Monthly Archives: May 2017

Revelatory Physiognomy

red truck

Hey, ladies!

I have a friend named . . . actually, “friend” is a substantial word, with robust implications. I save that word for just a few people. I have an acquaintance . . . but “acquaintance” means you know someone well. That would be stepping off the path of veracity here. There is someone whose existence I’m aware of, named Lester Ray, who comes to my house sometimes and sits on my porch. If I give him a beer or two or four, eventually he goes away. So we have our relationship.

I have never been able to verify whether Lester Ray has told me anything that would not hold up in court on a busy day. Thus the story I tell here has some statistical chance of truth. I would not condescend to pass on this parable except as it was related to me. I do not fabricate.

Lester Ray, that is, had reached the grievous conclusion that the romantic part of his life had ceased to entirely meet his needs, consisting, as it did, only of himself. He decided to participate in internet dating. People, I know, you are asking “Why would anyone do that?” I condescend to tell you only what I know. As I mentioned, I seldom fabricate.

Lester Ray, that is, signed up for an internet dating service. It required a profile. He created a profile. It required a statement of interests. He described his interests. It asked for a photo. Lester Ray, that is, did not include a photo. “My physiognomy is more revelatory in real life, in terms of my qualities,” he said. Who could deny such precision? I have known photographs that frightened small children, whereas the actual person only made them wary.

Women, that is, did not reply to the profile. Oh, people, the superficiality of this shallow world. I know you agree with me. Lester Ray decided that perhaps the description of his interests needed the piquant stimulus of visuality, so he posted a photo of his truck, a red Ford with a small green air freshener in the shape of a Christmas tree, hanging gladly from the rear view mirror. “Ladies,” that little tree promised, “here is where it smells good.”

Women, that is, still did not reply. Lester Ray had a brief sojourn in the vale of perplexity. Women like good smells, and they like a man with property, and he had illustrated both, so what was the impediment to romantic vivacity? Then Lester Ray remembered that of course, women love animals. So he added a picture of his dog, Jimgoober, a brilliant hound of grace and poise known by every mailman in the county. That is, Jimgoober had known his day, and the fact that his day was slightly expired was not the dog’s fault. If he still had hair, he would have been handsome.

Women, that is, grew even less interested, and one woman who had looked at Lester Ray’s profile wrote him to say that just in case he was thinking of it, she wanted to make sure he never contacted her. “You’re not the sort of man I would want to date,” she wrote, “or know casually, or see on the street, or be aware of in any way.” Some women don’t like dogs.

Lester Ray, in his observations of the human condition, had also noticed how much people are drawn to mysteries, so he decided to post a photo of himself with the added allure of enigma. The photo showed him standing somewhere that wasn’t clear, and in light that was not very bright, so it wasn’t possible to be certain that he had all the standard facial features. Which I happen to know he mostly does.

Women, by God, did not respond.

Lester Ray looked carefully over his profile, wondering where the deficit was most acute. Perhaps, he thought, it was the listing of his interests, insufficient in detail. He was fond of movies, for instance, but was that fact entirely clear? He took down all the other photos and posted a picture of the actor Brad Pitt, to show how much he enjoyed movies.

Women, that is, began to write him, and he would give them opportunities to observe his physiognomy in person. “But every woman who I set up a meeting with,” Lester Ray said, “would walk in, and before she said a word, she would turn around and leave.” It turns out none of them liked movies after all.

People, what would you do when faced with such a great riddle? Lester Ray and I both drank another beer.

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I’m a Relaxed Friendly Writer

smiling manThis past weekend I found myself surrounded by writers, a pleasant plethora of word wizards. If you’re not a writer yourself, you probably imagine such a gathering as a scene of gaiety, witticisms, and good subject-verb agreement. Which of course it was. We also all wore our white silk clothing with colored scarves and traded stories about what Princess Pittypatique of Belgium said last week, and oh, ha ha!, she even used the subjunctive mood. Quelle femme intelligente!

In our hearts, however, we just wanted to be sitting underneath a pergola covered with flowering vines drinking a good hoppy beer, or two. Or three. Or was that just me?

