I’m moving in. Right here. Right now. I’ve been hanging around the neighborhood for a while, putting in my two cents every now and then, but my home base for a couple of years was over there at Medium. Over time we’ve grown apart, Medium and me. They went in one direction while I kept trying to get them to go in another.
You won’t be surprised when I tell you who won.
Maybe I had stars in my eyes and didn’t notice before, but it seems within the last year or so Medium grew more and more into a content factory, and then into a club, with games and competitions and unfathomable surprises, just when we thought we had it figured out.
They have a clapping system that’s annoying as hell but did they do away with it when they decided to pay better for length of reading time? No, they didn’t. People can still clap for stories, from one to 50 times.
It’s like the kindergarten from hell.
None of it had to do with writing, which, I told myself, was the only reason I was there. I got caught up in it all, though I tried not to. I tried to compete but I was never in the same ballpark. While some writers were making hundreds and thousands of dollars per month, I could count the number of times I made over a hundred.
I wondered for a long time what was wrong with me. I was embarrassed and ashamed and jealous—all feelings that had nothing to do with writing. Then, for two months in a row, Medium gave out bonuses to certain writers. For good writing, they said, but mainly for ‘engaging’. I like a lot of the writers who got the bonuses so I couldn’t say much, but it hurt that I wasn’t included. If I wanted to ‘engage’ I would join Toastmasters International.
I write because I fail at ‘engaging’. I’m terrible at selling myself or being phony during social interactions. I’m bad at small talk so writing is perfect for me. I can take my time to think it through and if I don’t get it right the first time there’s always the rewrite.
I love being involved in writing communities but when I have to compete for money by writing to those community standards, I balk. It took a while but I finally saw that we just weren’t compatible. Everything Medium did annoyed me and I found myself writing more about that than about the things that really interested me.
So today I quit cold turkey.
I wrote a goodbye letter and posted it before I could change my mind. I made sure I wouldn’t change my mind by spending more quality time here on Substack, reading the works of other writers I admire. There’s no pressure, no gamesmanship, no fighting for the pennies Ev Williams throws out, seemingly at random. No embarrassment to be included in the company of some really terrible ‘writers’. It’s peaceful here. Writers aren’t pitted against each other, or feeling forced to fawn over each other. The ones I follow are here because they’re writers and they have something to say. I can relax and read and feel perfectly comfortable sharing this space with them.
That’s not to say some if not most of all that fuss wasn’t my fault. I could have just written over there at Medium, too, and stayed away from all the angst, but I didn’t. I got into it, telling myself I was only there to help those writers who were dazzled by it all, baffled that they couldn’t get anywhere, and blaming themselves instead of the system. I wrote essays assuring them that good, careful, wonderful writing was what they should be striving for. I told them all the rest was noise.
If I only had believed it myself.
When I look at my body of work at Medium and see how much of it was about them, I want to strip off my official ‘writer’ badge and throw on the one that says ‘club member’ instead. As punishment. Who was I trying to attract? Other club members? Why?
But I’ve left that place and I’m here now. Moving in. Moving on. And it feels good.
Note: This piece is a Substack exclusive. You won’t read it anywhere else (not this version, anyway). I’m testing to see where my work does best. Thanks for reading. And please share if you like what you see here.
Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness. . . Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so. I like to think I’m a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me. . Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency? Joseph Welch to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Army-McCarthy hearings, June 9, 1954
My mother and I were watching the hearings on our small black-and-white TV set that summer day in 1954 — the day Joseph Welch calmly but forcefully challenged Joe McCarthy’s hold on the depths of the baseless paranoia both Washington and Main Street had been wallowing in for almost a decade. I was sixteen years old but I’ve never forgotten the sound of Joseph Welch’s voice — the mix of rage and sorrow as he spoke those words.
Something big happened then, and I’m remembering the look of amazement on my mother’s face. I remember my own feelings — of absolute joy and shuddering fear — when Welch finished talking and the hearing room erupted into wild cheering. Within minutes the room had emptied, every reporter rushing out to file the story. I didn’t know until I read it recently that afterward McCarthy looked around the empty room, threw up his hands and said, “What did I do?” Within days the Senate voted to take his power away and, for all intents, he was done.
There are some who will always believe that Joseph Welch’s words were what brought down McCarthy, stopping those meaningless, hateful hearings once and for all. The fact is, for many years before there had been scores of people at work trying to expose the insanity of McCarthy’s crusade against Communism — “The enemy within” that had all along been essentially toothless.
In 1952 Jack Anderson and Ronald May wrote “McCarthy: The Man, The Senator, the “Ism”, spelling out his tactics, exposing his lies, and warning of the consequences if he wasn’t stopped.
