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.

I Will Go Down to the Amethyst Ocean

purple oceanCan words really describe our lives?

I was listening to the REM song “Losing My Religion”, and it captured some of what I think of life, both in content and in the feeling you get from the song. “That was just a dream. That’s me in the corner.” The song makes me think of the question up above, but I think of that question also in part because when I write, that’s what I’m trying to do, describe life.

I’m not wondering whether words can be used to describe a moment or a feeling, because I think they can. What I’m thinking, as absurd as it seems to me, is whether words can capture what it is like to be human here on the earth, in this existence.

That, I believe, cannot be done. The slightest consideration shows how vast and impossible it would be. Would I describe an old woman who is widowed and cleans a church in Venice, Italy, in the Middle Ages, how she looks up every day at the sad eyes of the Virgin Mary on one of the statues? Would I describe a young man learning to fish from his father, living on a small pacific island where he has never heard of other places, the way the young man loves the feeling of his canoe gliding across the water? Would I describe a banker in Chicago being driven to work by his chauffeur in the 1950s, as he wonders where his daughter is who ran away to New York?

The very idea of “describing human life” is foolish. And yet I try, illogical as that is, even as I know I’m going to fail. It’s weird, isn’t it, to recognize that I aim at failure? I am compelled by it, driven by it, passionate about it—to aim at what is going to fail. Where can such a thing lead me?

Perhaps the impossibility of words in a logical narrative draws me to things like REM’s “Losing My Religion” or the songs of Bob Dylan or moments in the novel Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe. I’ve also been drawn to Russian decadent poetry, such as this verse from Zinaida Gippius (I’m the one guilty of the translation that follows):

Вас гонят… Словно дети малые,
Дрожат мечта и красота…
Целую ноги их усталые,
Целую старые уста.

They pursue you…as though young children,
The tremble of dream and beauty…
I kiss their weary limbs,
I kiss their worn lips.

Sometimes, when words are put together in ways that don’t make sense, they may evoke something beyond logic, something that is an indescribable part of our existence, actually beyond words.

When you think about it, words are only a very clumsy way of trying to express our thoughts, and even our thoughts cannot comprehend fully what it is to be human. Thus we have philosophy and religion and art. And words that patter and prance across the soft deep beckoning of a violet sea.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing While Living

I Think I’ll Call This One…

Adam naming the animals

And that one is called Grrr, no wait, Lion.

According to one source of the origin of the universe, within the first few days, Adam, the only human in existence, gave names to all the animals. What language he was speaking isn’t clear, but I think it might have been Yiddish. Quite a while later, the Swedish scientist Linneaus decided that he would name everything alive, such as Mus musculus (mouse), or Ficus carica (fig tree), using his double Latin names. And then in the late 1960s/early 1970s, even rock-n-roll started to get various names, like bubblegum, heavy metal, glam rock, and so on.

It’s human nature to name things, and people who like books have had at it. They’ve come up with names for different types of literature, and we even have a name for the names: genres. Good old Wikipedia lists more than 20 genres just for fiction, such as mystery, western, fantasy, horror, humor, etc. If you go on to the “subgenres” you can loose interest scrolling down the page, they have so many.

One of the difficulties with genres, however, is that many works of fiction don’t really fit into anything. Thus we have the “genre” (this is real, I didn’t make this up) of “literary fiction”. Aside from being a pretentious and incredibly vague name, it is also very common. And the kind of writing I do falls into that category.

Many literary agents specifically say they will represent literary fiction. When it comes to what that is, however, it’s not rare to see sentences like “I want great books by skilled writers” (as opposed to the other kind). Here are some modern examples of literary fiction: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Life of Pi by Yan Martel, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende.

This week I found an interview with four literary agents, which I read part of. As they described the process of looking for an agent, of getting published, and of how they see the publishing field at the moment, I found myself slumping into a lethargic depression. One of the points they seemed to make is how difficult it is to publish literary fiction, one person describing it as “impossible”. How much was that intended as exaggeration?