This event with the profusion of writers was the spring edition of the Atlanta Writers Club conference, which always occurs in a hotel down by the airport, right smackedy dab up against interstate 85. As conference hotels go, it’s fairly small, but I’m accustomed to rhetoric conferences with thousands of attendees, who, come to think of it, also trade stories about the subjunctive mood.

The hotel has a small lobby with a bar, so one of the basic necessities of life is met, and there is a frantically large TV in an enormous wooden frame nicer than any furniture I ever owned. I spent a good bit of time sitting in the lobby waiting for things I was going to attend, so I watched people, and occasionally pilots and stewardesses would walk by, on their way back to the airport. People on TV were trying to win prizes.

My reason for going to the conference was not to attend sessions that are intended to educate you on writing topics (such as “The Difference Between Story and Plot” or “Storytelling as Your Purpose”). I go to the conference to meet with agents or editors, to see whether they might be interested in a book I’ve written, and I think this was my fourth time attending. This year I even took Friday off work to attend—that’s just how dedicated I am to literature, right there.

I could tell you in detail about my experiences at the conference, with pitch letter critique! manuscript critique!!, the pitches themselves!!! But do you want to hear any of that? I know what I’m up against here. One click away on the web and you’re looking at pictures of kittens dressed up as pirates, and they’re soooo cuuuute!

So to speed up this conference stuff, I met with five people (agents or editors), and of the five, three of them said they’re interested and will look at part of the book. Score!! I mean, “score” relative to the endless process of talking to agents now and then, careful to enunciate clearly, always say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” and don’t look them in the eye or walk on the good carpet.

Score in that sense. But in the past I’ve made pitches for books when the agent shouted for the servants to release the dogs and I had to run for the gate. It was way better than that.

One of the things I like about attending this conference is that I always see my friend Terra, who I literally never see otherwise. She’s been an enthusiastic supporter of the book I’m still trying to market (The Invention of Colors), and she was one of my early readers for the book. At the conference I asked her if she’ll read the next book (Birds Above the Cage), so we’re going to trade again.

This year I also took Terra’s advice in signing up for everything I could that would let me meet someone, which is how I got in front of five people. I also paid $400 for that opportunity, but now that I can afford such things, I’m willing to spend the money on trying to interest someone in a book.

Friday evening there was a big ’ol friendly meet-and-greet in the small lobby between the bar and the gigantic TV, when us relaxed friendly writers could socialize in an informal setting with the agents and editors who held our fates in their hands. In the afternoon, I sat and waited four hours for that event, to say hello to the two people who I’d be talking to the next day. It was a long wait to spend a quick five minutes with each person, but I wanted to make a little human contact beforehand (I learned years ago to imitate human contact).

So I’ve sent off samples of the book, and I wait, and they will say what they say. How many times have I been here? Whatever they say, I will keep working, harder and harder, always more, never less. Someday, it will happen, and I am already making notes for the next novel I plan to write.

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Off Across the Desert

desert trainIn good weather, I always sit outside at lunch, with a blank book I use to write poetry, looking at the fountain near the table where I sit. A year or so ago I used to push myself to write poems, straining for ideas, so that I could read those poems at a poetry event I go to once a month. Then I realized that pushing myself to write wasn’t fun, and I said to hell with it. I’m not a poet. I don’t have to do this, and I stopped for several months.

I write poems now just for the pleasure of playing with words and ideas. As long as it’s fun, I write. If it stops being fun, I’ll stop. Sometimes I write down phrases, just seeing what I can come up with, and since it’s only a list, I never have to use them, but if a phrase strikes me, I’ll see if it goes anywhere.

Here are a few recent lines (that went nowhere):
• the volcano in your heart
• the shadows on the floor of people you once knew
• we’ll take the train to Mars one day and eat strawberries in the dining car
• we’ll make umbrellas of starlight and walk in the moonlit rain

A few days ago I wrote “Off across the desert, she hears the horn of the train” and with enough effort that did gradually go somewhere. Here’s where it went.

Esperanza Street

Off across the desert,
like a whisper from lost lands
she hears the train horn moaning far away.
In the pinkened early morning,
with the pale stars hanging on,
she gets up to wake her son,
hoping this time that he’ll stay at school all day.

Distant desert train horns
come like lizards, wind, and dust
to the flat adobe house
with a fountain standing dry out by the wall.
She sits a moment in her car
before she drives to work,
to think about her sister
with the baby in Chiapas near the church.

