About the Meaning of Life

plate of chilesThere’s not one.

However . . . it’s not as bleak as it sounds. Who would have thought we would have adverbs to thank for rescuing us from a world of existential vacuity? The savior adverbs, stepping down in glory from the Grammar Book of Heaven, are “inherently” and “just”.

Let’s see this magic at work. There’s not inherently a meaning of life, and There’s not just one meaning of life.

The first statement, of course, sounds a bit pessimistic, what with the idea that life as we find it has no meaning, simply embodying the old adage “First you suffer, then you die.” OK, well, that’s still true, but that first statement leads us on to the second, that there is not just one meaning of life—there are many.

I would be understanding if you were to squint your eyes in that suspicious way you have, thinking So all this time I was asking, where were those meanings? Here’s the hard part—and seriously, why does there always gotta be a goddamn hard part?—you have to discover an individual meaning of life just for yourself. I know that’s not an ideal answer, but it’s better than no meaning, right? For some people the meaning of life might be, I don’t know, learning to cook great Mexican food, or playing basketball, or teaching fifth grade. None of that is my thing, but it might be yours.

A week ago I finished writing a novel, so I sort of knew this was coming. I write the way a drug addict takes drugs, not necessarily for the pleasure of it, but to maintain the illusion of balance and normality. You got heroin, I got Microsoft Word. Which is worse? I can go for a while and not write, but then I get kind of irritable and start to ask, “Good God, what am I getting out of bed for?” When I ain’t writing, I ain’t thriving.

So a week ago, as I said, I finished writing a novel. Since then, every evening I’m sitting here finding ways to pass the time. If I were a normal person—but note, I’m a writer—I’d have a TV and I could kill time the way normal people do, happily, contentedly, flowing through every evening, right up to bedtime, with stories of medieval(ish) Britain, or women in prison, or history shows about ancient Egypt or World War II.

Instead, I started writing a short story, just to let myself do it, because writing is what makes life meaningful for me. I don’t expect to publish the story, as the literary magazines have all seen the memo to avoid me like a rat jumping off a ship from Constantinople in 1348.

It might sound strange, and honestly it even seems kind of strange to me, but when I work on this story (about a man who can see memories that have floated away from people, and he writes them down), while I’m writing, I begin to feel the most contented and at home in the world that I’ve felt all day. Life has meaning.

So if you’re not a writer, I hope you find the thing that does that for you. If cooking Mexican food is your thing, call me, and I’ll help you out with getting rid of it. I really don’t mind doing that for you.

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More Champagne

glasses of champagneThe first time I finished writing a novel, lo them many years ago, I wanted to call all my friends together and have dinner and celebrate the great occasion. I felt sure I had done something huge and serious and people should join me in commemoration of greatness.

Many years later, having written two or three more books in the meantime, I finished writing another novel, and that time I went out to dinner by myself. It happened that there was no one convenient then to go out with me, but still I wanted to do something nice to mark the occasion.

This past Sunday evening, I finished a book that I’ve mentioned here a few times, one I’ve been revising for a while. This time celebrating didn’t really seem possible, no one to go out with, trying to conserve money, and in any case, the next day was Monday and I had to go to work. It’s also true, unlike years ago, that now I can go out to a restaurant if I want to, and I do. Back in the days when I finished writing that first book, eating in a nice restaurant (or any restaurant) was a major and extravagant event.

The book I just finished was twenty years in the writing, beginning back in 1997. It was hardly a novel then, just six separate stories about different characters, linked slightly, but I called it a novel. In the ensuing twenty years, I’ve revised the book three times, each time involving drastic reconsideration, removing characters, adding characters, and throwing away a lot of what I had written.

For the current revision, again I threw out about half the book and brought back a character who had been removed the last time. What was left I cut into pieces and put together with new material. Approximately the second half of the book did not exist before, so from the middle on, I was really writing a new book. In this version, I removed a major character entirely, and another major character now has a supporting role.

As I often do with book names, I labored mightily for years trying to come up with a title, and in different versions the name has changed over time: The Cost of Music, The Land of Melancholy Spices (OK, I liked it at the time), and now it’s called Birds Above the Cage. In effect, however, those were three different books.