I would also say to anyone who listens that it’s impossible to get a literary agent, at least if you write literary fiction. I was once recommended to an agent by another writer. Over and over I hear (and even read in that same interview I just mentioned) that a recommendation is the golden key to open the door. In my case, however, the agent looked at what I sent her, then wrote me and said, “It’s too hard to sell this kind of book.” Yeah, it’s a literary novel.

Was it easier when Mark Twain was first writing a novel? Could a writer at the time of Edith Wharton assume that if you had talent and worked hard, you would eventually be published? Perhaps the situation is much worse now than it used to be. All of the novels I named above have been very popular, in some cases extremely popular, and there are others. Why, then, is it so difficult to publish a literary novel?

In the broadest sense, every society needs art. The more the art flourishes, the healthier the society. I personally think there could be no such thing as too much artistic expression. I’d like to see murals and sculpture and public art everywhere you look in every city and town. Such art would be like oxygen for the spirit.

One aspect of art that a society needs is literature. Humans have always used language to tell stories and entertain, which is fine in the written form (such as romance novels or spy thrillers). We also must have books that explore what it means to be human, or we will be a philosophically shallow, spiritually hungry people. We cannot thrive without the kind of books that have been labeled literary novels.

So even if the agents don’t want them, even if it is impossible to sell them, I’m going to write them.

Leave a comment

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

The House of Books

bookstore cat sleeping

I think I’d be good at this

We were barely home from the wide-open green glories of the mountains when my girlfriend sent me an article on the cozy wonders of bookstores. If it’s possible to be reincarnated as a business, instead of something like a chipmunk, I want to come back as a bookstore. I’ve certainly spent enough time in them to feel at home with myself if I do.

Not so long ago, it appeared as if we could be moving toward a time when bookstores no longer exist. I’m more optimistic now that they will continue, but if they do disappear, no matter what fantastic wonders the future may hold, I’m glad I’ve lived in a time of bookstores instead. I love the magic of a bookstore, with all those books available any time you want to walk in the door, to browse from the Harlem Renaissance to Oaxacan Mexican cooking to Tibetan sand paintings. This is real immersion, not that webpage business. You don’t click away from a Oaxacan cookbook. You stand there and turn the pages, lost in it.

I have spent so much time in bookstores that one summer in a casual moment I started reading a few pages of the novel Moby Dick, then stuck a bit of paper in as a bookmark and returned the book to the shelf. No one bought that volume during the next few months, when I went to the bookstore so often that I sat there and read all of Moby Dick during repeated visits. I’m not making that up.

Last weekend my girlfriend and I were in North Carolina to visit my friend Lamar York, who founded the literary magazine Chattahoohee Review. In addition to the amazing house Lamar lives in with mountain views, he built a second tiny house, really just one room, out under the pine trees nearby to serve as a library. I think there can’t be very many people who have a separate building next to their house just for their books.

In Lamar’s library, the walls are lined with books, as you’d expect, most of them on southern literature, with one wall for literary criticism, and another wall devoted just to books about Florida. I don’t have an extensive book collection myself, as someone like me might, because I’ve moved 1,782 times. Actually, I’ve only moved about 30 times in my adult life, but you begin to cast things off after you pick the boxes up enough times.

While we were in North Carolina last weekend, we also went to Asheville for an afternoon, a city filled with young people, brew pubs (we had to try a couple of those), and restaurants, and of course with views of the green glorious mountains. In addition, this tiny city has not one, or two, but several private book stores. We went for a look at Malaprops, probably the most well known. It is what a bookstore should be, filled with people browsing through books on the Harlem Renaissance and Mexican cooking (or perhaps books on Thomas Wolfe and southern fusion cooking), and with a nice cafe on the side.

Seeing Malaprops so full of people gives me greater optimism about the future of book stores. A book store is one of the finest things human beings have created so far, and in my support for bookstores, when I want to buy books, I buy them from an actual bookstore or I don’t buy them. I know Amazon has made many things available (including my own books, and I will thank them for that), but when I want a book, if I can’t find it, I ask a small local bookstore near me to order it. Then I pay the higher price that it costs to buy from them. I’ve also browsed in bookstores over the years, picking out books I’ve never heard of, to take them home and see if I like them. I’ve found some books I loved by doing that, both in America and, as a matter of fact, in Ireland.

