It’s Me Except When It’s Not

painting of small townI’ve wondered why it is that if you write something with short lines, people automatically assume it’s about the writer. That is to say (at least in my experience), there seems to be a common assumption that poetry is autobiographical. Though also in my experience, most poetry actually is autobiographical. Modern poetry is mostly me, me, me.

Is it just something about poetry? I’ve read a number of poems by Rumi (probably the greatest Persian poet, born in 1207), and the ones I’ve read all refer to the poet himself. In England in the 1600s, didn’t John Donne write poems about himself? And isn’t Walt Whitman’s most famous work called “Song of Myself”?

So OK, maybe it is just poetry. Yet I find that self obsession constrictive, and I don’t see why poetry can’t be fictional. After all, every song that has words is basically using a poem, right? And those are mostly fictional, even rising to greatness sometimes like Bruce Springsteen.

I’m posting a poem this week that sounds like it’s the poet talking, but it’s not. The persona speaking in this poem has not lived my life. My own life has been almost the exact opposite of the one described in the poem. I have more than once leaped from the cliff, crashed onto the rocks, and eventually limped away. And I’m not done leaping.

I Should Have Been Hungry

I should have left this town
where every song is like a hymn,
where aspirations of the young
are to become—
with home and cars—
old by twenty-five.
I should have gotten on a train,
I should have ridden toward the sun,
where forever it meets the land
off in the distance.
I should have been hungry,
I should have been cold,
I should have known that being alone
is the price of being alive.

I should have trusted the empty ache
that pulls toward empty space.
I should have run toward what I feared,
avoided those people, intense and sincere,
who were glad to know
they followed every rule.
I should have been hungry,
flown wild while I could
to the tracks, in the dark,
to jump into the wind.

I should have opened my eyes
to sun and color and motion,
to the shimmer in the distance
of the world where mysteries lie.
I should have listened to the stories
that we can be like water
and flow toward something bigger.
I should have been hungry,
should have lived on the edge,
should have known
my own heart
stood poised on the ledge.

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Filed under Not Real Poetry

I Checked All Your Adverbs

woman drinking a cup of coffeeThis seems like a complicated point to make. When we write, at least in a subconscious way, we imagine a reader who is reading it, and as we imagine that reader, we picture them understanding our text exactly the way we want them to. If it occurs to us that the imaginary reader will not understand something, then we change it.

Sometimes, however, when a real reader actually reads what we wrote, holy Jesus! how did they come up with those ideas? That’s not at all what we meant. The fact is, as a writer, you really don’t know how a reader will perceive what you’ve written. Until a reader, or multiple readers, see what you’ve done (and tell you), you’re guessing whether or not it works. After all, writing is not merely about writing, it’s about being read. We do not write just to admire the alphabet.

As hard as writing is, as much blood as you have to leave behind while doing it, when you finally have a finished manuscript, if you can get the opinion of some readers before you hand it out to the world, you can feel more confident of what you have. You don’t necessarily have to change anything based on what the readers say, but if three people are all confused at the same point, would you pay attention to that? I certainly would.

Getting this kind of help is one reason people seek out and attend writing groups. For a novelist, however, there are two potential problems with such a group. One problem is inherent in any group, the difference between critiquing and copy editing. Critiquing is seriously considering the content in a piece of writing as well as how it is presented (style, structure, and so on). Copy editing is only looking at what is written to see whether it has any mistakes, without much attention to the content.

Many people who attend writing groups, in their “critique” of someone’s writing, will merely copy edit, pointing out a mistake here and there, or talking about some feature of style they personally like or don’t like. This slight copy editing, which requires little effort, creates the illusion that they are taking part in a writing group. It isn’t serious, and it isn’t much help.

The second problem with a writing group applies particularly to novelists. Even if the members of a writing group are both competent and willing (and you’re damn lucky if you find both of those things in a group of people), the group members necessarily read only in bits at a time, so if you have a novel, then you eventually need a critique of the whole book, and you can’t get it there.

Thus, when you finish the draft of a novel, you’re fortunate if you can find someone who is capable and willing to give you a critique of the book. It’s quite a lot of effort, and a lot to ask of someone. And yet . . . it’s incredibly, incredibly helpful to a novelist. I’m jealous of writers who have a circle of writer friends who gladly expend the effort to give critiques. I mean, I assume such a situation must exist, although I’ve never encountered it.

