Monthly Archives: August 2011

Mom, We’re Bored

Lazy catThis morning I walked into the grocery store at 7 a.m. to get a cup of coffee. As a side note, I had just finished going for a run, so I was wearing a T shirt and shorts, and I thought, “Man, I look like shit” and I was a little embarrassed to go to the store like that. Then it occurred to me that I looked like nearly every man in America all day long during the summer, and no one was going to notice.

I was getting coffee to sit for a few minutes while waiting for someone, so I was killing time. Given what a precious commodity time is, always in short supply, it’s a shame that we kill it as often as we do. It would have died on its own anyway. While I sat there with my coffee, I was thinking about how we feel about free time, that we long for it and dream of it, and once we get it, we sometimes grow anxious about what to do with it. Go to Disney? Clean the garage? Sleep late?

The basic nature of life begins with the fact that everything, including us, is made out of dirt. It takes an awful lot of work to make sure that dirt remains organized and moving. Somebody needs to grow food and somebody needs to build houses, and if you’re not helping, then damn you for your laziness. It grows from this constant necessity to transform the earth that much of our existence involves work, which can be hard and boring. And in the end, no matter what, it all falls the hell apart again.

So the basic nature of life involves labor, and difficulty, and boredom. Even without the tedium of working, it takes a lot of stimulation to keep our brains content, so the white chamber of boredom is always waiting for us to step into it. In addition, even without considering the need to work, life will unavoidably bring everyone a share of disappointment and misery.

In writing this, I’m not oblivious of the fact that life is also filled with amazingly good things. I’m well aware of sex, sunsets, and supper with friends. We seek the good things—which we may or may not get—but we are guaranteed to experience the pain and boredom at some point. How we use our free time (see how I came back to that?) is not a simple thing, philosophically or physically. Far too many people are so focused on avoiding the pain and boredom of life that they will engage in a wide range of dangerous and destructive activities just for the escape: drugs, alcohol, sex with strangers, gambling, dangerous sports.

Not so destructive, but still sad, are the weirdly frantic efforts of our culture to provide us with something, anything, that might distract us for a few minutes. Over here—Charlie Sheen! Over here—Lady Gaga! Over here—every unashamed triviality on the Yahoo homepage.

To some extent, stretches of free time can horrify us. How are we going to fill that time? Maybe there’s something funny on TV. Maybe someone sent us a text. Maybe one of our friends on Facebook posted a picture of their cat. Maybe…

Or thank God we have the internet.

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Speak It Into Reality

Two men not speakingMy mother believes in prayer, which I know because she tells me on a fairly regular basis. By “believe in” I mean she believes that if you pray assiduously or fervently, or both, then the thing you ask for will eventually be granted.

The point of her telling me this, I think, is to imply that I should adopt this practice which is so beneficial and effective. Whether I agree with her religious beliefs or not, I wonder why prayer is considered necessary, when the omniscient Christian God can know everything we are thinking anyway. Why is talking to God different from simply believing and feeling when He already knows?

We have an incredible belief in the power of language. In many cases, I would even ask why so many people believe in the magical power of language? To give just one small (admittedly old) example, the ancient Egyptians believed that knowing the name of a person contained power to affect that person, so that a description of one of the early pharaohs, indicating how powerful he was, declares that even his mother does not know his name.

Magical belief regarding language is also ubiquitous. It is the basis of a belief in the real effect of both blessings and curses. For those of us who are rigidly rational in our fine modern world, blessings and curses are only symbolic of feelings. In contrast, many of our fellow humans have taken and still take such spoken sounds as having the power to change what happens in the world. There is an illustrative scene in Dostoyevsky’s novel with the grim title The Humiliated and Insulted, in which the mother long dreads the idea that the father might openly curse their daughter, and when he finally does, the mother is horrified and anguished, as though he has done physical harm.

