Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Writers Are Back!!

Decatur Book FestivalThat’s pretty exciting news. Actually, I don’t think I used enough exclamation points. !!!! That’s better. Yes, the writers are back in Decatur this weekend, at the Decatur Book Festival. What could be better than writers, people who create worlds that don’t exist where before there was…um, no world…well…there’s some kind of paradox there. And writers are people who sort of think about stuff, people who knows words and sometimes punctuation.

The festival is running over three days, and from what I saw, it seemed larger than last year. Without having statistics at hand, I could see that thousands of people must be attending. It’s spread out over the center of Decatur (on the east side of Atlanta), with streets shut down to set up booths and tents in the middle of the street. The festival is something like a combination of street festival and conference: tents, crowds, face painting, beer stands, artisanal kimchee. OK, the artisanal kimchee (that’s what it says on their sign) isn’t that common, along with multiple presentations listed at various times, presented in locations all over town, from the conference center at the Marriott, to a local music club, to stages set up outside on several lawns.

I got to Decatur just before 11:00 in the morning. The day was already hot as hell, and it stayed like that, though as I write this it’s now dark and thundering (which is enough, apparently, to cancel ATT internet service). I was scheduled to read poetry at Java Monkey cafe, where I often read on Sunday evenings. From going so often to the evening readings, the contrast I saw with the festival audience was striking—much older, much whiter, and far fewer, maybe 20 people as opposed to the 80 or so who show up on Sunday. Today no one moaned at the lines, no one called out “tell it!” and no one snapped their fingers.

The poems I picked out to read, and the order I put them in, turned out without my realizing it to be Pennsylvania poems and then Georgia poems. And I notice that a lot of my poems have a philosophical inclination. I also had love poems that basically say “Ahhh! What’s going on?” The philosophy poems say about the same thing, but without the exclamation point.

I enjoyed being able to read around six or seven poems, and I heard a few other poets read as well, though with some of the poems I couldn’t tell that the person wasn’t simply reading prose, bringing us back to a question created by the 20th century: is it a poem just because all the lines are short?

When I left Java Monkey I was supposed to meet people from my writing group, but our wires crossed. Anyway, food and beer were calling my name, and as I passed a booth, I heard my name called, and there was my friend Anna Schachner, editor of the Chattahoochee Review. Anna and I chatted for a bit, and we swore on stacks of Bibles with hands touching hearts that we really are going to get together this time. And I believe we will.

As I wandered about the festival, I had a feeling that I had had last year, which was a slight sense of uncertainty. What was I supposed to be doing at a book festival? With books, what I really want is to sit in a quiet place with a good book and read, or maybe browse a bookstore. At the festival, however, there were swarms of people in the streets, wandering in and out of booths. True, some of the booths were actually selling books. Some others were for institutions that the sort of people who read might be interested in (Emory University, the William Carlos Museum, the Dekalb Historical Society).

To partake of more of the festival, I decided to go to one of the events, at the Marriott hotel. I wasn’t all that clear on what I was going to, but it turned out to be a panel discussion involving two writers, from India and Pakistan. In the end, it’s always interesting to me to hear writers talk, especially serious writers like these. This was in a small auditorium, and the place was pretty packed, so a lot of people seem to like to hear serious writers talk. I’m glad to know that.

One thing that struck me in this session was when Soniah Kamal (author of An Isolated Incident) said that she had gone through five different literary agents in America trying to sell her book, and none could. Some publishers even said things like the book was “too literary”. I know about encountering that attitude. So eventually she published in India with an Indian agent. But Sonia and Ajay Vishwanathan, also on the panel, said that things are changing in the west as to what people will both publish and read.

When the moderator asked when south Asian writers will be regarded as just writers, without other labels, Sonia said that writers do not always fit categorization, as they want to cross boundaries and write about the human heart, not just a Pakistani heart or an American heart.

To write about the human heart. That’s why we’re here. That’s why there is a festival in Decatur this weekend. We’re celebrating the words that come from the human heart.