With the last book I wrote, The Invention of Colors, I found two people who were willing to give me a critique. One of them even went so far as to ask if she could do it. I felt lucky to find two very smart, well-read people who would do this. I felt lucky, that is, until they both fell off the earth and disappeared, and six months later I have heard literally not a word from either of them.

I’m currently critiquing a novel for a friend, and my focus is on two things. First, I’m thinking about overall plot flow and whether I see problems in the logic, in plot, or in the flow from section to section. Second, I’m focused on the psychological reality of the characters. One point I’ve found to criticize, which I’ve seen in other books, is when a character does something not because that character would actually do such a thing, but only because the author needs for it to happen in the plot. That’s weak writing, and I’ll always jump on that like a bulldog on a wedding cake, or . . . anyway, you get the idea.

But whatever I say, the book doesn’t belong to me. I will offer advice, and then the writer decides. The writer should always own the writing.

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

Happy Delight Cookie

small bridge

Don’t forget a pillow

You’ve been to a Chinese restaurant, I would imagine. So you know that after you finish your General Tso’s chicken, or whatever you might have, they generally bring you little clear plastic packets with strangely folded, pale brown objects inside, sometimes served with orange slices. Thus appears the fortune cookie.

Whenever I’ve ripped open the plastic packet and cracked my cookie in half, to read what is written on that tiny slip of paper, I’ve never liked the uninteresting fortune. They say things like “Plan for many pleasures ahead” or “The time is right to make new friends” or “Your ability to juggle many tasks will take you far”.

What the hell? Those are fortunes? Those little slips of paper should have all said, “You will open cookie of very great banality.”

No sir, if I were the fortune cookie writer, we’d get some literary interest in there. Now I understand there’s only so much you can say. There’s not a lot of space, so the fortunes are kind of the pastry equivalent of Twitter messages. That just means the limited space available needs to be devoted to imagination.

I don’t think every fortune has to come with an implied smiley face. Has anyone ever used the phrase “feel good” about Tennessee Williams’ plays? And yet they’re highly regarded, even though they plumb the darkness of our existence. Can’t a fortune cookie do the same? So here are some suggestions for improved fortune cookie messages and why I think they would be good.

You will live briefly under a bridge.

At first glance this sounds negative, but note that very optimistic adverb—briefly. It’s not like you’re going to spend the rest of your life down there.

If you are having trouble dating, maybe you are thinking of the wrong gender.

Here is an inducement to self-examination, and in these more enlightened days of the twenty-first century, this happy fortune says “Look how broad your options are! Twice as many!”

Many people are more ugly than you.

Imagine how this statement will raise the self esteem of someone who has just finished their fried rice and is feeling insecure. Then the cookie arrives, and suddenly, they feel better about themselves.

As an adult, you can be glad you didn’t waste time learning math.

This happy fortune makes the diner feel good about the time they spent in high school not paying attention in class.

I might also add a few fortunes invoking whimsy, because Whimsical would be my middle name if my parents had named me that.

You will get very drunk and shave off all your body hair.

The person reading this might take it as a prediction, as something to look forward to, perhaps, or they might take it as a warning of something to avoid. It is their choice.

Your elephant will become flatulent tomorrow.

This could be a very useful fortune, telling you what to do—put the elephant outside—and telling you when you need to do that, tomorrow.

Your intestinal flora rejoice at your good fortune.

I’m pretty sure that must be true. I mean, why wouldn’t they?

You see how much better fortune cookies could be? It just takes a willingness to go beyond the norm, and I frequently go beyond the norm. You will eat happy delight cookie, then search for car in parking lot.

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Filed under How We Create Magic, Language

Rocks, Thorns, and Cheese


In sixty seconds, what is your book about.

Similar to normal people, writers have their peeves. I have not made pets of mine, because I don’t want to feed them. But wait, let’s switch metaphors. In the swirling stream of life, we all have the rocks that we smack into before we are washed limply downstream.

Of course, like anyone else I smack into the rocks for the usual common reasons, such as one of my relatives calls me about something. (As a side note, do you have people in your family who are REALLY fucking crazy, because . . . it’s not just me, right?)

Anyway, here in the world of writing, which normally sparkles with rainbows of creativity and fulfillment of the soul, and sometimes cheese toast, I also have weeds that grow thick with thorns in the literary garden. Oh, I’ve switched metaphors again. OK, I’ll do this, as I describe a few of the irritations of the writing life, I’ll try to come up with a new metaphor for each one.