If it’s not possible to be reincarnated as a bookstore, if we are only allowed to come back as animals, maybe I could be one of the cats who live in bookstores.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing While Living

Before I’m Caught and Returned to the Asylum

Winnie the Pooh

President Xi Jinping of China

I’m so sure you would enjoy knowing that a very common word in medical studies is “randomization”. It means to take the people being studied and put them into groups in a completely random manner, so that no bias is involved in selecting the groups (and then they receive different kinds of treatment, to see what works). Nowadays randomization is done with a computer, though in the 20th century it was done by letting a squirrel in a cage, preferably a young squirrel, pick the numbers.

Actually, I don’t know how it was done. But as it happens, I have a squirrel here in a cage, not all that young, and I’m going to have the squirrel choose topics for me to write about in this blog entry. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that on principle I ruled out writing about any kind of nut or the band the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

So what does my little rodent have to suggest? Ah well, as uneducated as you might think a squirrel is, it has chosen the fairly subtle topic of satire. To my thinking, there is not enough satire in the world, which cries out to be ridiculed. Satire uses an exaggerated form of writing to emphasize the foolishness of people or situations, and the difference between satire and parody is…sheesh, I don’t know. And I have a degree in English. So much for my education.

I think of parody as sort of slapstick, closer in spirit to Monty Python. Satire is more subtle, but there’s probably overlap. One of the ancient Greek writers, Aristophanes, wrote satires (including one making fun of Socrates) that had some moments the Three Stooges could have worked with.

One of the most delightful bits of satire I’ve seen lately was created in China, where people have noticed that their president resembles the cartoon character Winnie the Pooh. As a typical dictator (i.e., pathologically insecure), he hates that comparison, and thus Winnie the Pooh is illegal in China. Think about that. How do you say “I love honey on toast” in Chinese? (我喜歡烤麵包上的蜂蜜)

There goes the squirrel again, and he’s—no, he stopped for a drink of water. Now he’s looking around, and he’s chosen British versus American spellings. What an eclectic little squirrel. What can I say on this topic? At work I get manuscripts from all over the world, and some of them use the British spellings, such as “programme” (American: program), “favour” (American: favor), and so on, and part of my job is to change them. If you’re thinking “Who gives a shit?” you should not apply for a job as an editor. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t give a shit either, but I do want to keep my job.

Here’s a little story about British spelling. When I was in Pennsylvania, I lived in the middle of the state, in Centre County, which uses British spelling in the county name (American: Center County). People in the county have gotten used to the spelling, so that some apparently don’t know any better. One day I was in a small town there and saw a sign on a restaurant advertising some of the food. I have no clue what a “chicken tender” is (a piece of chicken, I guess). Anyway, influenced by the county name, this restaurant had written that they were selling “chicken tendres”. I guess their cars have fendres and when they need a loan they go to a lendre.

OK, maybe that’s editor humor, something a normal person won’t connect with. Me and the squirrel like it, though. Look at…he’s…ah, I should give him a nut. I bet Winnie the Pooh would like those “tendre” jokes, too. And you know he’s British.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing While Living

The Provokingly Clever Title Goes Here

lemons and limesOut in the world, much has been happening. All the boys are out of the cave. Little Croatia kicked Russia’s ass in the World Cup. And it’s August already? Here in my world, you know how it can be, you pay some bills, think you’re doing OK, and then another bill shows up . . . and Jesus, where did that one come from? I was going to buy some mink underwear. Now I have to make do with the old silk stuff.

Even when I try to spend time in my imaginary world of words, reality intrudes like a steel wool pad dragged across your belly. About a month ago I decided I was ready to begin looking for an agent to sell the just-completed novel (Birds Above the Cage). Part of being ready to do that of course was finishing and polishing the book until it was as shiny as church shoes. Another part of being ready to go agent-begging with a new book was to conclude that it was time to give up—for now—on selling another book (The Invention of Colors).

Here I am a month later, and every day I try to send out a query letter to contact one agent. I only aim at one person a day, not more, because I find the process so debilitating. That seems like a big word, so I’ll throw in a dictionary definition here, from Merriam Webster. Debilitate: “to impair the strength of, enfeeble” and they gave the example of “sailors debilitated by scurvy”.