The next step is now to find a few people willing to read the novel and give me feedback. I know that asking for a critique of a novel is asking a lot, and ideally I’d like to have people who read literary fiction and may have a better understanding of what I’m trying to do. In the past, I’ve asked someone to read a book who said yes and never did, I’ve asked someone who said yes and months later had not touched it, then seemed irritated when I asked, and I’ve had someone  offer to help and ask to read a book, and even after that never did. Nothing about this process is easy, not in my house, anyway.

I thought I would end this blog entry with the opening paragraph of Birds Above the Cage:

“We think that the ghosts who roam the earth would be immune to natural disasters. For most disasters, such as earthquakes, tidal waves, or broken hearts, no doubt the ghosts are unaffected. A tornado, however, is such a violent force that even ghosts can get caught up in it. It can’t hurt them, but it will whirl them away, sometimes by the hundreds, translucent spirits of the dead whipped and whirled around and around by those powerful winds, helpless apparitions circling off across the countryside. The tornado that hit Gainesville, Georgia, in 1936 like a giant bomb sucked up all the ghosts in Hall County and integrated them in the maelstrom, made those black and white ghosts equal before the wind.”

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), Writing While Living

Where You From, Boy?

little boy eating watermelon

And then we used the garden hose

There are various ways to put writers in boxes. One day Charles Dickens might be in the British writer box, sitting there chatting with Jane Austen or even Kate Atkinson (using a time machine). Then suddenly the box is white male writers, and Charles is looking around wondering where Jane got off to, while Hemingway is there going on about some fish.

Most writers don’t love the boxes. In general, women writers don’t want to be known as women writers, but as writers. After all, we create because No One Is Quite Like Us. One of the possible boxes people might put me in is one I’ve always considered myself outside of—southern writers. After all, I’ve lived large parts of my life outside the south, and what I write about isn’t just this region.

And yet, here I am in Atlanta, at least for now. I was born and grew up an hour from here, going barefoot on a farm and eating watermelon from my grandfather’s field (I could invoke other cliched rural imagery if needed). The fact is, to be a serious fiction writer, we write about human behavior and aspirations as truly as we know how, which we partly know as an aspect of where we come from.

I would guess that the majority of writers write about the place where their feet are standing, and this has been true of me as well. At the moment I’m finishing one novel and getting ready to begin another, and lately I’ve been thinking about the place where my feet are standing, about southern culture, both current and past, about southern history, and about the depth of our sins here.

Last weekend I had several days of vacation on the coast, at Hilton Head Island and in the town of Beaufort, South Carolina, and in Savannah, Georgia. These places are historically and culturally captivating and within an hour’s drive of one another. I spent plenty of time doing the vacation thing, drinking beer, drinking coffee, drinking more beer, and I also went bike riding, just barely saw an alligator, and climbed up to the top of a lighthouse.

Besides gators and beers, I came home contemplating southern history and culture. While riding a bike on Hilton Head, for instance, my friend and I stopped to see the Baynard plantation house ruins. It was a reminder that this island, now so developed as a vacation spot, was once a site with wealthy plantation owners, agriculture, and slave laborers. Among the ruins at the Baynard house are the remains of slave quarters, and all the ruins are made of a common coastal building material called “tabby” that contains oyster shells. For me, that one fact intimately ties the slave economy to the coastal region.

While I was in Beaufort, I was also reminded of the darkness of southern history (I don’t mean to imply that all history isn’t dark). Nearby, on St. Helena Island, is a place called the Penn Center, founded by Pennsylvania Quakers as a school for slave children. What makes the school even more interesting is that it was begun in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, for children freed by Union troops on those islands.

When I look at all of this history—moreso, when I feel all of this history—as a writer I think that I come from a place where there is a lot to be said still. For one thing, as a culture, the south has not seriously dealt with the horror of our history regarding slavery and racism. That is yet to come.

But I want to illustrate an additional point of view. While on vacation, I had a meal in an upscale restaurant, with food based on traditional southern cuisine, and the meal was so good I wondered how it was even possible for food to have that much flavor. In Beaufort, I saw the paintings of local artists and drank the beer of local breweries. One afternoon in Savannah, I sat under oak trees hung with Spanish moss, drinking coffee and looking across the square at the house of Flannery O’Connor, a writer of Irish background.

