, but it can lead to bigger and better things (see below for more about that). 
. You get paid without a hassle. In my career I’ve had to wait months to get paid, and sometimes I got stiffed for my fee, when a magazine or business went bankrupt. With Fiverr, you get paid within a matter of days after completing the job. Every time. 
. You get lots of work. If you have a good offer, you’ll get work. Tons of it. Your email inbox will be filled every day with people buying your gig.
. You get bigger jobs in time. When you move up the ranks of Fiverr sellers, you can multiply your income. If someone wants a thousand word article, I can tell them to order more gigs, so that I’m not writing all those words for five bucks. 
. You do something different every day. I like the thrill of tackling different jobs every day.  I’ve done brainstorming gigs for videographers, game designers, novelists, business owners, and much more. I never know what to expect when I log on each day, and I love it. 
I’m not going to get rich working for Fiverr, and I know that. My main gig will still be writing fiction, and that’s the way I want it. But Fiverr has added some variety to my writing life, and it’s stimulated my brain cells in ways you wouldn’t imagine. Also, it’s a nice way to pick up some extra cash. 

I guess I’m a traitor to the venerable freelance writing profession. Oh, well, it’s better to adapt than to become a dinosaur.