Monthly Archives: October 2015

I’ll Just Use Vowels

cartoon of a writer complainingI was thinking I would write more this week about the unbelievably fantastic life of a writer in 21st century America. (21st, right? I’m still getting that mixed up.) It’s such a full life, replete with, oh, lots of things, oxygen and the alphabet and, um, lunch, yes, lunch every day. Ah, what it is to be a writer, like being a gourmet cook at McDonalds, like an architect on a desert island. I imagine you, even as I write this, closing your eyes, sighing, thinking If only it was me. Yes, I know. I know. But it’s not you.

So where was I before a flash flood of snarkiness swept me in my old car down the canyon? I was going to provide an update on progress in writing the current novel. This book will have three parts, and parts one and two are done (you understand that when I say “done” I mean not done, with lots of revision and thought and editing still to do). But the 99th draft of parts 1 and 2 is complete, so that counts as first draft.

Overall, then, the book is two thirds done on a first draft. Man, that calls for a drink. Then again, most things call for a drink, so I need a more evocative way to celebrate. Maybe I’ll go throw beer bottles at the moon. I’ve also been working more assiduously at coming up with a title for the book (you understand that when I say “assiduously” I mean sitting here at the computer for hours with my head in my hands moaning, weeping, finally going off to bed).

I have spent—and I’m not joking—years now trying to come up with a title so sublime, so graceful, so ingenious, that people will want to tattoo it on intimate parts of their body. A title like that takes time. Although someday when you finally see the title, you may think, “Did this dumbass title really take years to think of?” Yes, it did.

In addition to progress on writing the novel, like a white arrow gleaming in the sunlight as it rushes through the cool morning air—like that, that kind of progress, in addition to that, I’m in the process of self publishing a second book, this one a collection of short stories. It’s a very slow process, just as it would be at a publishing company. I want a high quality on the final book, so I’m currently paying an editor to go through it, and after that I need to work through the stories again considering all her comments.

It’s not fast, and it’s not cheap. And even though I’ve already self published one book, I feel a slight, vague anxiety about this process, as though I’ve never done it. I certainly do not feel like a pro, unless “pro” is short for “probably want a beer”. Once this phase of editing is done, then I’ll have someone proofread it, and I also still need to have a cover designed. You can get a really great cover if you pay for it (such as the cover I ended up with for The Illusion of Being Here). And I will pay. The book of short stories does have a title, by the way. It’s called I’d Tear Down the Stars. Feel free to tattoo it somewhere.

Oh, yes, and regarding actually selling a self published book, which I hear some people do, I just read an article this week in Publishers Weekly specifically on that topic. Here are three quotes I’ve pulled from the article:

  • “It is Facebook’s way of placing value on content for brands”
  • “more opportunities for cross-pollination between marketing platforms and tools”
  • “more valuable than helping authors share books, the tool also offers in-depth analytics”

You probably know more than I do, so you’re probably not reading those phrases thinking “What in Christ’s name is all that bullshit?” But that’s what I’m thinking. Is this what you’re supposed to know to be a writer?

I was born in the wrong century. The only comfort I can take is that no matter what century I was born in, it would have been the wrong one. That’s why I’m a writer.

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

Blind With Words

ghost woman on stairsLast week I was asking people if they had ever seen a ghost. Every person I asked said no. Let’s consider the word “ghost”, however. I’m assuming that my perception of the word is more or less like most people’s, that a ghost is an image (the spirit) of someone who has died, and the ghost looks like the person, except sort of white and translucent. A ghost can also appear and disappear, float, and walk through walls. Isn’t that how you see it?

The question as I tried to carefully word it was actually “Have you ever seen anything that you considered a ghost, or have you experienced some strange phenomenon that you couldn’t explain?” I know that’s wordy, but it was a scientific poll. One person immediately answered, “I don’t believe in ghosts.” When I pointed out that this was not an actual answer to the question, he then said that yes, he had seen a mysterious bright light swell then disappear in a dark forest.

And in fact, every person but one who I asked said yes, they had experienced some strange thing that they still can’t explain. I have, too. I think the problem with my scientific poll is that I used the word “ghost”, which carries such a strong image that it framed our conversation about a pale transparent human figure.

So I started thinking about how language can box us in and limit us, and a few days later in the book The Holographic Universe, which I just finished reading, I read this sentence: “To confuse the indivisible nature of reality with the conceptual pigeonholes of language is the basic ignorance from which Zen seeks to free us.”