My point is that the south has been a horrible place, and yet it can be a righteously wonderful place. If I consider myself a southern writer, I wonder if this doesn’t give me something in common with Irish writers, who might say “We come from a place that has been fucked up beyond any rational comprehension, and yet we are tied to it and love so much about it.”

The American south can evoke those same feelings. That may be useful for a writer.

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Put Things in Piles

girl with pile of paperI have a horror story about a college writing class (I’ll pause while you recover from shock). At a college where I taught writing, we had a professor who would give his first-year students a page of detailed instructions on how to write, literally telling them sentence-by-sentence how to write an essay. Naturally, this wild incompetent also used the 5-paragraph essay format.

What that tenured professor did not teach his students was how to work their way through the complicated, sometimes sloppy, process of examining a topic, generating ideas about it, and figuring out how to organize those ideas (i.e., the way we actually write out here in the real world).

Now, if you’re not a prisoner in a college English class, but you’re writing something for a rational reason, such as needing to say something, no one will be sitting there telling you what each sentence is supposed to do, or how many paragraphs you need to have. You’ll have to figure it out, considering the audience you’re writing for, which is what college students should be doing, so as to develop that useful skill.

And if you are not an incompetent writing teacher, one of the things you can teach in a writing class is basic concepts, such as taking your ideas and grouping them in various ways, which makes it easier for the reader to follow the writer’s thoughts and thus understand what is being said. The most basic way to group ideas is in paragraphs, or to use a metaphor I like at this moment, put the ideas in separate piles.

The paragraph was a great invention, because it’s so useful in letting us show those different piles of ideas. But if we step back from the metaphor a moment, we recognize a difficulty. These ain’t colored shells. We’re talking about ideas here, so there’s no clear and easy way of knowing what goes in which pile (in spite of appallingly stupid practices like the “5-paragraph essay”—and if you ever had to do that, on behalf of the entire English profession, I want to apologize to you).

So what does make a proper paragraph? In part, it depends on what you want to say, but in part (we don’t tell students this), it depends on the context. For a news article, the paragraphs should all be fairly short. For a serious report, maybe in business, medicine, or engineering, the paragraphs may sometimes be rather long. And if a paragraph fills more than a page, no matter what the context, it’s too long, because then you’re not seriously using paragraphs.

In addition to understanding how to use paragraphs, there is the question of how to show the reader when a paragraph begins. I know of three ways, though I’ve only seen two of them ever used. One way would be to start every paragraph with a special symbol, which could be anything ♣, as long as everyone knows what it is. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done, however.

The way a paragraph is normally indicated, of course, is with emptiness. On paper, we always begin a paragraph with a tiny bit of blank space at the beginning. On screen, that’s rarely done, and instead we use an entire blank line between paragraphs. I’ve also seen people on paper use indentation and a blank line at the same time. Using both is redundant and over time will be way more expensive, to add all those extra blank lines on paper.

Last week at work I was looking at a manuscript I was supposed to edit. If you are not one of the lucky people who read this blog regularly, I’m a copy editor on a medical journal. So I looked at the manuscript, and while the authors had used paragraphs, they had some that went on rather long, followed by others that consisted of one sentence. At one point, I even addressed the authors out loud: “Do you know what a goddamn paragraph is?” I also addressed the authors with some other pertinent words that were needed at the time.

Then I realized that the authors of the article had brutishly done nothing to indicate where paragraphs started. They were using paragraphs, but if you ran your eye down the left margin, it was solid text. I thought Where on the entire planet Earth have you seen this done? What makes you think this is OK? Though I think I did see it done once, I believe in a French magazine. But it’s still incredibly stupid.

From working at the journal where I labor so avidly, I’ve come to understand that while most of our writers are as good as nonprofessional writers generally get, some of them are about as bad as the students I used to have in college writing classes. This is why we need copy editors willing to curse and cry over the trash and then fix it.

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Filed under How We Create Magic

I, Like, Speak Like, You Know

criticism of young peopleAbout a year ago, and I am not making this up, I was in a shop somewhere and someone said to me, “Are you a writer? You look like one.” They didn’t mean someone famous, because honestly, how many writers would anyone recognize? They just meant in general sort of way, and I thought Hmm, could it be because I have a look of tantalizing sophistication and my eyes express a quiet wisdom? Then I realized it was probably because I forgot to brush my hair, my shirt had stains on it, and I was looking around like “where am I?”