Stage Four Cancer

I guess that one was kind of obvious. You knew I was talking about Microsoft. It isn’t possible for a human brain to hate anyone or anything more than I hate Microsoft. More hatred than that would begin to disintegrate the quantum particles that make up the universe.

I don’t hate Microsoft because they think they have a right dominate the world with their software. I don’t even hate them because they charge so much for a product that is duplicated on a piece of cheap plastic that they’ve become billionaires. No, I hate them because every day I have to use their stunningly horrible software.

Both in my job as a medical editor and in my real life as a fiction writer, I spend my days and evenings at the computer, and after years of doing it, I find myself still astonished at the new ways Microsoft Word mysteriously, and pointlessly, does things that make my work harder. I’m truly not exaggerating here.

Cerberus: the Three-Headed Dog Guarding the Gates of Hell

You’ve heard of literary agents. Those are the people who “help” writers find a publisher and get a book published. I’ve heard stories, sitting around smoky fires with roasting mutton, a blanket across my shoulders against the night chill, listening to old men talk about the golden age, when an agent might take a writer on because a book was well written, and the agent would work to sell the book to publishers, who, in those days, would still listen.

Who can tell whether the memories of old men have distorted the past. Was it ever really that way?

Recently I wrote to a literary agent, not simply as one of the crowd of barefoot beggars dressed in rags and clutching the manuscript of a novel. Instead, I wrote because someone I know had recommended me to her own agent. Supposedly, this connection means the agent will pay more attention. And maybe that happened. I did receive a hand-written note, on a card measuring two inches by four inches. It said “I appreciate this query—and the book sounds interesting.”

Oh yeah? So if the book sounds interesting and I come with a recommendation, that means . . . “Alas, this type of fiction is so hard to place these days, I’m afraid I’ll have to decline.” What? Wait, without even looking at it? Yes, it might require actual work to sell a novel of literary fiction, so drop dead. And we wish you well.

I pull my blanket tighter and listen to the old men talking.

Dancing Naked with a Clown Nose

Now if it were literally true, I might be just fine dancing naked while wearing a clown nose. I’m sure I’ve done worse, and after a few beers, that doesn’t sound all that bad. But alas—alas—I’m speaking of something not nearly as fun, the general process of promoting writing.

I know, I know, it’s just how the world is. It’s not enough that we stand up gaunt-eyed and traumatized from writing something in the first place. Then we have to smile on the telephone, go to bookstores and readings and small conventions where no one knows us or cares if they ever do (that’s if we’re lucky and allowed to go), pretend that we’re happy to be there, post stupid shit on Facebook, invent a constant stream of drivel for Twitter.

You get the idea. Or do you? Of course it’s worse than I’m making it sound. But I’m a writer, and I feel a responsibility to write about positive things. Like cheese toast made with Gruyère. If you come over, I’ll make you some.

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Filed under Writing While Living

Believe Me, I’m Totally Honest

Woman thinking about a crazy person

They just send out another tweet.

If you’ll come to my house this weekend, I think we’ll have a good time. And if you’ll come to my house this weekend, I’ll give you a thousand dollars.

The first statement above is an example of rhetoric. The second is merely lying. While some people may not understand the difference between rhetoric and lying, it’s a difference as enormous as the one between ethyl and methyl alcohol. You don’t have to understand it for it to make you blind.

If I was late for work, and someone asked me whether I got there on time, I could say (1) Just a few minutes late, or (2) I was really trying to get here on time, and suddenly there was all this traffic. Both answers are trying to do something different. In answer (1) the phrase “just a few minutes” tries to diminish the amount of time. In answer (2) the phrase “all this traffic” combined with “suddenly” emphasizes the idea that some outside, uncontrollable force prevented me. With each answer, I want the listener to believe that (1) my lateness is not that important, or (2) I’m not really at fault.

Each of the answers above is basically “yes” I was late, so neither is a lie, yet the speaker also wants to persuade the listener of something. Choosing words to persuade someone is rhetoric. We are particularly aware of the use of rhetoric by our politicians. Yet all humans choose words this way, because we all want to persuade people to think certain things and to do certain things. Using rhetoric is a natural aspect of being human. Talk to any four-year-old if you’re not sure of this.

