Monthly Archives: November 2016

Pumpkin Pie Like Heaven’s Velvet

slice of pumpkin pie

Like that

In honor of the Holiday of Feasts and Family Felicity (I mean Thanksgiving, in case you didn’t recognize it), I want to tell you a true story from my youth-hood long, long ago. When I say I want to tell you a “true” story, of course, I mean whatever pretense pops into my head in a random sequence.

I was thirteen at the time. My Uncle Wallow had come down to Georgia from Chattanooga to spend a few days for Thanksgiving. Uncle Wallow grew up with Mama, and they were both from here in Whatapig, Georgia, but he was invariably telling people he was from Tennessee. My uncle was a pillar of steadfast fabrication, resisting the winds of truth, however strong they blew.

“Wallow, damn it,” Mama said one Thanksgiving morning. “You’re from Tennessee as much as that dog is from the moon.” Mama was looking at Hotdog Happy Bonaparte, our cockapoo.

“Hildy,” Uncle Wallow said, “I wish you would leave the dog out of it. He hasn’t done you any harm except for that one bite two years ago. And you can look at him and see how tired he is. The heavy gravity is hard on him here, after growing up on the moon.”

“He might be from the moon,” I said. “He’s always howling at it like he wants to go back.”

“Yeah,” my sister said. “And he likes cheese.”

Mama looked at Uncle Wallow, then at the rest of us, and said, “Right about this minute as I’m standing here, you all are giving me the creeping jeepers. If you want Thanksgiving dinner, there’s a store down the road and black-eyed peas and cheddar cheese in the fridge. I’m going to Millie’s. Don’t follow me.” And off she went.

My sister looked astonished, staring around the room, but she always kind of looks that way, how she keeps her mouth half open, and her eyes have that odd look. “Who’s gonna cook?” she said. “I don’t know how. And that cheese is old, by the way.”

“We’re better off,” said Uncle Wallow. “That woman is like a police dog at a cat show, can’t anybody just relax when she starts barking.” He walked over and looked in the refrigerator, then said to me and my sister, “You’re in for a treat, because I’m gonna make Thanksgiving dinner. I took classes at a cooking school in Chattanooga.”

I can only speak for my own perception of events there, but I was thinking, Now wait a minute.

By chance, Uncle Wallow did wait a minute, thinking about something, probably. Then he said, “We’re gonna need to go to the store, though.” We hauled off down the road, and an hour later we were home with bags of food that demonstrated considerable hope and optimism, as the food in the bags was raw.

Uncle Wallow started pulling things out, and said, “We need to get this turkey going first thing. It’s kind of small, but there’s only three of us. One of those petite gobblers.”

“Hey,” my sister said, “that’s a duck, not a turkey.”

“A duck?” said Uncle Wallow. “Somebody must have switched it on me, the wretched snakes of deceit. Well, ducks are only used in Chinese cooking, so we won’t need that. I guess we’ll just have to do without the turkey. Most people prefer side dishes anyhow.”

Here’s what we made for Thanksgiving dinner: potatoes boiled over on the stove; canned green beans that were sort of mashed up from being pulled out with a fork, because the can opener broke with the can only partly open; a squash casserole that was kind of watery, after we added too much mushroom soup; brown and serve rolls that were hard and black from being forgotten in the oven.

Here’s what we ate for Thanksgiving dinner: microwaved bowls of black-eyed peas, and we gave the cheese to Hotdog Happy Bonaparte.

When Mama came home, she opened more windows to get the smoke out and gave us all a piece of pumpkin pie she brought from Millie’s house. Nobody in Whatapig, Georgia, makes better pumpkin pie than Millie.

Happy Thanksgiving, yall.

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Let’s Make a Thousand Years of Art

young girl sitting on a bedI’m pausing the writing blog this week to ponder a question that does involve writing, but not writing alone. Last weekend I visited several art galleries, to ask when they are having openings, as I wanted to go and meet some of the artists. In one of the galleries, I got into a discussion with the woman working there about art and civilization. I’m not sure exactly how that conversation got started, but that’s how I am. I’ll talk about stuff like that.

In the conversation, I told her an idea I’ve mentioned before on this blog, that I think human beings could become civilized some day, and if we do, it will be because of art. Whether art could be the path that leads us there, for her, was a moot point, as she declared a belief that we are not capable of being civilized.

