And Then the Cat Jumped on Those Hounds

ancient Greek bard

Tell us the story of sushi

Last week I was telling someone about going downtown to ride the giant Ferris wheel here in Atlanta, and she commented on how I tell stories. By coincidence, a few days later I was talking to a woman who I met recently, and  to my great surprise, it turned out we know people in common who are devoted storytellers. I mean they are serious about it and attend events at which people get up and tell stories, and they’ve even induced me to attend a few times.

On the subject of telling stories, I’m just now finishing the draft of a revised novel (called Birds Above the Cage). While working on the revision, I spent a great deal of effort on how the story moved along, thinking about whether the dramatic moments came too soon, and so on, what I thought of as pacing. If you think about it, what is pacing? It’s an element of storytelling.

I’ve given examples here of telling a story in a personal conversation, of getting up in front of people to intentionally tell stories, and of treating the flow of a novel as telling a story. People love stories, and both children and adults will sit enthralled to hear a story well told. If we go way back in time to Homer’s Odyssey, in addition to the book being a story, there are multiple scenes of someone telling a story to a group that sits quietly listening. Storytelling is so important to fiction that modern fiction is often categorized as to what type of story is told, what we call genre. Thus we have detective novels, romance, science fiction, and so on, but no matter what type of fiction a person writes, even if the story doesn’t fit one of the common genre categories, telling a story is important.

I don’t think I’m a natural storyteller. With a lot of effort, I can do it (as in the last book of short stories I put out, I’d Tear Down the Stars). Maybe I’ve listened to too many stupid cliches about the south, about how people down here are natural storytellers, sitting on the wide front porch, mint julep in hand: “Did ah tell yall ‘bout the time the hounds got loose?” I’ve been led to think that for some people telling stories must be easy, maybe, but it’s hard as hell for me.

Why do people like stories? Important disclaimer here: I don’t actually know anything. If you’re looking for real knowledge, maybe you should stop here and get back to watching Homer Simpson videos. But here’s what I think:

1) It’s just entertainment. A story can pass the time. That was part of the appeal when the bards of Homer’s time told the stories that eventually became the Odyssesy, and it’s the same reason TV shows like “Breaking Bad” become so popular.

2) Perhaps as a variation on entertainment, storytelling may meet a desire for titillation or prying into someone else’s life. To use another ancient example, Oedipus killed his father and married his mother (go find a modern story to match that for straightup weird and icky), or from Victorian novels, how about Rochester’s insane wife locked in the attic? I’m gonna guess that both Oedipus and Rochester didn’t want anybody knowing about that.

3) Though we are mostly not conscious of the fact, I think stories often meet our need for somehow making sense of the world, our need for mythology. So we tell stories both to shape events and to interpret them in ways that allow us to understand our chaotic world a little more.

And here’s a story to finish up:

I first heard of sushi when I lived in California, so long ago Bruce Springsteen was still new. My wife went one day with friends to San Francisco, then came home and told me about this sushi thing, and I thought, well, it will be a cool and pleasant day in Hell before I eat raw fish, by God. Yet last week I emailed a friend here in Atlanta and told her I was in the mood for sushi, something I now love so much I’d eat it once a week if I could afford it, so there we were at the Mall of Georgia, waiting forty minutes for a table at a place where the sushi rolls were as big as footballs, and I’m only exaggerating some. While we were waiting, we walked over to a beef jerky store, and I never imagined there could be such a plethora of dried, flavored meat in one small store. The owner even said he sometimes has alligator and kangaroo, but sadly was out of both. Something they did have, however, was novelty items—are you ready?—of packs of insects. Now in recent years, I have thought about whether I’d eat insects on purpose, and I thought “OK, crickets, maybe. Really really fried.” But one thing I knew I’d never, ever eat, swear on a pickup truck full of holy Bibles, was fucking larvae. Jeeesus, who would even think . . . but I had had a couple of glasses of wine at my friend’s house before we went out. So there I was picking up a pack of “Larvets” thinking Hmmm. It said they were fried, so I bought them, because everything is OK fried, right? On Tuesday back home, with a cold beer, like the bold adventurer that I am, I picked up one of those challenging little critters, trying not to think about what it actually was, and crunched it up. It had a remarkably close flavor to potato chips, so I ate them all. I’d probably do it again.