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

The Mystery at Your Fingertips

flowers growing from booksI am now, really truly, honestly, no kidding, almost ready to publish a long-awaited novel (of course it’s me that’s been long awaiting). I have the formatted book, ready to put it into publication, and I’m just waiting for the final cover, which I’ve approved. In fact, it’s the back cover that’s being worked on, something you won’t even see if you buy the ebook version.

So inspired by this, I thought I’d discuss the way to write a novel. Actually, the phrase “the way to write a novel” is complete nonsense, as there is no way, and there certainly is no the way. Every writer must find their own way to do it, and anyone who tells you otherwise, to put it softly and gently, is full of shit. Writing is hard enough without trying to follow someone else’s rules.

Since I have now written—and I mean finished—five novels, that makes me an expert. Apparently I’m not an expert at publishing them, but anyhow… I want to show from my own experience how different each one was, so I’ll briefly look at the different ways each one was written.

The first book (actually the second one I started) was inspired by a fat two-volume travelogue about a trip across Siberia in the 1870s. From that inspiration, it seemed obvious to write a book about a trip to Mars, including what I considered a very sympathetic portrayal of a lesbian couple. I moved away a good bit from my original source of inspiration. As I recall, the way I wrote that book was moving straight from beginning to end, entirely out of my head. As far as I know, I threw that book away.

The next book was a vast omnibus of ambition, a story of Vladimir Lenin escaping from Siberian exhile and traveling extensively in the United States in 1898. Since that wasn’t complicated enough, based on a motif from Russian fairy tales, I conceived of the United States as divided into three “kingdoms”—copper, silver, and gold, and in each of the sections appeared mythological characters based on Indian, European, and African folklore. I never had a prayer of making that book work. As to the process, I spent three years doing background research before I started writing. I remember reading books standing in subway trains in New York, and I used to go to the New York Public Library on 42nd Street on my lunch hour to do research. The final book was over 600 pages. I hope I threw this book away as well. I’m sure the writing was mediocre.

But let’s forget chronological order. The book I’m about to publish, The Illusion of Being Here, also involved research, about a year. In particular I was looking for a good strong plot, as I felt a bit traumatized from the novel before it, that I had no real plot. I admit I’m a horrible natural story teller, and when I make it work, it’s because I worked like a faceless factory drone to finally piece it all together. So for about a year I did the research and worked on plot, then I sat down and wrote the entire novel in two months. Since then, I’ve revised it a few times over the course of 10 years.

The book that left me traumatized for lack of plot began as six separate stories, about six different characters, very tangentially related in some cases, more closely in others, but truly with no real plot connecting them. With that book I found a literary agent (the only one I’ve ever had) and at her advice, I revised the book to tie the sections together. I rather liked the result, but we never sold the book, and eventually we partly ways in a friendly fashion. Years later, I revised the book again, completely removing two of the six characters (a 101-year-old monk and a six-year-old boy), drastically changing what was still there, and increasing the depth of the story. That’s where it stands, though now I’m thinking I want to rework it again, and add the monk back in. We’ll see. I think I started writing that book 16 years ago.

The last book I’ve finished writing will be the next one I publish (but not for another year). Regarding the process of writing this one, at some point I felt compelled to be writing something, anything, so I literally sat down and started a paragraph, just nonsense to be moving my fingers on the keyboard. That paragraph led to another, then to a full page, and a second page. It was some foolishness about a guy who opens the door to his apartment and finds that he has stepped into the past. I came back to it a couple more times, and since I had nothing else to work on, I kept pecking away at it, until I thought it might turn into a short story. But then I stopped what I had, called it a chapter (maybe because I didn’t know where to go with it), and started another chapter. That implied a novel, and I kept going, with absolutely no idea where it was going. It was a very difficult book to write, but in the end I’m really happy with it, even if the last agent I talked to didn’t like it. He was wrong.

I could also talk about the book I’m currently working on (or another one that’s a third done and put away now for many years). But I’m struggling with the current book, and I don’t know how I’m going to make it work, so I can’t talk about it. I’ve written 100 pages and now it all needs reworking.

