Don’t Let It Get Away

Photo courtesy Marko Blazevic on

I was driving very early on Friday morning down some slightly foggy, all but deserted streets of a section of my hometown known as the Short North. I was doing someone a favor, picking them up at the ungodly hour of 0-dark-forty to transport them to the city Greyhound Bus Depot so that they could catch a 5:00AM ride that would eventually drop them to New York. As usual, I was obnoxiously early, arriving a quarter hour before the agreed time; knowing that my prospective rider would be  late by about fifteen minutes I drove around a bit in the general area around their residence so that I wouldn’t be sitting idling in front of their apartment building in a no stopping zone.

I spent as a wee lad a number of Saturdays in a building on the outskirts of that neighborhood, long before the well-gridded streets which were then called “slums” became gentrified. My father managed the local branch office of a truck leasing company and for some reason believed that a regular Saturday trip to his office would encourage me to follow his example, instead of stirring up my inner brat resentment caused by my preference for Saturday morning television.. The office in the 1950s was full of cigar smoke — one of the company’s salesmen had a penchant for stogies — and absent of television, books, comics, or magazines. There wasn’t much to do. I was too young to do a credible brake job on an eighteen wheeler (and remain so to this day!) and as a result I spent most of my time hanging out in the garage listening to the mechanics tell jokes, some of which I understood but most of which I didn’t.  While most of the commercial buildings in that area have been torn down or rehabbed into tony apartment complexes or flavor of the month taverns that change owners, names, and identities every eighteen months, the structure which housed my father’s old office building still sits there and is still used for its original purpose by a different company. I like to drive by there when I am in the area. Sometimes I can almost imagine that I see my six year old self staring wistfully out of one of the office windows onto the street, yearning for escape. The primary attraction in my adult life, however, is the reminder that I don’t have to stop there and can go wherever I want whenever I want, rather than spending five hours in the building on a Saturday trying to figure out ways not to get into trouble. I guess my inner brat still resides within me. Age is also a factor. I was told by an elderly friend, shortly before he passed, that aging is like living in reverse: people start treating you like a child, taking away privileges and objects (like car keys and credit cards) and restricting your activities. Sometimes I need a reminder of what I have now, and what may be lurking ahead. Driving past that old office building helps.

I accordingly decided to kill some time by doing just that. Nothing much had changed from my last brief visit at the beginning of summer. I drove by slowly, looking for the ghost image of my young reflection, when I saw a quick movement out of the corner of my eye. I faced forward and quickly slammed on the brakes. A large tabby cat had picked that moment to dart in front of my slowly moving car. I didn’t hit it, which was good for the cat, but bad for the reason for its haste: it had a large rat in its mouth. The rodent’s anterior and posterior parts were draped resignedly over Garfield’s right and left jaws, riding up slightly on the kitty’s lower canines. The big hunter obviously wanted to get back to base and enjoy the meal before the adrenaline dissolved. Adrenaline in a prey animal’s bloodstream is like chocolate to a predator; it makes everything better. I watched the big hunter scurry off into the darkness and wished him godspeed.

Longtime Saturday morning visitors to The Kill Zone know that I love metaphors. I’ve been thinking about that cat all day, with the cat as the writer, the rat as the story, and the hunt as the idea. You’re the cat. Chase that idea down. Don’t let it go. If you do it just might scamper away, never to return. It might even be caught and eaten by someone else. Don’t fall into the old “no one will want to read this” trap of giving up on your concept before you’ve even tried to write it. All you will see is a blank expanse of page. All you will hear is the sound of wheels spinning. Unlike six-year old Joey, you can control your destiny. Put both hands on the keyboard and go where you want to go. Oh… if you’re driving, keep your eyes on the road. And when you cross the street, look both ways first, no matter what you are carrying, or how delicious it might be.  

As always, I’m curious…what was your least favorite adult-imposed task that you remember from your childhood? If you are inclined, please tell us what, and why. It might be a good starting place for something bigger. Thank you.