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I Am Definitely Doing This, Right After I Take a Nap

geese flyingNo matter when I write, I’m distracted. If I continue to write, I become more focused and less distracted, but never entirely. When I first sit down, however, no matter what I’m writing, or when I write, even if I’m not writing late in the evening when I’m tired—which I almost always am—at first I really don’t want to do it.

I can imagine someone who isn’t a writer, but who knows I am, saying to me, “So you enjoy writing” and I would have to think Hmm, not exactly. To say that we want something is complicated. I can, for instance, really, really want to see the play that’s being performed at a theater downtown, and just as much I can want to sit quietly on the couch and not drive through the rain to the theater.

We can want many things that all contradict one another. The essayist Montaigne even refers to this dichotomy of desire, because it is, after all, a basic fact of human psychology. I want to lose weight and eat half of this apple pie, at the same time.

So if I say I want to write, that’s absolutely true, probably more true than almost any other fact about me. I do want to write. Yet I can walk down the street “wanting to write” without being bothered by the actual writing process at that moment. I can walk along thinking that the hero in my book will be good and kind except with a harmful flaw of jealousy. It’s easy to think such a thing without having to write sentences that I will then look at and think “Well, that’s stupid”.

I noticed several times in the past week that fairly often when I stood up from my desk, within seconds my mind shifted to thinking about something I was writing, either the novel or a poem. As I walked down the hall to the restroom, I was thinking about how to handle a scene in the book, and when I got back to my desk, sat down, and looked at the computer screen, suddenly I was back to thinking about what the proper abbreviation for spondyloarthritis is in the medical journal I work for.

As a general rule, during free moments in the day, it’s fairly easy to ponder what I’m writing, and to wish I was home doing it, instead of having a job. It’s easy, that is, to think about writing. I’ve known a number of people who apparently think about it as well, based on their declarations that they write, or want to write, or at least think about being a writer.

Actually doing it, though, sitting down to the cold fact that there must be a first word (Summer), followed by a second word (geese), until a full sentence has been created (had gathered on the pond, ready to head south), that’s only one sentence, and that felt like work. I mean, why geese? Why a pond? And consider all the possibilities that have been lost because of that sentence. Before it was written, everything in all of time and space was available, but now that one sentence says that we’re near a pond at the end of summer. That’s a lot less than all of time and space. The very act of writing seems to limit the options.

Thus when I say that I want to write, what I mean is something like “I’m compelled to do this, I realize that, and I accept it.” Whether I like doing it is not relevant.

So every evening, often when I’m tired, I sit down at the computer, where I tell myself I’m going to write—after I check email, read a couple of news articles, look to see where the Gipsy Kings are from because I’m listening to their music, go get a bowl of nuts for a snack, check a different email account, make a note to email someone tomorrow, and look to see which town Van Morrison was born in because . . .

Eventually, late, I do finally slip into the writing, until at last I’m in that world, the one I’m creating, and there comes a point where I do rather enjoy it. Summer geese had gathered on the pond, ready to head south. As they flew over the interstate and past the mall, they moved back through time, landing finally beside a lake where the Aztec priest had said a city was to be built.

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I Believe Myself, Sometimes

earth from space

What is that?

Now that it’s fairly easy to look things up on the internet (i.e., most of the people you know stopping a conversation dead in a restaurant to look up some trivial, unnecessary fact), why do people believe so many things that are wrong? I read an article this past week talking about why, and the article used as a context the shrieking psychotic clusterfuck that constitutes contemporary American politics. From the article, we can see that instead of reacting to politics by saying “Aaaaaaaaah!!” and banging our head on the wall, we can instead say “What is the foundation for other people’s knowledge?” The origin of knowledge is called epistemology, in case you wanted that word.