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Standing on Mount Parnassus, Hair Blowing in the Wind

In case I want a nap

In case I want a nap

In the last couple of weeks, while living a normal life of going to work, actually working, coming home to exercise, fix dinner, curse the dirty dishes, iron shirts, and slop some beans and rice into a bowl for lunch the next day, I have also been living the stimulating life of a writer. I picture you frowning and sighing with jealousy. I understand that.

This life of walking among stars and comets carries me into a plethora of bejeweled creative activities. You know, the way us writers live when we’re not drinking, or wishing we were drinking, or asleep.

Since you’re naturally interested—because who doesn’t want to know about other people’s fabulous lives?—I’ve categorized the writer-ish stuff from the last couple of weeks. This list will also come in handy in case the IRS asks me what that huge deduction was for, if they don’t think that “extra pillows” is a good enough answer.

Writing Fiction

  • Several times I’ve sat down at the computer, opened up a page, and typed in notes for ideas on the novel I’m currently “writing”. I just looked at that page and counted. I added 11 lines in the last two weeks, some of which went halfway across the page. Eleven lines. Top that, Tolstoy. Also, on a number of occasions, I thought about the fact that I should think about this.

Writing Poetry

  • During my lunch hour, I actually started and finished a poem about my grandfather, who my mother told me used to deliver moonshine. That’s one of the more impressive things I’ve heard lately, and I wrote about it. Unfortunately, it’s not a great poem, as I had no moonshine while I was writing it.
  • I also started and finished a poem in Dylan style, inspired by a line from a song I heard while driving to Birmingham, Alabama.
  • I tried to begin another poem, a profound philosophical one, but I wadded up that sheet of paper and threw it in the trashcan.

Marketing (activities intended to help publicize the novel, once I get it out)

  • I went to a story telling and told two stories, one of which I had planned. I had hoped to be brilliant, but I was…well, let’s just call it a whole lot less than brilliant.
  • I worked on my writer’s website, and it’s ready to go.
  • I corresponded with the two designers I’m working with to get the novel ready.
  • I attended two poetry readings and read several poems, where people cheered, exclaimed with joy, and offered to carry me on their shoulders, but I was far too modest for that.
  • An email came with official word that in the spring, I’ll be a featured poet at Callanwolde, an arts center here in Atlanta.

Reading and Other

  • Starting with “Other”, I drove with a friend to a town an hour away (at least it was an hour with that clusterfuck rush-hour traffic), to see a performance of the musical I wrote with my brother.
  • I discussed writing with a colleague. I do love talking to someone who knows.
  • As a writer, I’m supposed to be reading, although I read really slowly. This past week I finished Letters From an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, a book written in the late 1700s. In part, he writes about the American revolution, and as I read it, the writing reminded me of the battles in eastern Ukraine right now, and in particular Crèvecoeur made me think about the early days of the Russian revolution, and the viciousness of seeing neighbors as enemies.
  • I’ve only just started reading The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie, who I’ve never read before. In style, this book reminds me of Isabel Allende, and perhaps a bit of Gabriel Garcia Márquez.

No doubt this list makes you think, “Hey, I should be a writer!” Don’t be hasty. Remember that in addition to the unbelievable excitement I’ve just described, being a writer also comes with anguish and despair. Plus, you have to spend a lot of time in a room with no one but your own self for company. That oughta slow you down.

And notice that actually writing fiction, the thing I really want to do, only has one bullet up above. Oh, and I wrote this blog entry.

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Reasons to Live

weird hairdoOne afternoon I fell asleep on the couch, and when I woke up I was using a Doritos bag for a pillow. I kept it there because I always like a snack when I wake up. You probably do, too, so I’m sure you’ll understand. But all the chips were crushed. I had to look under the sofa cushions for a spoon to eat them.

So I sat there, like I said, having a snack and wondering why I didn’t feel rested. I had slept for two hours. Or three. Or longer. In my contemplation of life, I’ve found that many people are much too obsessed with time and with who’s “at work” and with who’s “lazy”.

But I didn’t feel rested. I still felt tired, a bit of drowsiness, a touch of ennui. I realized it wasn’t because I had a Doritos bag for a pillow. And it wasn’t because I had slept badly from forgetting to put pants on that morning and I was a little chilly.

