Category Archives: advice

Saturday update: “‘Breakneck speed'”

[Editor’s note: below is a follow up article to the one posted in this blog on Thursday:]

UT: Missing brains were destroyed

By Benjamin Wermund | December 3, 2014


The bizarre mystery of the University of Texas at Austin’s missing brains came to a swift end Wednesday, as officials revealed that the preserved organs had been destroyed more than a decade ago. But some questions remain.

One hundred brains, kept in formaldehyde-filled jars, were reported missing this week from the state’s premier research university. About 200 brains dating from the 1950s, which originally belonged to patients at the Austin State Hospital, were given to UT for research in the 1980s.

About half of them briefly went unaccounted for and officials spent Tuesday and Wednesday scrambling to find them. A preliminary university investigation found that UT environmental health and safety officials disposed of multiple brain specimens in 2002 in accordance with protocols concerning biological waste.

But questions remain — including why the brains were destroyed — and the university said it would appoint an investigative committee to get answers.

“As researchers and teachers, we understand the potential scientific value of all of our holdings and take our roles as stewards of them very seriously,” UT officials said in a statement. “The university will also investigate how the decision was made to dispose of some of these specimens and how all brain specimens have been handled since the university received its collection from the Austin State Hospital in the 1980s.”

The brains were in poor condition when the university received them in the 1980s and were not suitable for research or teaching, the university said in a statement. Workers disposed of between 40 and 60 jars, some of which contained multiple human brains, the statement said.

Despite reports that the missing brains included that of Charles Whitman, the sniper who went on a shooting spree from the UT Tower in 1966, UT officials said they had no evidence that Whitman’s brain had been destroyed with the others. Other reports Wednesday that the brains had been given to UT campuses in San Antonio also appeared to be false, UT said. The university will continue to investigate both claims, however.

“We’re moving at breakneck [Editor’s note: An interesting word choice considering speed to figure this all out,” UT spokesman Gary Susswein said Wednesday. “We obviously take this very seriously.”

Author Alex Hannaford discovered the brains had gone missing while reporting for his book, “Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital.” Hannaford detailed the mystery in an article for the Atlantic, published Tuesday.

Timothy Schallert, a neuroscientist at UT and curator of the university’s collection of preserved brains, told Hannaford that by the mid-1990s, about 200 of the organs, sealed in jars, were taking up much-needed space at UT’s Animal Resources Center. Jerry Fineg, the center’s then-director, asked Schallert if he would move half of the jars elsewhere.

Eventually, Schallert discovered about half of the brains had gone missing. “I never found out exactly what happened—whether they were just given away, sold or whatever—but they just disappeared,” he told Hannaford.

Hannaford said Wednesday that UT still has a lot of questions to answer. He questioned whether 100 brains could possibly fit into the 40 to 60 jars UT says it destroyed.

“It leaves the question, are there some that are unaccounted for?” he said, adding that it was “pretty obvious that Whitman’s brain was part of the collection.”

Coleman de Chenar, a pathologist at the Austin State Hospital in the 1960s, conducted the autopsy on Whitman, who had left a note for police, urging physicians to examine his brain for signs of mental illness. Whitman’s brain reportedly ended up in the collection of specimens then housed at the hospital that was later given to UT, Hannaford said.

“As far as I’m concerned, it leaves some sort of open ended questions,” Hannaford said.

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I’m a writer and I don’t get no respect

[Editor’s note: I believe it was the late Rodney Dangerfield who had a comedy routine based on “I don’t get no respect.” The lack of respect could come from anybody, anywhere, including his wife. Below is a playwright Rodney could empathize with. He writes to Dear Abby, and she responds. I have known one or two other writers in the same situation. Maybe you, do, too.]

Rodney Dangerfield

Sometimes respect is hard to come by for a writer, or a comic. Just ask Rodney Dangerfield.

DEAR ABBY: I am an amateur playwright. Our local theater sponsors an annual playwriting contest. The prize isn’t monetary, but something far more important to an author – full scale production of the play.

I have won this prize four times – more than any other writer in the history of the contest. But is my family impressed? Not at all! My wife told me she thinks I write everything the same way and have simply repeated myself four times.

I am up in years. It’s unlikely I will ever again win this prize. So how do I respond to such indifference? What do you do when you feel you have accomplished something important and the response is, “so what else is new?”

–Looking for Validation in Florida

DEAR LOOKING FOR VALIDATION: My hat’s off to you. That you have won this prize more than any other writer in the history of the contest is a notable achievement. Attend the production, take your well-earned bow in the spotlight, and accept that the less you look to your wife for validation, the happier your life will be.

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Best writing advice you’ve received?

Below is some writing advice gathered by Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary. The listing below is from his blog. Website for the agency is

December 30, 2011

What’s the best writing advice you ever got?

I’ve had several people write to share the best writing advice they’ve ever received.

Vince Zandri, who has done numerous novels and sold more than a quarter million books, wrote to me and said, “The best writing advice I ever got came from Ernest Hemingway in the form of his memoir, A Moveable Feast. If writers are worried about one thing, it’s the ability to keep a story moving from day to day. To avoid the ‘block,’ as some people call it. Papa wrote slowly and methodically in the early morning hours, and trained himself to stop at a point where he knew what was going to happen next. That way he could be sure of getting started the next day — and it left him the afternoons to play, exercise, fish, drink, or do whatever he wanted.”

Successful nonfiction writer Mel Lawrenz wrote to say, “The best advice? Take the long view. See the long process of publishing as an advantage — the stages of writing, editing, rewriting, and revising make for a more refined end product. Don’t miss the opportunity to rethink what you originally wrote.”