Some interesting examples of alternative facts were in the article. Why do some people believe we need to spend billions of dollars to build a wall on the Mexican border, when illegal immigration has gone down, more people are returning to Mexico than are coming here, and most illegal immigrants work hard and add to our economy? Or why do so many people oppose eating genetically modified organisms when there is no evidence that they are harmful and the potential benefits are so huge, such as nutritional benefits and using fewer pesticides?

Why don’t we all just seek out real facts to the best of our ability, and go with them? Before I proceed with the factual part of this discussion, I have a philosophical answer: we don’t necessarily like facts. There’s a Russian proverb that says something like “would you rather be happy or would you rather have the truth?” Umm, let me think a minute.

Part of the truth is that none of us are walking around with pure facts, the way we think we are. But I want to make a point here first, so let’s consider an important question: how do you know the earth is round? Did you personally fly or sail around it? If you did, fine, but most of us did not, and yet we still think it’s round. We have trusted people who did fly or sail around it to tell us. We know it is round because of language.

But Ah! some will say, now we have photographs from space, and we can look at it and see that it’s round. OK. I’ve attached a space photo of the earth to this blog entry. Look at it. Now look out the window. Looks the same, doesn’t it? The only way you know that’s a photo of the earth is because someone told you. You know it because of language.

So follow this chain of logic for a moment: (1) much of our knowledge—like the earth being round—comes from communication, (2) most communication is through language, (3) and language is inherently rhetorical. Therefore, much of our knowledge comes from a process that is not based on pure reporting of truth, but rather it’s a process that is shaped by attempts at persuasion (i.e., rhetoric).

One of the basic aspects of rhetoric is that the person using language must be trusted by the audience, or no communication will take place. As I would sometimes tell my students, at the moment you start to speak, in terms of being trusted, what you actually know doesn’t much matter. It’s what the audience believes you know that matters. If they trust you, and if they think you know what you’re talking about, they will listen—whether those things are true or not.

Over time, you may change what the audience believes about you, and you may affect how much they trust you, but at any given moment, what the audience already believes is critically important as to whether it’s possible for communication to take place.

Our use of language has a profound effect on what we think we know. And whether we seriously look for true information, judging and considering our sources, looking for verification of facts, or whether we just lazily wash along in the river of what our friends believe, our knowledge is not just about what we know, but about what we choose to believe. “Knowledge” is less about truth than about belief. We have caught some fish from the river, but there are others that swam away without us knowing about them.

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It Depends on So Much

Signs saying "no"

Until they say yes

A tiered cake stood on one end of the table, and on the top tier were two figures, decorated cookies perhaps, looking a bit like cartoon characters. Written on the cake was the phrase “It all depends”. There were also other cakes on a table that ran ten or twelve feet, heavy laden with food: tiny ham biscuits, pimento cheese sandwiches, platters of fresh vegetables with dip, candied nuts, more pimento cheese sandwiches with bacon (now that’s a brilliant idea), rolled up sandwiches of some sort, and still more.

This spread was laid out to celebrate my friend, Anna Schachner, who has just published a novel called You and I and Someone Else from Mercer University Press.

The celebration of Anna’s book was sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book, held at the Decatur library, an event that began in the small theater downstairs, then moved over to the meeting room, with the cake, and did I mention pimento cheese with bacon?

I’ve known Anna since 1990, when we were both English grunts teaching at Dekalb College, and we were both reading stacks of fiction submissions for the literary magazine Chattahoochee Review. Since then I’ve gone on to whatever in the world it is I’ve been doing, while Anna stayed at the college and eventually became the editor of the magazine. In the twenty-seven years that I’ve known Anna, I’ve watched her work and struggle, writing, then writing more, then writing more, going through multiple literary agents (you know, the people who “help” writers). It has taken a while, but her book is now out there.