No, people, I didn’t sleep well because I was worried. I was worried about Justin Bieber. The poor little guy is trying so hard to enrich our lives with stories of madness, derangement, and inexplicable tattoo behavior. And people just pick on him for it. I felt upset thinking about it, and I went to the kitchen for another bag of Doritos, but the dog had already found them.

I was standing there in the kitchen thinking about whether to go to the store, which would mean trying to find a pair of pants, when my friend Cecil called.

“Did you hear the big news?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I was wondering if I should wear pants.”

“Yeah,” Cecil said. “I’m gonna say yes to that one.”

“And I was worried about Justin.”

“That poor guy,” Cecil said. “Why don’t people leave him alone? Who else would be willing to go to jail for the sake of entertaining his fans?”

“I know,” I said. “He’s so selfless. I go to jail because of stuff I did.”

“Like most of us,” Cecil said. “So let me tell you the big news.”

I had a shiver of excitement, a frisson de joie, at the idea of big news. I sat down at the kitchen table, but I realized too late the dog had been licking the chair. “What’s the news?” I asked.

“Lady Gaga isn’t pregnant.”

“Oh, I’m so disappointed!” I said. Then I paused. “But I didn’t know she might get pregnant.”

“Every pop star might get pregnant,” Cecil said. “Except the males.”

“Maybe some of them, too,” I said. “I was just reading something.”

“Anyway,” Cecil said, “can you give me a ride to the meeting tonight?”

“Yeah,” I said, “but I had to take the dog to the vet yesterday, so the car is kind of—”

“We can roll the windows down.”

About that meeting we were going to, a year ago, just after the incident with a lawyer and a snowblower, Cecil invited me to join Fans or Die. The purpose of the club is to make sure we don’t miss any important details of the lives of people who are so essential to what happens in our own lives. Like Kim Kardashian.

I’m sure you’re wondering now how you can join Fans or Die. I’m sure you’re thinking “What if I miss hearing about a vacation that Katy Perry went on, and a new bikini she revealed?”

I know. I know. Except all my emotional energy is going into Justin. There’s only so much I can do. I just hope you can find a group like Fans or Die near you. Google “reasons to live”.

We have ten people in our club. With a waiting list. The topic of the meeting that night was “What has Jennifer Aniston been wearing lately?” Cecil always brings his laptop and we know which sites to go to for the latest information. A couple of people are old fashioned and bring magazines. Yeah, really. Magazines. I gave those up myself after certain kinds of websites that I needed in the evenings started to appear.

“Oh, my God, look at that sweater!” Keena said when we saw the first picture. “That is so tacky. I feel sorry for her family.”

“I like it,” I said. “I saw Rihanna wearing one like it.”

“You did not!” Keena said. “They would never wear the same sweater! Anyway, it would look good on Rihanna, but not on Jennifer.”

Cecil scrolled down the page, and there was Jennifer in a gown she wore to a party that the Duchess of Cambridge had been at. “That is not her color,” said Rory. “Fuscia! No, no, no.”

“Oh, I think it is,” said Bette. “But her hair is wrong. That is such a fashion tragedy, we really ought to write her.”

“That’s a great idea,” said Keena. “Has anybody here ever written a letter?”

We got silent for a minute and looked at each other. Cecil was tapping his way down the screen. “Email is really better,” Rory said. “We don’t want her to think we don’t own a computer.”

“Sure, email,” Keena said. “How should we start it? Dear Jennifer, we love you so much, especially in that movie We’re the Millers, but about your hair…”

Maybe Keena was waiting for somebody else to add a line to the email. Or maybe her tongue just got itchy and she stopped to scratch it on her teeth. While she wasn’t talking, Rory said, “That sounds like a lot already. We don’t want to sound too wordy. Maybe we should send a text instead.”

“I like that idea,” I said, “I have my phone here.” I started looking in my pockets, wondering where my phone was.

“If we don’t want to sound too wordy,” Cecil said, “shouldn’t we just do a Twitter message?”

We started thinking of tweets to use, but all of those seemed too wordy. In the end, we just went with “Oh, Jen, your hair,” and we posted it on Cecil’s Twitter account.

