Category Archives: Writing

Practice Writing Like Hemingway

Writing Class

I am taking a writing class. One of the books we are using is “On Writing Well” by Williams Zinsser. This is a great book to learn how to write.

Zinsser gives the following advice: Writing is hard work. A clear, concise sentence is no accident. Clutter is the disease of writing.

We got an exercise to cut 50% of the last thing we wrote. I did that with yesterday’s email. It took me a long time, but it is much better.

I rewrote some sentences over and over again. I fiddled with it until I came as close to 50% as I could. I cut a piece from 1742 words down to 982.

I promise to do this with all future pieces. Your time is valuable.

I did my best to strip away every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that served no function was erased. I think it’s much cleaner without losing any of the original intent.

I am learning that good writing is a craft. Clear writing is clear thinking. I hope you like it. Thank you taking this journey with me as I learn to become a writer.


I love to write. Learning to write well is the hardest thing. I aim for spare and simple prose like in a children’s book for easy reading. I am happy when I do it well.

I try to boil down my sentences without spreading them too thin. I throw out adjectives and adverbs.


I imagine each paragraph like the sound a machine gun or a typewriter- tack-tack-tack, then silence. I begin the next paragraph- tack-tack-tack, period. I want the boat to be steady and deliberate.

I am a historian, but I want to write like a novelist. Good writing is telepathy. I want my readers to “experience” my writing in a mental picture they can see, feel and taste.


Few sentences come out right the first time, or the fifth time. Good writing gets great through exhaustive editing. I stick to a daily schedule. Writing is a craft not an art. The more you practice the better you get.

A Job

I am not a deep thinker. My work has no symbolism or deep meaning. I use my own experience to give credibility to my work. Trying to get names, dates, locations, smells and tastes right is tough. The trick is to pile up items, like bricks, to give a physical effect to the reader with a complexity of emotion.

I want the reader to see my picture in their mind. This is the real magic trick, it will take a lifetime to master.

The Why

I write about two things: death and my dad. He died when I was twenty-one.

Freud and Dr. Phil couldn’t unsnarl my relationship with my dad. I felt I was never “man enough” for him.

Vince Oto was born poor and hungry in the Great Depression. His parents were immigrants from Italy. His first memories were about work. He woke up at 4am to deliver newspapers with his older brother, he was four years old.

Hunger and poverty plagued him throughout his childhood. His family never had enough to eat. There were too many kids (11 brothers and sisters) and not enough food or love.

He was no intellectual, but he had uncommon common sense. His instinct was for what was important. Family was the most important thing.

He was not an emotional man, but he felt deeply about the things he thought worthy of his feelings. He cut straight through the core of things.

He was charming and generous, but private and distant. He only had a few close friends. He loved them for what they were, not who they were.

My dad had an undiagnosed learning disability. He read words and numbers backwards. Later in life, he discovered he had dyslexia.

He felt dumb and slow, but was a quick learner. He could watch something physical and do it. He could build engines and fix things in one lesson.

He’d watch it, and learn it. He was smart about people. He said, “People are like books. All you have to do is listen.”

His disability made prove himself physically. His was an extraordinary athlete.

His experiences made him tough. He fought for everything he ever had. Physical achievement gave him dignity and self-respect. He went to war and came home a hero.

My dad was a real life, Hemingway hero.

He was forty-three years old when I was born. Short and stocky, he was a powerful man. He had thick shoulders, arms and chest from hard, manual labor. I see his eyes looking back at me in the mirror.


He had a patchwork of scars from war and construction accidents. His injuries left him crippled and in constant pain. He never complained. Despite the pain, he lifted weights every day.

He was all hard work and manhood. When I asked him about his war experiences, he said, “I did my job.” He didn’t talk about what he did. He was a warrior without a war.

A Gentle Father

He was gruff, blue-collar man with calloused hands, but he knew how to love a son. He taught me how to box and shoot. As a boy we talked girls and lifted weights.

Later, our relationship got complicated. We argued. I loved books more than sports. He tried to nurture my inner athlete. I was a wimpy bookworm. He wanted a buddy to hang out with. My world was books, his was hard work and physical courage.

He loved me and told me so many times, but it never seemed enough. He was not a tough-love dad. He shared his hyper-masculine love by teaching me how to impress women, how to tip waiters, and how to fight.

I wanted to win his approval. I copied his mannerisms. I ate what he ate and walked like he walked.

His shadow grew after he died. He defined my manhood.