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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

25 thoughts on “Don’t Let It Get Away

  1. As I find to be the case very often, your post hit a mark with me. First: the cat with the prey & the adrenaline: my writing life has been comprised of many stops and starts, & I’m on a 27 day roll of writing every day & brainstorming a historical novel series. The good thing about it is when you DO commit to daily writing, it is an adrenaline rush, as is the time you spend researching your subject, brainstorming ideas, etc.

    Second: re: ” Don’t fall into the old “no one will want to read this” trap…” I was just in a conversation that began because I was interested in hearing recommendations for historical series fiction where each novel in the series had the same protag. That led to a conversation about how the trend is to rotate protags in the series, not keep the same one–that it’s not popular. Also, apparently the trend is for it to always be female protags–at least in the responses I received. Conversations like that can kill your momentum–and indeed make you fall into the “no one will want to read this” trap. Fortunately for me, I’ve never been one to fall in line with what was considered trendy or popular. Which leads to your question of the day:

    As to adult assigned tasks in childhood–it’s not what you would think. I’m not saying I joyfully answered the order to wash dishes, for example, but the thing I most hated being forced to do as a kid was read the “classics” of literature. That is a stupid idea. If you have a child who does very well in language arts and is hungry to read, let them explore what they WANT to explore. That also did a disservice to the authors of those “classics” because I still view them repulsively to this day–mostly because I was forced to waste my reading time reading books someone ELSE chose for me, instead of reading what I wanted.

    • BK, thank you for the compliment and your observations. I understand why publishers do that — if it sticks to the wall once, it will stick twice — but I think it’s a mistake. Readers are now making jokes about all of the books coming out with “The Girl” in the title. You know that you’re in trouble when your customers are laughing at you and you’re not trying to be funny. I think you are wise to stay the course and keep the mix interesting — and different — as you go along.

      And a special THANK YOU and a tip of the porkpie for your comment about reading the classics. There should be SOME exposure to books that have stood the test of time but it should be balanced by letting each student find and select a title on their own and give a book report (remember those?) on it. Even if it’s a graphic novel or manga work, or a Jimmybook, or Stephen King. At least the kid is reading.

  2. Not as a child, but as an adult I had an ex who managed an air freight forwarding company; his job involved managing a constant flow of trucks, drivers, and cargo loads. When we first met he frequently mentioned working on a “dock”; I (wrongly) visualized his workplace set in a gritty seaport setting. On my first visit I discovered that instead he worked in a gritty urban industrial setting, which looked much the way you described the pre-gentrified area of your father’s work. I can’t imagine a more dismal environment for a child to be forced to inhabit on Saturday mornings. Perhaps the experience helped you turn inward to your imagination for entertainment. The trucking company that was run by my ex made an incognito cameo appearance in my first Nancy Drew–the “bad guy” in that story ran a trucking company. I remember feeling a little rush of divorcée’s revenge the moment I first saw the cover art for that book–it shows an 18-wheeler falling off an overpass and bursting into flames. (And yes, people who know me well do think I’m a bit scary, in case anyone’s wondering, lol).

    • KL…I love that story about your Nancy Drew villain. Talk about cathartic! As far as the trucking company environment went…I’m sure that there were worse places to be, but the “boring but good for you” assumption had the opposite effect. It at least kept me from doing the same thing to my own children. I took them to my office once and showed them around, and never mentioned going again. The interesting result was that they WANTED to go, and I made sure to take them, when they asked. Thanks for the great tale from from your past life!

  3. Good morning Joe,

    Washing dishes. I only had to take my turn one night a week (there were 5 siblings), but I despised it. After all, I had to fire an old coal stove in the dungeon, and take out ashes in the winter. And I mowed the grass in the summer. I think my father, too, was trying to instill in me the disease of workaholism. He succeeded. But to this day, remembering the green rubber gloves I wore when I washed dishes, I avoid the green vinyl gloves (choosing any other color) when I wear gloves for procedures.

  4. Good morning, Steve. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story. Aren’t you glad that your father wasn’t a veterinarian? I understand that attending to a mare’s breech birth is something not easily forgotten.

