Category Archives: Writing While Living

Blog entries about my life as a writer. This category is purely egotistical. All the other categories of Write Or Take a Nap? are for the benefit of humankind.

The Wrong World

painting of man writingI hear tell that there are people who go to work and love it. Their job is fascinating. Famous actors, maybe (I’m assuming). Some scientists, I guess, discovering cool things. Or accountants (a little sarcasm—although I had a student once who said “Accounting is is my blood” and I thought Whaaaa? Doesn’t “in my blood” refer to passion? And yet you said accounting, so I’m confused.)

For most of us, though, even if you’re so lucky that your job is OK, like me, my job is very much OK, it’s still a job. I mean, it’s a way to earn money. Maybe you work in a hair salon, or for an advertising agency. I help to edit a very good medical journal in rheumatology, and there are times—I’m not making this up—when our authors don’t seem all that different to me from the college freshmen who I used to teach. Sometimes I read something an author wrote and I think Where the fuck did you see this done on the planet earth that you think this is OK? For instance, someone will write “. . . patient-reported results(since 2006) . . .” with no space before the parenthesis. How can you be a literate adult and do that?

My job is tedious and kind of dull a lot of the time. I even wrote down an example a few days ago. I found the acronym NRS and I thought OK, what does that stand for? Numerical Rating Scale, so that has to be spelled out first, and should it be capitalized? And should there be brackets around the letters NRS, because blah blah blah . . . maybe I’ll shoot myself. No, it’s not as bad as shoot myself, it’s only as bad as get up and go to the breakroom for more coffee.

The high point of the day is often lunch, not so much because I’m not working, but because during lunch I read novels as well as work on writing poems. In other words, I’m briefly in another world, the world where I ought to be all the time, a world of creativity. I’ve always felt this way, that I live in the wrong world, the one where you have to earn a living, like a normal person. I’m not, however, a normal person. I’m a writer.

I don’t merely want to not work. Everyone wants to not work. But I have something to do, something I have to do. Since I have almost no time for what matters to me, I write as I can, when I can, which means that I write mostly in the evenings. Now that I live across the street from my job and can sleep later, I work until around 11:00 every evening. As I write this, it’s 10:24 in the evening. Are you sitting at your computer at 10:24 in the evening working? A normal person, at least a normal American, is watching TV.

What would it be like to write when you’re not tired? I hardly know. I’ve written multiple novels, but for every one of them, I wrote most of it when I was tired.

My fantasy of living only in a world of ideas and creativity extends to the chores and housework that lie there taunting me, nudging their bits of squalor and chaos further into the room the longer I ignore them. Sometimes I think Why are these socks that I washed on Sunday still lying here in a pile on Tuesday, not put away? And so on. You know how it is, perhaps. I get to wondering why I have to think about socks instead of what my literary characters are doing. Why do I have to wash dishes? Why doesn’t someone clean this bathtub, goddamnit? Just not me.

Occasionally I think about other writers, and what their lives were like. Leo Tolstoy, lucky bastard, was rich, nobility in fact, so he could spend his time any way he wanted. Most writers are not nobility (or even particularly noble). The other great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, was not only poor but thrown into prison by his despicable government. Edgar Allen Poe was poor and basically died in a gutter.

So OK, I’m way better off than that. I have a nice apartment, I can go to movies or out to dinner sometimes, and in the evenings I can write freely, even if I’m tired. I should count my blessings, yeah? I do, I think. I am grateful. Nevertheless, I live in the wrong world. I want to spend my time creating worlds and people that didn’t exist until I used words to bring them into reality. And I don’t live there.

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OK, OK, Here’s What I Know

Little White House

Little White House

If you’ve spent much time hanging around writer clichés, then you’ve heard the stupid nonsense “Write what you know”. It’s not that knowing what you’re writing about is nonsense. That seems reasonable enough. But people who write badly, or who don’t even write at all, will use that phrase to mean “Limit yourself” or, in the expanded version, “Pretend that with your limited talent, you can turn your dull life into something worth reading about.”

Had Shakespeare taken this advice, there would be no books in the library about the sources he used for writing his plays, nor would there be a play called “Hamlet”, since Shakespeare was neither a prince nor Danish. Stupid Shakespeare.

In reality, writers often do research, and then they write what they know, because now they know new stuff. Some writers, who actually have both time and money (I know—I can’t picture that either) will even fly to other countries to do research. Here in my limited world, we take a Saturday that suddenly turns out to be free because we went grocery shopping the day before, and we drive somewhere close.