I joined the army for him. I spent the next fifteen years trying to be the man I thought he wanted me to be. I became an infantry officer. I did tough stuff because I thought, “This is what he would do.” I was bad at all of it.

My father was a natural leader of men, not me. I am better at reading history than making it. I was too young when he died. I never knew him as a man. Now, older and wiser, I know he only wanted me to be happy.

I was a terrible soldier, but I loved the amazing people I met in the army. It gave me miles of writing material. I know he would be proud. Writing is a way to visit him, if only in words.

Dominic Update- Italian, Writing and a Marathon


I hope you have been enjoying the posts. I have enjoyed writing them. Many of them are the results of mind-bending conversations I had with my students at Fort Dix a few months ago.

Some of the subjects were surprising, and others I just couldn’t wrap my head around or understand until I wrote them out. I did my best to capture and write about most of the things we talked about.

In the end there were over 40 subjects. Some of them I had touched on in previous posts and others that were brand new. I wanted to take a new turn and share some things in my own life.

A Promise Made

The great Sufi poet and philosopher Rumi once advised his students to write down the three things they most wanted in life. If any item on the list clashes with any other item, Rumi warned, you are destined for unhappiness. I decided to try this.

Here is my list:

  1. Learn about being Italian.
  2. Learn how to be a writer.
  3. Run a marathon.

Learning about being Italian

I went to Italy for the first time in May. I visited my grandfather’s ancestral village. It was an amazing experience. It was something I wanted to do all my life. It changed the way I saw my heritage and myself.

Being Italian-American moved from being a description or something explicit to my implied ethnicity and culture. My worldview was now colored by being “Italiano.” It moved from the margins of my life to the mainstream. I am doing it by learning how to speak the Italian language and cook Italian cuisine.

Italian is unlike any other language. It can turn expletives into blunt force trauma and words into a song. It has a rhythmic, staccato machine-gun sound that fuses together syllables and vowels into operatic phrases. It is wonderfully descriptive with full-on emotion- loving and swearing is a performance art.

I could not cook a month ago. I burned water when I boiled it. The culinary journey of learning to cook Italian cuisine has taught me a lot. As a boy in my grandmother’s kitchen spicy food aromas filled her small apartment morning until night.

It was an assault on the senses. You tasted it, felt it, and could touch it.

I remember her washing greens over the sink singing in Italian. I can see her at the kitchen table with her big, sharp knife cutting vegetables and putting them into a large simmering pot. She would reach out and squeeze my cheek. Her hand smelled like garlic, tomato sauce and cheese- smells of love, comfort and understanding. No wonder I became a fat kid…just sayin’.

Now with the help of the Food Network, my foodie girlfriend and a well-worn Italian cookbook I am on my way. I have made dinner at home every night for the past three weeks. It’s been hard, sometimes frustrating, but always rewarding.

After visiting Italy I learned to believe in my heritage. I have tried to strengthen that belief in learning the language, the culture through cooking and the history of my ancestors.

This really deserves its own post.

Learning how to be a writer

This one was tough. I always knew I was a writer, I just had to figure out how to make a living at it.

I will never make a lot of money at it, but I feel my work is valid. This is a point that I tear apart mercilessly in my conscience daily. I sometimes feel I am a worthless bum “working” on a pipe dream. Other times I feel I am on the verge of some of greater understanding of the workings of the universe.

In any endeavor there is an incubation period where you need to devote all your energy to learning something new. Writing is no different. It is a craft and art that demands daily devotion.

I am trying to find my art by working on my craft. I try to do it every day. I do know that I am happier chasing my dream than I have ever been before.

I feel free, comfortable and my decision to become a full-time writer is one of the best decisions I ever made. There are no shortcuts just hard work, like anything worthwhile.

Learning the craft of writing has been tough. I make mistakes and I am learning the job by making errors, facing criticism and paying for it with rejection. It’s almost a public flogging daily, but I am learning and I love it.

I finally got my website up-to-date and I have been posting daily. The reality is five people in America read my blog and maybe one or two folks in Europe. They are an informed and knowing public, lol. I certainly try.

Running a Marathon

I have decided to run my first marathon. I have walked a dozen marathons all over America. This will be the first one I will run.

At 40, you have passed the happy-go-lucky age and doing things on a lark for adventure. Training for this marathon has really become something I have come to enjoy, but it’s been tough.

I am not a small man. Everything about me, minus my height, is big. Imagine a man with a bowling bowl middle with a basketball for a head and tree trunks for legs.