More vividly, perhaps, as indicators of linguistic power, are magical spells. As expert witnesses on this point, I turn to the witches in MacBeth and to Harry Potter. If I really wanted to create some light here, I might try Harry’s “lumos maxima”. The idea of witches and wizards may be exaggerated in literature, but a belief in the existence of secret words to make things happen has been common throughout the world.

In a still more intense example, we find examples of language equated with the power to create all that exists. The creation in Genesis is well known, as God speaks the world into existence, but that is not the only example. There are instances in Egyptian creation myths of the deity Ptah creating the universe by speech.

Whence comes this belief in the physical power of language? Perhaps it is a strong symbolic extension, beginning in a recognition of the real power of language as we use it with one another. Even if only the Greeks invented the study of rhetoric, in every culture people would have noticed that someone who was good with words could sometimes make things happen just by talking. That’s not magic, that’s real power. If I had that power myself, I’d talk you into sending me a dollar.

And bless you, dear reader.

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Make Those People Dance

Nice shoesI’ve said in this blog that I write because I feel compelled to. It’s not just a case of an addict trembling for pen and paper, however. Sometimes writing also gives me a kind of calming relief, not simply from catharsis, using words to disgorge pain or disappointment, but as something more positive. When the writing is going well, which it is at the moment, the act of writing sometimes puts me in another, better world of art.

My point might use some background, a little landscape with a few stark trees. In the last couple of weeks I have realized I will probably not be interviewed for a job I applied for, and I was also officially informed that another I applied for was filled (I didn’t get an interview). At the same time, in the last few days I’ve been spending a lot of time looking into plans for health insurance, which I need to buy, unemployed though I be. These two examples are not everything I could talk about, but they’re enough to set the scene. I don’t intend to create a pity party blog, pouring pathos on your shoes. Those look like nice shoes.

Now that we have a little background, here’s my point. If life were to be difficult and occasionally stressful to the point of weirdness, even then, making words shape ideas, making words dance slowly or quickly or up in the air, making people walk across a page, thinking about renting a boat, remembering how their mother made a pie, or even worrying about their kids—all this can relieve the soul. Within the last couple of chapters of the new novel, I even made Benedict and Miramar dance.

I don’t think writing, as a creative activity, is unique in this way. It works for me because I’m a writer, but if I were a musician, then the key to a few hours in a better world, the one we should live in all the time, might be a saxophone or piano. For a couple of years my wife and I lived close enough to New York to take a train in for the afternoon, watch an opera, and be home by dinner time. Often, as I sat up high in the theater, waiting for the opera to start, in a perfect moment with the entire experience still before me, I would think “I should be in this world. I should not go home, not go back to work, not go back to paying bills and buying groceries. I should live in a world of art. It’s where I belong.”

And that’s true. It is where I belong, but it’s not where I live. Not by a goddamn long shot. But there are moments of sitting at the computer, watching the story develop, pleased by a clever line of dialogue, or suddenly realizing how something I did earlier just for local color can now tie in to help move the plot, when I can briefly go to that art world and escape from this one.

When I woke up this morning, intending to get up and go for a run before hurricane rains arrive, I lay a few minutes with a feeling that really there was no reason to get up at all. Then I remembered that if I work at it, I might be able to finish two more chapters this weekend. Finishing those chapters will have the basic structure of the book in place, with Benedict and Miramar having made a decision to travel toward Philadelphia in 1876, starting their trip, and simultaneously, as they go back and forth in time, Benedict will begin driving her home to California in 2011. I’m enthused about this, and it’s even fun to think about what they will do along the way in both directions, what sort of adventures they will have and characters they will meet.

So I got up, and I ran, and I will write.

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

But It’s a Real Book. No, Really.