    I have a child’s dishwashing story that you’ll love:

    A friend of mine (we’ll call him ‘Corey’) grew up in an interesting, all male household. The family patriarch owned a popular neighborhood bar that adjoined the house. The brothers all worked in the bar. House chores were done haphazardly with little supervision, though such was attempted.

    The washing and drying of dinner dishes was a task that was performed among the brothers on a weekly rotation. On a Sunday at the beginning of Corey’s week he observed while gathering the dishes that one of his brothers had placed his dinner plate on the floor so that the family dog (who we’ll call “Phideux”) could have his leftovers. Corey observed that the plate, after Phideux’s attentions, was clean, shiny, and dry. Phideux was sitting by the table with his tail wagging, looking expectantly at Corey, who in turn took each dish and put it on the floor. By the time he got the last plate down Phideux had made quickly work of over half of them, which were, yes, clean shiny and dry. Corey gathered the plates from the floor and neatly stacked them in the cupboard. A job — well, a variation of a job — that normally took a half hour now took just a few minutes.

    Corey’s dad did not discover the Corey-Phideux teamwork until Thursday evening. It was not a pretty sight.

    Thanks again and have a good day!

  5. My adult-imposed slavery memory was that I was a “cone watcher”. My mother owned a ceramic studio in our home and since I was the oldest child, it fell to me to become the one who sat by the kiln and periodically pull out the stone plug in the side of the kiln and check the cone. The cone was a three inch tall stick of silicone that was stuck in a small dab of clay at the base and placed on the shelf next to the wall of the kiln that was full of unbaked ceramic pieces. In Mom’s studio, the pieces were most often coffee mugs.
    As the pieces were baked, or fired, at extremely high temperatures, the cone would slowly melt and the tip would bend over toward the base. When that process started, I would have to use a huge oven mitt to pull the plug and look through the holes at the cone. I would have to check every 5 minutes when the droop started. Finally when the tip touched the base, the kiln was done firing and could be turned off. Only then could I join my friends and play. I hated that job, and grew up hating the whole field of ceramics, period.
    It was years later, as an adult and a minister, the I came to appreciate the importance of that job. A coffee mug that was fired too little, still had moisture and air in it and would be useless as a cup. Fired too long and it would break and be useless. I found in the Biblical Book of Jeremiah, that God compares Himself to a potter, and us to the clay. If we agree that trials and difficulties help us grow and become stronger, it is good to know that the Cone Watcher knows exactly when to shut the fire off.

    • David, thank you for sharing that amazing story/metaphor. I really can’t add anything, other than to note that I collect coffee mugs but, until reading your account, never truly appreciated them. I will now.

  6. I used to love housecleaning – especially vacuuming and dusting. I could sit for hours, wiping a cloth over every piece of beloved nicknack, making sure there wasn’t a speck of dust to be seen on the shelves. And I liked vacuuming, leaving the nap of the carpet just so, so it looked bright and clean.

    My mother was a perfectionist, though, while also being a reluctant housekeeper. She wanted everything done quickly and perfectly. I either wasn’t quick enough or perfect enough, and she’d often force me to rush it – taking away any enjoyment – and then she’d redo it all anyway, because it wasn’t good enough. So I gave up on it. I figured if she was going to redo it all anyway, she may as well do it from the start. And I think she decided, too, that rather than wait for me to do it or rush me through doing it, she’d just get it done with herself.

    To this day, I am also a reluctant housekeeper.

    Maybe there’s a metaphor there, too? If you want someone to keep doing something, let them keep their enjoyment of it. If *you* want to keep doing something, keep the enjoyment in it. After all, if you don’t enjoy writing, getting your ideas down on paper, seeing your imagination come to life on the page… why keep doing it? You could probably make better money selling insurance or learning accounting.

    • That’s an interesting observation, BJ. I know at least a couple of people — one a bestselling author, another who is in the publishing industry — who hate what they are doing but don’t really know how to do anything else. They’ve become prisoners (not victims) of their own success. And yes, the example you gave was terrific. Thanks for sharing it.

  7. Wish I had this advice when I was in my twenties. I had two book ideas back then and wondered if either story would interest anyone else. For each one, someone else had the same idea, followed through, and one even became a movie. Well, there’s my answer.

