Monthly Archives: December 2015

A Midsummer Reunion

Christmas_CardThe weather was hot, with a slight breeze blowing in from the ocean, carrying a spice of salt and red wine across the city. Santa Claus was taking a few days of August vacation, walking along La Canebière in the city of Marseilles toward the old port. He had always liked southern France, but at the moment he was wondering why he was out walking in this August weather. To escape the heat, he stepped into a cool blue hotel bar.

As the hostess was leading him to a table, he stopped suddenly near a man with a long but neatly trimmed white beard, sitting at the bar. “Nick?” Santa said.

Saint Nicholas turned and said, “Well, look who the reindeer dragged in! Santa, how long has it been? Have a seat.” Instead of going to his table, Santa sat down at the bar with Saint Nicholas.

“I almost didn’t recognize you,” Saint Nicholas said. “Hair back in a ponytail—”

“It’s hot out there,” Santa said.

“And sunglasses. You’re looking good, Mr. Claus, looking good. Tan pants, white shirt, you look like one of the natives here.”

“It’s good to see you, Nick. It has been a while.”

“What are you drinking?” Saint Nicolas said. “I’ll buy the first round. I’m having straight Scotch.”

“White wine spritzer for me,” said Santa. “I just bought your last book, by the way. It’s on my list to read.”

Saint Nicolas rolled his eyes. “Don’t tell me that. I know you don’t want to read a book of theology.” He slapped Santa on the back. “I just remembered the last time I saw you, you were with your son. How’s he doing?”

“Oh…” Santa paused, raised his eyebrows. “He’s at the University of Edinburgh studying folklore. He’s writing his thesis on why people believe in mythical beings.”

“Like elves,” said Saint Nicolas.

“Yeah, elves, leprechauns, or… what are those Japanese… kami, I think they’re called. Anyway, all over the world, there’s something. Hard to believe my own kid is doing this. Where in the world did he get an interest in a topic like that?”

“Maybe his guardian angel nudged him into it.”

“Another mythical being,” said Santa.

“Now I’m disagreeing with you there,” said Saint Nicolas. “Angels are real. But here are our drinks.” He raised his glass. “L’chaim.”

Santa took a drink as well. “Nick,” he said, “how can you sit there and tell me you don’t believe in elves but you believe in angels?”

“Well, because angels are real. Pretty simple answer.”

“Have you ever seen an angel?”

Saint Nicolas squinted and smiled. “Have you ever seen oxygen? I don’t need to see something to know it’s real.”

“Yeah,” Santa said. “There’s logic there, but I still don’t find that persuasive. This drink is almost gone. Next round on me.”

“You know,” Saint Nicolas said with a sardonic smile, “it’s your guardian angel making you buy the next round.”

“Hey, I know better than to get into a rhetorical argument with you,” Santa said. “I was a hospitality major in college. While you were studying the ancient Greeks, I was taking classes in how to be jolly.”

“Like a bowl full of jelly,” Saint Nicolas said.

“Amen,” said Santa Claus, and they raised their drinks to toast one another.

**************************************************

Here where I’m sitting, way down yonder in the land of cotton, in Atlanta, Georgia, it’s Christmas day, and wherever you are on the earth, or if you are reading this in the future somewhere off the earth, I wish you a glorious holiday.

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The Island of Words

musicians

After this, we’ll write a book

There was a day this week when I was doing what I do, sitting at the computer, listening to music, sipping red wine, and writing. That particular day, I had fallen into a poem, which I only intended to type up. I write poems at work in a blank book on my lunch hour, then type them up when they seem close to done. On the evening in discussion, the poem took over, so that I was replacing words and rewriting lines, spending longer than I expected.

But that’s not what I came here to talk about. I was going to say something about the music that was playing at the time. With rare exceptions, all of my music is through Pandora, and I have 30 stations I’ve started and switch between (that’s counting the three Christmas ones, which are temporary). Some stations I don’t listen to much, like Old Country, but when I’m in the mood for George Jones, there he is, still loving a woman who doesn’t love him back.

But that’s still not exactly what I came here to talk about. I was listening to the singer Jewel, and I stopped writing to pay attention to the music. Since the music and my work are both here at my finger tips, I often look to see who is singing. I’ve learned many singers by doing this, like Jewel, for instance. Of course when I’m stopping to listen and check out the singer, then I’ve interrupted the writing.

