Finding inspiration and will power

One of the most frequent questions writers are asked is about their “writing space,” that special place to which they retreat to spend hours upon hours with a keyboard and a stack of blank paper. The question is a tried and true staple of interviewers seeking to get inside the heads of their writer-subjects.

Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up in what was little more than a tree house. Dorothy Parker (and several others for that matter), wrote in bed. I’m told from a reliable source that Anne Rice‘s writing space is a room comprising four walls, a floor and the ceiling, all painted primer white. She has her desk and a cup of Sharpies she uses to write on the walls, floor, wherever she can find a blank spot. It’s kind of John Nash, if you ask me, but who am I to judge?

I have my own writing space at home. It’s nothing fancy. A computer monitor, a great IBM Model M keyboard, a trackball, and about a gazillion items that I find either inspirational or distracting. I’ve written some about the setup before, about the pictures overlooking the desk and about my Joe DiMaggio autograph on the wall.

What I haven’t told you much about is the framed picture on the far corner.

The photo resides in a simple black frame that is a little oversized for the print. I’m standing in a room of people with my arm around an older woman. We’re both wearing badges and it’s obvious we’re at a conference of some sort. What isn’t obvious is why she’s on my desk.

She’s not a recognizable face. And, unless you’re an avid reader of things other than James Patterson, she may not be a recognized name. More often than not, I’m asked, “Is this your mother?” (Sorry, Julia.)

She’s not my mother. She’s National Book Award Winner Julia Glass. And she said some of the nicest things about one of my books. (You can read some of what she had to say on the back cover of The Patriot Joe Morton. It was quite lovely, I promise.)

I keep her photo on my desk, though, not for what she said about my book but instead for what she wrote to me when she signed her book.


It’s inspiration advice, to be sure. And it’s the only way writers of any calibre or quality are ever going to find success and recognition. But right now, as I stare at this screen and sit in this room, completely unable to write the first coherent word of the next book, it’s about the only thing keeping me strapped in this chair.

Maybe I’ll watch the Olympics or something and try to find some inspiration.

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Villain, thou name is Grammar

I’m not a grammar Nazi. I don’t wander around with a copy of Strunk & White‘s Elements of Style in my satchel, waiting to pounce on the first individual to dangle a modifier or end a sentence with a preposition. (Okay, fine. I do carry a copy of Strunk & White. But I don’t lie in wait to pounce….) And I’ll almost guarantee you that I’ll break more than a few rules of grammar in this post. (Hint: I already have. Twice. Make that three times now.)

But today, I noticed something that bothers me. It makes the little prickles on the back of my neck rise. It is the chronic misuse of the noun “graduate,” specifically in conjunction with the modifier “former.

I’ve seen it in headlines on newspapers across the country, in Facebook posts, and on at least one tee-shirt. While I don’t go as far as my old friend, Sandy Halperin, and insist that the verb “to graduate” be limited to its transitive form, I cannot abide by “former graduate” because it is not only bad writing, but it says the exact opposite of the intended.

So let’s clear this up once and for all.

Graduate is a binary state. Either you are or you are not a graduate. Once you have become a graduate, you cannot be “ungraduated” from your institution, at least not without good cause. The phrase “graduate” needs no modifier to indicate that the individual graduated years ago. If you do wish to indicate the passage of time, you’ll need to use more words. For example: Class of 2012 Graduate Joe Blow.

But if Joe has, in fact, received a diploma from the University of Biteme, he will forever be a graduate of the University of Biteme. The only — and this is the only — way he can ever become a former graduate is for the university to rescind his diploma. This very rarely happens.

What would help headline writers and copyeditors with this needlessly troublesome little word, (which is, after all, a scant three syllables long), would be to modify it appropriately in the other direction. If you wish to describe someone as a “recent” graduate, that is perfectly okay. I even encourage you to do so because it will bring a much needed bit of clarity to the word. “Graduate” is in the past–any time in the past. “Recent graduate” means it happened sometime in the relatively recent past.