I Smell Literature Pie

painted womanWe’re having a brief Hallelujah dance here at my humble shack. On Tuesday I finished the last, long revision of the novel The Invention of Colors. At least four years it was in the oven, and now it’s nice and crispy with a golden color. I knew I was close to finishing the book, but I wasn’t sure how long it would take. I hoped it would be in a state of utter perfection before I left for a trip to Europe for a couple of weeks, which will be two weeks from Monday. And here I am, a full fortnight early (I think “fortnight” means two weeks).

Now that the novel is, in fact, in a state of utter perfection, I have given it to three readers for their comments, to make it even more. . . Hmm, wait, how can it be more perfect than utter perfection? There’s some kind of paradox here. Oh, and did I use the phrase “beta readers” to describe them? I want to make sure I use as much jargon as possible to show I’m in the club. Though when you think about it, it’s a club that mostly has writers as members, so why would any rational person want to be in a club like that?

I’ll tell you honestly, because that’s how I am, and you know that, I feel pretty damn good about this book. I think it’s going to go somewhere, and I recognize how dangerously cocky it is to say that here, because 1) I’m nobody, and 2) if I’m wrong, whoo, will I look stupid. Then again, if I look stupid, who’ll know? I’m nobody.

In November I’m going to a writer’s conference here in Atlanta, and I’ve signed up to talk to one literary agent and one publisher. Oh, and did I use the phrase “make a pitch” to describe those talks? Because the jargon thing, you know.

So what else is happening in my astonishingly interesting literary life? You sit wondering silently. When I get home from Europe, the short story collection I’d Tear Down the Stars will be coming out, and my publicist is arranging a book release party. Left to my own sad devices, I’d never have such a party, because I didn’t even know they exist. A book release party? Huh? A whut?

This will be a cool thing, I think, and when I say “cool” I mean Moses coming down from the sky in a turquoise chariot with crimson robes flying behind him. More or less. Plus a chicken that does tricks. And me. I come on after the chicken, but I don’t do tricks, and if that chicken upstages me, somebody’s looking at biscuits and gravy.

Seriously—and when am I not serious—I’ve rented the Highland Inn Ballroom just off Ponce de Leon Avenue, and on Sunday October 9, we’ll make people laugh, cry, and ponder the meaning of life, especially if they use the bar on the premises. I’ve got other writers who will join me for the book release, and they will be reading from their own works as well, and we’ll have some music courtesy of my brother. If you plan to attend from around the country, go ahead and buy your plane tickets.

In the meantime, now that the current novel is done, I’m thinking about the next book, already making notes on it. That book will take place in my hometown of Gainesville, Georgia, about a 45-minute drive from where I live. I even have a working title, which will surely change, but it’s rare for me to have a title so early. Other than calling it “the Gainesville book”, which I will, I also think of it with the name Moonapple Pie. How do you like that? In my deepest imagination, that book already struts like a giant. I know how silly that is, but maybe that’s how these big things get done. You dream them first.

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

Go Write This Over

wine bottle and glass

Writing tools

Many moons and suns ago, I used to sit at my plain, cheap desk. . . Come to think of it, I still sit at a plain, cheap desk. Well, it fits my social station. Good enough for the likes of me. Anyhow, I’d sit there writing for hours, turning out page after page, sometimes throwing pieces of paper on the floor. Bear in mind, that was in the Middle Ages, so I was using a typewriter, one of the most wretched machines ever invented.

Look how I’m rambling here, and I haven’t even gotten to my topic. That happens all the time when I write, and I have to go back and rewrite it. Revision. Right, that was my topic. I had always heard that writing needed to be revised, so when I was younger, I would revise it, change a word here and there, maybe remove an entire sentence.

If you’re not smiling sardonically reading that paragraph, it means you don’t know any more than I knew then about writing. Serious revision isn’t changing a word here and there. That’s revising the way a four-year-old would bake a cake. Here’s your pretend pan and pretend stove. Cake’s done. Mmmm, here’s your piece. It’s all imaginary and no effort.