Quite a nice crowd showed up to fill the theater on Tuesday, and it was good to see Anna get such recognition. Other writers also came, of course, and on the stage with Anna were two writers who some people will recognize, Joshilyn Jackson and Karen Abbott. As it happens, Anna, Joshilyn, and Karen have helped one another as a writing group, and—here’s an interesting little factoid—Anna and Joshilyn are planning to each a class together at a prison.

For the book event, Joshilyn introduced Anna and Karen, and Karen then interviewed Anna about the novel that has just been published. They both had microphones, which were totally not working, and I wondered how it was the people running the event were looking at the stage without making a move to fix that.

So I couldn’t hear that well, but I was gratified to hear Anna describe some of the creation of this book, which went through multiple iterations over fourteen years. She described it beginning as multiple short pieces, which then turned into connected short stories, and finally into a novel. The book that I’m now revising (which I first began twenty years ago) has done some similar things, also gradually drawing together more and more tightly into a coherent story. I felt a little justified to hear Anna describe her long-birthing book that is now before the world.

After the interview we all stood up and mingled a bit. I was surprised to see my friend Lamar York, who started the Chattahoochee Review, as I knew Lamar had driven four or five hours down from North Carolina, where he now lives. I knew quite a few people, mostly faculty or former faculty from the two schools I used to be associated with, who had come to help Anna celebrate.

I also took the opportunity to introduce myself to Joshilyn Jackson and talk to her for a minute, something I had intended to do if I ever had a chance, as I reviewed one of Joshilyn’s books for a local arts website a few years ago. In addition, I had a brief chat with Karen Abbott, so I was rubbing shoulders with the gentry, and I offered to go outside and watch their horses if they wanted me to.

For the kind of literary fiction that I write, Anna is the only person I know who does that type of writing as seriously as I do it. After watching her try so long and hard, I’m glad I was here in Atlanta to see her sit on a stage and talk about her book. You go, girl.

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The Final Point of View

Greek vase painting

Third person: He decided that being naked was better than wearing armor.

An airplane was flying above a river in the book I was reading a couple of weeks ago, and the pilot was shooting at two people on the river. The chapter ended with him shooting. Before I read on later to find out what happened, I was thinking these two characters in the canoe can’t be killed, because they’re so important that the author has let us be inside their mind in earlier chapters.

Most fiction is written from one of two points of view, or “person” to use the technical term. When it is written as if a person is directly telling it to you (I ordered a piece of lemon pie and winked at the waitress), we call it first person. When it is written as if the narrator is describing someone else, using he or she or they, we call that third person (she wondered why the weird guy winked at her when he ordered the pie). There is also the rare and usually awkward second person (you walk into the diner and see a lemon pie in the glass case, and you think about how your mama used to make it).

The book I was reading was in third person, as we watched the plane fly overhead and turn around to come back, but to say that something is written in third-person is to drastically oversimplify the possibilities. In the real world, for instance, I can talk about someone who is standing beside me or someone across the room or someone living in another city, and I can talk about someone who I know very well or who I’ve just seen.

So when the bullets began to hit the water, the author could have put me inside the plane, in the canoe on the water, or standing on shore. I could also have been simply watching, or I could know what a character was thinking.

I’ll categorize four possible types of “third person” point of view. 1) Omniscient from a distance: the story can talk about someone as if looking at them and in the next paragraph talk about what’s happening across town. 2) Omniscient up close: the reader can be told things the character doesn’t know, but the narrative follows the character around and stays right with that character. 3) Not omniscient, but physically close to the character: this is like a camera with a close-up, so that the reader can only experience exactly what the character experiences, but we’re outside the character’s head. 4) Inside the character: now we are inside the character’s head, listening to their thoughts and feelings.

These third-person points of view can be extremely different from one another, and they can even be mixed in ways I’m not getting into. Here in the tedious real world where we while away the hours, we actually only know in depth what’s in our own head (if even that), and as much as we might want to, we can’t normally watch people when they’re not around. Through the magic of fiction, however, woohoo! I’m inside your brain while you’re thinking about . . .  whoa! I’ll just back on out of there.