Just what I said, only more elegant, and it mentions Zen. Language, at its most basic, is literally just noise made with the mouth, nose, and throat. The noise turns into language when we agree as a group that a particular set of sounds will have a specific meaning. The critical element there, what makes it work, is “agree as a group”. Maybe we don’t always agree. Maybe we think we’re agreeing but actually have different ideas. Or maybe we agree to stupid things that don’t have much to do with reality. Nevertheless, that’s language.

Language shapes how we think, to some extent shapes what we are able to think about (because it gives us words to use), and shapes how we see the world. But it’s all based on vague social agreement. Are you seeing a problem here? It’s a bigger problem than whether you’ve seen a ghost.

The worst of this language problem is not that we stumble around in an illusory universe naming things willy-nilly. As far as that goes, who cares? It’s not as if we’ll ever understand reality in this life. Might as well have unicorns. The real problem is that we use this language process, creating categories by creating words, to classify other human beings.

Just like a ghost automatically comes with a certain mental image, what do you get from words like “white man”, “Hispanic”, “lesbian”, “redneck”? With any one of those words, did you get a mental image of someone who makes really good cookies or who shovels snow for the old woman next door? Because all of those words describe some person somewhere who does those things, but when we use words like that, the human being disappears. All we have is a general category, which is rarely helpful in human relations.

We do the same thing with many other types of words, such as political views (conservative, radical, etc.), religious views (Muslim, fundamentalist Christian, and so on). Suppose we had none of these words, and then you meet a middle-aged man. He’s smiling, watching his kids playing in a park, you’re standing there chatting with him, and he tells you that his daughter wants to play piano. He wonders if he can afford the lessons, but he really wants her to do it. And you never suddenly realize “He’s a Muslim” or “He’s a fundamentalist”.

But as it is, we have categories to put people in, and language suddenly draws the darkness across our eyes.

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A Dreamwind Flowing

painting of boats on waterI was thinking this week, a Tuesday as it happens, that every weekday begins with a small tragedy, as I have to get out of bed when the alarm clock goes off. That has never been good for me. Maybe you wake up whistling a little sunrise song and giving a wink to the bluebirds flying around your head. I don’t. I hit the snooze alarm, then again, then again, and think “Oh Lord, I’ll buy breakfast at work, I don’t have to get up yet.”

That paragraph may make it sound like I hate my job, but it’s just the opposite. I like my job quite a bit. When I actually arrive at work, in fact, I sit down at my desk and feel fairly contented (for a person at work, I mean; let’s not get ridiculous about it). The problem is not being at work, the problem is getting up to go there.

And so—and I’m going somewhere with this, don’t rush me—when I wake up and finally accept the reality of being in this world, often the first thing I think of before I get out of bed is what I want to write that day. Sometimes I’ll think of a poem I’m working on, which I generally do during lunch hour, or else I’ll think about the chapter I’m writing in the novel, which I work on during the evening, and I’ll think “this is what I’ll do today”, and with that thought in mind, I push back the covers to get up.

Of course in the meantime I’ve got the job thing, and driving to work and coming home, making dinner, and so on, but the thing that gets me out of bed—literally—is what I want to write. When the writing is going well, I can get up more easily, even though many hours will go by before I can get to it.

Conversely, if for some reason I’m not writing, say if I’m just making notes or planning or even stuck, then I often feel lost. What am I supposed to do with that day? We all have to move through time, one of the quintessential human dilemmas, and how do we do it? For many people, with the invention of television, this problem has been suppressed and ignored. And of course the internet has been a godsend for helping us figure out how to get through time. Hours go by and you don’t even know it.

I don’t have a TV, however, and yes, I know. Please don’t leave more than one comment telling me what a freak I am. I write, that’s what I do, and read some. I come home looking forward to writing, wanting to move the story forward. When I write, it’s as if scenes appear in front of me, as if in a space of blank whiteness, for instance, suddenly a stretch of blue water appears, then boats are bobbing in the water, next to a hillside where white houses with red roofs also appear, rising up the hill, and in the houses people are eating manicotti and drinking red wine, laughing at someone trying to tell a joke. When I write, I move mentally into the world on the page, as it comes into existence in front of me.

With the novel I’m currently writing, I’ve reached a point of stopping to plan, so in order to keep at the pleasure of putting words down, I’ve started a short story. I don’t expect to publish it. It seems to me that not in a thousand years will the literary magazines publish what I write. I’m writing only for my own pleasure in this case. Here is the first paragraph:

“Everyone in the village of Littlepig Pass, during their dreams, rose up to laugh, to dance, to shout in terror as they fell off cliffs, and to dash naked down hallways. These were the dreams they would talk about in the morning over a sober cup of coffee, since dreams like these blew constantly at night through the village, arriving on a dreamwind flowing across the Milky Way. This leafy lonely village, out on the edge of the Milky Way, in the mountains of North Georgia, caught the tail of that cosmic dreamwind, so that these mountain people danced and ran naked.”