Serious revision means reconsidering plot, structure, characters, tone, etc. It means throwing away things you love. Serious revision is actual work, and therefore ugly and filled with anguish. It begins—and this is probably the hardest part—with truly recognizing that what you first wrote isn’t the most beautiful thing that ever graced human language.

Once you honestly recognize that your drivel ain’t no prettier than anybody else’s, then you’re on the path to being a serious writer. The next step is moving beyond the shock of seeing how bad you are, to also recognize that if you WORK AT IT, you can make it better. Actually, that second step is so huge that when I was teaching writing, I had a lot of students who never got to step two.

But if you have climbed those two mountains, you now sit breathing cool clean air, surveying the mighty majesty of human endeavor. Are you not pleased, young grasshopper?

For several weeks, I have been revising the current novel (The Invention of Colors). I’ll pause for a moment while you write that title down, so that some day when you see it again you can say, “Hey! I read a blog about this!” I know, it is kind of exciting.

Everyone has their preferred method of writing, and mine involves loud music, a bottle of wine, and late nights pretending I don’t have a job. After about four years (maybe more, I don’t know, I got lost in the darkness), I am soooo close to finishing this book. Maybe within a month, finito buddy-o. But in fact, as anxious as I truly am to be done, I’m forcing myself to slow down, slow down, slow down. It’s not enough that sentences and paragraphs are fine. Can I make them better? You may not agree with the “better” part, but here is a brief example of what I’m doing:

Original

“At three o’clock Friday afternoon, she left work and met him, then drove away from the town, out past the mall, past the impressive state prison on its pleasant tree-lined road, and up onto one of the ridges that ran like fingers through the valleys in the area.”

Revision

“Friday morning Carmen chose lapis lazuli earrings she had not worn in a year, and Friday afternoon at four o’clock she left work to meet Sebastian. Choosing an itinerary of afternoon ease and evening ale, she drove them away from the town, past the mall, along a pleasant tree-lined road that went by the impressive state prison sitting up a slight hill to the left.”

I liked the added detail about the earrings, as it was both interesting and implied that she was looking forward to seeing him, given the attention to her appearance. I’m also right proud, and you don’t need to make fun of me, for coming up with the phrase “an itinerary of afternoon ease and evening ale” as it uses words beginning “a– e– e– a–” as well as accurately describing what they were going to do. It was a lot of effort to do that, maybe twenty minutes on that one phrase.

Not all writing needs this kind of meticulous attention to detail, but mine does. So I revise, with red wine and Snow Patrol.

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

Raise the Hills

hillsAlright, fellow logotrons, here at the blog that flits about like a butterfly, it is metaphor time again. More specifically, I will oppose one of the more common metaphors in our lives. I’m talking about a metaphor of movement, expressed most of the time in two ways, either as “move forward” (using words from Old English) or “make progress” (from Latin: pro = forward, gress = move).

Before I argue against this metaphor, let’s consider what it means, exactly. As I indicated, it literally means movement in a forward direction. When applied as a metaphor, as in “We’ve made progress in getting people to lose weight” the phrase also means movement forward toward . . .

Movement toward what? If the phrase is to make sense, there has to be a recognizable goal, and in the sentence about losing weight, there is. Blubber down—that’s the goal. This metaphor is so common, however, that sometimes we use it as a general description of human life: “We’ve made a lot of progress as a society in the last 50 years.” Toward what? Overall goodness? More people who have a smart phone?

Maybe you’re thinking, “This guy is against progress. I’m outta here.” But I’m all in favor of progress if we define it, such as expanding the ability of humans to be free and autonomous, and to improve the quality of human life (health care, meaningful work, more vacation than I currently get, etc.).

Lately I’ve begun to realize, however, that in some serious ways we are still in the Middle Ages: superstitious peasants (anti-vaccination arguments, claims that evolution can’t be true), religious fanaticism (that one’s easy), brutal nobility and oppressed serfs (billionaires in politics and illegal farm workers).