About two hours southwest of Atlanta there is a little town called Warm Springs. The place acquired this name because—are you ready?—there are springs there that bubble up with warm water. Back in the 19th century people decided this warm mineral water might cure things. The town is famous now, to the extent that it is, because in 1924, Franklin Delano Roosevelt went there, before he was President, hoping to find relief from polio. Later he built a house and went there repeatedly after he was elected President, so eventually his small house became known as the Little White House. He also died there.

For the book I’m currently working on, Moonapple Pie, I’ve gotten the notion to briefly include Roosevelt as a character, more of a secondary character, in conversations with one of my real protagonists. I sort of figured, well, as long as he’s in Georgia anyway. And I want to set some scenes of my book in that little house in Warm Springs, so I knew at some point I’d need to go see it. This past Saturday, one of the coolest days we’ve had this fall, I went to Warm Springs.

I don’t know how many people go there to visit that little house, but Roosevelt seems to still have a huge influence on the town. Granted, it’s a small village. Downtown is one block long. I saw an alley between two buildings, fixed up nicely and called Eleanor’s Alley. Across the street was a store called Delano’s something or other, I forget exactly. The restaurant downtown where I had lunch was decorated with many large black and white photos of Roosevelt. (Lunch was southern cooking buffet, as in fried green tomatoes, black-eyed peas, biscuits, and so on.)

A short distance down the road from the center of the village is the estate, if one might so call it, of Roosevelt, consisting of his little house, a guest house and house for servants, both quite small, and now with an added museum. I had two purposes in going there: (1) to generally learn whatever I might, as some things could be useful and you don’t necessarily know what they will be, and (2) to inspect the room in the Little White House where I want to set scenes of my book, to make notes of what the place looks like and what it might have been like to be there.

As an example, I noted that there is a stone fireplace that runs from floor to ceiling, and on each side of it are built-in book cases. I might use that information simply as a description of the place, to give a sense of the room, or I might decide to have a fire burning or someone will take a book down from the shelf. As a different example, on entering the house through the kitchen (as tourists do now), one comes through a little pantry sort of area where all the glassware is stored. I had been thinking that my character might be asked to get President Roosevelt a glass of whiskey, and if I end up doing that, now I know where she’ll get the glass.

I also think going somewhere provides a sense of a place that you don’t get otherwise, such as the feeling of the wooded hillside, the small towns in the area, or the agricultural and rural nature of the region. For that matter, there is a sense of the house itself, with its dark wooden interior, or on the outside seeing the Marine sentry guard posts that were used at the time, which I probably wouldn’t have given any thought to if I hadn’t gone there.

To the extent that I’m able, I’ve always done this kind of research, which I think is important. Twenty years ago, when I first began working on the book I’ve just finished (Birds Above the Cage), I visited both a strip club and a monastery, as I use both of them as settings in that novel.

I’ve also learned, I hope, that in doing research I have to be careful not to let what I learn take over the book and overwhelm it with detail. That’s definitely been a problem for me in the past. So maybe I’ll leave out the Marine guard posts. I’ll just keep the little glass of whiskey.

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Breathe In and Be Human

woman breathingIn the Russian language, the word for “soul” (душа) is related to the word “breath” (дышать), perhaps because when the breath leaves, the soul is assumed to have left as well. Our English word soul doesn’t evoke breathing, but when we use the word “expire”, from Latin meaning “to breathe out”, the word means to die.

What about when we breathe in?

When we breathe in—inspiration—we’re not only filled with air, but with life, with something that is essential to being human. Human beings create. The oldest cave paintings go back 40,000 years (and we think 2,000 is old with the Roman empire). Aside from wall art, consider the people who decided they could take pieces of plants or rocks and put them together to create a place to live inside, blocking out animals and weather. A house is not an obvious thing to build if you’ve never seen one. It was a human creation.

I can understand why the Greeks came up with the idea (created it, that is) of Muses, goddesses who provided a supernatural source of inspiration. Because who can explain it? Where does inspiration come from? I’ll give a example that I experienced this week.

I was reading about a study called the Nurses’ Health Study, which looked at more than 120,000 female nurses in the United States for a variety of health conditions (the nurses were surveyed every two years beginning in 1976). The thing I was reading was concerned with women who got rheumatoid arthritis and continue to smoke.