Edward R. Murrow’s “See it Now” program on March 9, 1954, broadcast three months before the Welch/McCarthy blow-up, was made up entirely of footage and quotes by Sen. McCarthy himself — more damning than any second-hand account could have been. On that same day, President Eisenhower wrote a letter to a friend criticizing McCarthy’s approach (later telling an aide that McCarthy was a “pimple on the path to progress”).
But what we remember today are Joseph Welch’s words, used as a kind of easy shorthand to put a stamp on Joe McCarthy’s downfall.
Throughout our history, we’ve given certain quotes almost magical attributes in order to condense and clarify the stories behind them. We want to believe that all it took was a single utterance and — poof! — life changed.
When Lincoln delivered his speech at Gettysburg in 1863, he said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. . .” He was wrong, of course. Nearly every schoolkid learned “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. . .” I thought for years that it was the speech that ended the Civil War, and, by rights, it should have. The speech contained phrases of such heartbreaking beauty, it should have ended any signs of conflict. In fact, the war went on for more than two years — the final battles fought many months after Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.
In 1933, when FDR told the country during his first Inaugural speech, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, there was plenty to fear that was much more tangible, but it was exactly what he needed to say at exactly that moment. Did that one sentence ease the pain of the years to come? No. But it’s a sentence etched into the American psyche, pulled out as needed, even now.
In 1961, John. F. Kennedy said in his Inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Almost 60 years later, we’re still repeating those words, hoping we can get the crowds to listen.
In the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his “I have a dream” speech. The entire speech is quotable, but he ended with these words:
. . .When we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
The speech was widely covered (and was recently called the top American speech of the 20th Century), but racial inequality didn’t end on that August day. It hasn’t ended yet. But every soldier in every battle needs inspiration in order to keep going. MLK’s words will always be there.
In July, 1974, Barbara Jordan (D-NY) gave an impassioned speech to the House Judiciary Committee, in favor of Richard Nixon’s impeachment. Her words, “Today I stand as an inquisitor”, held stronger meaning as she prefaced it with the fact that, when the constitution was written, members of her race were purposely excluded:
Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, “We, the people.” It is a very eloquent beginning. But when the document was completed on the seventeenth of September 1787 I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in “We, the people.”
Today, I am an inquisitor; I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.
In January, 2020, House Impeachment member Adam Schiff begged Senate members to remember their obligation to the constitution and vote to impeach Donald Trump. His speech fell on deaf ears in the end, but it went viral and will forever reside in the annals of great congressional speeches.
Do we really have any doubt about the facts here? Does anybody really question whether the President is capable of what he’s charged with? No one is really making the argument, Donald Trump would never do such a thing, because of course we know that he would, and of course we know that he did. It’s a somewhat different question though to ask, okay, it’s pretty obvious whether we can say it publicly or we can’t say it publicly. We all know what we’re dealing here with this President, but does he really need to be removed? And this is why he needs to be removed. Donald Trump chose Rudy Giuliani over his own intelligence agencies. He chose Rudy Giuliani over his own FBI Director. He chose Rudy Giuliani over his own National Security Advisors. When all of them were telling him this Ukraine 2016 stuff is kooky, crazy Russian propaganda. He chose not to believe them. He chose to believe Rudy Giuliani. That makes him dangerous to us, to our country. That was Donald Trump’s choice.
In June, 1987, Ronald Reagan stood at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and shouted “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”. Though it would take another two years for the wall to come down, fully half our nation still believes those six words were all it took to tear down that wall and end the long Cold War. Still, Reagan, ever the actor, knew to speak those words so forcefully, so succinctly, they would be heard ‘round the world and quoted ever after.
And in September, 2019, Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, still a teenager, gave her “How dare you!” speech to an audience of startled participants at the UN Climate Action Summit held in New York City. She was an instant sensation and has gone on to continue her ‘Save the planet’ activism all over the world.
“My message is that we’ll be watching you. This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!
“For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.
“You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.
Our planet is still in grave danger, with no remedies in sight, no real effort to make the drastic changes necessary, but a teenager will make it her life’s work to keep trying. And the world won’t be able to shut her down.
Magical words. Enduring words. Words that live on through generations, through the shudderings of history, still pristine, still precise, owned by their creators. They’ll be theirs, and ours, forever.
Did those speeches make a difference? They did, in that we’re still talking about them, still quoting them, still keeping them alive. I chose these few speeches as examples, but I could have chosen dozens, even hundreds, more. The right assemblage of words, written or spoken, can alter our brains in ways we can’t explain. They inspire us. They resonate at some level and we’re never the same. They’ve shaped us and when we find we need to go back to them, over and over again, they’ll always be there.