It occurred to me as I was taking a walk this week that maybe it isn’t just the Middle Ages that haven’t gone away. Maybe every stage of human development that ever happened is still there. It just depends on where you are. Are there people who don’t have fire yet? At any rate, there are tribes of people with very little technology living in the jungle in Brazil. The problem with the metaphor of progress is that we tend to think of it as something like a wave moving forward, that we’re all sweeping along at the same speed in that wave.

That metaphor is wrong. From country to country, sometimes from one mile to another, in some places even from one house to another, the level of human development is drastically different. Is it progress if you have a library in your house and spend time on the internet when the kids who live three houses away from you can barely read? Which century is your neighborhood in?

In some places a woman can run for president, while in other places a woman is not even allowed to drive a car (for instance, in a particular hell-hole country in the middle east). But even in the country where a woman can run for president, other women don’t have health insurance and don’t go to the doctor because they can’t afford it, despite having jobs. Which century is that country in?

So I think we need a new metaphor. Think of something like a landscape filled with hills and valleys. The top of each hill represents a rise toward greater human freedom and development, but the hills are all of different heights, and they are surrounded with valleys.

This image is more reflective of how the world is. We are not all moving “forward” together. Some are rising, others are not. One of the appealing things about this new metaphor is that it fits so well with how our brains already work, because we grow up with a feeling that “up is good, down is bad”. You can probably come up with your own examples for that (or you can start with “the computer system is down but the stock market is up”).

Instead of talking about progress, we should be saying that we will raise more hills, we will make the hills higher, and we will raise every hill. This might be a richer, more useful metaphor. If we can truly raise every hill, that will be a hill worth walking up.

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People Just Like You

Caesar's Palace, Atlantic CityAtlantic City, New Jersey. Asheville, North Carolina. State College, Pennsylvania.

These are places I’ve lived near, Atlantic City and Asheville, or in State College. While living there, I wrote short stories that took place in those towns, stories that are now included in the short story collection I’d Tear Down the Stars that I’ll be releasing in the fall. I met this week with my publicist to talk about plans for a book release party in October, and I’ll discuss details of the event later as I have them. (Hint: Have you ever seen a fat man shot out of a cannon to land on a blue elephant? They both love it!)

And don’t make that scowly face for having to wait. It’ll be here before you know it. For this blog post, I’m doing something I did once before, giving a sample pulled from three of the stories in the collection, from the towns mentioned above.

Everyone’s a Winner Here [set in Atlantic City]

“Let me drive down the street a couple of blocks,” says Francis. “I want to see the place. I never been here. This place looks crazy.” They drive by Caesars, fountain out front, four giant white horses with golden hooves and harnesses. In a chariot behind the horses is a snow white Roman, could be Julius himself, wearing a gold vest, bright red cape flying behind him, like an ancient Superman. A Muslim woman is walking past the statue, all in black, only the eyes showing. Wild West Casino has a wild west scenario, fake rocks, fake cacti, real seagulls flying overhead. Bally’s palace of sex, easy money, and imitation delight looks all glass and chrome, and one corner of the building is rounded, like the torch from the Statue of Liberty. Several overweight Hispanics are on the corner, waiting on the bus. Across the street is the Frank Sinatra wing of the Atlantic City Medical Center. So party! The Frank Sinatra wing of the Atlantic City Medical Center is just across the street.

Francis is worried where he’s going to park, but hark and behold, the ancient Romans have built a parking garage next to Caesars. Francis pulls in, turns a corner, and suddenly slams on the brakes. Screeches. Nearly hits a man in a wheelchair. Angel of Death flies away, cheated. The hysterical bitch pushing the wheelchair pounds her fist on Francis’s window.

“Hey, I’m sorry!” Francis yells through the window. “I didn’t see him! I’m sorry! I’m really sorry!” He backs up, goes around them, and drives off too quickly, squeals the tires.

“Way to go, dude,” Jack says. “You nearly creamed that guy. We could’ve had a dead cripple on our hands.”