Now I’m kind of worried about our tweet to Jen. It’s keeping me from sleeping. Instead of “Oh, Jen” should we have said, “Hey, Jen”? And should we have been more specific about her hair? Maybe used an adjective? My tossing and turning was bothering the dog, so he made a rude noise and went to another room. Dogs don’t appreciate the important things that give life meaning, the way us humans do.

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How My Mama Talk

If only she spoke properly

If only she spoke properly

You probably know, at least vaguely, the play or movie “My Fair Lady”. It concerns a woman in London who speaks with a lowerclass Cockney accent. Professor Henry Higgins brags that he can teach her to speak as he does, so that—speaking properly—she can present herself as a lady. Plenty of Americans agree with Professor Higgins, and they go slack-jawed with admiration to hear that educated British accent.

So let’s talk about language. As we do, I’ll listen to the sounds you make and decide whether or not you’re intelligent. That’s possible, don’t you think? I won’t even hold you to sounding upperclass British. We’ll never be that good. I won’t be listening for just any sounds, of course. I want to hear how you pronounce words. That’s a true indication of intelligence. Right?

A few days ago I happened to see a “news” article that included this key sentence: “A national lab in Tennessee has canceled a class that officials said was designed to help employees get rid of their Southern accents.” Get rid of their southern accents?

When I read this, I thought My God, here we are in the twenty-first century and we’ve still got this stupid bullshit about southern accents. As foolish as such a class is, the people offering it, or the pathetic, insecure schmucks who sign up for such classes, are right about one thing. They did not merely imagine that there are people who associate the sound of a southern accent with being dumb. Of course, only dumb people think an accent indicates intelligence—but that’s a hell of a lot of people.

Twenty years ago, or a hundred years, whatever it was, I used to discuss language with my freshman writing classes, as I believed that a broader awareness of language was a part of their education. I had a lesson I’d do where I ran through the history of the English language and how it has changed (such as seofon: seven; heorte: heart).

I always tried to allow time to use the history as a background to touch on contemporary dialects, one of which was this’n rat cheer (“this one right here” in case your dialect knowledge is deficient), southern English. The point I always wanted to make—and it’s a really hard sell, to almost everyone—is that every dialect is equally good. Other than linguists, no one thinks that.

It’s my impression that many languages, and certainly the big ones, have dialects that are considered Proper (actually, they’re considered PROPER), and if you don’t speak that dialect, you’re an uneducated dumbshit. At best. Even Professor Henry Higgins couldn’t help you. In Europe, that “proper” speech is based on the capital city (you know, the “King’s” English). A dialect is often a political issue, as when the dictator Franco in Spain declared that the Catalan language was merely bad Spanish and needed to be eradicated (in fact it’s a separate but related language). And of course “proper” speech sets apart social classes, with all the economic implications that carries.

Since most people with power speak the main dialect, even if they had to work to get there, it’s understandable why anyone would aspire to such speech, like the Cockney flower girl in “My Fair Lady”. We all want power. But it seems to me that in the south there is something more insidious at work. In the discussions that I had with my students, once when we talked about southern accents, one student said, “My mother has a real bad accent.”

He meant strong, of course, but described it as bad. Why? For the same reason that some people from the south will take a class to try to lose their accent. Even in the south, there are southerners who look down on southern speech. Many people in the south are insecure about how they’re perceived outside the south. Whence cometh this pathological insecurity? I’ve written about this in other places, and it’s too much to go into here, but the problem is not the idiots who judge a person by their accent. The problem is the person who feels insecure.

One thing I want to say is that if you’re afraid people think you’re stupid, don’t act stupid. Sometimes there’s a reason why people outside the south look at our region and think “You know…” As an excellent example, here in Georgia in the last few months, the legislature squealed and nearly wet their pants with excitement in the rush to make sure we have the right to carry a gun pretty much any goddamn place our feet can walk. At the same time, the members of that same legislature practically swore an oath that they would not expand availability to health care.

So these proud, loud morons—who, admittedly, we elected—by French kissing their guns instead of rationally governing the state created headlines to make Georgia look dumb and backward. They also happen to speak with a southern accent, but the accent is not to blame.

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