Book manuscriptLike everyone still breathing, I have my prejudices. Years ago when I lived in New Jersey, I had a radio program on which I discussed books and writing. I don’t know why I agreed to do the show, except probably it was because I felt flattered that I was asked and I was weak enough to give in to flattery, and maybe I thought it would be kind of fun. In fact, I never really enjoyed it, to the point that eventually I found it a terrible burden—and it was only one hour a month. How pathetic is that? Obviously, radio is not my medium.

During the time I had the show, the station manager sent me an email from a writer who asked if he could come on the show to be interviewed about a book he had written. In the email the book was described, including the publisher and date. The name of the publisher was not simply listed, however, as it might have been if it were someone like W.W. Norton. Instead, the writer included a very brief addition, which I don’t recall exactly, but it was along the lines of “a standard publisher”.

As soon as I saw that, a red flag whipped up into the air. Why was I being told, in effect, that this was a normal publisher? Clearly, it must not be. So I got on the web, began searching, and soon found that this was some type of publisher for people who wanted to self publish. With my prejudice against self publishing, I said no to the writer, who could not have been too surprised. He figured I would think that way, which is why he tried to create the impression that his book was not self published.

But what is wrong with self publishing? In some ways, there is nothing wrong with it. There is certainly nothing dishonest about paying to create neat copies of your manuscript. Although there may be something dishonest about not admitting you did that. From a practical point of view, if you wish to get your book into people’s hands, self publishing comes with its own problems, as you must entirely move it and sell it yourself. With perhaps rare exceptions, the usual methods of distribution are ruled out, as distributors, bookstores, and libraries will not normally handle self-published books. But if you don’t mind figuring out how to sell it on your own, that may be fine, and with the internet, there are newer ways to try to do this.

As far as the book itself goes, is there really a difference between a self-published book and one put out by a standard publisher? In one sense, absolutely yes, there is a huge difference. When a publisher puts out a book, people other than the author have agreed that this is worth doing, and in the publisher’s case, they have even put their money where their mouth is. Before readers ever see the book, this kind of backing indicates that someone other than the author thinks it is worthwhile. We may place too much importance on that backing, but the symbolic message is there.

A self-published book, even a wonderful book that should be read, is in reality a fancy manuscript. It is, in some sense, similar to a stack of loose pages from the writer’s printer, except that the writer has paid to make the manuscript look nicer. Thus a self published book does not carry the symbolic message that someone who doesn’t even know the writer thinks the book is worth reading. That certainly does not make it a bad book, but it does make it a book that comes with a different perception.

But we are currently on a digital wave rising up to sweep us into the future, and what that literary ocean will look like, we don’t know. It will probably be very different. If I wanted, I could take the books I have now, that I struggle to find an agent for, say to hell with the money and put them directly on the web. Even if I did that, however, among the millions of websites out there, what would make anyone go to that website and read that book?

So for now I’m going to try the same route as Jonathan Swift and Herman Melville and Margaret Atwood.

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He Stopped Loving Her Today

Bar stoolsYears and years ago, about 130, I moved to Morgantown, West Virginia, leaving the Air Force to attend college, and I remember driving around Morgantown engaged in a critical investigation. Turning the dial on the car radio, I wondered just how bad the radio stations were going to be.

In the moves I’ve made during my life, about 130 from state to state, there was always an anxious question as to how bleak the musical wasteland would be. Anyplace I lived, I got to know which radio station had a blues show on Sunday evening, which station had bluegrass on Saturday morning, always searching out what I could listen to.

One of the benefits of the internet is that we are no longer condemned to listen to local radio stations. I try to care that the internet may have harmed radio, but considering the idiotic pop trash I have heard on the radio, my tears dry fast. If commercial radio gets destroyed, it is no loss. Listening to music on internet stations now, like Pandora, is like that moment in The Wizard of Oz where the black and white world suddenly changes to color. “Ohhhh, my God! There are so many kinds of music. Who are all these amazing musicians?”