As you can see, sending out query letters to look for a literary agent is similar to having scurvy. In this case, the cure is not lemons or limes but rich red wine, or any wine, actually, just whatever you have, and some dark chocolate would be good, although peanut M&Ms will do if necessary.

Here’s what normally happens when you send a query letter: [this space represents the silence of outer space]. Not that the agents can reply to all the mail they get, I understand that. In a few cases, you get a form letter thanking you for letting them reject your book, and reminding you that it’s not you, it’s them, no really, and you should keep trying, and good luck. My highpoint in this process has been twice when someone wrote me a nice little note to say they didn’t want the book. The notes were very personal and pleasant, and I almost felt good about being rejected. That’s how hard this business is, when a nice rejection feels like a good thing.

In case the literary agents grow weary of rejecting Birds Above the Cage, I’m currently writing another book (Moonapple Pie), so they can later reject that. This week I finished a chapter that makes the book one-third written. Unless I’m out somewhere having fun (which happens now on the weekends, since I have a girlfriend), then I’m home writing, or feeling like I ought to be writing, or taking a nap so that I’ll be rested enough to write, or at least rested enough to think about how I ought to be writing.

In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever written a book I enjoyed working on as much as this one. Why would that be? Am I finally getting enough naps? This book is set in my home town of Gainesville, Georgia, but I don’t think that’s what makes the writing such a pleasure. My home town, by the way, is famous for chickens, and I have not yet included a single chicken in this book. Or wait, I think there was a bowl of chicken and dumpling in the last chapter.

I think I’m enjoying getting to know the characters in this book, two twin brothers (Eston and Elliott) in their early 40s and their sister who is ten years younger. Oleander appeared in their family mysteriously around the age of two years, when she was found wandering in a store and no one ever knew how she got there.

So one word follows another, until a sentence happens. If the words don’t move along and get into place quickly enough, I drip a little lime juice on them. That puts a little fancy in their pants, and they hop to it after that.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing While Living

How Can I Read Your Book If I Don’t See Your Photograph?

fox sitting at a typewriter

I just really don’t want to write about hen houses.

Last Saturday I bought four Irish novels. I read one of them this week, a book that is very modern in the sense that it pushes the boundaries of narrative, so after a while it becomes so strange you just read it knowing that it will be strange, or you quit reading. When I went looking for Irish novels, however, what did I mean by “Irish”? Does Irish literature have to focus on small stone cottages set on green hillsides, with people who drink Guinness and say, “How’s your Da?”

It’s fairly common to describe literature, as I did, based on the writers (who they are, where they come from), rather than based on the writing itself. This can make for some strange classifications. The short Irish novel I just read, for instance mentions Irish place names and makes a few Irish cultural references, but in fact, with very few changes, the book could take place in Los Angeles or Buenos Aires or Tokyo. Is this an “Irish” novel or just a novel by an Irish writer. Or are they exactly the same thing?

Years ago I gave myself an ambitious goal of reading a novel from every country on the earth (I never came close). I thought I had Ireland covered at the time because I’d read Gulliver’s Travels, but someone pointed out that Jonathan Swift was actually Anglo-Irish (I note that Wikipedia also refers to him as Anglo-Irish). He was born in Dublin, mostly grew up in Dublin, went to college in Dublin, died in Dublin, and is buried there. But according to this point of view, he’s not exactly Irish.

Trying to define Irish literature is an example of a broader question of defining any kind of literary group. As one example, writers are routinely identified as belonging to particular countries. Here is the U.S., we also categorize writers based on groups that have traditionally lacked power. There’s a logic to this, as people in those groups can describe a reality and life that people in the power group would not know. Thus we talk about women writers, black writers, American-Indian writers, and so on.

How many writers like these labels? Probably almost none. Philip Roth, who just died and who repeatedly wrote books using Jewish characters, did not want to be known as a “Jewish” writer but as a good writer, regardless of his subject matter. And does being a member of one of these groups imply a certain type of subject matter? Did the black writer Octavia Butler, who wrote science fiction, write “black” literature? Was she not a real black writer?