Now you have a picture of a bald, fat guy huffing and puffing his way down the street every other morning. Watching a fat man suffer and sweat is like seeing a car wreck, you can’t look away, it defies explanation.

Four months ago I weighed 248 pounds- the heaviest I have ever been and a 100 pounds more than when I graduated high school, ouch! I am down to 230.

No excuses just lots of stress. When I feel stress I eat, I eat food that tastes good and is not good for you. Two months ago, I moved in with my girlfriend, started a creative writing program, but I wanted to do something really tough, something I had never done before, and something I dreaded to get me back on track.

I needed a slap in the face that felt good. The Indianapolis Marathon on October 17, 2015 seemed like just what the doctor ordered.

The training is hard and time consuming, but so worth it. I have been running four days a week with my training runs at 3 to 4 miles. Each week I add 2 miles to my long runs. I did 10 miles on Saturday.

A simple yet effective method for my method of doing the marathon is a walk/run combo. I walk a mile for every four miles I run. Simple, but it answers the mail. When I say run, what I really mean is a passive jog. I am a king cruiser, a model built for pleasure and enjoyment, not speed.

I am passed all the time by insanely fit runners stripped to the waist, wearing Daisy Duke Shorts, and tanned brown as nuts. They are wearing heart rate monitors and the latest footwear.

Not Dominic. I wear long basketball shorts and old, worn out superhero t-shirts featuring Captain America, the Punisher or Spiderman. I am a serious case of arrested development. I have a handful of faithful New Balance running shoes that I rotate on each run.

My only concession to fashion is that I wear a nuclear green safety hat, so my bald head doesn’t burn in the sun. I still dread the runs, but my breathing sounds more like a car dying than a cat wailing. I guess that must be progress.

So, now you got the list. What is your list?


The Book Title


I struggled with trying to name the book about the Oregon Army National Guard Embedded Training Team. The team had 17 men on it. They fought alongside Danes, Brits and Afghan soldiers in the explosive Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

The Title for the Book

Trying to come up with an awesome book title is tough. There is a lot riding on the title of a book. It’s the readers’ first impression of your work.

You want the title to be eye catching, unique and a small description of the story. Some great titles of war adventures immediately come to mind: ‘Blackhawk Down’ or ‘Band of Brothers’ or ‘We Were Soldiers Once… and Young’. All of them capture what the story is about in a few words.

Hemingway would use passages from the Bible and Shakespeare: ‘The Torrents of Spring’ (1925); ‘The Sun Also Rises’ (1926); ‘A Farewell to Arms’ (1929); ‘To Have and Have Not’ (1937); ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ (1940) are some of his works.

Some titles use poetic language: ‘Gone with the Wind’; ‘Of Mice and Men’; ‘Grapes of Wrath’; ‘Snow Falling On Cedars’; ‘The Fault in Our Stars’.

Some use simple titles that become a few word series that become pop-culture phenomena: ‘Twilight’; ‘Game of Thrones’; ‘The Da Vinci Code’; come to mind.

Moral Syndromes

Jane Jacobs, who is best known for her 1961 masterpiece ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities.’ It is a reflection on what she calls the “moral syndromes.” She talks about how “syndromes” drive societies.

It is out of these two primitive groups: traders (who espouse a commercial syndrome) and warriors (that espouse a guardian syndrome) that different patterns of behavior emerge.

Jacobs then argues that each set of occupations has developed its own cluster of moral principles or ethics she calls a “moral syndrome”. These syndromes operate around a number of values.

Two very different ways of dealing with our needs, we also have two fundamentally different systems of morals and values – both systems valid and necessary.

The first is Commercial Moral Syndrome. This syndrome is to support human activities around trade and the production of goods.

Guardian Moral Syndrome is the code for warriors, governments, and religions. This system arose primarily to satisfy the needs of organizing and managing territories.


Jacobs warns that society must have both of these sets of values or else they will be unhealthy. If you are a commercial entity and you develop guardian values you are operating under the wrong set of values. Similarly, a government who holds commercial values operates under the wrong set of values.

Soldiers fall into the Guardian Moral Syndrome.

The Guardian Moral Syndrome (GSM)

The GSM shuns trading and exert their prowess by being obedient and disciplined to their society. They adhere to tradition by being loyal to each other. They show fortitude and honor by treasuring honesty.

A few years ago a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and author Dave Grossman wrote a book called “On Killing.” Grossman is a former airborne ranger and infantry officer who says the human population can be divided into three groups: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs.

