Writing About the Great War

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One hundred years ago today, millions of men in Europe were fighting and dying in trenches in a war that not only unleashed the terror of modern warfare on the world, but set the stage for nearly every conflict that would follow in the 20th century. I’m referring, of course, to the Great War, which today we know as World War I.

My fascination with WWI began in high school in a military history class, where we would reenact famous battles. It was in a shallow trench next to the football field, armed with a Super Soaker as water balloon mortars fell around me that I first gained an appreciation for what those who lived through the real thing must have faced.

Then, last year, I picked up a book called To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild. In Hochschild’s careful unwrapping of the war and its complexity, I started to understand the messiness of the war and its similarity to today’s global and regional conflicts. This was the war that introduced the tank and the airplane to the arsenal of death, but it also heralded the first time women entered the workforce en mass, the collapse of two major world powers, and the rise of socialism and communism in Europe. Above all, the stories of human suffering and human triumph were deeply affecting and fired my imagination (I was also inspired by my friend, Keene Short’s blog, which frequently focuses on the events of WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution). I was scarcely a chapter into Hochschild’s book when I knew I was reading the source material for a new story.

Tonight, I’ll be reading that story, which I’ve titled the Night Watch, at Creative Colloquy. This is my first serious dive into historical fiction, which is hard to do period, let alone in short story form. But I hope I’ve captured some of the nuance of the men and women who lived through the Great War. I hope to see you there.

Creative Colloquy at 7pm
B Sharp Coffee House
706 Opera Alley
Tacoma, WA 98402

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Jonny Eberle is a writer and history junkie in Tacoma, WA. You can find more of his wit and writing  on Twitter or subscribe to the email newsletter to receive exclusive content and zero spam.

Why We Must Protect Funding for the Arts

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The Avenue in the Rain (1917) by Childe Hassam. Part of the White House’s permanent art collection.

“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.” – John F. Kennedy

The National Endowment for the Arts (along with its sibling agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities) was established by Congress 1965 as the fulfillment of a Kennedy-era dream to support and encourage the development of American art. It also set out to correct inequity in access for the arts in low income and African American communities and bring the arts out of the ivory towers and to all Americans.

More than 50 years later, though hobbled by decreased funding and dogged by political attacks, the NEA still provides an essential service to our nation. Today, the vast majority of audiences for plays, symphonies, readings and exhibitions are middle/upper class, middle-aged, white, and living in affluent urban communities. And though private funding keeps these cultural meccas alive, struggling artists in rural towns, young people, and minorities are far less likely to have access to money from foundations and wealthy donors to make arts programming possible.

The NEA steps in to level the playing field. In 2016, the NEA helped to provide 23,000 grants in 5,000 communities, which reached every congressional district in the United States. That funding turned into 30,000 concerts, readings, performances and exhibitions that were seen by a staggering 20 million people. The NEA also supports arts education in our schools, with 50% of its education projects located in low income neighborhoods.

The president’s proposed budget aims to eviscerate this important work by completely eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. These cuts are proposed as a way of reigning in a bloated federal government, but these programs are only a drop in the bucket. The NEA accounts for only $148 million, or 0.012% of the total $3.65 trillion federal budget. By contrast, he is calling for a $50 billion increase in defense spending. Cutting the NEA is purely symbolic and does nothing to balance the federal budget.

Even from a purely economic point of view, funding the arts makes sense. The arts industry creates jobs (4.7 million people are employed in the arts) and contributes $698 billion to the U.S. economy (4.3% of GDP). That’s more than the construction, transportation, or warehousing industries and is an excellent investment of our tax dollars.

We must protect our federal arts funding. And we must fight to preserve it from those who see more value in a fighter jet than a one-act play. We must declare loudly that the arts matter and we must do it now, before it is too late.

“I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.” – John F. Kennedy.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, filmmaker and arts advocate. Call your congressional representatives and tell them not to defund the NEA: http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/. You can find more rants on Twitter or subscribe to the email newsletter.

 

The Writer Does Math

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I’ve spent most of my life trying to avoid it, those weird letters that are used for counting. I’m a writer, I don’t do numbers. They’re the antithesis of everything I stand for — mainly, letters arranged into patterns that form words, sentences and paragraphs. My brain has always been wired for language, as opposed to mathematics. In school, I struggled to find x or figure to calculate when two trains would collide if one left St. Louis at 3:22pm going 60 miles an hour and one left the Moon at 4:10pm with 29 cartons of precious Moon cheese going at the speed of light. It’s never been my thing.