The Smallest Dreams in the City [set in Asheville]

Anton must have been drunk, because he was laughing. He boarded upstairs in the old house where my family lived, but my mama didn’t know he drank whiskey when I was around him. She had no idea. Maybe she figured tiny men were different from regular men. He was telling me about religion that cold afternoon. “You know, Lilly,” he said, “there was a man back where I came from—” he came from the town of Tuckasegee, North Carolina “—who ran a pool hall, but he wanted to be a preacher. You know what a pool hall is?”

I said yes. I guess Anton thought seven-year-old girls never heard of pool, but my papa drove a truck long distance, and when he was home in Asheville, he loved to play pool.

“Do you? So he ran a pool hall and sold beer, but he couldn’t forget about preaching. Guess his mother raised him right. And he wouldn’t let anybody cuss while they played pool—you know what cussing is?”

I said yes.

“Do you? Well, don’t that beat damn all?” Anton laughed some more. “Couldn’t cuss while you played pool. Nobody ever played worth a damn with a hen-pick rule like that. Except my brother. He played pretty good pool. If you said ‘Praise Jesus!’ whenever you drank your beer, then once in a while the preacher would give you a free beer. Praise Jesus! There sure was a lot of praising Jesus, but you know what, Lilly?”

I said no.

Anton took another drink from his green bottle, then said, “That guy was only fooling himself, that preacher. Nobody meant it. They only said ‘Praise Jesus’ to get free beer. Oh yeah, free beer. Praise Jesus.” At the time it didn’t occur to me that Anton was not one of the men playing pool. What little I knew about pool, I figured Anton was a pool player, too, but it’s hard to play pool when you only stand three feet, six inches tall.

A Night at the Carnival [set in State College]

Farther down the street where she was walking after leaving her apartment, she saw the bright light of a small diner. As she got closer, she saw what a charmless place it was, a one-story rectangle, partly red brick, partly brown aluminum siding, with a single large window filled with hand-lettered notices proclaiming various menu items. Apple pie like Mom. There were no cars parked nearby, but through the window she could see people inside.

“Missy! Missy!” A slightly nasal voice on her right caused Toni to turn. A woman wearing a long, flower-print skirt and a ragged green sweater, in spite of the warm summer night, was standing on the sidewalk several feet from Toni. “Hey, missy,” the woman said again. “You got a quarter? I’m only asking for a quarter. Maybe I can get something to eat.”

“You won’t be able to buy much with a quarter,” Toni said.

“Just a quarter,” the woman said. “That’s twenty-five cents. I’m only asking for twenty-five cents.”

“Are you hungry?” Toni asked.

“Yeah, missy. I haven’t eaten all day. I used to teach college at the academy, and now I’m hungry.”

This ragged woman with hair that needed washing didn’t look like she had ever taught anywhere. “Do you want a sandwich?” Toni decided that the woman must be about her own age, in her mid-forties. I could wind up like that, she thought, wallowing for a moment in the horror of the idea.

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The Good Old Days—Very Old

Good old days poster

And they’re so white!

Here in America we’re in that famous period when thoughtful people who have a hopeful power to inspire us present well-considered discussions of possible ways to solve our problems . . .  Ha ha ha ha! Of course not. We’re having a Presidential election.

Sometimes during elections I like to examine the rhetoric candidates are using, to look for patterns or to bring to the fore some of the unspoken assumptions. This year, however, since one of our parties has held up its middle finger to America and nominated a man who literally goes off raving on a daily basis, what’s the point of rhetorical analysis? Crude personal insults don’t need analysis.

Instead, I wrote a poem. This is for the little Trumpster. Or rather it’s for the people who vote for him. Donald Trump is not actually afraid, he just pretends to be. He’s lying about that, too.

It’s Too Late!

I heard the fearful calling,
wearing ties on TV, frowning.
They were red-faced, arms were waving,
angry tweets on Twitter, spreading.
We must dig holes and hide.
We must hide,
we must hide.