So now I can listen to real country music, not that hideous shit they play on country music radio stations. No Randy Travis for me, whining maudlin patriotic lyrics that a 12-year-old could have written. No more country-radio drivel about fond memories riding around with Daddy in the pickup truck. Give me Dwight Yoakum falling off a bar stool.

I grew up with rock-n-roll, and glad of it. That music helped pull me into a bigger world. Even so, even in high school, even I knew that a lot of rock-n-roll had some of the dumbest lyrics we’ll ever hear. “Ooh, baby, wanna rock you all night.” Repeat 10 times.

Once I got over the youthful indiscretion of hating country music, and began to actually listen to it, I realized that one of the truly cool things about this music is the attention to language. Something I noticed early on is that wordplay happens frequently. This is so important, in fact, that vocal styles in country require much clearer articulation than the sometimes gargled shrieking of rock-n-roll. In country music, the words matter, and the listener is supposed to hear them.

One nice example is “She’s a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timing man” (Good Hearted Woman,Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings). With the repetition of “good” we also have the shift from “woman” to “man” and the radical change in the adjective used, going from emotion to partying.

Another clever use of language is found in “You’ve got to kiss an angel good morning, and let her know you think about her when you’re gone. Kiss an angel good morning, and love her like the devil when you get back home. (Kiss An Angel Good Morning, Charley Pride). The writer here is using both “angel” and “devil” in double meanings, with the Heaven/Hell contrast, but also using “devil” ironically as something good, to emphasize an intense erotic experience.

A fun use of irony is also in the line “I’m always here at home till closing time” (Swinging Doors, Merle Haggard). Here the writer was looking for a new way to express the incredibly common country motif of men hanging out in bars. The narrator in this song spends so much time in the bar that  he seems to have settled down there.

A different aspect of the focus on language in country music is the attention to telling stories. There is a kind of forward narrative in many country songs, so that by the end the listener finds out where the song goes. Here are a few examples:

War Is Hell (T. G. Sheppard): a young man is introduced to sex by an older woman whose husband is off at war.

Give It Away (George Strait): a man remembers the ending of his marriage, and his wife’s lack of interest in their possessions in her haste to get away from him.

Busted (George Jones): a man is desperately poor. This song almost sounds like a theme song for The Grapes of Wrath. To make the song more brilliant, the music itself has a strong Cajun influence. Go listen to it now.

The title of this blog entry, by the way, is the ultimate George Jones song, also telling a story.

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There Are Multiple Universes

Pot of soupThe first time I attended a Quaker meeting, I was with a friend in Charlotte, North Carolina, and she took me to the meeting she went to. She didn’t explain beforehand how it would go, which made it more interesting. After some socializing with other people, we went into a round room with glass windows looking out on trees, and we sat in chairs arranged in multiple concentric circles. At first everyone was very quiet. After a few minutes, they were still quiet. I wondered who we were waiting for, and I was thinking “When does it start?” Still we all sat quietly. After about ten minutes it occurred to me, with a bit of astonishment, that it had started. This was it. We were sitting in silence.

I’ve since learned that there are different kinds of Quaker meetings, and at some of them there is a preacher, or speaker, or leader—I don’t know what they’re called. I’ve never been to one of those meetings. Back here in Pennsylvania, I eventually decided that the idea of sitting silently with other people was appealing, so now I attend the Quaker meeting in town. I don’t consider myself a Quaker, just a spiritual lurker, but I go quite regularly.

Below is a poem that arrived in the Quaker meeting house. Most of the poems I’ve written in the last year or so have forced their way out of me, under compulsion from the emotions evoked by an interesting romantic relationship. Later in my bloggity career, I intend to post a few more of those poems here, but this is a Quaker post. Once I got into the bad habit of writing poetry, I wound up dashing lines about everything, as though I had loaded my pistol with a dictionary and was firing randomly.

After our meetings on Sunday mornings, many of us are in the habit of staying for soup, and from such a Sunday morning, this poem came to me.

Soup in This Universe

“There are multiple universes,” she said.