Grossman says most people are sheep. He’s stating the fact that most human beings are kind, gentle, and peaceful.

Wolves are bad guys. Wolves are the sociopaths who commit violent crimes or ignore moral or ethical boundaries with impunity. Think Dexter without “Harry’s Code.”

Sheepdogs are society’s protectors. GSM of the population. They are a pastoral dog born for the purpose of protecting livestock from predators. As puppies they are placed within the flocks they will protect so they can “imprint” with the animals they will care for and safeguard.

Strongly bonded to them, the sheepdog will perceive other species as predators and protect those it knows from these potentially hostile outsiders. This is what “Guardians” do as firemen, police officers and soldiers.

Like actual sheepdogs, they live among the flock – one of them, and yet different and set apart. They protect the perimeter and vigilantly watch for evil “wolves.”

The Title

I settled on “Guardians of Helmand” for the book title. Their mere presence of the Coalition soldiers of Afghans, Brits, Danes and Americans kept the Taliban from turning on innocent law-abiding citizens.

When they did attack, the “Guardians” acted as human sheepdogs alert and ready to be aggressive. They were prepared to make a stand against those who would do others harm, but outside of times of crisis, they were gentle and trustworthy.

Grossman describes human sheepdogs as individuals who have a capacity for violence but also a moral compass and a “deep love for [their] fellow citizens.” No better description can be given to those brave soldiers’ decision to respond to the Taliban’s challenge.

The Hemingway Hero


Today I will dive into my favorite writer- Ernest Hemingway. By analyzing Hemingway and his basic themes, ideas and writing style we can see how his work has influenced the idea of a “modern American man.”

The Hemingway Hero

The Hemingway hero is always a man. A man who learns through his experience to confront the reality of his death. By coming to terms with the fact that we are all going to die the hero is able to confront himself.

Hemingway’s heroes always find themselves in a contest that has them facing death. It’s usually by using the “hero journey” of Homer, as seen in the Odyssey, that the hero comes to this conclusion.

The ultimate human adventure of the Hemingway hero is war. Papa was obsessed with war and death. It is a subject he uses as his narrative vehicle over and over again in all of his major works.

Hemingway’s heroes learn to live by something literary scholars call the “Hemingway Code.” The hero must establish his own values by facing life courageously and by acting honestly. The primary motivation of the hero is courage.

The hero never turns away from reality or towards abstract ideals such as religion or politics. He finds it within himself to act without the distractions of outside influences such as love. He is able to do this by accepting the reality of his death.

The way the hero defines this is through action. By acting and not wallowing in his feelings the hero is choosing to take part in reality. He leaves all the intellectual pondering to weaker and lesser men. By doing this he can choose “to make of himself what he will.”

The Modern Hero

The modern action hero has been defined by this rule. Think of John Wayne and Rambo. They are heroes who speak little, make no plans and let their actions speak for themselves.

This is an example of the modern American male to grow up thinking he needs to never talk about his feelings. To act out when he feels frustrated and to worry about the consequences of actions later.

It’s fun to watch Tony Soprano punch out an annoying co-worker because he is a mob boss. How awesome is to watch John Rambo kill godless Commies with only a bow and arrow (more on this later)?

For all this we have Hemingway to thank. Whether the device is a gunfight A Farewell To Arms), bull fight (Death in the Afternoon), using a load of dynamite (For Whom the Bell Tolls) or a fishing pole (The Old Man and the Sea) we see the hero define himself.

The ritual of facing death allows the hero to rely on himself and overcome fear. Fear of the greatest uncontrollable of all time- death.

I better close this one out. I wanted to make this one a short introduction before we get into his writing style and how we all have Hemingway to thank for defining how we see manhood, lol.


Writing, Lede, Short Story


My favorite posts are the ones about writing. They allow us to explore the craft of writing. They allow me to articulate ideas, explore themes and in the end to tell to you a story.

I will define a few terms for our future lessons. In each new lesson I start with a “Lead.”

“The Lead” is the first paragraph or first several sentences of a newspaper story (sometimes spelled lede). This defines the “why” we are reading something.

A “Summary Lead” is the first paragraph of a news story in which the writer presents a synopsis of two or more actions rather than focusing on any one of them. It is known as the “narrative hook” in a story.

“Narrative hook” is a literary technique in the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention so that he or she will keep on reading. The “opening” may consist of several paragraphs for a short story, or several pages for a novel, but ideally it is the opening sentence.