We may not like the rhetoric of politicians, but using it is, after all, human. Even a “plain spoken” politician is using their own kind of rhetoric: Look how straightforward my language is. That must mean it’s especially honest, and you can trust me even more.

Let’s take some examples of rhetoric from our contemporary politics. In the past year, we’ve begun to hear the phase “alt-right” to refer to particular attitudes. Alt-right is a fairly innocuous-sounding phrase, as if it might be merely a particular variation (or alternative) of rightwing, or conservative views. In reality, however, it refers to racism and white supremacy, which is not conservative, but choosing a new name to sound more innocent is a rhetorical act.

Another example of rhetoric that came up in the past week was when Kellyanne Conway, an advisor to President Trump, was asked about the White House claim of historically large crowds attending the inauguration. The claim was easily shown to be false, but instead of admitting what was obvious, Conway said the spokesman was using “alternative facts”. This phrase makes it sound as if the actual facts were not clear, as if, perhaps, there was disagreement over interpretation. In essence, however, Conway was using a nonsense phrase, because the reality about crowd size was so visible. She was not exactly lying, but she was clearly avoiding the truth.

These two examples, “alt-right” and Conway’s language, show why so many people hate rhetoric. It is often used to try to hide reality, to avoid admission of the truth, and so rhetoric begins to seem like a way of being dishonest. Perhaps we can say that a politician may do one of three things: tell the cold truth, use rhetoric to hide what is being said, or tell a lie. But maybe it’s not so simple.

Let’s look at two further examples, also from our current politics. Back during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump said that after 911, Muslims in New Jersey were celebrating on rooftops. Then people investigated, and this claim was shown to be very obviously wrong. There was no mixed evidence. It was not a case of some people said one thing, some said another. It was not a question of interpretation. It was just wrong, but Trump continued to say it.

Then in the past week, Trump has said that up “five million illegal votes” were cast, and that not a single one of those votes (which would have been cast in secret) went to him. No one—including Republican Secretaries of State—has supported the idea that millions of illegal votes were cast. It is just wrong, but Trump continues to say it.

When something has been shown conclusively to be false, one possibility is that the person who continues to repeat it may be mysteriously uninformed of what most people know. Another possibility is that the person might be an incredible liar who doesn’t care.

There is a third possibility. A person who continues to repeat what is known to be wrong might be mentally incapable of recognizing reality. Maybe Donald Trump is not lying, as people are saying. Perhaps he is either remarkably uninformed, or he is so unhinged from reality that he doesn’t know what is real, and he believes what he is saying.

Either way, lucky America.

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Filed under Language

Five Hundred Miles From the Ocean

wine and cheese

Hey, you need a poet here

Three days in a row last week I went to poetry readings where I stood and read poems that I wrote all by myself, poems with mystery, pathos, and commas. Lots of commas. I think a profusion of pausing adds to the pathos.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that such a chain of readings will never happen to me again. For the only time ever, I read poetry in public three days in a row. That’s kind of like a world premiere, isn’t it? I mean, if a world premiere involved very, very few people, and those few spread out over several days. Plus one place had cats.

The highlight was day three, when I had the opportunity to spread my tiny wings and fly around the room chirping repeatedly. Once a month the Unitarian church in Atlanta (the big one with the circular meeting space) sponsors an event called Wine, Cheese, and Spoken Word, with a featured poet. This month, while other folks took care of the wine and cheese, I supplied the words as the featured poet.

I’ve known for quite a while that I was going to do the reading, so I had time to make necessary preparations, such as writing some poems. I knew this event would involve about a 20-minute reading, then a short open mic, then another 20-minute reading. Several weeks ago when I was thinking about this, around the time of the winter solstice, it occurred to me to use the solstice as an inspiration. So I decided that with two sets of reading, I’d do the first half as poems of darkness, and the second set as poems of light, moving from darkness to light, as if my poems were the solstice and I was, hmm, what would that make me, the earth tilting on its axis, I guess.

I was pretty pleased with that idea, and as it happens I have plenty of poems that lurk in the darker side of life as well others that celebrate the light. I like to have variety in my writing, or else I get bored doing it. When I’m doing a reading, I also think of it somewhat as putting on a show. It’s not just reading, it’s performing. (Whether or not I’m actually good as a performer would be another question entirely.) To enhance the performance—in my eyes—I wore a black shirt for the first half, then I changed to a white shirt for the second.