How often have we heard, “that book, that article, that column changed my life”? Well, here comes the advice: Be that change, writers. Don’t diminish your own work. Never buy into the fallacy that arm chair activism is no activism at all. That nothing you say will matter. Our long history is filled with words that matter.
Do your best to make a difference. Believe you can change the world, and you may just do it.
Nearly every Memorial Day I pull out this essay and revise it to fit the moment. This is a solemn day that never fails to bring me hope. I think of all those lives lost, those men and women who fought to keep us safe, to give us the chance to build a world we would want our children and grandchildren to live in, and how too often we forget their sacrifices. We don’t always live up to it. This day gives us a chance to regroup. To remember why we love this country and why it’s worth the fight.
It’s the day to honor military lives lost, and that should be foremost, but many families see it as the day to visit cemeteries where their loved ones rest. Flowers appear and those places come alive. Grief and hope—and beauty. Some cemeteries are incredibly beautiful. In this essay, I’ll show you some that have made an impact on me.
On Hallowed Ground: A Memorial Day look at How We Remember
When I was a kid we called it “Decoration Day”. It was a day to honor soldiers, sailors, and airmen who didn’t make it back from the wars. It wasn’t a weekend, it was a day. On that day we commemorated those who gave their lives for their country by placing flowers on their graves.
The idea of a Decoration Day began soon after the Civil War, the last day in May chosen because flowers across the country would be blooming and available. It morphed into a day for remembering our own dead, military or not, by laying wreaths or placing flags on every grave. It didn’t take away from the solemnity of honoring our war dead. If anything, it brought us to those places where they rested. We honored them by our presence.
In 1971 it became a Federal holiday, on the last Monday in May, giving us a long, welcome weekend. Picnics, ball games, barbecues, all of that.
But Monday, the actual Memorial Day, is still a day of pilgrimage in big cities and small villages all across the country. Cemeteries are filled with people cleaning headstones, bringing flowers, attaching flags to military graves, connecting and remembering.
I see cemeteries not as sad and depressing depositories of the dead, but as vibrant places alive with personalities, infused with memories, steeped in unique beauty. I see them as outdoor galleries of fine art and folk art, ripe for photographing, which I do every chance I get — but always with the sense that I am treading on hallowed ground.
In honor of fallen soldiers, of friends and family no longer with us, of people whose lives we know only from monuments or symbols on a headstone, I offer these today:
When the time comes, I’ll be buried in a plot in a small township cemetery in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. My parents, my brother, and members of my mother’s family are already buried there. Anything goes in that cemetery and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
People have installed benches and arbors and rocking chairs, turning their family plots into symbols and extensions of the lives that went before. Children’s toys are scattered, as if the child has left them only momentarily. Pictures, beads, notes and Lake Superior beach stone cairns decorate the sites.
It’s the kind of place you would want to stop by and visit.
It’ll suit me just fine. I want it to be a place where the people I love won’t come to grieve but to celebrate. And to remember.
(Note: All the photos are mine. Please ask permission before using.)
Good news! Substack has allowed us to add sections to our newsletter—something I was hoping for, and now it’s here! It means I can have a general section for those of you who aren’t necessarily interested in politics or in my writing tips, and I can filter those other passions—politics and writing—into sections of their own. (At least I think I can. I’m working on it.)
I’ve always felt this newsletter was too disjointed. My interests are all over the place and so is my writing. As I’m writing I’m picturing my readers, always wondering if all of you are interested in everything I write.
Of course you’re not! Why should you be? You come from all over the place. Some of you know me personally, and some of you only know me through the places where my writing appears. Others of you just happened to come across this newsletter and aren’t even sure you want to know me. (I’m guessing…)
I want you all to feel comfortable here. I don’t want you to have to go anywhere you don’t want to. I hope there is something for everyone. I’ll do my best!
So the housekeeping is in progress. The furniture is being moved. I should be finished soon.
Thanks for being here. Thanks for subscribing. Thanks for being my friends.
Great news! We’re finally able to add sections to our Substack newsletters and I’m about to make this section my home for writers. Here I’ll share pieces on writing, editing, and all things creative.
I’ll be moving some of the stories I’ve already written over to this neighborhood, adding new ones as I write them, and I’ll be starting something new: interactive editing tips. You ask and we’ll work on it together.
At various times I’ll put out a call for questions and we’ll open it up to discussion. I’m working on the logistics, so stay tuned!
I may at some point create an entire newsletter for writing, but for now I’m happy to be able to build this space into something I’ve been looking forward to doing for a while now. We’ll see how it goes.
Thanks so much for being a part of this journey. See you soon!