    • Nancy, the next time that inspiration hits, don’t wonder: go for it. And keep going forward. The road behind you may be littered with the bodies of failure, but all it takes is one success. George R.R. Martin is an excellent example. Read his biography sometime, especially what occurred with him in the mid-1970s and early 1980s. Talk about your late bloomers. What is important is that he never gave up. Thank you for sharing.

  8. A small thing I haven’t thought of in many years but which irked me when I was a child: the first words to come from my mouth each morning had to be Good morning, Mother. Just plain Good morning or Good morning, Mom wouldn’t do. It turned into a battle that we both lost. Sorry Mom.

    • NLF, I think your offering, as short as it is, will stay with me, and the others here as well, for a long time. Thank you.

  9. My parents had a thing for magazines when I was a kid. Life, Newsweek, Time, National Geographic, Look, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, TV Guide, Flying, and Approach come to mind off the top of my head, but I’m certain there were more. Plus, we got the Washington Post every morning, and, for a while, the Evening Star every afternoon.

    As you might imagine, that much paper accumulates quickly, and among my chores was to neatly stack and bind all of them so that . . . well, on that, I’m not sure. Every bundle ended up in the garage. And there were rules: The bundles all needed to be homogeneous. Life could not be commingled with Look, nor Redbook with Good Housekeeping, though all of them were readily commingled in the read-it/tossed-it pile in the family room.

    The bundles needed to have square edges, though the thickness was left to my discretion. We used a kind of fuzzy twine–I’ve always thought of it as hemp, but I have no idea what hemp really is–that would wear the hide off your fingers if you weren’t careful, and bundles needed to be tied tightly enough that it was hard to tuck your fingers between the twine and the paper. The final knot should bind the top course of twine to the bottom course.

    I hated that friggin’ job. In fact, I am now writing about it for the first time, and I can feel my blood pressure rising.

    But that wasn’t the worst chore. That honor belongs to cleaning ashtrays. My folks were both 3-pack-a-day smokers, so the ashtrays next to their chairs–and beds, and my dad’s office, and the bathrooms–could be an inch and a half, two inches thick with butts and ashes. Each had to be dumped into a paper bag, and each dump created a cloud of ash that I can still smell. Then the ashtrays needed to be washed by hand.

    There are no ashtrays in my house.

    • John, those are a couple of amazing stories (those of us familiar with your books expect no less, but still…). My dad smoked four packs a day until he quit at age 49, but I remember the ashtrays you describe so well. There was no escape from the ash and the smell. The house, the car, his office…your recollection awakened an olfactory memory and just made me gag. I mention that as a compliment. You’re the best. Thanks for sharing.

  10. I was born and reared on the campus of a now-defunct U.S. Government boarding school for American Indian kids, located in Phoenix, Arizona. My Dad was the school librarian, a post he took on after teaching and coaching there for a number of years.

    So one of my playgrounds was a library. The library was also the recipient of the contents of the library of a nearby internment camp for Japanese-American, and Japanese citizens, during World War II, that had been closed down. Besides the thousands of additional books, we also received tens of thousands of stereopticon side-by-side pictures and four viewers, plus a another collection of thousands of glass slides, apparently for an obsolete projection system. I could dwell in all the books as well as the pictures and slides. That was fun.

    What I didn’t like to have to do was restore old book covers, using cardboard, paper, and–wait for it–horse’s hoof glue.

    But, after I thought about it, I helped restore books, extending the usage of, and helping disperse the knowledge in, those books. Yes, it was fun looking at the old views of south Pacific islands, Europe, the Middle East, and so many places in the world of the late 1800s and early 20th Century. But I helped preserve the legacy of now-unknown writers and researchers.

    Sometimes, I have to wonder if I still smell that old glue when I look at old photographs and old books. It’s strange to realize that, in some places of the world, they burned books to hide knowledge, views, and insights of writers. In the world of Dad’s library, we used smelly ole glue to keep the writings of writers useful to yet another generation of readers and researchers.

    It occurred to me one day that, perhaps and maybe, one of the those books inspired or directed one of the school’s students to make their own contributions to America, and thereby to our generation.