As I read this very technical and abstract piece, I was wondering why someone would smoke in the first place, why someone working in the healthcare field would smoke, and why someone diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis would continue to smoke. Suddenly I had an impulse to write about a nurse who learned she had rheumatoid arthritis, to write about who she was and what happened to her.

That sudden moment . . . that was inspiration. The desire to describe this woman came to me suddenly, at an unexpected moment, almost unrelated to what I was doing, yet there it was. What if I pursued that inspiration? Suppose it’s 1980, the nurse is named Bettina, and she’s thirty-nine years old. For no apparent reason, let’s say she works at a hospital in Reno, Nevada. Her father from Connecticut was in the Air Force and her mother was half Shoshone Indian from Nevada, but Bettina’s mother died when Bettina was ten, and she grew up without knowing much about that part of her background.

Bettina began smoking when she was a teenager, as she went through a rough period with no mother. She was hanging out with other kids, which made her feel like she belonged, and they all smoked because—obviously—it was such a cool thing to do. Since she began smoking as a child, she became addicted to tobacco and continued to smoke as an adult (exactly how the tobacco companies hope it will happen). Smoking also gave her pleasure and helped her deal with stress, such as when her father died of pancreatic cancer ten years later, or when she was studying for exams in nursing school.

Twice Bettina has tried to quit smoking, just after she got married to Jack, an electrician who mostly works at the casinos, and again when her daughter, Tracy (now twelve years old), was born. One spring Bettina starts to notice that when she wakes up in the morning her shoulders and elbows are feeling stiff, more than she thinks they should at her age, and her hands seem a little swollen sometimes. By summer she’s feeling enough pain that she decides to go to the doctor, who does tests and tells her she has a disease no one knows the cause of and that there is little treatment for at that time.

Bettina goes home and cries with Jack. She’s still young! Isn’t this an old person’s disease? Nurses move around a lot, and they need free use of their hands, their arms, everything. What’s going to happen? Will she become incapacitated and not be able to work? This is not a time when Bettina is going to increase her stress by trying to give up smoking. The calming effect of a cigarette, in fact, helps her to deal with this awful news.

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

This is one of the places inspiration can go. A person appears out of nowhere, and from the inspiration, we can try to feel another human life.

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Still Waiting

birthday cake candlesThere are moments when I live in the future.

I went last Sunday to a birthday party with quite a crowd, including people from the United States, Europe, and China (perhaps other places as well). In our birthday crowd were white and black and Asian, young and old, men and women, and gay and straight. We talked and moved from one little group to another all evening, happy with a table full of food and birthday cake and a watermelon carved into decorative shapes.

This cheerful mix of people is where our country is headed. I know, at the moment, this peaceful interaction of human beings is not where we appear to be going. We are witnessing a remarkable viper’s head of ugliness and intolerance, manifested in the election of Donald Trump. As bad as the situation looks at the moment, that election (to oversimplify somewhat) was part of the last gasp of angry old white people. They have honest grievances, but they are also deeply wrong in some of the expression of those grievances. Nevertheless, the world I experienced at the birthday party is our future.

It is not enough, however, to sit and wait for the future. Harriett Beecher Stowe did not wait for slavery to go away of its own accord, as entrenched and inevitable as slavery seemed in her world. Simone de Beauvoir did not wait for men to gradually realize that women are human beings, as brutish and dim as society was then in recognizing the humanity of women. As a writer, it is my intention to reach toward the future, to help imagine that world where black and white and gay and straight no longer exist as social ideas, a world where we become able to see each other as fellow human beings.

Walking toward the future can be exhausting and demoralizing some days. I don’t deny that. At times I feel the way the Renaissance writer Erasmus might have felt sitting at his desk contemplating whether human beings have free will, then looking out his window and seeing a howling mob passing in the street carrying torches. The most recent howling mob with torches was in Charlottesville, Virginia, a mob who our own astonishing president showed sympathy toward.

What can I do? I’m not a politician to write laws or make deals, I’m not a sociologist to analyze social ills, I’m not a spiritual leader to promote higher ideals. I will use what I have, and when everything else I have is gone away, I’m a writer. The day I die, the world will still be filled with injustice and oppression, and then it will be for people in those days to fight it. Right now it’s my turn, and while I’m here, I will fight for a just and decent world with what I have, as a writer.

One person abused anywhere on this planet because of their race or culture or religion is too many.

One person abused anywhere on this planet because of sex or sexual orientation is too many.

One person shamed and limited anywhere on this planet by social rules is too many.