And here’s what I came to talk about. I liked the song by Jewel so much I paused Pandora, went to Youtube, and listened to several songs by her. Then I saw an interview with Jewel that Howard Stern had done. I don’t want to explain why I would listen to anything, ever, involving Howard Stern, but in this case I did. I was enjoying hearing Jewel talk about her life, her creativity, and some of the struggle she had when young. Did you know she was homeless for a while?

While I listened, I wasn’t writing. So you might say, “Well, Davy, hard at work, were you? Or goofing off instead of doing the hard work of actually putting words down. And you call yourself a writer, huh?” However, if you said that, you’d be… OK, yeah, you’d be right, but there’s another way to see this.

It’s fairly common to find artists hanging out with one another. Often they run in gangs. There are famous groups, like the Algonquin Round Table with Dorothy Parker, or the remarkable grouping that showed up at Gertrude Stein’s apartment in Paris in the 1930s. Artists also inspire one another, and we’ll cite the fact that Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque together invented cubism. Or you can give your own examples from contemporary music.

Yes, it’s my intention to spend time every evening writing, but in an even broader sense, how much of my life do I spend hanging out with creative people, talking about art, about what it’s like to live this kind of life, talking about ideas and new ways to create, about what inspires us? How much time? On average, maybe 30 minutes a week. On a good week. In other words, mostly never.

How much time should I spend with other artists? Most of the time, damn it. I suppose to some extent I’ve accepted that the one thing in the world that is most important to me, I do on an island. Occasionally, like Gilligan, I have a visitor, who then slips off the island and leaves me still there.

Therefore, when I sit here goofing off, listening to music, finding out about the singers, reading about their lives, I’m also creating my own world of artists, an imaginary world that I go to for about two hours each evening. Otherwise, my exotic life here in the capital of the south does not have a lot of interaction with other creative people. Nevertheless, I’m writing.

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Filed under How We Create Magic, Writing While Living

Would You Read This?

book with arms writingI was talking in the last couple of weeks with someone who told me he doesn’t read. Of course as a literate person he must read something, documents at work, emails, letters from the insurance company. What he was telling me, though, is that he doesn’t choose to read when it isn’t required, to read for pleasure.

For me as a writer, you might imagine, the idea of not reading is incomprehensible. My head is often full of things I’ve read. Shakespeare’s Falstaff seems like a real person to me, someone who has been alive, leering at women and getting drunk, for 400 years. In addition to characters and places, I carry around ideas I’ve gained from books. From Isaac Asimov, I have ideas about how robots should behave.

I wonder what kind of life it could be, not to read. How narrow and limited would that be? Narrow and limited, indeed, I think, though a person nowadays might cover it up some with information gained from electronic sources. Even if you don’t read for pleasure, what about books on history, nutrition, gardening, politics? How are you taking part in the world if you never read? If you are able to read and don’t, is that very much different from a person who is not able?

In contrast, I also know people who approach reading as though it is the purpose of their life. Why would someone feel this way? If you look at reading as a physical activity, it means sitting mostly immobile, sometimes growing uncomfortable, focusing the eyes on lines of small black shapes, made in turn of fine lines, often with only slight differences. The light must be right, the eyes must stay focused, and then the eyes grow tired as well.

Physically, it doesn’t sound very appealing, but that ignores the fact that the mind is involved. If you ignore the mind and focus only on the body, how much fun is baseball, or deer hunting, or mountain climbing? As with these activities, the important thing about reading is what the mind is doing.

There are many possible reasons to read: to gain information, to educate ourselves, or for spiritual inspiration, for example. How many things can the mind do? There are books for all of those things. Do you want to know about the history of railroads? About Chinese cooking? About the best places to sail a boat in the Caribbean?

I come back, though, to fiction, because that’s what I do. Haven’t humans told stories as long as we know we’ve been human? Every culture that has writing has stories that go back thousands of years, from China to Egypt. In Mesopotamia, the oldest known piece of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is over 4,000 years old. Telling stories seems to be part of what makes us human.