This week; however, I made an exception.

WARNING: If you read any further, you may encounter third grade division.

You see, I’m writing a novel and a novel is a big and daunting kind of thing to write. So, to figure out how on Earth I’m actually going to pull it off, I decided to break down my goal into smaller, less scary pieces. How long should my novel be? How long will it take to write? The answer to these burning questions led me back to my old nemesis — simple arithmetic.

Pay attention, class; this will be on the test. A novel is typically defined by the publishing industry as a manuscript somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 words (epic fantasies tend to run longer than that; books about orphans who live in an abandoned railroad car and solve mysteries run shorter). So, I set my sights on the average: 95,000 words.

After my writing retreat, I had written about 6,200 words, leaving 88,800 words to hit my goal. That weekend, I wrote in sprints and timed myself. I discovered that I average 450 words an hour. Do some stuff and carry the one and I’m left with 197 hours of writing to reach a total length of about 95,000 words. That’s a much smaller number, but still too big for my digit-averse mind to understand.

If I commit to writing 4 hours a week (seems reasonable), then I can write 197 hours’ worth of novely goodness in 43 weeks, which puts me at December 5 and gives me three weeks of wiggle room before my self-imposed December 31 deadline. That’s three weeks to bum around Europe, binge watch Season 2 of Stranger Things and generally procrastinate. Sounds about right.

I spent nearly all of my time in school trying to get away from math and swearing that in the real world, I would never need it. I guess I owe my freshman algebra teacher an apology.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA. You can follow his progress here as he writes his first novel, follow his procrastination on Twitter, or sign-up for his email list for exclusive excerpts from his work-in-progress.

My Solo Writing Retreat to the Island of Inspiration

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It was a dark winter’s night when I drove onto the ferry from Point Defiance to Tahlequah. I was off to nearby Vashon Island for a day-and-a-half solo writing retreat to start my novel. On the short trip from Tacoma to Vashon, I tried not to think too much about the enormous task I was about to undertake and instead focus on the surreal sight of the ferry dock disappearing into the mist.

It may only be a fifteen-minute ferry ride away, but Vashon feels far away and remote. In contrast to the cities surrounding it, it is home to only a few thousand people, spread out over a densely wooded area about the size of Manhattan. After I told her about my goal of finally finishing a novel over the next three years, my amazing spouse bought me two nights at an Airbnb for my birthday. So, I packed up my laptop, a few books on writing, and a bag of snacks and hoped inspiration would follow.

I have often found that I need to leave behind familiar spaces to start something new. Working at home, it’s easy to get distracted by thoughts of laundry that needs washing or what to make for dinner or a thousand other domestic considerations. Even though I was only a few miles away from my house, the process of packing up, of traveling, of arriving on an isolated island, sparked my subconscious to get to work.

I woke at daybreak (not a spectacular feat at these northern latitudes), made a cup of tea and setup my laptop. My retreat was a small Frank Lloyd Wright-style cabin with wood-paneled walls and a clean, modern aesthetic. A desk was built into a wall of windows overlooking Puget Sound to the north. Nearby, I discovered a turntable and a collection of LPs. I put on a Crosby, Stills and Nash album, gently lowered the needle onto the record to set it spinning and opened a new Word document.

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I’m not sure if it was the view, the curl of steam coming off my tea, the crackle of vinyl or the fact that my brain had been secretly preparing for this trip for three weeks, but for some reason, the words started flowing. I wrote twenty pages that day — my entire first chapter — which is far more productive than I’ve been in months. To be fair, I didn’t dream up the premise then and there. This is my fourth attempt (or is it the sixth?) at a novel idea I’ve been playing with for years. But this time, my fingers moved at the speed of my ideas and the ideas themselves were significantly better. I left on the twelve o’clock ferry the next day with a good start on my manuscript, a few pages of character notes, and a severely depleted snack bag.