The Opening

One of the most common forms is dramatic action, which engages the reader into wondering what the consequences of the action will be. The idea is that you want in the opening is to keep them engaged. To start a slow drip of the addictive subject that is your story.

This kind of writing has been recommended from the earliest days, stemming from Aristotle.

The use of action as the hook is a way to immediately “turn the engine” of a story on. Narrative hooks are essential to great content. You want the reader to become addicted to your story so he keeps reading.

Jane Austen’s opening line from Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” She sums up her entire book in that one sentence.

Some writers spend years working on the first opening sentence. There is a superstitious belief that states, “So goes the first sentence, so goes the rest of the book.”

Either way, Ms. Austen grabs your attention. She compels you to ask, “Why is this important?” Her hook helps set the stage for the story. The best hooks leave you with questions. They drive you to continue reading to satisfy your growing curiosity.

One last one from Mr. Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities with his indelible narrative hook, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”


Don’t Bury the Lede

Journalistic ledes and opening sentences to stories emphasize grabbing the attention of the reader. In journalism, the failure to mention the most important or attention-grabbing elements of a story in the first paragraph is sometimes called burying the lede. It is discouraged with the catch phrase “Don’t bury the lede.”

Finding your lede as a Writer

Writing feels like what I am supposed to do. For the last three months I have buried myself in the craft, practice and discipline of writing. I am attempting to become good at something difficult very fast.

I want you, the beloved reader, to have an understanding of this undertaking. Writing makes it owns demands. But for me the process has been fun. It has become the thing I look forward to most in my day.

I see the act of writing to all of you as a gift. It allows me to paint my book with a wet brush. Writing to you all first allows me to “get into the mood” to write more.

These emails act as an extension of lessons of learning to write and of my feelings. They have taught me to have more empathy. They have taught me to about altruism- the righteous of action to help other people. I think it has made me a better human being.


A way to think of fiction is in the form of short story or novel. A short story writer is a sprinter. A novelist is a marathoner.

Some writers are either by temperament or metabolism. John Barth is a sprinter and Hemingway was a marathoner. How he got conditioned for novel writing was by writing short stories. These emails are my short stories.

Writing is a process. Fun when things are flowing and going well. Hell when things aren’t going well. The goal is to settle in for the long haul. I think of writing of a book like a long military siege of a town. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Think of all the great battle scenes from “Braveheart” or the attack on “Helm’s Deep” in “The Lord of the Rings.”

The walled fortress at Helm’s Deep is under attack by the mighty Uruk-hai army. The forces of men, elves, and a dwarf must do everything they can to stop them from breaching the fortress walls.

You, the writer, are the attacking army attempting to breach the walls of the story.

Your goal is fill the expansive of that space with little marks that translate into a good story.

The Short Story

Most writers cut their teeth on the short form. It’s an excellent teaching tool. Apprenticeship usually takes place in a college or university writing program. My writing laboratory is all of you. I am a student of the University of YouTube, blogging and emails to my dearest and closest friends.

Once a writer masters the short story they can migrate to novels. Some writers migrate back John Updike, Carol Joyce Oates, Bernard Malamud or Stephen King.

The move is easier than. Writing a book or novel is a capital investment of time and effort. Best to get your learning done someplace else before tackling the dragon of a book.

There is a certain art form to the short story. The beauty is the civilized brevity of the short story. You have to be patient with the muse. Connecting the dots to make it all come together is the real fun.

Being “Over There”

The bestselling fantasy writer Terry Brooks explains it another way. He says that writers are not all here. A part of them is “over there”- “over there” being whatever world they are currently writing about.

He states that writers live in two worlds. This world with friends and families and the imaginary world of writing. He talks about how compelling the two worlds are because they make demands of the writer’s time.

I found that interesting because soldiers talk about “over there” being where they deployed. A part of them is always there. Struggling to take apart or make sense of what happened. For me writing has allowed me make peace with both worlds.

Writing is the undoing of the trauma war.



Book Review: Malcolm X


The Autobiography of Malcom X, as told to Alex Haley, is one of my all-time favorite books. What I really loved about the book is the strength of his words. The reason I love the story is the power of the idea to able to change yourself through education and discipline.

Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcom X, as told to Alex Haley

The book is much more than a story of a dynamic and controversial black leader it is the story of being able to hold yourself to an ideal and to change the world around you with that ideal. Much in the way generals command armies or the way Jesus and Gandhi affected the lives of billions.