Her view was something along the lines of “People are too inherently bad” to ever really be civilized. I can’t disagree about human capacity for badness. The physical nature of our existence, with all its discomfort, pain, and distress (and that’s if you have a good life), combined with our spirits that rebel against those things, can lead us—very easily—into abusing one another as well as ourselves. It is as though, just because we are born, we thrash about angrily: “What the fuck is this? I don’t want to be sick! I don’t want to be lonely! I don’t want to grow old!”

That basic dilemma cannot be changed. Does it mean, then, as my art gallery interlocutor said, that human beings will not ever attain civilization?

I replied that in the long run, I think we can. I don’t say definitely will, but can. And when I say “long run” I mean something like a thousand years from now. That sounds impossibly distant to us, but after all, such a time will come. I do believe that art will be the path, by which I mean real art, not propaganda produced by government or corporations, but creations from the heart.

Some forms of art we’ve known for centuries, even thousands of years: epic poetry, songs, dances, theater, sculpture. Based on some of these early forms of art, other forms have been invented in recent centuries: novels, opera, symphonic music, graphic novels, movies. There certainly are artforms yet to come. And of course there are things like architecture, gardening, interior design, clothing, that can be art as well. A joy of creation can be expressed in many ways.

If we can become civilized (which we so obviously are not at the moment), what would that be? I can’t see a thousand years ahead, so I don’t know all that might be done. This is a good spot to use a quote I wrote down a couple of nights ago, lying now on my desk, from a song by Ryan Adams: “You can’t see tomorrow with yesterday’s eyes.”

I have yesterday’s eyes, but one thing I know absolutely, that the most basic aspect of civilization will be that every human being is valued for who they are born to be, that every human is allowed to express their nature and feel joy in their own existence. So much of the stupidity that litters our own society at the moment, in our bigoted attitudes toward what we call “race”, toward ethnicity, toward gender, toward sexuality—a civilized people will have to look at us with pity for the darkness we live in. As long as we live in that darkness, we don’t care that some people are poor, that some people are hungry, that some have no health care, that some are afraid others will harm them.

I have hope, however. I will say it in an art gallery. I will say it on a blog. Because of art we will get there. If you have an urge to create, then do it, and don’t wait. Paint a picture. Plant a garden. Decorate your living room the way you really want it to look. And encourage your children.

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Labor On, Word Boy

writer with his hand on his head

But is anyone going to read this?

It was quite the literary cornucopia around here last weekend. You know what I mean? Pointy basket lying on the ground with apples and beer bottles and paperback novels falling out of it. And of course when I say “literary” I mean marketing, or to use the more technical phrase, “begging for attention”.

I took part in two different conventions last weekend, in my capacity as a writer who ain’t nobody, hardly. The meeting I spent the most time at, thanks very much to my publicist, was a fantasy convention called Conjuration. If you’re a huge fan of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or Star Trek or. . .Harry Potter, this was your meeting. And did I mention Harry Potter?

I don’t write those sorts of book, but I ain’t no fool either—I mean, not always, you know, about everything—and I’ll take whatever publicity I can get. Because I had allowed the convention people to use the space I rented a month ago for the book release party, they gave me a speaking slot at the opening ceremony. Thus I had the new experience of being introduced as a writer, going up to the stage in front of 300-400 people in a ballroom, to talk a bit. I wanted to be entertaining, so I took a pointed stick and a bag of dirt, but you needed to be there for that. I also tried to make sure the audience knew my name and the name of my new book (which is I’d Tear Down the Stars, just to make sure).

Before this occasion, when was the last time I stood in front of a ballroom of people saying, “Look at me, I’m a writer”? Never. Next to one of the meeting rooms was a rather large banner with (1) my photo, looking as good as I’m able, and I can’t help those limitations, and (2) a photo of the book. In addition, I was part of a table where my publicist was selling books of various people he works with. I sold a few, too, not many, but when you’re nobody, a few is OK. Right? Don’t tell me otherwise.

Regarding the convention in general, half the people there were in costume, including some striking, interesting outfits, some people carried short pointy sticks (“wands”) and some of them wore masks. I saw a young woman in the hotel restaurant keep her mask on while she was ordering dinner. People were having fun, there was music, they played games, they had drinks, they ate candy. I helped out with the drinking part.

In addition to the Conjuration meeting, completely by coincidence, the Atlanta Writers Club had their conference the same weekend, and I also went to that on Saturday afternoon for a few hours. If anyone was having fun there, it was a far more subtle form of fun. People were working there, but because we’re all writers at that meeting, we’re cool and impersonating confident, contented word artists. Ha ha, I’m so funny, so relaxed.