I took a spoonful of soup and thought

Maybe she knows, she’s an astronomer.

“You mean different dimensions?” I asked.

When she sat down she had spilled her soup.

I tried to explain how I always spill mine,

to make her feel more comfortable.

I probably tried too hard.

“Oh no,” she replied. “Multiple universes in this dimension.”

Why doesn’t she smile? I thought.

She seems so intense.

But I had to admit that the entire universe was an intense subject,

and if you had more than one,

well…maybe you needed to look serious when you talked about that.

I went back for more soup.

When I returned

she was saying to someone, “Our solar system is a box,

and a galaxy is another box,

so the universe is just a bigger box.”

As she spoke we were sitting in a Quaker meeting house,

which was boxy itself.

The universe,

the galaxy,

the solar system,

the Quaker meeting house—

how many boxes were we in?

Some boxes swirl with a mysterious soup of dark energy,

where space itself bends and objects can have mass but occupy no dimensions,

leaving us simultaneously mystified

and awed

and wondering

whether science is brushing its fingers across the face of God.

Other boxes are lined with stars,

creating patterns, evoking myths,

and filling our hearts with poetry and melancholy longing.

Some boxes contain tables where people sit eating soup in late autumn,

discussing the nature of God, the purpose of existence, and what time the meeting is next Sunday.

But the most perplexing box of all

is the one inside my skull,

the one that contains memories of my grandmother

standing at the stove

stirring a pot of soup.

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Filed under Not Real Poetry

Multiple Iterations

Boalsburg sunset

This morning as I was making the customary beans and rice for lunch, the song “Life in Technicolor” by Coldplay came on. At first I did only a twisty step or two over the chopped onions, but a minute into the song and I was in full-abandonment move-to-where-there’s-more-space turning and leaping to the music. I could not resist, nor attempted to. That’s when I dance, when something on the radio pulls me into it. I’m happy to dance with other people, but usually no one else is there when the call comes.

Dancing is a way to keep the soul in connection with good reasons to be in this world. Another way to benefit the soul is to leave your apartment, walk across the patio past the potted plants, and stand next to the car, looking out across the valley at the sunset as it sinks beyond the ridge you don’t know the name of.

A third way to deliver grace to the soul, if you happen to be paying for grievous sins in a past life and have come into this world as a writer, is to produce a few truly satisfying paragraphs. The last few times I have worked on the novel I’ve finished a couple of chapters that I was pleased with, in part because they seem to capture both eccentricity and joy, two things I’d like for this book to express.

I’m also noticing something about the method I find myself using, whether I will it or no. I have in mind a certain kind of style I want to use for this book, with a bit more elevated vocabulary and complexity of style than I have sometimes used. Because both expanded vocabulary and complexity of style are fairly distant from normal speech, as I write, I find that I am mostly doing neither. When I reread what I’ve written I think “Well this is plain. This is nowhere near what I wanted.”

And so I revise. But on the first expression of ideas, I cannot help it. It comes out in generally plain language (which some people would say is better, and I say “Get the hell off my blog”). What I find is that as I concentrate on just getting the plot out—not an easy thing for me, ever—I tend to use simple language.

It appears that I am writing somewhat in stages as I go over and over the text: (1) Get some plot down, (2) Do a better job with plot details, (3) Start working toward a more elegant wording and better transitions, (4) Work on more subtle character development.

The last one, character development, is not fully on the table yet. I do have some idea of what I want, and I try to work on the characters as I go. Nevertheless, the longer I write, the more I will come to know them, so it is really only fairly late in the novel-writing game, with a lot of other things in place, that I can really turn my attention to some of the little things that help give depth to a character, like speech mannerisms, habits, clothing, gestures, fears, and so on.

And I believe it is time for split-pea soup and cornbread, then back to the sublime glories of staring at a blank screen, thinking “Uh….what goes next? I need chocolate.”

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