A Way to Think about History

Think of history as a long banquet table. Each of the guests at the table represent a period of history. Before them is a feast of ideas and experiences. Each guest has something to say about the time they lived in.

Looking at history as a guest, you can talk to and share ideas. That is the essence of these emails. I try to explain the why, how and when of the time period. Looking at the time period of Malcolm X is complicated. Complicated because it deals with the ugly issue of race. Like war, it is a subject that gives both us meaning and how we handle it defines our culture.

At the beginning

When you look at the issue of race you are looking at the idea of skin color. Before America was settled in the early 17th century African slavery had been the primary labor force for producing wealth in Europe for almost 200 years.

As America grew so did the hunger for slaves. The overwhelming majority of slaves shipped to the New World were captured and sold by other African tribes. The majority of native tribes in Eastern Africa are Muslims.

Slavery is not new. In Islam, slavery has a long tradition. A beaten people are sold off as war booty. Usually in one generation the enslaved tribe becomes a part of the new, conquered people.

The idea of multi-generational slavery system is a European invention.

Slavery in Africa

Slavery in Africa

Europeans developed an idea over several centuries that should not enslave each other. They could fight each other, kill each other in wars, but they did not enslave each other. Christians did not enslave Christians.

The great advantage of Africans is they that were outside of the European community. Most of the Africans were Muslims- a constant source of irritation for the west, even today. For the first time race becomes a marker who can be enslaved and who could not.

Slavery in America

As America grew so did the need for cheap labor. By the time of the American Revolution in 1776 there were 700,000 African slaves in America. The ideals of freedom of the American Revolution passed by the African- American slaves.

With the invention of the cotton gin in 1794 there is a huge demand for labor. Most slaves are shipped south to work on large plantations. Cotton is the boom of the early 19th century. It leaps from $150,000 a year to $8 million a year as an industry.

Cotton was the engine of wealth in America. It was centered on the South where the majority of plantations were due to good soil and yearlong good weather. The fuel was slavery.

At the time of the American Civil War 90 years later there were almost 2 million Africans slaves in America. Most of the slaves have been in this country for three to five generations. They have lost all knowledge of their homeland, culture and customs.

Whipped Slave

A Slave Who Bears the Scars of being repeatedly beaten

This American Experience is very different for most immigrants. Many take great pride in their culture and continue to speak their native tongues for several generations.

After the Civil War and Emancipation a great watershed in American black history was the Great Migration to Northern cities just before the First World War. According to the 1910 census, blacks were overwhelmingly rural and Southern.

Three out of four lived rural areas and nine of ten lived in the South as a result of working on large plantations. A half century later, almost three-fourths of them would be city dwellers. An overwhelming majority would have little to no education.

The Great Migration North

As America prospered from World War I, the Great Migration was a bitter disappoint for most blacks. Their rapid infusion into large, northern cities soon produced ghettos. Blacks soon found themselves, again, segregated as second-class citizens.

Blacks were kept out of white neighborhoods by threat of violence. Racial discrimination was made worse by the Great Depression. Many blacks faced economic hardships as a part of their daily life.

This is no different than other new ethnic group coming to America except one- blacks did not choose to come here and the color of their skin is a defining trait in how they are treated.

This is the world that Malcolm X was born into in 1925.

Malcolm’s Early Life

I believe that Malcolm X is one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century. His journey from a street hustler, to a prison cell to his trip to Mecca is a fascinating story of transformation and the power of choices.

To his admirers, he was a courageous advocate for the rights of blacks. He stated that the right of Americans is not about “freedom” but really about “equality.” He indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans. His detractors accused him of preaching racism and violence.

Malcolm Little was born May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. He was the fourth of seven children of Grenada-born Louise Little (née Norton). She was of mixed European ancestry and heritage. She had red hair and passed this onto Malcolm.

Malcolm X was orphaned early in life. His father, Earl Little, was killed when he was six. Earl was an outspoken Baptist lay speaker, and admirer of Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey. Malcolm states that he was killed by a local white hate group that opposed him.

His mother was placed in a mental hospital when he was thirteen. He lived in a series of foster homes.From age 14 to 21 Malcolm held a variety of jobs while living with his sister Ella Little-Collins in Roxbury, a largely African-American neighborhood of Boston.

Then after a short time in Flint, Michigan he moved to Harlem, New York in 1943, where he engaged in drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, robbery, and pimping.