The fearful see the evil
in the sunshine and the moonlight.
They understand the danger
if night should follow day.
We must build a wall and hide.
We must hide,
we must hide.

The fearful run from strangers
who might hurt them, make them ill,
disturb them with their language,
way of worship, who they love.
We must keep them out and hide.
We must hide,
We must hide.

The fearful fear the future,
hate the present, love the past,
when everything was perfect,
but now ruined and spoiled and gone.
We must stand strong but hide.
We must hide,
we must hide.

I heard the fearful calling,
looking sad, depressed, and scared,
crying, “Everything is lost!
And now what will we do?”
We must close our eyes and hide.
We must hide,
we must hide.

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Writing That Flows

Chattahoochee River

Chattahoochee River

Have you read literary magazines? Have you even sent a story, a poem, or an essay to a literary magazine? There are many of them around the country and the world, and they come and go. Some are more than 100 years old, while others spring up with high hopes to print, flash before the world, and die.

The oldest literary magazine here in Atlanta is the Chattahoochee Review, started in 1981 by Lamar York, now retired. After decades as editor, and speaking of how he felt toward the publication, he said, “I had never done anything that gave me the satisfaction that the magazine did.”

Last weekend, I went to North Carolina to spend the weekend with Lamar, who I got to know when I taught at Dekalb College and worked on the Chattahoochee Review. While at Lamar’s remarkable hobbit house, surrounded by a wonderful garden and looking out on the mountains of western North Carolina, I interviewed him about the founding of the magazine for this blog.

The Chattahoochee Review began at what was then called Dekalb College, the only college in Georgia operated by a single county. Since that time, the school has been absorbed by the state system, changed its name to Georgia Perimeter College, and joined Georgia State University.

Had Lamar ever worked on a literary magazine before starting the CR? “No,” he said, “I don’t really know where that came from. I’ve always been fascinated by the essay. I think it was that as much as anything.” Lamar was a serious reader, however, both generally, and of other literary magazines, and he saw them as models for what he wanted to do. In particular, he wanted to have a magazine of essays, reviews, and poetry.

When he began working at Dekalb College, the school had another magazine called the Dekalb Literary Arts Journal. After that editor left, Lamar applied for the position as editor—and did not get it, but the idea of editing a literary magazine had been born.

His opportunity came when the college opened a campus to the north of the city. The head of the new Humanities Department, Carl Griffin, asked Lamar to transfer to the north campus, which Lamar had no interest in. Griffin suggested, however, that on the north campus Lamar could start a new magazine, a motivating enticement. Thus the idea for the Chattahoochee Review originated with Carl Griffin, and Lamar went to the new campus.

Whence the name for the magazine? “I was very conscious of the geographical names,” Lamar said. “Like the Georgia Review or Sewanee Review. I wanted a name like that.” Nevertheless, he started a contest for submissions to name the magazine, with a committee of students and faculty to judge the entries.

As it happened, in spite of the committee, Lamar was still thinking about the name, considering such possibilities as Atlanta Review or Stone Mountain Review, names derieved from the city where the magazine would be located or from the enormous strange boulder to the east of the city. Then one day while driving to Selma, Alabama, to visit his brother, he saw the Chattahoochee River and “Ah!” there it was.

Naturally a project like starting a new magazine, by a person with no experience, would take some curve and learning. Lamar said he had had no idea how to go about running the magazine, including something as basic as how to get manuscripts. In the early days, he said, the magazine “was a pale imitation of the Dekalb Literary Arts Journal”, the other magazine from the college.

As for the money to run the magazine, the Dean suggested at the time that Lamar ask the student government for money, and for five years they gave around $1,000 a year to fund the magazine, until the college took over direct funding. The small-budget magazine was also a work of love for Lamar, because as the editor, he had neither release time from teaching to run the magazine nor a magazine office.