There is so much I want to write still. One completed novel needs revision, one partially written novel (laid aside) needs completion, the one I’m writing needs to be finished (it’s two thirds done as of last Friday), and I’ve begun to think about another book that I’d like to write, set in my home town, with magical elements. And those are only the big things. There is plenty of reason to get out of bed, but none of it involves an alarm clock.

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Is é an Cruinne mise

Irish road signYears ago I was in Montreal with an American friend, and we went into a cafe for lunch. I loved seeing the French language everywhere in Montreal, and as bad as my French was, I was content to damage the local culture by speaking French when I could. In the cafe, I ordered lunch in French (not all that sophisticated, as you could practically just point), and then my friend said, “I can’t order in French.” To which our waitress, in perfect English, said, “Oh, just try.”

Since the waitress spoke excellent English, why would she want me or my friend garbling like brain-damaged children through her language? Montreal is in the province of Quebec, where French is adamantly advocated as the proper cultural language of the province, and maybe it was important to our waitress to promote a language she felt was a part of her cultural identity.

If you think about it, it’s rather amazing how important language is to us. We do not merely want whatever will communicate, but rather we place enormous value on the exact form of the language we want to use. As a personal example, I am very attached to the word “yall” here in Georgia, and I appreciate when people can use it properly (and no, goddamnit, it is never, ever, ever singular). The symbolism of language is, to put it mildly, vast.

I discovered in Ireland a powerful instance of the symbolic importance of language. The Irish language (also called Gaelic) is an official language of Ireland, along with English, and although almost no one in Ireland really speaks the language, it is literally in front of you every day. If you’re not quite sure what the Irish language is, here’s a small sample: the phrase “baggage storage area” in Irish is “limistéar stórála bagáiste”.

Because Irish is official, everything the government does must be in both English and Irish. That includes all street signs, notices in buses, and information in train stations. Because I like languages so much, I thought that was pretty darn cool, but I’ll say that seeing Irish constantly created more of a feeling of being in a foreign country than I expected.

And yet all that teanga Gaeilge (Irish language) is mostly symbolic. In a week, the only time I heard a single word of Irish spoken was announcements made on the train intercom. There were a few times, granted rare, when knowing a little Irish might have been nice. In the fishing village of Kinsale, I saw that the doors of a public restroom were labeled only “Fir” and “Mná”. Fortunately by that point I knew a few words of Irish, so I strode boldly into Fir.

I was also thinking, on the bus down to Kinsale, that since every road sign is in both languages, with Irish always listed first, if you were driving along quickly and just caught a brief look at a sign, reading from the top, you might only see the Irish.

The two linguistic examples I’ve cited, French in Montréal, Québec, and Irish in Éire are only two of an enormous number that show the emotional power of speaking the right language. Language literally helps to create who we are, and if we do not have our proper language, we become like the earth on the first day of creation, “without form and void”.

Because of this fact—casting our gaze in the dark direction—those who wish to destroy the identity of a group of people often look first to preventing them from using their language. During the days of the Spanish dictator Franco, he declared that the Catalan language was merely “bad Spanish” and made it illegal. Just a few decades ago in Turkey, the Kurdish language was illegal for more than ten years, so that people speaking their native language could be arrested. The same sort of brutality was used here in America for many years to suppress the languages of native Indian tribes, and children in school well into the 20th century would be punished for speaking the language they had grown up speaking to their parents.

Though we are a more diverse and understanding country now, such intolerant nastiness still exists, of course. In the current presidential campaign, Donald Trump criticized Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish to a Spanish-speaking audience. Now granted, Trump is a cretinous xenophobic asshole, to be kind about it. This particular expression of his profound stupidity, however, illustrates the importance people attach to language for their cultural identity, even if it comes out as deep whining insecurity that someone else has a different identity.

Personally, I’m glad to hear people speak Spanish, French, Catalan, or Yupik. I don’t feel insecure about my own cultural identity, so I’m not afraid when I hear another language. And when you come here to Georgia, I’ll greet you with the proper “How yall doin’?”

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If you want to read the title of this blog entry, here is the link for Google Translate. Ask it to translate from Irish.

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You Like Deliciousness, Don’t You?