Creating a bright world of people who respect and love one another is difficult, and when I read the news, it sounds impossible. And there is little I can do. I’m only a writer, and I am unknown. But I will go on, because I have lived briefly in the future, and we will like it when we get there.

 

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About the Meaning of Life

plate of chilesThere’s not one.

However . . . it’s not as bleak as it sounds. Who would have thought we would have adverbs to thank for rescuing us from a world of existential vacuity? The savior adverbs, stepping down in glory from the Grammar Book of Heaven, are “inherently” and “just”.

Let’s see this magic at work. There’s not inherently a meaning of life, and There’s not just one meaning of life.

The first statement, of course, sounds a bit pessimistic, what with the idea that life as we find it has no meaning, simply embodying the old adage “First you suffer, then you die.” OK, well, that’s still true, but that first statement leads us on to the second, that there is not just one meaning of life—there are many.

I would be understanding if you were to squint your eyes in that suspicious way you have, thinking So all this time I was asking, where were those meanings? Here’s the hard part—and seriously, why does there always gotta be a goddamn hard part?—you have to discover an individual meaning of life just for yourself. I know that’s not an ideal answer, but it’s better than no meaning, right? For some people the meaning of life might be, I don’t know, learning to cook great Mexican food, or playing basketball, or teaching fifth grade. None of that is my thing, but it might be yours.

A week ago I finished writing a novel, so I sort of knew this was coming. I write the way a drug addict takes drugs, not necessarily for the pleasure of it, but to maintain the illusion of balance and normality. You got heroin, I got Microsoft Word. Which is worse? I can go for a while and not write, but then I get kind of irritable and start to ask, “Good God, what am I getting out of bed for?” When I ain’t writing, I ain’t thriving.

So a week ago, as I said, I finished writing a novel. Since then, every evening I’m sitting here finding ways to pass the time. If I were a normal person—but note, I’m a writer—I’d have a TV and I could kill time the way normal people do, happily, contentedly, flowing through every evening, right up to bedtime, with stories of medieval(ish) Britain, or women in prison, or history shows about ancient Egypt or World War II.

Instead, I started writing a short story, just to let myself do it, because writing is what makes life meaningful for me. I don’t expect to publish the story, as the literary magazines have all seen the memo to avoid me like a rat jumping off a ship from Constantinople in 1348.

It might sound strange, and honestly it even seems kind of strange to me, but when I work on this story (about a man who can see memories that have floated away from people, and he writes them down), while I’m writing, I begin to feel the most contented and at home in the world that I’ve felt all day. Life has meaning.

So if you’re not a writer, I hope you find the thing that does that for you. If cooking Mexican food is your thing, call me, and I’ll help you out with getting rid of it. I really don’t mind doing that for you.

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More Champagne

glasses of champagneThe first time I finished writing a novel, lo them many years ago, I wanted to call all my friends together and have dinner and celebrate the great occasion. I felt sure I had done something huge and serious and people should join me in commemoration of greatness.

Many years later, having written two or three more books in the meantime, I finished writing another novel, and that time I went out to dinner by myself. It happened that there was no one convenient then to go out with me, but still I wanted to do something nice to mark the occasion.

This past Sunday evening, I finished a book that I’ve mentioned here a few times, one I’ve been revising for a while. This time celebrating didn’t really seem possible, no one to go out with, trying to conserve money, and in any case, the next day was Monday and I had to go to work. It’s also true, unlike years ago, that now I can go out to a restaurant if I want to, and I do. Back in the days when I finished writing that first book, eating in a nice restaurant (or any restaurant) was a major and extravagant event.

The book I just finished was twenty years in the writing, beginning back in 1997. It was hardly a novel then, just six separate stories about different characters, linked slightly, but I called it a novel. In the ensuing twenty years, I’ve revised the book three times, each time involving drastic reconsideration, removing characters, adding characters, and throwing away a lot of what I had written.

For the current revision, again I threw out about half the book and brought back a character who had been removed the last time. What was left I cut into pieces and put together with new material. Approximately the second half of the book did not exist before, so from the middle on, I was really writing a new book. In this version, I removed a major character entirely, and another major character now has a supporting role.

As I often do with book names, I labored mightily for years trying to come up with a title, and in different versions the name has changed over time: The Cost of Music, The Land of Melancholy Spices (OK, I liked it at the time), and now it’s called Birds Above the Cage. In effect, however, those were three different books.