    Some, especially to some on the Americans on the left, those old schools were hotbeds of cultural shaming and pressure to assimilate into American society. But I remember it as a place where, when I went back to work there as I attended college, one of the students gave me his yearbook to sign. I saw this greeting from one student of a certain tribe, to another student of a different tribe: We had some damn good times at P.I., didn’t we?

    Not a bad thought at all, to be written in a place where knowledge, opinion, and fact were preserved or disbursed by many, including a library rat who helped repair books using horse’s hoof glue.

  11. Thank you, Jim, for sharing that amazing and unusual story. The yearbook signing was touching, to say the least. You must have meant a lot to that student (and probably to many other students there as well). I’m surprised sometimes at how a random act of kindness or a job well done can be remembered and resonate in the memory of the receiver decades after it occurs. Thank you for giving us yet another set of examples.

  12. The geology of North Haledon, NJ is amazing. My father, an early escapee from urban life to two acres he bought from an old farmer, had to have his corn and tomatoes and green beans each summer. All well and good. And lots of weeding of course.
    But here’s the kicker: over each winter the ground grew thousands of new rocks. I still haven’t figured out the biology of that. But each spring, before Dad’s garden could be planted, we had to get all those rocks out. We had a great collection of dry wells on that property.
    I don’t know if there’s a moral to this story that applies to writing. Maybe, to follow on your suggestion, the rocks are negative thoughts and we need to dump them all into some dry well in order to grow real tomatoes in imaginary gardens.
    (Extra credit for identifying the plagiarism.)

    • Eric, I give up of identifying the plagiarism, though your story sort of puts me in the mind of Sisyphus. Gathering the stones each season only to have them reappear the next would certainly seem like rolling the same boulder uphill day after day.

      There is a reason for the stones’ reappearance. I THINK it has to do with water in both instances. If there was a high water table it would bring the stones up after the winter snows melt. Or…if the field was on low ground then the melting snow would carry the stones from higher ground, the same way that my neighbors’ leaves find themselves in the gully between our property each spring (…). Or something like that. Geology wasn’t my strong subject.

      Regardless, you offer a simple but extremely memorable metaphor, Eric, and I thank you for sharing it.

      • Marianne Moore, calling for “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” (“Poetry–I too dislike it.”) I can still hear my freshman English professor getting excited over the line.

        • Thank you for clearing that up, Eric. I don’t know if what you did quite rises to the level of plagiarism but it’s an interesting line nonetheless.

  13. Joe, I could listen to your stories all day, whether they have to do with writing or not. This was a particularly evocative one. I was cheering on that cat–what a strange and oddly beautiful example of life at its most visceral. I have no doubt that scene was set up just for you!

    And I have loved reading the comments here. You elicited many great, heartfelt stories. The kids in us have the truest voices, don’t you think?

    I’m embarrassed to say I had almost no onerous requirements on me when I was a kid–in fact I had very few responsibilities at all. (I’m a very different parent myself. There’s nothing that convinces me more that I’m doing the right thing than an eye roll or groan when I assign some menial task.) But one thing I was required to do when I was in middle school was babysit my younger sisters when my parents went to bowling league or played golf. I was petrified, and had no idea what the boundaries were. So I erred on the tyrannical side, and mostly scared the hell out of them so that they stayed quiet in their rooms because of my own fear. Poor things. I still regularly apologize to them 40-some years later. xx

    • Laura…you are so kind. Thank you. I am sure that you would feel differently if you were actually subjected to my stories day after day, but it’s a wonderful thought.

      For my own part, I can’t wait for your new novel from Mulholland. Maybe you’ll call me and read it to me?

      That’s an interesting babysitting story, particularly since you still feel bad about it. I’ve only had one opportunity to observe you with your birth family but everyone seems to love you like crazy so I’m sure they have forgiven you. Funny how we carry those guilty feelings around, isn’t it? I have an excuse, having been raised Catholic.

      I am totally in agreement with you regarding the other comments. I’m continually surprised that I get any, given all the things that folks have to do and must do on their weekends. I’m humbled.

      Thank you for sharing and for stopping by.

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