One of the things a writer is able to do is leap about among all these possibilities. In the last book I wrote, for instance (The Invention of Colors), I had chapters in third person talking about one character, alternating with first-person chapters where a second character narrated, saying “I did this and I did that”. This was no great innovation on my part, as I read books like that years ago.

It’s also possible, working only in third person, to be very close to one character for a while, follow them around, then suddenly move to another character, who is now looking at the first one. I’ve been in multiple writing groups where the advice is to avoid doing that. When such advice is offered with a justification, such as “you’ve made the story too confusing to know what’s happening”, then it is good advice.

Oftentimes in a writing group, however, the admonition not to shift point of view is given as if it were a rule in a Soviet prison camp. This Is What You Must Not Do. Lucky Leo Tolstoy that he lived before that time, as he often broke the rule. Maybe he never belonged to a writing group. Of course, if the writer does shift around on the point of view, readers are free to hate it, and such shifts can, in fact, be jarring. But also interesting.

In the book I was reading, with the potential killer in the airplane, I realized my reasoning was wrong that a character could not die because the writer had allowed us inside a character’s head. Although my reasoning was wrong, in that case, fortunately, the bad guy missed, the people in the canoe were OK, and later in the book the evil pilot crashed his plane.

Nevertheless, some writers will let you experience a character’s thoughts—and then kill the character. I think at some point in the past I even read a book where we were inside the character’s head at the very moment of death. That’s pushing the envelope.

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Control-Alt-Swagger

Zeus on a throne

Who took my mouse?

Perhaps you’re aware of the literary/cultural phenomenon called “steampunk” that plays with alternative histories. Steampunk is influenced by Victorian culture and assumes that technologies such as steam power continued to be developed.

It occurred to me that if we took the internet and placed it back in ancient Greece, we might start a “stonepunk” phenomenon. Of course if the internet had existed, then Zeus, being the egomaniac he was, would have been sending out angry tweets about himself all day long.

Actually, all of the Greek gods were egomaniacs. That’s how the Greeks conceived of them. And as egomaniacs, if they’d had the internet, they probably would have all had a blog. That is, I’m not saying that everyone with a blog . . . Anyway, because I can travel through time and space in ways mere mortals cannot, I obtained copies of some of the Olympian blog entries.

Apollo
Twice recently I’ve arrived at Mount Olympus to find all the other gods there, and no one was saying anything. What could I think but that they stopped talking when they saw me coming? I think they were trying to have a meeting without me. What does that mean? I’ve known for centuries that most of them are jealous of me, and if I were on their level, I’d be jealous, too. I wonder if they’re conspiring, if something is happening that I’m not being told about. I wouldn’t put it past any of them, not even my sister, so I’m watching them closely.

Ares
As if we don’t have enough trouble on Mount Olympus, with the stupid squabbles that go on nonstop, the girls have started some nonsense with the Trojans. I can see where this is going, and soon everyone will be involved, choosing sides. If it was up to me, a blazing sword of fury would be the answer to every argument. But Father Zeus doesn’t allow it, and how much does it benefit him to permit this bickering of the whining gods? If I could have my moment, it would all have a solution like red thunder.

Aphrodite
What is it with Athena and Hera and Artemis (like anybody worships her), acting like they’re beautiful, like there’s some kind of contest going on? Yes, sure, they have their particular areas, necessary no doubt, but beauty? Have they never walked by a pool of water and looked down? I think there’s a reason why somebody whose name starts with “A” and ends with “phrodite” is the goddess of beauty, and let’s don’t forget sex. I am the goddess of sex. Try doing without that.

Hephaestus
Every Body keppt telling me I should do this Blog thing, and I keppt saying whatt’s wrong with Fire and a good old Anvill, yah, something you can bang on. Whatt’s wrang with that, huh? Who wantes to look at a commputer when you could be bangging on hot metal, yah! But every Body sed no, Hephy, your the one boy, people wante to Read about whatt your doinng, you need a Blog thing. Allrite, here It is. Here’s whatt Im doing. Imm banging on hot metal. Yah!