Speaking honestly—and I don’t plan to keep that up—I can say that I didn’t particularly look forward to doing the reading. I didn’t exactly mind it, I wasn’t the slightest bit nervous, and when I finally stood up in front of people, I actually loved it. And yet, strangely enough, I didn’t really want to do it. I don’t think I can explain that dichotomous psychological phenomenon.

I did have sense enough to use the event to push the two books I’ve put out, as much as I’m ever going to push anything. On the stairs I set up the posters of the two book covers, and I had a few copies of the books on a table for sale. It was my friend who organized the event, however, who suggested that I read a few pages from the short story collection, and after I had finished reading she stood up and promoted both books more than I would feel comfortable doing.

On the whole, it seemed like a decent night. I tried to read with a little bit of flair, and I sold a few books and signed a few books. At the end, no one offered to carry me around the room on their shoulders with tears of joy streaming down their faces, so . . . I don’t know. I guess people liked it well enough. And there was the black and white shirt change. Let’s not forget that.

I’ll end this by throwing in a verse from one of the darkness poems (called “The Cost of Music”):

Lucinda is deeply afraid of tidal waves,
the way they thunder in suddenly and nothing escapes.
Although she lives five hundred miles from the ocean,
she says not all waves are made of water.

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Filed under How We Create Magic, Not Real Poetry

Being a Writer!

man pushing a boulder up a hill

The writing process

Because I took off a day here and there, or because of holidays, I haven’t gone to work (I mean the one where I get paid) five days in a row for the last month. Which is how it should be. This isn’t the Middle Ages, damn it, and we shouldn’t be working more than four days a week.

With all that lovely time off, I’m so dedicated to my writing craft that when I wasn’t sleeping, or thinking about sleeping, or eating, or staring out the window, I was assiduously working on the current novel. Man, I was like a serf with a pencil.

It was fortunate to have an opportunity to work for uninterrupted hours, as I had reached a point where the book I’m revising required analyzing what I have and how I want to move forward. I’m taking the current text, cutting it into random pieces, and rearranging them to tell a somewhat new story.

I’m also throwing away at least half of what is already written, so much of the second half of the book will be entirely new. Given this much change, there was a lot to think about. Most importantly, I wanted to think about the pacing of events. If a dramatic interaction between two characters is moving the action forward, but it ends before the book is over, what is the reason to keep reading?

Well, why don’t I just figure that out before I write the book for a change? So I worked on all this, and you’re probably bored just reading about it. Imagine doing it. It was exceeding tedious. If anyone tells you how much fun it is to write, how the writer just sits there throwing off sparks from inspiration, you can say to them, “Liar, liar, sings in the choir.”

I have the impression—maybe I’m wrong—that some people are natural story tellers and plots just pop into their head. I’m certainly not like that. It takes me tremendous effort and thought and rethinking and at least one nap and two snacks to work out a story. OK, more than one nap.

But at last I rolled that stone up the hill and shoved a log in front of it, so it stayed there, and I was able to get back to the “writing” part of the writing, the part that has some pleasure in it, using words, creating things. I’ll give a little sample below of what I did this week. This is a flashback scene in which the protagonist, who is mostly in her 70s during the book, visits her father’s grave and remembers being 14. The work below is still just a first draft, but I’ll show you anyway.


Eve looked at her father’s side of the grave and vague images of his funeral floated through her mind. She thought about their life above the hardware store, near the downtown square where she had just been driving, and she thought about the girl who she had been then, the serious girl who read so much, who studied hard, but who also liked to go to movies. Her father had always freely given her money to go to movies, and a memory of telling him about one of her favorite movies came to her as she stood in the cemetery.

They had just finished dinner, of pork chops, cornbread, and green beans. Richard Elfweather had taken one last small piece of cornbread to eat with sorghum syrup, as he liked to finish off a meal with something sweet. “Did you like the movie?” he asked.

“It was so funny!” Eve exclaimed. “You should go see it.” She had just been with Amy to see the new Marx Brothers movie, A Night at the Opera.

“Maybe I will,” her father said. He always said that, but he never went to movies.

“You know who they are, don’t you? Harpo never says anything, he just blows a horn.”

“Then why isn’t he called Horno?”

Eve laughed and said, “He plays a harp, too. That’s why he’s Harpo.”

Eve stood a few more minutes looking at the grave, then went back to her car. She was going to go home and call Lucette, to see if she would come over in the evening. It would be good to see a friend.

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