Harlequin author Dana Mentink sent this: “The best writing advice I got as a pre-pubbed author was that I should act like a professional. My mentor encouraged me to treat my writing like a business, not a hobby. Put in the hours, describe yourself to others as a writer, and really put yourself into the mindset of a professional. She explained to me that there’s a big difference between ‘I want to write a book’ and ‘I want to be an author.’ The latter requires professional dedication.”

Children’s author Kayleen Reusser noted, “Believe in yourself, even if no one else does. At my beginning I was the only one who believed I could write and get published. Even my mother told me I could not write — no money, no time, three small children to care for. But I swore I would die trying. (Thank goodness it has not come to that.)”

And novelist Dianne Price wrote to say, “Know your characters. LIve with them. Talk to them. Listen to their words and the cadence of their speech. Make them your constant companions. Argue with them. Commiserate with them. Ask them questions. You must know them to make them believable.”

What about you? What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever heard?


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“Wings” to heaven.

DEAR ABBY: I am a middle-aged woman who is Baptist by faith. I believe that when I die I will go to heaven, My problem is, if going to heavean means being reunited with my parents and other family members, then I don’t want to go! The idea of spending eternity with them is more than I can stand, but I don’t want to go to hell, either. Any thoughts? –Eternally Confused in Mississippi

DEAR ETERNALLY CONFUSED: Yes. When you reach the pearly gates, talk this over with St. Peter. Perhaps he would be willing to place you in a different wing than the one your parents and other family members are staying in. And in the meantime, discuss this with your minister.


Sometimes, you just can’t make things up. The entry above appeared in the Dear Abby column of my local paper in November of this year. In one sense, it needs no commentary, though it does remind me of the quote from mark Twain: “Heaven for climate and hell for society.” This also seems like a question the writer should have been asking of her minister before asking Dear Abby or even instead of Dear Abby, whose response is interesting and yet odd in its own way. “Wings” to heaven?  Is this an attempt at a pun?

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Starting with the obvious

Why men shouldn't write advice columns

Some things need no commentary, but I have one below anyway.

Editor’s comment: Some say this is an example of why men should not write advice columns. I say it’s an example of missing the obvious. First, the advice guy should have told the writer to check to make sure there was enough gas in the car’s tank. An empty gas tank and a car will stall easily. Geez, some people never want to start with obvious.

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Filed under absurdity, advice, advice column, age, car, fun, humor, men, obvious, wit, words, writing

Building a better story: Tension

In the last installment, I said there was a difference between conflict and tension. Conflict, as Bob McKey pointed out, is the gap between expectation and result. The gap can be small, such as being overcharged a dime or great, such as losing a loved one when you thought he would survive.

The best way to explain tension is to refer to a small book on writing by the writer and editor Algis Budrys, Lithuanian for “Gordon John Sentry, more or less.” His book, Writing to The Point: A complete guide to selling fiction is only 64 pages long, and may be hard to get. But this Strunk and White-sized guide to writing is worth your time (and it even covers manuscript formatting).

For Gordon John Sentry, more or less, a story consists of seven parts: 1) a character 2) in a context with a 3) problem, who 4) makes an intelligent attempt to solve the problem and 5) fails, tries a second time and fails, tries a third time and finally 6) succeeds or completely fails, and whose actions are then 7) validated by another character in the story.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? That is the allure of telling a good story. But the execution is often more difficult, for writer as well as story character. Step 4 – 6 above is where in a story you find tension. The key is that the character makes an intelligent attempt and fails. With increased knowledge, he or she tries again, and fails. The increased knowledge increases the stakes in the attempt and thus increases the tension. After all, it should succeed, right? Then there is a third and final attempt. This is, in essence, all or nothing, so the tension should be at its highest here.

Grimm reaper and man

Tension, while often confused with conflict, is not the same thing.

Tension, then, is something that builds over the life of the story, fueled by and feeding into the conflict. A well known love story may provide the clearest example. Romeo and Juliet loved each other. Their families, however, were adversaries. Romeo and Juliet attempted to find a way to manifest their love in the midst of this conflict, each time failing until each makes one last effort that leads to both their deaths. In this example, the tension builds in opposition to the conflict, which is fairly clever if you think about, and because of that opposition, the conflict works to heighten the tension.

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Writing Tip: Conflict

In the last installment of this feature, I put forth a little paradigm about writing that started off with “Drama is conflict….” But what is conflict? Is it open hostilities between two armies? It can be. It is the harsh words a husband has for a wife? It can be that, too. It is dealing with opposing desires or wants, such as deciding between love and honor? Yes, it can be that as well.

But all three examples listed above and in a host of others there is a common thread, something unspoken, and as important as words are, it is often the unspoken or unwritten element that defines a scene in a story and sometimes the story itself.

As I said in the previous article, I learned the paradigm that begins “Drama is conflict …” in 1993. Some twelve years later, and even though I wasn’t looking, I learned from author, screen writer, and teacher Steven Womack a definition of conflict that adds depth and, dare I say, meaning to the word conflict and the entire paradigm. He credits learning it from Bob McKey, a script doctor. McKey has made a living and a small fortune fixing other people’s scripts though he often doesn’t get screen credit for it. All scripts need conflict; conflict drives the story forward. How will the protagonist react? What will she do? But conflict is not car chases, gun battles, or galaxies spiraling out of control. Conflict, McKey said, is the gap between expectation and result. That’s it.

Pen chasing man

Conflict can be a small thing, or a large one, real or imagined.

Conflict can be as small as being overcharged a dime and how your protagonist reacts or as great as losing a battle when the protagonist fought hard to win. In both examples, there is a gap between expectations and results. How your protagonist deals with that gap and what steps he takes to close it are what drives a story forward, whether the story is a script, a short story, or a novel. The obstacles in the way preventing the protagonist from easily closing that gap are what are called tension, but that is a discussion for another time.

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