Several years into the project, the college administration decided to close one of the two magazines at the school, the Chattahoochee Review or the Dekalb Literary Arts Journal. At the time, Lamar talked with the other editor, and they decided that they would merge the two magazines together, to be renamed as The Stone Mountain Review. In the end, however, no one ever told Lamar to stop publishing, and the CR continued to live.

I asked Lamar what the reception had been for the magazine, now so well respected. One of the things he really remembered is that he had been astonished by the number of submissions. “I was absolutely swept away by the number of people who wanted to be published,” he said. In later years he would occasionally talk with editors of other magazines who complained about the large number of submissions, but Lamar was always glad that people who could write wanted to be in the magazine. Summarizing his feelings about writers asking to be included, he said, “I loved getting the Chattahoochee’s mail.”

Lamar York has moved on to a house on a ridge looking out over the Blue Ridge mountains, but the The Chattahoochee Review continues to support contemporary literature and accept submissions.

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You Take That Sun, I’ll Take This One

child flying“The difficult, I’ll do right now. The impossible will take a little while.”
from the song “Crazy He Calls Me”, sung by Billie Holiday

Can you understand why someone would do something as crazy as tie helium balloons to a lawn chair, to go rushing up into the sky? I do. Maybe there is an element of stupidity (sometimes quite a lot), but there is also a rebellion of the spirit, and I sympathize with that.

On the one hand I’ll always think “My God, you dumbass, don’t try to jump a moving train with a motorcycle”. I know the reality is that the frail flesh I live inside is fairly easily damaged or destroyed. And yet. . .what is this “I” that lives in there?

It feels like there is something in the body (me), and whether you call it mind/spirit/soul or nothing more than biological reactions, it’s all the same, because after the age of—I don’t know—six months, we all want what we can’t have. Why can’t I walk for hours without getting tired, or run faster than I do, or for that matter walk across water or up the side of a mountain like a lizard?

I can imagine these things. In my mind I can do them. So what’s wrong with the physical world?

Whatever lives inside my body, the mind/spirit/soul is able to experience the universe in ways that I’d like to try: no one dies, we never feel pain, we can shrink down to the size of an atom to watch electrons hum by like comets, and we can fly into the heart of stars to turn in happy harmless swirls through the red raging fusion of those gases.

Instead, we are trapped in the flesh, and by God, we don’t like it. And why is my distance vision worse than it was a year ago? One response to our insubordination to materiality, rather than looking for helium balloons and a lawn chair, is to let the spirit speak.

Last Sunday I heard a beautiful example when someone read a line describing expansiveness of spirit: “I want to billow through the door.” To billow like the sails on a ship before the wind, to move large and grand, like a force of nature—you’ve had moments when you felt that way, when your spirit touched its own grandeur.

I love such metaphors of expansion and optimism, expressions of the vastness of our spirit. I think about a famous line from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” The line is a response to the idea that he contradicts himself on occasion. Of course I contradict myself, he says, I contain many people. With that phrasing, Whitman shows an enormity of spirit and yet keeps it in human terms.

With the Billie Holiday song lyrics I used up above, the desire to exceed physical limitations is casually expressed as “Because I’m in love, I can do anything.” The same song also has the line “And I’ll move the mountains, if he wants them out of the way.” With the grandiosity of my soul when it is filled with love, what is a small physical impediment like mountains? Also taken from song lyrics, we can find an expression of enormity of feeling, in the Beatles song Across the Universe: “Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns.” With the huge panopticon of my vision, again from love, I can see the burning and flaring of a million suns.

Maybe this rebellion against the restrictions of physical existence is a major part of what makes us human, even if we often express it in stupid ways (smoking cigarettes, picking up rattlesnakes, jumping trains with motorcycles). The rebellion has also pushed us as a species, and we said “We will walk on water” and invented boats, “We will fly through the clouds” and invented airplanes, “We will go to the stars” and invented rockets.

I hope the same kind of impulse will someday push us to say “We will stop being savage, superstitious beasts and become human” and learn to celebrate the joy of life, and of one another’s lives, instead of living as we live now on this planet.

But until then, when I want to escape, I let the spirit speak.

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