Athena
Pardon my sublime and awesome wrath, but I’ve been wanting to say this for a long time. I hate olives. They’re bitter, they’re oily, maybe they’re good enough for humans, who will, frankly, eat dogs on occasion, but Olympian gods should not be eating olives. It’s time for Father Zeus to stop having bowls of those things sitting around. I’ve noticed, in fact, that no one but Hades eats them, and if that isn’t a clear message, then what is? Blast this blue sea, if I eat one more olive, humans are going to end up having to worship cockroaches, because I swear I’ll kill everything else.

Zeus
[Zeus had a temper tantrum on Saturday and threw 157 lightning bolts in one minute. They created a power surge that shut the internet down, so he didn’t post this week.]

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Enough Already

The Guggenheim Museum

A museum. A lake.

Let’s start with some vague, useless advice for writers: Show, don’t tell.

Charles Dickens, at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light—” Now if he had known enough to take this book to a writing critique group, someone could have said, “Hold it, Charlie, hold on. You’re telling us, dude. Show us how it was the best of times. Did people have big houses? And this age of wisdom thing. Like what? Were they making scientific discoveries, finding new moons?”

Aside from the fact that the phrase “show, don’t tell” is so abstract as to squat dumb in the corner, one of the aspects of writing that writers must frequently deal with (perhaps constantly deal with) is how much detail to give.

If I say, for instance, “The attractive woman sitting at the bar turned and looked at the man who had come in”—that sentence can be sort of interesting with its implications. But what if I say “The woman sitting at the bar, with a silk scarf around her neck, turned and looked at the man who had come in.” Does that detail with the scarf make it more interesting? Or what about “The woman sitting at the bar, wearing a silk scarf, turned and looked at the man, a slight smile crossing her face.” Is it more interesting, or does it not matter?

How much detail is right? Would it be even better to know that the bar stool where she is sitting has a back to it, that the bartender is a bald man with a diamond earring, and that the man who just came in is shaking the water off an umbrella? Do you need to know that the woman is from St. Louis, that she’s 42 years old, and her hair is dark brown? How much is enough?

This week I finished a chapter I’ve been working on for the current novel, and I’m pulling out a couple of examples to illustrate the problem of deciding how much detail to use.

In one part I have a man and woman go into the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. That’s the one designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, where the walkway spirals round and round the open center, so that you can walk from the lobby up about four or five stories. Here are possible details I could have used in describing that: the curve of the walkway around the space, the white painted interior, the vault of the ceiling, the giant glass skylight looking like a huge spider’s web, other people in the museum, the crowding, the ticket desk, the sounds of people talking, the cost of a ticket, particular paintings on the walls.

After the Guggenheim Museum, I had the couple walk about a block into Central Park, where they went up some stairs to look at the reservoir, a large lake surrounded by trees, a fairly surprising sight when you’ve just come off the helter skelter of Fifth Avenue. Here are possible details I might have used for that description: the path, trees on the other shore, standing under similar trees, size of the trees, kind of trees, other people passing by , the weather, the view of buildings on the other side, clouds or birds or planes in the sky, the wide expanse of water, light reflecting off the water.

In both instances, I used the details in italics above, but not the others. Would the writing be better with more details? I don’t know, but I had a reason for limiting them, as I wanted to move the chapter along, to keep a sense of something happening with the characters, so I didn’t want the writing to slow down into long descriptions of New York.

Part of the basis for my decision about detail was the context of how I wanted the writing to move at that point, the feeling I wanted in the scene. It was not necessary for the reader to see the Guggenheim very much, as it was the third museum my characters had been in, but the lake in Central Park was in contrast to what we had just been reading about. I wanted the reader to really see the lake and feel that contrast, so I used more description.

How much detail is enough? There is no answer. It is always a guess.

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