I’ll take either one, however. I claim my identity as a wordsmith, which has been hard come by. Wordsmithery is not a skill I was born with, of course. No baby comes into the world knowing how to spell “abstemiousness” or how to punctuate a dependent clause. It has been a slow slog learning all that stuff, yet here we are, the quintessence of an audacious linguophile. According to myself.

Back when I was applying my love of well-crafted language in the most ironic fashion possible (teaching college writing), a few times I had a student who said, “I write like I speak.” I’m not sure now whether such a student wanted to justify their style as authenticated by the speech learned at dear mama’s knee, or whether they were trying to explain why they were so goddamn awful.

In any case, they were mistaken. No one writes like they speak. They may be heavily influenced by day-to-day speech, so that they think “I would have” is supposed to be “I would of” but once the letters appear on the page (or screen, these days), it’s another world. Other than for literary purposes, or when very drunk, most writers are at least trying to adhere to what they consider “proper” writing.

Writing is extremely different from speaking, and I’m not even addressing the point that writing is as artificial as a business suit, a social invention. Speech, on the other hand, is natural in the sense that every person is born with that capacity. So when we write, no matter what we write, we are riding on a different kind of donkey from the one that bounces us down the road during a nice chat.

To take one quick example of the difference, a written sentence, with rare exceptions, must always have a subject and a verb. If it does not, we have a term for that—sentence fragment, i.e. only part of a sentence. I guarantee you the concept of a sentence fragment did not exist before the invention of writing. In speech, we absolutely don’t think about that.

The sentence fragment is an example of the difference between speaking and writing, but there are bigger differences than just sentence construction. Because writing can be edited, it is more logical and has far less repetition than speaking. In addition to all these edited differences, no writing is ever truly like speech anyway, because real speech sometimes sounds like this:

  • “well she was— let me tell you about her, I mean, if you, or anybody was asking…”
  • “uh, well, I’m, don’t know, yeah I don’t know about that, since we’re going…”

Speech is often full of incoherent noise and starts and stops and thinking. Only some college freshman essays are like that.

When fiction writers create dialogue, the question arises, or should arise, as to how to make the writing sound like someone is really talking. Inexperienced writers may not do this well, making their characters always speak in perfect edited sentences, which is, um, not like how people talk, you know?

The trick in fiction is to create the illusion of speech. You can’t really write exactly like people talk, as that would often be gobbledygook, and you want the dialogue to be understandable as well as carry the story forward. So as a fiction writer you learn some tricks to make the dialogue sound occasionally broken, interrupted, or paused for thought, but you always pay attention to how well the basic message is coming through.

So we’re like, uh, you know, and stuff.

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Family Values

Devil's Share whiskeyWhen I was a wee child, my tribe here in Georgia decreed that I would be raised as a proper member of the Southern Baptist tribe. I was taken—willingly at first, then with questions at the age of 13, then dragged with chains—to church. I can’t say they didn’t at least try. Someone even told me once that we shouldn’t dance. (As for drinking too much and illicit sex, those astonishing delights were yet to come.)

I began backing away from the Southern Baptist religion, eyes wide with appalled realization, more than fifty years ago. Still, the religion became part of my cultural background, and I willingly draw on it in my writing even now. As striking metaphors go, it’s a gift. This week, I got lazy and could not write a real blog entry, so I’m posting a religion poem I wrote a few weeks ago.

A Summer Evening Near Nacoochee

“I’m getting tired,” the Devil said.
“I just want to sit and drink.
People are lazy and wicked and dumb,
and they don’t need help from me.”

The sunlight poured like golden coins
through the leaves of magnolia trees,
where the Devil sat, too lazy to move.
For all he cared, Hell could freeze.

He opened a bottle of whiskey,
stretched his legs out on the porch.
“And who could think in this heat?” he said.
“It’s hot as a Roman torch.”

He smiled as he looked at the figure
approaching across the back yard.
“I knew you’d show up,” the Devil said.
“I can’t catch you off guard.”

“Just pour me a drink,” said Jesus,
sitting down in a wicker chair.
His face was shining with sweat.
A leather band tied back his hair.