The next step is now to find a few people willing to read the novel and give me feedback. I know that asking for a critique of a novel is asking a lot, and ideally I’d like to have people who read literary fiction and may have a better understanding of what I’m trying to do. In the past, I’ve asked someone to read a book who said yes and never did, I’ve asked someone who said yes and months later had not touched it, then seemed irritated when I asked, and I’ve had someone  offer to help and ask to read a book, and even after that never did. Nothing about this process is easy, not in my house, anyway.

I thought I would end this blog entry with the opening paragraph of Birds Above the Cage:

“We think that the ghosts who roam the earth would be immune to natural disasters. For most disasters, such as earthquakes, tidal waves, or broken hearts, no doubt the ghosts are unaffected. A tornado, however, is such a violent force that even ghosts can get caught up in it. It can’t hurt them, but it will whirl them away, sometimes by the hundreds, translucent spirits of the dead whipped and whirled around and around by those powerful winds, helpless apparitions circling off across the countryside. The tornado that hit Gainesville, Georgia, in 1936 like a giant bomb sucked up all the ghosts in Hall County and integrated them in the maelstrom, made those black and white ghosts equal before the wind.”

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Where You From, Boy?

little boy eating watermelon

And then we used the garden hose

There are various ways to put writers in boxes. One day Charles Dickens might be in the British writer box, sitting there chatting with Jane Austen or even Kate Atkinson (using a time machine). Then suddenly the box is white male writers, and Charles is looking around wondering where Jane got off to, while Hemingway is there going on about some fish.

Most writers don’t love the boxes. In general, women writers don’t want to be known as women writers, but as writers. After all, we create because No One Is Quite Like Us. One of the possible boxes people might put me in is one I’ve always considered myself outside of—southern writers. After all, I’ve lived large parts of my life outside the south, and what I write about isn’t just this region.

And yet, here I am in Atlanta, at least for now. I was born and grew up an hour from here, going barefoot on a farm and eating watermelon from my grandfather’s field (I could invoke other cliched rural imagery if needed). The fact is, to be a serious fiction writer, we write about human behavior and aspirations as truly as we know how, which we partly know as an aspect of where we come from.

I would guess that the majority of writers write about the place where their feet are standing, and this has been true of me as well. At the moment I’m finishing one novel and getting ready to begin another, and lately I’ve been thinking about the place where my feet are standing, about southern culture, both current and past, about southern history, and about the depth of our sins here.

Last weekend I had several days of vacation on the coast, at Hilton Head Island and in the town of Beaufort, South Carolina, and in Savannah, Georgia. These places are historically and culturally captivating and within an hour’s drive of one another. I spent plenty of time doing the vacation thing, drinking beer, drinking coffee, drinking more beer, and I also went bike riding, just barely saw an alligator, and climbed up to the top of a lighthouse.

Besides gators and beers, I came home contemplating southern history and culture. While riding a bike on Hilton Head, for instance, my friend and I stopped to see the Baynard plantation house ruins. It was a reminder that this island, now so developed as a vacation spot, was once a site with wealthy plantation owners, agriculture, and slave laborers. Among the ruins at the Baynard house are the remains of slave quarters, and all the ruins are made of a common coastal building material called “tabby” that contains oyster shells. For me, that one fact intimately ties the slave economy to the coastal region.

While I was in Beaufort, I was also reminded of the darkness of southern history (I don’t mean to imply that all history isn’t dark). Nearby, on St. Helena Island, is a place called the Penn Center, founded by Pennsylvania Quakers as a school for slave children. What makes the school even more interesting is that it was begun in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, for children freed by Union troops on those islands.

When I look at all of this history—moreso, when I feel all of this history—as a writer I think that I come from a place where there is a lot to be said still. For one thing, as a culture, the south has not seriously dealt with the horror of our history regarding slavery and racism. That is yet to come.

But I want to illustrate an additional point of view. While on vacation, I had a meal in an upscale restaurant, with food based on traditional southern cuisine, and the meal was so good I wondered how it was even possible for food to have that much flavor. In Beaufort, I saw the paintings of local artists and drank the beer of local breweries. One afternoon in Savannah, I sat under oak trees hung with Spanish moss, drinking coffee and looking across the square at the house of Flannery O’Connor, a writer of Irish background.

My point is that the south has been a horrible place, and yet it can be a righteously wonderful place. If I consider myself a southern writer, I wonder if this doesn’t give me something in common with Irish writers, who might say “We come from a place that has been fucked up beyond any rational comprehension, and yet we are tied to it and love so much about it.”

The American south can evoke those same feelings. That may be useful for a writer.

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