Monthly Archives: August 2013

Of Course It Ain’t Free

three glasses of beer

Different political opinions

[This story concerns my imaginary friend Radleigh. If not for that, it would be completely true and reliable.] One afternoon during a discussion of reptiles he had seen in his neighborhood, Radleigh said, “I’ve also seen one snake. A state representative lives two doors down from me.”

“A representative?” I asked. “Aren’t those usually warm-blooded?”

“A rattlesnake,” Radleigh added. “I mean in the bad sense of that word.”

“I didn’t know there was a good sense,” I said. “I mean they’re poisonous and all.”

“Well, there’s the neutral sense of an animal that will kill you if you come near it. But our state representative is a pure politician, and when I say pure I mean guile and deceit and scrabbling for power by any possible means. Now that’s worse than even a drunk ambitious rattlesnake could hope for.”

“Rattlesnakes don’t get drunk,” I said. “They’re all underage.”

Radleigh looked at me in a way that did not signify complete respect. “Is symbolic language a problem for you?” he asked. “Are you a Baptist?”

“I know you’re trying to insult me,” I said. “And by the way, no rattlesnake has ever been elected to an office higher than mayor.”

“You’re right,” Radleigh replied. “I shouldn’t be degrading a harmless snake by associating it with the state legislature.” He paused to gather a memory. “Last year the representative who lives down the street had a party and invited all the neighbors.”

“That sounds like a very nice gesture,” I said. “Maybe you’re too critical. Was it a potluck?”

Radleigh sighed heavily, which, I should say, is a common occurrence with him. Maybe he has breathing problems. “Your innocence wears me out,” he said. “I can’t believe it’s real. It was a party about a month before an election, so it was political. I went to see what the guy was up to. Once he had a crowd, of course, he made a speech.”

“Was there free beer?” I asked.

Radleigh ignored my question and said, “He kept using the word ‘freedom’, over and over, freedom of things, freedom from things, freedom to do things. He was making this noise freedom, freedom, freedom like a robot. We were all supposed to go Yeah! I’m for that. You got my vote.”

“Yeah!” I said. “We’re Americans. Total freedom.”

“That’s right,” Radleigh replied. “I want to drive drunk past a school going 75 miles an hour with no driver’s license.”

“Oh, well,” I said, “you’d need a driver’s license.”

“To listen to our representative talk, it was obvious he thinks we’re all stupid. He even proved it by telling us how much he respects us because we’re smart people.”

“I’m flattered by that,” I said.

Radleigh waved his hand in the air. “And we’re supposed to be so stupid he could tell us anything, as long as he used the word freedom.”

“Anyway,” I said, “I’m still wondering if there was free beer.”

“No, but you’re free to think so.”


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And Don’t Forget Chick Lit

women in a garden“He had a hangdog expression, except if you hanged a dog, it would look happier than he did.” Take that sentence for style and throw in a killer who hasn’t been caught yet, and you’ve started a detective novel. Those kinds of stories have been around a while. Wilkie Collins, a friend of Charles Dickens, was a popular writer of novels (The Woman in White, The Moonstone) telling stories that we’d probably put in the detective or mystery category now. It took time for the genre of detective novels to develop, but now detectives are behind every shadowy lamp post.

There are a number of types of literature that we have names for: westerns, romance novels, horror stories, spy novels, fantasy, science fiction. And so on. Not all literature fits into these kinds of descriptions, not by a long shot, baby, and you know that if you read. But these categories of writing are so common you can go to a bookstore (while they still exist), ask for spy novels, and maybe find an entire section with just that.

As to why we have these categories, instead of just taking each book by itself for what it is—wise of you to ask, but that’s more of a psychological or philosophical question. Maybe we’re lazy. Maybe we like to know what we’re getting so we can enjoy more of it. Maybe creating categories suits our desire to put the world into categories, so that it will make sense. Because it sure doesn’t make sense in its natural state.

If you write a novel, or short story if you’re the brief type, and want to publish it, you can look in books (while they still exist) or online to see what publishers and literary agents are looking for. When you start to investigate this, you will often find lists of categories that people do, or most definitely do not, want, and if you send the wrong thing, you’ve wasted your time, your precious hopes, and possibly your money.

One of the category names—I’m not making this up—is called “literary fiction”. Now you might think that fiction and literature are the same thing. Maybe, but the phrase “literary fiction” is in common use, though it may be harder to define than what makes a cowboy novel, other than the hat.