They touched their glasses together,
then each took a heartfelt drink.
They both stared out at the pine trees.
Jesus reached for the bottle and winked.

“Been thinking about something,” he said.
“How would this work for you?
I think we ought to switch jobs.
We could both use something new.”

The Devil laughed and shook his head.
“I guess you’re already drunk.
Before I took that crew of yours,
I’d trade with a desert monk.

“And the way I see it, anyhow,
we already do the same,
but I get quiet benefits,
while you get a better name.”

Jesus sighed and nodded.
“Yeah, you got me there,” he said.
“Just thought I’d try the idea out,
bring it up, see where it led.”

The Devil shuddered, drank, and coughed.
“And it makes my blood run cold,
the idea of all those churches.
How fast would that get old?”

“Tell me about it,” Jesus said,
and he reached for the bottle again.
“In two thousand years I still don’t know
where they got that idea of sin.”

The sound of tree frogs increased
from up in the tall pine trees,
while the cousins passed the bottle,
and wished for a cooler breeze.

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Filed under Not Real Poetry

Well, Hell

The band REM

Part of what we do here in Georgia

On America’s birthday, this past Tuesday, I went to a party where a woman referred to her American regional background, talking about her southern accent. Her husband, I think, said, “When a woman has a southern accent, people think it’s charming. When a man has a southern accent, they think he’s dumb.”

I think there’s something to that, even if it is overstated. There are times when people do find a certain charm in the sounds of southern accents, whether spoken by a man or a woman. But it is also definitely true that in other circumstances, for some people a southern accent symbolizes a lack of intelligence. The ironic fact is that only a fairly stupid person would truly think that, rather than judge the individual, but if you’ll spend the rest of the day looking, you’ll probably find a stupid person. They’re all over the place.

On the positive side, why is a southern accent admired? I’m also thinking of other accents that—at least in my experience—are sometimes thought of as elegant or charming. One of them is an upper-class British accent, and I’m also thinking of Italian. As I’m sitting here now, I wonder if part of the answer might be vowels. One of the obvious characteristics of a southern accent is the addition of extra vowels in comparison with standard American English. As an example, take a phrase a person down here in Georgia might say, perhaps to show mild surprise: “Well, hell”.

As I grew up speaking, the two words in that phrase would be pronounced not with a single vowel (sounding rather like “eh”), but with three vowels (a, y, u) blended together, something like “way-uhl, hay-uhl”. Since there are no rational people here in this room to stop me, I’ll propose a theory that human beings have a natural fondness for vowels. This partiality means that in general we will prefer the sound of a language (or dialect) with a good healthy sprinkling of vowels.

Who knows whether something like that could be true? An accent is simply pronunciation, but a dialect also involves vocabulary, grammar, and general ways of using language. Yet I suppose most people will not make these distinctions, so that someone might say, “He has a strong southern accent and says ‘yall’ all the time,” which has nothing to do with an accent. That’s a vocabulary term. I’ve spelled “yall”, by the way, as it will be spelled in the future, without that cursed apostrophe (and damn my phone for trying to add the apostrophe when I’m texting).

At that same party I was at on Tuesday, someone mentioned, with stern disapproval, the use of a very common verbal practice here in the south, what is called a “double modal”, such as this: “I might could be there after two o’clock on Sunday.” I’m going to guess that the use of such phrases as “might could”, “might would”, and “might should” is probably dying out, which I think would be a damn shame. I think it’s a beautiful way of speaking.

I’ve also heard native southerners condemn the double modal as being a kind of ignorant speech. This condemnation happens, though the speakers would deny it, because the attitude I mentioned above, that southern speech makes a person sound dumb, is—are you ready for this?—also believed by many southerners.

That’s weird, right? But it’s dead true. This little blog is not the place the try to explore the historical reasons that produced such a strange situation, in which people agree to condemn their own speech. And we are certainly not the only place on earth that combines extensive cultural richness with sulking neurotic insecurity (hey, Russia, I’m looking at you, buddy).

I hope we keep our southern accents. I say that even though I’ve lost most of my own, after acquiring too many college degrees and living almost everywhere you can live in America. My speech is most markedly filled with southern honey when I’m with people from back home, or when I drink as much as I should. I might should drink more, I guess, and then my words will sound like they come out of Jesus’ mouth when he’s home sitting on the porch.

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