Retreats are amazing like that. They give you uninterrupted time to focus and the time leading up to your departure gets the gears turning in advance so that you can be creative right out of the gate. But the retreat is not what’s important. What’s important is what happens after the retreat. One day of productivity and inspired writing does not a novel make. You have to sustain it the next day, the next week, and for months on end. The retreat is the beginning, but once you arrive back home and realize that the laundry still needs to be done, the challenge is keeping the momentum and not succumbing to the inertia of the everyday.

I’ve never managed to keep up that momentum after a solo retreat. It has always evaporated. But this year will be different. Because this year, I have a deadline. My retreat was only one day, but I have 328 more days until I need to have a completed first draft. The retreat is over, but the work is just starting.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA working on his first novel. You can get first dibs on excerpts from his novel-in-progress by subscribing to his monthly email newsletter. You can also follow him on Twitter. Thanks for reading!

Revenge of the Birthday Resolutions

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Today is my birthday. And five years ago, it was also a day when I couldn’t think of anything to write about. My blog was just getting off the ground and I knew I needed to write about something to keep myself in the habit and grow my small audience. I was drawing a blank, so I decided to take a risk and talk about something more personal. For years, I’ve been making birthday resolutions instead of New Year’s resolutions and that year, I shared my resolutions with the blogosphere. Five years later, that first blog about how I wanted to grow and change is one of my most viewed posts.

Most of us make resolutions this time of year. We want to lose weight, cut back on the amount of time we spend on Facebook, put more money into our savings, but most of those resolutions are quickly abandoned.  It’s hard to change the course of a river once it’s found a course and human beings are no different, in my experience. Perhaps it’s no surprise that 88% of resolutions fail.

Historically, I have struggled to keep my resolutions (except for that one time when I resolved to move across the country — that one worked out), but I’ve found more success when I limit myself to one or two, put them down in writing and hold myself accountable by telling people what I’m trying to accomplish.

So, as I mark another year of wandering around this crazy world, I’m making one resolution. Just one. Possibly the most ambitious pledge to myself that I have ever made and the one that will have the most potential impact on my literary career. In light of that, I have also resolved to give it the time it deserves, by setting myself a three-year deadline.

Okay, enough build-up. Here it is:

I will complete a final draft of a novel by the time I am 30 years old.

I have tip-toed around writing a novel for the better part of a decade and have little to show for it. Half a dozen unfinished (read: barely started) novels are cluttering my hard drive, but I have never devoted the time necessary to seeing any one of them through to a final draft.

Writing a novel is big. Bigger than any writing project I’ve ever embarked upon. But I think that now is the time. I think I’m finally up to the task. I am fortune to have a loving spouse and a supportive web of friends and family to urge me onward. I’ll be documenting the ups and downs of the process from the initial idea to final draft right here — and I’m grateful to have you along for the ride.

The clock is ticking. Wish me luck.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer and soon-to-be novelist in Tacoma. You can find him on Twitter.

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On the Threshold of a New Year

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I stand in the doorway between two years. Behind me lies 2016, now in the past; ahead is 2017, still unknown. Like so many people, I am ready to put this year behind me, to slam the door and charge ahead without a thought to the past. The world is weary of 2016. This year brought so much strife and suffering into the world; so much anger and division. I long to hit the reset button and have a fresh start. That’s what the new year is all about, right?

Not so fast.

The celebration of the new year has a long history going back over four thousand years in many cultures around the world, and it has come to symbolize throwing off the burdens of the past and getting to start over. And yet, for the ancient Romans, I suspect that there was another layer to their year-end revels.

The month Januarius was added to the Roman calendar in the 8th century B.C. by a guy named Numa Pompilius,  if it wasn’t until Julius Caesar instituted his new Julian calendar in 46 B.C. that the New Year was moved to January 1. Previously, it had been at various points throughout spring and summer. By changing the date to the dead of winter, to the month of Januarius, it was linked to the Roman god Janus, the namesake of the month.

Janus is an interesting god in the Roman pantheon. He is a god with two faces — one perpetually staring into the past and one forever fixed on the future. He is the god of doorways, thresholds and keys (it is from his name that we get the word “janitor.”). Unlike other gods that we straight up stolen from the Greeks, Janus is an invention of the city of the seven hills.

And though kings and popes continually shifted the date of the new year during the next several hundred years, it eventually found its place back here at the beginning of January; in this dark, cold month when we so long for a reset. I think there’s something still poignant about that placement.