He was called “Detroit Red” because of the reddish hair, he inherited from his Scottish maternal grandfather. Most African-Americans are of mixed European ancestry.

In late 1945 he and four accomplices committed a series of burglaries targeting wealthy white families. In February 1946, he began serving an eight-to-ten year sentence at Charlestown State Prison for larceny and breaking and entering.

Conversion to Islam and Education

During his imprisonment, he met fellow convict John Bembry. Bembry was a self-educated man he would later describe as, “…the first man I had ever seen command total respect … with words.” Under Bembry’s influence, Malcolm developed a voracious appetite for reading.

In 1948 he converts to Islam. In 1950 also began signing his name “Malcolm X.” He explains in his autobiography that the Muslim’s “X” symbolized the true African family name that he could never know.

He says, “For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slave master name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.”

In 1952 he was released from prison and he begins to preach for the Nation of Islam. He would be a part of the Nation of Islam until 1964. In 1964, he breaks with the Nation of Islam. That same year he performs Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the obligatory trip for every Muslim who is able to do so.

Malcolm Teaching

Malcolm Teaching

After the Hajj, he visited several countries around the world learning more and more. Upon his return to the US he becomes one of the most sought-after speakers on college campuses.

His Death

February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom when someone in the 400-person audience yelled out.

As Malcolm X and his bodyguards tried to quell the disturbance, a man rushed forward and shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Two other men charged the stage firing semi-automatic handguns.


Except for his autobiography, Malcolm X left no published writings. His philosophy is known almost entirely known from the many speeches and interviews he gave from 1952 until his death.

The book is the story of one of the most dynamic and controversial black leaders in American history. It was dictated to Alex Haley. It was published in 1965, the result of a collaboration between Malcolm X and Haley.

Haley co-authored the autobiography based on a series of over 50 in-depth interviews he conducted between 1963 and Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination. Haley is the author of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.”

Cropped Roots

Roots: The Saga of an American Family

Both books stimulated great interest in genealogy among all Americans and an appreciation for African-American history.

Malcolm is credited with raising the self-esteem of black Americans. His words and ideas reconnected many disenfranchised blacks about their African heritage.

The Idea of Self-Empowerment

Malcolm’s transition from hoodlum to Muslim Minster is a story of how he educated himself, transcended his circumstances and confronted his rage. His story resonated me for several reasons.

As an Italian-American I know a lot about my family through stories. But I am connected forever to an ethnic group where I don’t speak the language and to a land I have never been to. I see myself as purely American but the world sometimes something else.

Throughout my life I have been characterized by all things, “Italian.” Because of my olive-complicated skin I am more often thought of as Hispanic. Ironically, I speak Spanish but not Italian (I grew up in Florida and all my friends were Hispanic).

Imagine going through life with a Japanese last name but looking like an extra from the Godfather. You’re not “Italian enough” because you don’t have a long, voweled filled name ending in “etti” or”elleni.”

Malcolm’s story tells us that we can transform ourselves through education. By exercising our mind, we define “our reality.” This is only something you can do in America. It is the basis for all the ideals that make us great.

Malcolm X was a man of contrasts. He was a product of the times in which he lived.

Malcolm Pointing

Malcolm At A Rally

Impact of the Book

American Whites and Blacks are victims of Europe. The blacks through colonialism. The whites through suppression, discrimination and murder.

There is in America a conflict between these two victims. Deep down all our secrets are the same. We present the world with a secure self. Deep down there is a timid, craving and terrified self. We, black and white, want the promise of America.

Malcolm’s story erases those lines. His words are lines of poetry and prose. He is a master storyteller telling both fiction and confession of what it is like to a minority in America.

His story is an autobiographical account of his experiences of what is like to be black in America in the mid-20th century. He tells the story directly and without disguise.

Like most great books it is the story of a person’s journey as much as it a work of literature. We see the ghosts of the living and the dead. Of America’s past and her future. Warts and all you get a picture of what America is like, both good and bad.

What I learned from his book and a lifetime of studying war is that most conflicts do not resolve themselves. They simply fade through fatigue and exhaustion.

Both parties simply learn to get along, but they both insist they were right, even as the conflict marches into memory.

This is the story of racism in America. The bottom line is that no one is going anywhere. The essence of the book is a mystical communion where Malcolm comes to terms with his anger. He learns he will never win, but can make a difference in helping people reach their potential through education and example.

Even in a great war there is everyday life. It is a book of ancient themes. I loved reading it.