So when we read fiction, we are taking part in being human. Sometimes the stories are for entertainment, to distract us for a while from our hard lives. Sometimes the stories are to teach us things, or to reinforce our sense of our own culture. And sometimes the stories are to let our spirits do what spirits want to do, to expand and fly and encompass a world without limits. Reading can let us do that. Our bodies may sit immobile, holding a book or computer, moving our eyes over the detailed shapes of the letters, but those things are tools, and the tools let the spirit roar through space, or walk down a street in England a thousand years ago, or chase a spy through Berlin on a foggy day.

Before the year O, back in the BC era, the Roman politician and writer Cicero said that a room without books is like a body without a soul. Cicero knew what children know. Have you ever watched young children with books? Even the ones too young to read want to look at books, want to be read to, want to turn the pages, want to hear the story.

When I look at young children with books, and the interest they take, I almost think that human beings evolved to read books. We had to wait tens of thousands of years, however, to finally invent the books. Now the books are here. Let’s read them.

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Here, Fix This

edited textThis is not simply a blog about taking naps, though I’m looking at that soft pillow lying right over there… Soooo inviting, but this is also a blog about writing, so let’s rub our eyes and consider an aspect of writing that comes along eventually, working with editors.

One type of editor may advise the writer on content, make comments on ideas, suggest changes in style, and so on. These comments may be very general (“make your hero less whiny and irritating”), or the editor might work so closely with the text that they almost rewrite it in some cases, although this is fairly rare now.

(If you’re paying attention to the prison-like rules of English grammar, yes, I followed the singular word “editor” with the plural pronoun “they”.)

At the medical journal where I work, I’m a different type of editor. As a “copy editor” I do little with content. My job is not to turn the manuscript into good, elegant writing, since I don’t have 100 hours to spend on each one. I also don’t know the subject matter well enough. In any case, no one expects science writing to be particularly well written. Clear(ish) and correct are good enough.

Instead, a copy editor will normally focus on things to make a piece of writing more “clean”—correcting grammar, spelling, punctuation, and some aspects of style and clarity. In addition, a copy editor for a periodical will make sure the articles follow the house style (like our house style that weirdly insists on spelling “e-mail” with a hyphen).

Coming from the other direction, as a writer, I’ve recently hired a copy editor to edit the collection of short stories I’m in the process of publishing. Now that I have experience as a copy editor from both sides, I’ll give a few examples here of both.

Much of what I do with medical manuscripts involves technical style changes, things that normal humans would find pretty dull. For instance, any time I see the word “diabetes” it always has to be referred to as “diabetes mellitus” (house style). We also have meticulous ways to use N dashes and italics for P values and…this is already more than you want to know.

Somewhat more interesting are changes I do for the sake of better English, and since our journal receives articles from all over the world, weird English can sometimes be an issue. As an example, this week I had the phrase “Contrarily, longitudinal studies have found that…” I got rid of “Contrarily”, because what the hell kind of word is that? I replaced it with “In contrast”. As a point of style, I also always change “utilize” to “use” since the word “utilize” is just a lazy way of saying “look how smart I am”.

Contrarily, let’s approach this process as a fiction writer working with a copy editor. Fortunately, for the book I’m working on, I’m very happy with my editor, and I’ve accepted almost every suggestion she has made, but here is one I did not. My sentence read: “Where yall going?” Fool asked.

The editor changed the pronoun spelling to “y’all” but I changed it back to remove the apostrophe. Her spelling is correct, showing the contraction of where the word comes from (you all), but I spell the word as it will be spelled in the future, with no apostrophe.

Here is another example, with my original sentence: “Afterward, they sat there with their purple tongues out, from eating popsicles, trying to catch star rays on the tips of their tongues.”

The editor’s suggestion was: “Afterward, they sat there holding out their tongues, purple from eating popsicles, trying to catch star rays on the tips.”

The most important change here is moving the word “purple” to the same phrase as “popsicles” for a nice repetition of sound. In addition, the sentence flows more smoothly by avoiding my original slight awkwardness of prepositional phrases “with… from…” and dropping the redundant second use of “tongues”.

From the brief examples I’m giving here, perhaps you can see the intricacy with which a copy editor might work with the text. When I write, I take a lot of pride in trying to produce tight, clean writing, and yet I’ve hired a copy editor to try to increase the quality. The work I do with the medical journal is different, but also aimed at the final quality of the published article.

And if you want to write but don’t want to be bothered with learning the craft, you can pay a copy editor to fix your sloppy mess. We’ll take your money.

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