The train is on the river bridge
where boys take dares to jump.
She’s driving past the laundromat,
the place she worked a year ago,
then past a field of peppers,
hopeful green in early sun,
till she turns off from the bypass
heading toward the heart of town.

The bar comes down on Esperanza Street.
The heavy train clacks shudders rumbles through . . .
someday someday . . .
she’ll leave her job,
someday someday . . .
she’ll go back home,
someday someday . . .
she’ll make sweet cakes
in a bakery of her own.

The bar goes up, the train goes on,
she watches down the track,
then drives on to the hospital,
where she’ll wash the haunted sheets,
thinking back through better days
of papayas, waterfalls,
and an orchard where she played,
but her heart is on the train,
traveling free, traveling light,
as it slides off into morning,
and the whistle blows again.

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Filed under Not Real Poetry

I Am, Needless to Say, Perfect the First Time

ruined building and restored version

The revised version

Back when Fred and Wilma Flintstone still lived in Bedrock (the late 1970s), I was in college. While I was there, my college sponsored a science fiction convention, and since I was a fan, I attended. For the highlight of the convention, we brought in a very famous science fiction writer. I have just checked Wikipedia to learn that he is still alive, so I guess I won’t name him, though if you’re also a science fiction fan, you’d certainly know him.

At one of the talks given by the Famous Science Fiction Writer, he began telling us what a good writer he is, and he even at one point talked about his ability to write so well the writing wouldn’t need revision, and he could publish it like it was. He was so good, he said, that he didn’t necessarily need to revise.

I want to pause here to say that I have a theory about people who insist on telling you how wonderful they are (and by “theory” I mean bedrock truth). I’ve learned this truth from very close acquaintance with a family member who has illustrated it in detail. Anyone who feels compelled to tell you how good they are is actually seriously broken inside, cringing that anyone might discover the truth. Not that I’m going to name any presidents of the United States.

As it happens, the Famous Science Fiction Writer really is good at what he does, in spite of his obvious insecurity and loud insistence otherwise. But is it possible to be so good you don’t need to revise your writing?

I used to tell my students in first-year prisoner English class that anyone can write below their own level of ability. A college freshman can do it, a famous writer can do it. But to write the best you are capable of, you cannot do this, ever . . . EVER, if you do not revise. Now if lazy writing below your capacity is good enough, and sometimes, frankly, it is, then fine. Dash off an email. Post something on Twitter.

Writing is a complicated activity, requiring attention to many different things, such as the overall subject being written about, choosing which details to add, matching subjects and verbs, spelling the words correctly, getting the punctuation correct. The way the human mind operates, the way we focus, we cannot think about all of these things at the same time. Instead, we focus our attention, in a kind of jittery back and forth motion, on a couple of points, then stop and move to another: “Did I make the really important point I was thinking about a minute ago? Yes, oh, and is that word spelled right?”

Even if the writing process itself were not so inherently scattered, if you are doing the best you can do, that quality is created from repeatedly going over what you’ve written, to find a better sentence structure that you didn’t think of the first time, to add better details than you started with, to cut out something that you now realize isn’t working, and so on. This is real work. And humans are lazy, so it’s understandable why people don’t want to do this.

A friend who is a writer was just telling me about revising a novel she’s worked on for years, a book done in three sections. She has decided to discard one of the three sections, the middle of the book. If you’re not a writer, that probably sounds drastic, though it doesn’t sound that extreme to me. I know how hard it must have been for her to decide this, as I know her well enough to know what an emotional connection she would have to that section. I also think the book will be much more focused and thus improved.

The novel I’m currently revising has been through a similar process, with similar extensive cutting. As I was reading over the book to begin the revision process, considering what I might do with it, I went from thinking “this is a useless, irredeemable mess” to thinking “well, the parts with the two female characters sort of have something in common” and I wondered what if that was all that was there. If I cut out the male characters (half the book), what would happen? I tried it, and suddenly the book made more sense. That was the first step in a long process toward a better book.

Back in those long-gone days when my college held the science fiction convention, I knew that I was supposed to revise writing. My understanding of revision in those days, though, was to change a sentence here and there. It took me many years to realize that the best way to revise is to love what you write, then kill it if you have to.

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