I think of literary fiction as having at least two elements: (1) a focus on characters, trying to make them distinctive and interesting, such as Benedict and Miramar, from my last novel—simply sparkling, fascinating characters; (2) a focus on style in the writing, so that part of the pleasure in reading is enjoying the way the book is written, as the author, a veritable magician of moonshine, slides tears of whiskey down a preacher’s face, teaches the face of Washington on a dollar to smirk in a gambler’s pocket, and faces a motorcycle gang with the cool indifference of a house cat, until the reader is drunk on the pearls and peony blossoms of prose.

I’ll name a few writers who I think are in the literary fiction category: Amy Tan, Isabelle Allende, Ann Patchett, Kate Atkinson, Milan Kundera, Leo Tolstoy, and Charles Dickens. These are some of the people who inspire and provoke me, who make me want to write just like them, except in my own way. When I go agent begging, which I do from time to time, I look for those agents who are willing to represent literary fiction, in addition to things they can actually sell.

Recently here in Georgia I frittered away entire handfuls of time looking for a fiction critique group, until I finally joined one over in Athens, a mere 45-minute drive from here. I was enthused to finally locate a group, as I had more trouble than I was supposed to while looking in Atlanta. I found groups that were too far away, or they were focused on science fiction or poetry, or they wouldn’t reply to email, damn them. Always something.

It has been my experience that it takes time to get accustomed to a writing group, and it takes them time to get accustomed to a new writer. I admit I also felt a little cranky with the apparent attitude that I needed to be taught how to write (such as several explanations—who would need more than one?—of the banal phrase “show, don’t tell”). In fairness, though, people there don’t know me. They don’t know what my experience is, assuming one could not judge ability by the piece I submitted. They were honestly trying to help me.

Of greater concern is the fact that more than one person told me “don’t do X” and I sat quietly thinking I’ve just spent the last few days reading Isabelle Allende, and she is doing exactly what you say not to do. No one in this group seems to read literary fiction, and no one writes it, except for one person who wasn’t there. I’ve only been critiqued by the group once, but from that single experience, I had the impression that no one understood what I’m trying to do. Which is not to say I can’t use help.

I will give this group some time. I try hard to be open to criticism, because every needs it, even Shakespeare (Willie, that cannibal thing in “Titus Andronicus”, that could go). I want help with the writing, and I’m certainly going to write literary fiction, so I hope people in this group will give me criticism within the context of what I’m attempting. Otherwise I might have to hire a detective to locate another group.

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Why, It’s Just Beautiful

Rubens painting of Venus

Venus at a Mirror
by Peter Paul Rubens

I’m in the basement of a university dormitory, in a former apartment currently serving as an office for a construction company. This “office” space is cluttered with equipment, including my own equipment for collecting air samples. I’m collecting the samples outside of areas in the dorm where asbestos is being removed. (And while my samples are running I have time to sit in the office and write unnecessary things like a blog entry.)

The three floors above me in this dorm have been partially gutted, with walls knocked out. Every floor is fairly dark, although temporary lights have been hung, everything is incredibly dirty with a fine dust, wires are hanging down here and there, and—for me, anyway—there is a general ambiance of creepy dangerousness. It’s quite ugly.

But what is ugly? Or to look at this in the other direction, what is beautiful? I would guess that because vision is the most compelling of our senses, for the majority of people, the words “beautiful” and “ugly”, in whatever language you want, originated as descriptions of things that were visible. Only later, I think, did those words transfer as metaphors to non-visual things, like sounds or ideas.

I don’t know for a fact that there are universal perceptions of beauty among all humans, but my strong feeling is that there are. Maybe there’s psychological research that says I’m wrong, but if there is, then that research is just ugly. My guess is that you could take pictures of beautiful women, handsome men, flowers, or sunsets over waterfalls, and carry those pictures around the world, from London to the Amazon, and you’d get a lot of agreement on beauty.

And yet, like most things humans do, our brains get to working on it, and there also seems to be a cultural element in perception of beauty. When we see the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens, a Flemish painter who lived 1577-1640, we find idealized images of women who are much heavier than the ideal for western society of the early 21st century. Whether Rubens represented a common image of what a beautiful woman should look like, or whether this was only his personal taste does not matter, as the paintings show an image of beauty that differs from the modern western norm.

We can also find striking examples more in keeping with the filthy dark building above me.

industrial painting

by Günter B. Voglsamer

From the Renaissance on, and into the 19th century, beautiful paintings tended to be along the lines of the sunsets over waterfalls I mentioned above. Toward the end of the 19th century, however, as industrialization spread, painters began to incorporate that reality into their paintings. Are those paintings beautiful?

Aristotle said that it pleases us to see a skillful artistic rendering of an object that in reality we wouldn’t like. I think he’s right, and I think that idea can also be found in literature, when we take pleasure from reading about things that in reality would repel or horrify us, such as murder mysteries, or humor (the novel Confederacy of Dunces, Shakespeare’s character Falstaff, or the Russian humor novel The Twelve Chairs).