There is a temptation to toss aside the shackles of the past, but we can’t pretend that the last 12 months didn’t happen. We can’t discount the chaos around the world nor our personal struggles. Now is a time, for me at least, to pause and reflect. Today, I’m striving to embody Janus and set my sights on the future, while keeping an eye to the lessons of the past.

Happy New Year.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA who tweets and secretly wonders if odd numbered years are better than even years. What are your hopes for 2017?

A Lonely Kid’s Best Friend

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I think most writers start out as lonely kids whose best friends are books.

A little over a month ago, my wife and I were packing to visit my family for Thanksgiving. All of my clothes were neatly packed and I was frantically searching our bookshelves for some light airplane reading. Reading an engaging book on a plane is one of my favorite things, so I wanted something good. My index finger came to rest on a small paperback with a cracked spine; a book I hadn’t read in a very, very long time.

When I was eleven years old, my family moved out of state. I changed schools and, in that cruel pre-social media world, lost touch with nearly all of my friends. For two years, I went to a small charter school (there were less than 15 students in my entire grade). I struggled to fit in and when I couldn’t seem to make any friends, I turned inward.

There was a small, white bookcase in my classroom and students were encouraged to borrow books. Being in middle school and being lonely, I naturally gravitated to escapist fiction and picked up a slight book with a dragon on the cover — A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin.

LeGuin’s book came to me at the perfect time, as great books often do. Set in an Iron Age world of islands and magic, the story follows the journey of Sparrowhawk, an arrogant young sorcerer who breaks the barrier between life and death and unleashes a malevolent shadow into the world. As he seeks to defeat it, he comes to understand the balance of the universe.

It completely captivated me. It wasn’t an epic fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings, but a personal fantasy; a coming-of-age story about one man learning to master his demons (both figurative and literal).

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Of even more interest to me as a budding writer was the nature of magic in LeGuin’s imagined world. In Earthsea, the key to magic lies in knowing the names of things. To know the true name of a person or a force of nature gives you power over it. In my own life, I was also learning that words were powerful.

A Wizard of Earthsea  was my gateway drug. LeGuin’s trilogy led me to other works of fantasy and science fiction. It also inspired me to write my own stories. If writing were a superpower, those books of fantasy would feature prominently in my origin story. Throughout middle school (and especially in those two years before I transferred to a larger public school), I started to write consistently for the first time in my life.

I had nearly forgotten about A Wizard of Earthsea until I happened upon it while packing my bag. I had nearly forgotten why it was so important to my development as a writer and how it had kept me company when I was a lonely kid in a new town. I don’t intend to forget again.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA. His most recent short story, the Evidence for Coal, was published this month by Creative Colloquy in their Christmas update. He can be found on Twitter or on his couch rereading the books that he loved when he was younger. What books inspired you when you were young? Sound off in the comments!

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A Modern Christmas Story

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This Christmas Eve, as you gather with family and wait for jolly old Saint Nick to come down to the chimney to leave gifts under the tree, I’m sure you’re wondering — how does Santa decide who gets presents and who gets coal? I set out to answer that question in my newest short story. “The Evidence for Coal” dives into the modernization of the Naughty or Nice List and it’s unintended consequences. Here’s a short excerpt (or you can skip to the end for a link to whole piece):

This year, Santa’s operation entered the 21st century. Shortly after Thanksgiving, a server room went online at the North Pole to analyze data that used to take an army of elves a year to complete. Sophisticated algorithms crawled the web, taking into account thousands of behavioral factors. Code scoured social media for keywords, while software did the dirty work of sorting naughty from nice. A team of hackers worked to piggyback signals on telecommunications satellites to intercept texts and tweets as they flew around the world. Millions of emails were obtained through a Russian intermediary. Security camera footage was spliced together with GPS locators and all of it was neatly compiled to build a comprehensive file on every last human being on Earth. Finally, the computer assigned a final judgment to each one and spat out a color-coded, three-page report on crisp, white cardstock.

The elves passed the pages around, then checked them twice, and they smiled to each other. A few exchanged high fives. Everything they had been saying for years was confirmed.

I hope you enjoy this tongue-in-cheek look into the inner workings of the North Pole. I wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas (and I hope you find lots of books under your tree tomorrow)!

Read “The Evidence for Coal” on Creative Colloquy.