From a literary point of view, what is Irish? Before I visited Limerick, Ireland, a woman who lives there recommended that I read Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt, to get a feeling of Limerick, so I read it. There is even a museum to McCourt in the city of Limerick, yet he was born in New York and spent almost his entire life in America. Is he more Irish than Jonathan Swift, who lived all his life in Ireland?

The labels we use for writers and writing can sometimes be handy, because those labels might indicate cultural differences or ways of living, history, language, and so on. But as with so much, we can also use these labels in a stupid lazy way, as if a writer is supposed to write certain things based on country of origin, or skin color, or culture, and so on.

It’s no wonder writers don’t like the labels. As dictators around the world know, there are writers willing to go to prison rather be told what they are allowed to write.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Talks, Writing While Living

Georgia Literary Writers

The Plain Houses by Julia FranksEvery two years here in Atlanta, GA, a literary prize is given to a Georgia novelist, and this was the year for the Townsend Prize. The prize is sponsored by the literary magazine The Chattahoochee Review (which I worked on years ago), which is now edited by my friend Anna Schachner.

I’ve been to the awards ceremony the last two times it took place, and I went again this year, on Thursday this week, taking my girlfriend to the ceremony, as she’s interested in writing, and I thought she might find it engaging. The event was held in downtown Decatur at the old courthouse, which is architecturally fairly striking, and also far too small to be of much practical use as a courthouse, so the old courthouse now contains a small history museum downstairs and a meeting space upstairs, where the award was given.

When we went upstairs we found a room filled with round tables, covered with tablecloths, and for a nice touch, a pot of live hydrangeas on each table. In a corner, a group of three musicians was playing soft jazzy versions of country and western music, or at times simply leaning over into pure jazz, because sometimes an acoustic bass just wants to do that.

Another nice way to begin the evening was with a drink, and at the back, a small bar was set up on either side of the room for beer or wine. Having two bars was how you could tell that this was a literary event. In another room, a buffet had been set up with hors d’oeuvres (if you can call a mighty tasty pimento cheese an hors d’oeuvre—I don’t know whether the French make pimento cheese), so we had food, and drink, and music, and we were content with our neighbors waiting for the literary celebration to begin.

When the ceremony was underway, Anna explained that the process of choosing the Townsend winner began with seven people reading 27 nominated novels, from which 10 finalists were chosen. At that point, three outside readers, living in other states, were asked to read the books and comment on them. Based on their comments, a winner was chosen. The ten finalists this year were:

  • The Guineveres by Sarah Domet
  • Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks
  • The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson
  • Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
  • The Lemon Jell-O Syndrome by Man Martin
  • Lightning Men by Thomas Mullen
  • The Half Wives by Stacia Pelletier
  • Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb
  • Shadow of the Lions by Christopher Swann
  • The Hidden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang

I was pleased to see Stacia Pelletier in the room, as I had read another novel by her when she was nominated for this same prize four years earlier. Last year when I had a book release for my collection of short stories (I’d Tear Down the Stars), Stacia was also generous enough to attend and be a reader with me, reading from her work. I wasn’t aware that she was nominated for the Townsend this year until I went to her table to say hello.

Before the winner of the prize was announced, a keynote speaker talked, and this year the speaker was the writer Brad Watson, who talked about what inspired him in writing his latest novel, Miss Jane. Brad is from Mississippi, but now living in Wyoming. So he has the southern thing, whatever that might be. From his comments about his writing and his life as a writer, I wrote down a line, which I think captured the dilemma of writers who do the kind of work I do: “I think almost all literary writers have to have a day job.” With few exceptions, we work and we write when we can. For Brad, that day job is teaching writing in academia.

And the winner of the Townsend prize this year, as you already see from my illustration, was Julia Franks for her novel Over the Plain Houses. After she was announced as winner, Julia spoke for a few minutes. In her remarks, she made a point of thanking those institutions and resources outside the publishing machine in New York: small regional publishers, local bookstores, literary festivals, and local reviewers and websites. For many literary writers, these are critical resources.

In additional, regional literary awards such as the Townsend prize help to encourage writers in a field of endeavor that can feel lonely and unrewarded for a very long time. There was only one winner, but all of the finalists had spent long hours to earn the right to be sitting there.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing While Living