Glass of Guinness beerA friend who cooks up the lovely food blog ¿Tienes hambre? asked if I would write about my food experiences in Ireland, so I’ve done a guest blog post on his site. He does a nice job, with great photos, and I’ve—OK, I lowered the quality of his blog by being on it. But there it is.

If you want to read about my culinary expedition across the Emerald Isle, go to https://schowalterblog.wordpress.com/. I included a few photos as well. Scroll down to October 2.

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Going North and Back in Time

Kinsale BookshopIn the next couple of blog entries, I intend to talk about some things I found while in Ireland, and this week will be about books. I’ll do this by moving through the three places I visited, a village and two cities, starting on the southern coast and moving north to Cork and then on up to Dublin.

Kinsale, County Cork

On the southern coast of Ireland is the fishing/tourist village of Kinsale, a delightful place to see with some brightly colored houses and sailboats on the water. On my last day in Ireland, I took the bus down to the coast, to walk around, have lunch, and see what I could find. One of the things I found was the Kinsale Bookshop, a local book store down one of the narrow streets.

Seeing the store, I decided to follow up on an idea I’d had in Cork but had not managed, to ask a local store for recommendations. I went in and asked the woman working to suggest books I might buy, and she asked what I like. I named three writers: Kate Atkinson (British), Isabel Allende (Chilean), and Ann Patchett (American). The shopkeeper then showed me several books, and I ended up buying Old Filth by Jane Gardam and Amongst Women by John McGahern, two books and writers I had never heard of. Maybe I’ll come back and mention them at some point in the future.

Shandon, Cork

The city of Cork is a fairly large city in the south of Ireland, with the River Lee running through the middle. To the north of the city, the land suddenly rises up in a steep hill (not something you want to walk up very far with a suitcase, I’ll tell you from experience). On the left side of that high land, as you look north, is a region called Shandon (from the Irish An Seandún, meaning “the old fort”).

At the top of the hill in Shandon is a church with a high tower, St. Anne’s, built in 1722. The church isn’t very large inside, but is famous for the tower and the bells. Inside the church are the expected sets of pews, and on one side is a small group of pews facing the center. Up against the wall behind them is a long glass case with books.

The books inside this case, to American eyes at any rate, are very old. The case contains, for instance, a King James Bible printed in 1671, not so long after it was first translated in 1611. Finding religious books was not a surprise, even if their age was, but I was surprised to find nonreligious books as well.

One of the books, printed in 1710, was called The Art of Spelling and Reading English with Proper and Useful Lessons for Children. There were also medical books and a math book in French, La Geometrie Practique (followed by a very long subtitle), an edition from 1693. All of the books were quite old, and apparently their age was the connection, though this glass case behind pews in a small church seemed a most odd place to find them.

Dublin

Going farther north, back up to Dublin, in the heart of the city is the old Dublin Castle (which no longer looks much like a castle), the old seat of power. Next to the Castle is a building holding one of the jewels of the city, the Chester Beatty Library. It began with Alfred Chester Beatty, who collected old books as well other objects, and it is now both a library that can be used by scholars as well as a public museum, displaying some of the amazing things Beatty gathered over the years.

Although this is not a very large museum, I didn’t have time to see it all, and thus I need to go back. The Chester Beatty Library was definitely one of the finer things I found in Dublin (a city with many fine things), and it didn’t seem to be something that most tourists would be going to.

Most of my time was spent in the exhibit Arts of the Book, with a fantastic display of ancient books from (as best I remember) China, Japan, India, ancient Egypt, and the medieval Islamic world. Incorporated into the exhibit were excellent displays on how books were both bound and illustrated. A part of the exhibit that most struck me was a long (very long) meticulously painted scroll from Japan telling a mythological tale of a monster who kidnapped and ate young women. It was done in panels, something like a modern comic strip, and the story was so gruesome that I knew I was looking at an early expression of the same impulse that would someday lead to the Friday the 13th movie series. Humans are humans.

There was also a set of religious documents, and in that exhibit I saw old Korans and Christian documents from around the year 200, written on papyrus, with early letters from St. Paul.

In European history, not long after the collapse of the Roman empire, it is said that monks from Ireland crossed over to Europe and carried learning back to a continent gone dark, that the Irish helped to keep civilization going. This attachment to books and language is part of an old tradition in Ireland. You can see evidence of this from more recent times with places associated with Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats, or James Joyce. I would also cite the fact that while I was in Cork, the city was holding the Cork International Short Story Festival.

Whatever else Ireland may be, it is a land of books.

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