X, Malcolm., & Haley, A. (1987). The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. New York : Ballentine Press.




Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”

My favorite book by Ernest Hemingway is a “A Farewell To Arms.” It is a largely autobiographical work of fiction where a young man is wounded in World War I, falls in love with his nurse and their adventures to be together.

I love the way that the book maps the psychological complexities of the characters using Hemingway’s trademark “hard-boiled” style of writing. It details the harshness of life during and after the war. This is something I myself have trouble with.

Hemingway was an ambulance driver for the Red Cross during World War I. He went to France when he was just 18 years old and had two experiences that would profoundly change his life. He was wounded and he would fall in-love with a Red Cross nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky. Both his wound and his relationship with Agnes would form the basis of the book.

Reaction to World War I

“A Farewell to Arms” is the key American World War I novel but it has another message. The book also details the desperation, human condition and facing death by being hopeful in moments of peace even as we face our own mortality. The book is set in Italy and Switzerland

The Industrial Revolution would change warfare in World War I. Death was caused killing on a massive scale- tens of thousands of men killed in a single day. At the Battle of the Somme, one of the largest in World War I, 1 July and 18 November 1916 more than a 1,000,000 men were wounded or killed. J.R.R. Tolkien was wounded in this battle and it greatly influenced his writing of the “The Lord of the Rings.”  Nothing like this killing was seen on this scale before.

There was a thought at the start of the industrial age that machines should serve humanity. The idea of machines to slaughter people was never possible before. Tanks, gas, submarines, planes, machine guns- overwhelming massacre of humanity by the very machines that would be used to serve it.

WWI was a turning point in history because technology was used for mass violence on an almost industrial scale. Many veterans, including Hemingway, were changed forever by the violence of what they saw.

The survivors would later call it the worst catastrophe that the world has ever seen. It gave away to a sense of doom that later became known as the “Lost Generation,” the generation that came of age during World War I. The term was popularized by Hemingway, who used it as one of two contrasting epigraphs for his novel, “The Sun Also Rises.” Following World War I the “lost generation” would go into the roaring twenties and flow into the Great Depression.

This is the way I view the veterans of America’s current wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. A generation similar to the veterans of World War I who were a small generation that fought a war and later faced a crushing economy.

Hemingway style of writing- Kansas City Star Newspaper

Hemingway introduced the world to a new style of direct writing. Writing before him was much more naïve and sentimental and people spoke and wrote in windy phrases, a holdover from the Elizabethan era where writing was more formal.

Hemingway brought on a sense of writing that was more genuine and to the point. His style was very informal with short sentences that had noun, verb and object. Not a lot of flowery writing. He is credited with creating a whole new style of writing.

Early journalistic experiences shaped his enormously influential prose style called “cablese” omit nonessential words. Sharpen his writing and taught his lessons in economy. All the innate Victorian prose, his style, change the way Americans write to see it viscerally.

He created poetic patterns with the sound of words to create adjoining sentences.  Words that manly men use, macho words. He wrote about was real and had happen to him, he had a phenomenal memory and his accuracy with the names, dates all helped in his description with the senses. He was the master of piling up of items with the sounds of words much like a poet.  A great quote that would describe Hemingway’s writing style “Hard thing in the world is to sound natural as a writer,” Tobias Wolff.

He wrote with objectivity, simple language, and short declarative sentences with short paragraphs. His style of writing would later become associated with American traits with other artists.  A deceptive simplicity with much more at work by showing discipline by restraining yourself.

He was best known for his lean, concise prose that relied principally on dialogue and action to tell a story. Hemingway’s stated belief that a writer should not write about everything he or she knows, but should keep superfluous information hidden as a way of strengthening the tension in the story. This style of writing came to be known as the iceberg theory of prose.

In likening the story to an iceberg in which only the tip is visible out of the water, but under the surface there is an unseen mass. In his 1932 book, “Death in The Afternoon,” Hemingway describes his iceberg theory by explaining that if you truly know the subject you are writing about, inside and out, you are then free to omit things.

Why I love “A Farewell to Arms”

The majority of the story is in the first person of Henry but sometimes switches to the second person during his more philosophical reflections. Henry relates only what he sees and does and only what he could have learned of other characters from his experiences with them. This is the subtle context of this book.

Hemingway avoids lofty abstraction, he offers many powerfully evocative descriptions that often resonate with several meanings but it is not hard to understand them. Henry’s description of Catherine’s hair as a symbol of her beauty is awesome.