While you’re there, check out their other Yuletide tales: “Alpha Wolf” by Joshua Swainston, “Christmas Reflection” by Nick Stokes, and “The Wishing Tree” by Melissa Thayer.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer in the City of Destiny. When he’s not waiting impatiently for those eight tiny reindeer, he can be found on Twitter.

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Write Like Hell

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Photo used under Creative Commons 2.0 license courtesy of Liz West.

The last few weeks have been tumultuous in this country, in my circle of friends, in my own life. After a major political upset on Election Night, many are worried about the direction we’re headed in — and rightly so. We’ve elected a man with disturbing authoritarian leanings; who believes dissent should be punished and advocates for limits on our First Amendment rights to free speech, religious exercise, peaceful assembly, and the press.

As an artist, I am deeply troubled by these remarks, however off-hand they may seem. Even a veiled or vague threat against free expression is a threat to be taken seriously. What are creative people supposed to do when a person who makes those kinds of threats assumes the highest office in the land?

Write like hell.

Whatever your medium, use it. Write stories, poems, protest songs. Scupt, paint, dance, blog, or tweet. Art has always been there to challenge structures of power.

  • In 1945, Boris Pasternak started writing Doctor Zhivago on paper that was sent to him by the widow of a friend who had been executed by the Soviet Union for his poetry. Pasternak’s novel dared to question the bloodshed of the revolution and his manuscript had to be smuggled out of the country to be published (it was later smuggled back in by the CIA).
  • In the 1960s and ’70s, musicians wrote songs protesting the Vietnam War and highlighting its many injustices, like Creedance Clearwater Revival’s Fortnate Son, a song about how the rich and well-connected were able to keep their sons from going to war.
  • This year, 130 writers and journalists were jailed after an attempted coup in Turkey, including novelist Aslı Erdoğan, whose novels, stories, and articles deal with human rights, violence against women and Kurdish rights.

Your work could be protest, but it doesn’t have to be. A friend and I are redoubling our efforts to write a how-to guide for people to have respectful political conversations. It’s nothing new or earth-shattering, but with luck, it can be a small part of the solution to the toxic partisan environment that surrounds American politics.

The world needs art. Especially art that unflinchingly holds up a mirror to us and our society. Art that nudges people to think and question and come to their own conclusions. Write about what you’re passionate about. Write with conviction. Write the truth. The pen truly is mightier than the sword.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA. You can find him on Twitter or working on any one of a dozen writing projects. Thanks for reading.

A Writer and a Fraud

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This month, I put myself on the line. I dusted off the play that I wrote two years ago and started sending it to theatres and new play festivals around the country. Some of these programs are known for discovering brilliant playwrights that go on to fame, fortune, and accolades. And each time I hit send on a submission, I felt a little pang. Way back in the dark recesses of my soul, a little voice said, “They’re going to know you’re a fraud, you know.”

I’m told that this is a common fear. It even has a fancy name coined by a pair of psychologists in the late-70s: Imposter Syndrome. It is especially common among high achievers — celebrities, athletes, CEOs, and writers at the top of their games. Even the great poet Maya Angelou once admitted, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'”

Still, knowing that I’m in good company doesn’t make the feeling go away. In my cover letters that accompany my play, I explain my background and achievements as a short story writer and playwright, but what if my publications are just dumb luck?

I grew up in the generation drowning in praise. A played several years of soccer as a kid and came home at the end of each season with progressively larger trophies. For years, those trophies played into a mistaken belief that I was actually good at soccer. It didn’t dawn on me until high school that they were participation trophies. So, you can’t blame me for being skeptical of my prowess as a writer. If I was a charlatan, would I realize it?

And yet, that isn’t what worries me the most. If I can attribute my successes on the Imposter Syndrome, what’s stopping me from blaming it for my failures? What if someday I get a rejection and chalk it up to not being a real writer instead of learning from it and going back to rewrites?

So, I’m training myself to believe that I am the real deal in victory and defeat. If a story gets published, it’s because I worked hard and made it the best I could. If I get rejected, it isn’t for lack of talent. And when I send a play out into the big, cold world of modern American drama, I’m still working on having the confidence to claim that I am the genuine article.

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Jonny Eberle lives and writes in the City of Destiny. You can find him on Twitter or join the mailing list.