Perhaps I got a little off the topic of beauty there. Slap my hand. I was going on to say that visual depictions in the 20th century also moved into abstract paintings that are astounding in their ugliness—but there are many people who disagree and like them. As ugliness I might cite Jackson Pollock (yeah, I know, slap my hand twice), but he’s merely dull compared to some painters. There are things hanging on museum walls that looks like someone dynamited a dog. Maybe they did. Yet there are people who like it.

So I think some of those people could come here, put on the bright orange vest and hard hat and walk upstairs with me, and they would admire the spareness of the empty walls, the range of shadows in the dark rooms, the evocation of modern industrial life.

Or would they like this because it’s ugly? It may be that looking at such things as cultural variations on how we perceive beauty is misleading, because much of modern art is not seen as beautiful even by the admirers. There is a wide, and correct, perception, that modern art, the “serious” stuff, is often ugly. crazy peopleMaybe we are not seeing a shift in what is beautiful, but instead an expression of a cultural sickness, an admiration of ugliness by a damaged culture.

Possibly someday people will look back at us and say “what a fucked up culture”. And all we can do is nod our heads and say, no doubt enthusiastically, “yes, we are”.


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Not So Much a Process As Floundering

man drowning

This is how I write

Prior to the substantive, meaningful discussion that I’m sure I’ll get around to somewhere down below, unless I have another glass of wine, this blog train is running for a while on unsused track overgrown with weeds, with an old red dog standing off to the side watching, while a boy up on a hill starts down through the pine trees toward a creek where he knows minnows live…

Hmm, wasn’t I going somewhere with that? Come to think of it, no. Except we can use the part about pine trees. I drove farther south a few days ago, down through a part of the state where the soil grows sandy and groves of pine trees line the roads. The ones I saw were sort of strange trees, quite tall, very skinny, and with greenery only at the top. It’s almost as if they’re a form of really ambitious grass. I drove past those trees to the town of Statesboro, to Georgia Southern University, to work a couple of days collecting air samples.

A long, long time ago, 40 years exactly, or 41, even more exactly, I was briefly a student at Georgia Southern College (they changed to a university later). I left and went to another school, also briefly, and then into the Air Force. I was recently told that Georgia Southern University has a reputation as a heavy party school, and after seeing the town, I see why. What else are students supposed to do there except drink and have sex? I mean, they could study, but c’mon, seriously.

The rambling nonsense above, with which I plan to litter the internet in a few minutes, is a deviation from my normally methodical, rational process of writing. My writing processs is my real topic here, so that stuff up above, ruining the page, that’s just introduction. And I was joking about “rational”, but you knew that.

When I’m not pouring out inscrutably hopeless drivel (think “blog”), when I’m trying to fool people into believing I’m a serious writer, working on a novel or short story, I actually write very slowly. For literary writing, the things that come from my heart and more than my heart, the ideas for that writing are always with me, occurring at odd moments during the day, yearning, pulling me to write, even when I have no time, or I’m tired, or just feeling lazy.

I do write slowly, and sometimes I’m a little surprised by how slowly. How can someone who creeps out word after word, as I do, have written five novels (two of them lousy)? By living a long time I guess. When I sit to write, and I’ve sat there for an hour and I’ve only added five or six sentences, I sometimes think “how the hell am I going to write an entire novel?” But I know how—word by word by word, eventually you get there if you keep at it. It’s true.

I was going to say something about the process. Wasn’t that my topic? In spite of the fact that I’m so slow and methodical, which I really am, I’ve learned that no matter what I write, later I’ll read it and think “Ewww, this isn’t very good.” I’ll rewrite it. I know that, so I’ve come to think of whatever I write as very rough, like a piece of wood fresh from the saw. It needs shaping, it needs polishing, it needs varnishing. It seems to me that it simply isn’t possible to write beautiful, polished writing without lots of revision. For me, anyway.

What I seem to do, on a first pass, painfully, is eke out a basic story line, and that already ain’t easy. I figure out how to move a character into a boat. With second and third readings I try to smooth out the clumsiness of the writing, so that it somewhat makes sense, and the character knows how to use a boat and they aren’t sailing out into bad weather. Eventually, I begin to shift attention to making the text read as if a writer with skill and linguistic sensibility had been in the room, and waves flutter across the surface of the water, like birds that appear, then sink, then reappear, as the sun widens into orange and pink profusion in the west.

It takes forever. I don’t really know why I do it. And yet there are moments, however rare, that are like being in love, that tell me “this is why you’re here”. Maybe that’s why I crawl through this process in the evenings. Word. By. Word.

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