I went to the writers meeting because I’m trying to sell the novel I just finished, The Invention of Colors. This meeting brings in literary agents and editors from yon distant mecca of literary success and fame glitter. You knew I was talking about New York City there, right? I signed up ahead of time, or rather, I paid ahead of time, to meet with one agent and one publisher.

And I’ll tell ya, it went very well (i.e., what we call “well” in the brutal business of refined literature). The agent, who really seemed very pleasant, began by fairly meticulously critiquing my pitch letter describing the book (they call it “pitch letter” because you want to pitch yourself out a window when you have to write one). I figured, OK, she’s going to so much trouble to tell me how I should have written this, instead of how I did write it, that she’s going to say no. Then she told me I can send her the first 50 pages. Such an invitation, as it happens, is a very, very, very long way from “I’ll be your agent”—and yet it is well down the road from “No, thanks”.

An hour and a half later, I talked with the editor, from HarperCollins, and she said she liked the sound of the book and was interested. HarperCollins, however, has a company rule that she can only take manuscripts from literary agents, not from the unwashed, unpleasant writers who write them. (I added those adjectives, she didn’t spell that part out.)

So, if I can find an agent, the editor is waiting. Now when I send 50 pages to the agent, I will tell her that an editor already wants to see this novel. Will that be a magic charm and make it happen? I don’t know. Maybe I should have brought one of those wands from the Harry Potter people.

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

Now I Know My ABCs

wooden alphabet blocks

Let’s see what we can make out of this.

A couple of weeks ago I went to an event where I had been asked to come read some poems I’d written, and afterward someone asked me and the other poet questions that I suppose you might pose to a writer. Unless my memory is leading me astray (but what are the chances that’s going to happen, huh?), we were asked when we began writing.

When we began?

I’m inclined to give an answer that sounds smartass, but for a change I don’t mean it that way. I started writing in first grade. I still remember my teacher teaching us the alphabet, like a priestess, unawares, opening up the most powerful secrets in the universe to a room of six-year-olds. When she was done, there we were, our tiny hands holding the keys to open the doors that hold everything.

The reason I’m not being a smartass here is that I don’t remember when I started writing. Did I start? Was there a time when I didn’t write and then I began? I’m sure I never made a decision to be a writer. Nowadays I wish I could remember some sort of epiphany of inspiration, a moment when I thought, “Ohhh, this is what I want to do!” That could be a cool story, but it didn’t happen.

My mother used to keep scraps of evidence thrown up by the world as proof her children had done clever things, or at least something slightly interesting. One of the things she saved was a letter I wrote that was published in the local newspaper. My epistle was a letter to Santa Claus, written in third or fourth grade, and on the one hand this was evidence that our local newspaper would publish damn near anything. At the same time, my letter involved more than hoping for a bag of puppies and a BB gun, as it mentioned wishing something for Russia and China. (Whatever I was hoping they would get, they probably still don’t have it.)

A few years later in life, I moved closer toward my future career as a jack-of-all-crapjobs, poorly paid writer. I don’t know how old I was, but it was not more than sixth grade, and without being required to, I wrote my first short story. This literary jewel concerned a rich man who died in a car wreck and on his car radio some ironic song was playing. I could not have described the song as ironic, as it was many years later before I finally figured out what that baffling word “irony” actually meant.

For all I know, I’m making a false assumption here, thinking these two examples show how I was unusually interested in writing from a very young age. My assumption is that other kids my age weren’t doing the same thing, and I don’t actually know that. Maybe we all wanted to write, but other people stopped wanting to.

By high school I could describe what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a writer. At that age I guess you don’t normally say you are a writer, but rather you want to be one, as if it’s something that you’ll do some day, but not yet. I knew I wanted it, though, and it seemed like the natural trajectory I had been following already for years.

And then right after high school I stepped boldly toward my destiny and began writing a novel—about a boy who was in high school. And you’re thinking “How is he not embarrassed to write that down and tell people?” Gaahh-jeez, that sounds like a terrible idea for a book. Indeed. And God saved me from that drivel after only a hundred pages. In my defense, I will point out that any idea I could have had at the age of nineteen would have been terrible. I was learning my craft, however, which included one afternoon when I sat pulling novels off my bookshelf, going to the last page, to see how many pages a novel was supposed to have.

When did I begin writing? I think it’s a reasonable question, but I don’t have an answer. Or I want to give an exaggeratedly symbolic answer, one of the things I’ve learned to do as a writer.

I was in the womb waiting for the alphabet.

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