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.

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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Matter and Antimatter

cartoon of a man at a deskAlternate Reality No. 1: Matter

Tuesday will serve as an example of how it is when I wake up most days. I opened my eyes, looking at the trees out the window, turned back the covers, sat up on the edge of the bed, and thought What am I going to do today? The first thing that came to mind was I’ll have Lily go to a conference.

I was thinking about a chapter in the novel I’m working on. I was not even truly awake yet, thinking about the book. That chapter was what I was going to do that day, and everything else in between (like going to work) was just the stuff I had to move out of the way to get to what mattered.

That’s how it is. I wake up thinking about writing, and I wait to get to it in the evenings. I feel enthused, not only about this book, but about the next book, which I’m already planning, and about the books I intend to write after that. In my life, I’ve never been more on fire to write.

Alternate Reality No. 2: Antimatter

An email came on Wednesday. A couple of months or so ago I went to a writers conference to try to sell a completed novel. Two literary agents and one editor agreed to look at a sample of the book, and if they like that, then they ask for more, and so on until—in some abstruse theory understood only by wizards and magicians—someone says “Yes, I’ll take your book”.

The Wednesday email said no. After decades of doing this, I should be used to rejection, right? How many times have I contacted a literary agent? Either in person or by mail, more than 150 times. How many times have I sent short stories to literary magazines? Three or four hundred times, as best I’ve counted (granted, twelve stories were published). How many times does that make being told “no”? It is still bad.

I’ve heard some of the magical stories, about a writer finding an agent after only thirty tries (presented as a story of “look how hard this was”), or about multiple agents offering to represent the same book. To me those stories are like science fiction or ancient mythology, absolutely divorced from any reality I know.

The difficulty of finding success isn’t just me, obviously. I am merely one of multitudes. By chance, I also read an article just last night about a writer who I recently discovered, Donal Ryan, who had a very successful book (The Spinning Heart) that won awards and gained quite a bit of attention. It seems that after this extremely successful book—far more than most books get—he found himself having to go back to his job with the civil service to be able to pay his bills.

Does It Matter?

I live in both of these worlds—enthusiastic passion to write, and empty voids of no recognition, so contradictory to one another, as though they cannot both exist. It is like matter and antimatter. Why don’t they just destroy each other? (That’s what physicists say would happen if they meet. Howdy, boom!) How is it possible to be excited with almost a religious ecstay to be writing, even while struggling with almost no result for decades. Not years, decades.

I suppose I’ve made it look like I’m asking rhetorical questions here, as to what keeps a person engaged and enthusiastic. Maybe it seems like I’ll answer that question, but I won’t, because I don’t know the answer. I do not know how this paradox can exist. I do, however, know that what does matter is living with a purpose. Otherwise, we are nothing more than collections of particles with unfulfillable desires—matter that does not matter.

For me, writing and creativity are that purpose, with fireworks.

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If You’re Looking for Sense, Don’t Look Here

house of nonsenseThis week I’ve decided that rather than try to be coherent and make sense, I’m just going to ramble on inanely. That is sooooo much easier. So anyway, yesterday at work, we had a little meeting (the three editors and the managing editor for the medical journal I work on), and the topic of our meeting was mostly to make us aware that we need to pay close attention to the names of the authors at the beginning of the article.

One item of discussion was an example of a middle initial that wound up missing the period which is supposed to follow it. In your world that might just be a dot that wasn’t there, but for us it’s a mistake to make frowny faces over. We also talked about how to write names of people who are descended from European aristocracy, with those little bits in the middle of the name like “de” or “van” or there was even a “ter” and what the hell is that?

We get articles from all over all the world, literally, or at least places where people do rheumatology research (which seems to leave out Lichtenstein), so I see a lot of different kinds of names. The longest last names in the world, that I’ve seen anyway, are from Thailand (like Intharueangsarn), although the Spanish generally will hyphenate two names, so they gain some length that way. The easiest names are from Korea or China, so you get some Kim and some Chen and you’re done.

During our morning meeting, our boss got on the phone, so the rest of us launched off into the first nonwork-related topic to come to mind, and I mentioned that the election (Georgia’s 6th district: Jon Ossoff vs. Karen Handel) is next Tuesday. This reminded one of my colleagues how much she hates the political ads running like an open sewer from her TV. I have no TV and haven’t seen them, but I sympathized with my colleague’s interest in the rhetoric they use.

One of the approaches isn’t exactly rhetorical, but more theatrical. For the negative ads, they tend to use black and white instead of color, possibly with odd camera angles, and the announcer will use what my colleague called a Darth Vader voice, kind of low and ominous sounding: “Jon Ossoff wants to kill your puppy.”

Rhetorically, one of the most common approaches in the negative ads against Ossoff is referring to him over and over in connection with Representative Nancy Pelosi, as if that actually makes sense. In case you’re not trained in rhetoric or logic, that’s called an “ad hominem” argument, which ignores logic and facts and just tries to attack the person in any way possible.

I believe nearly all politicking, certainly 90% of it, is nothing but ad hominem, attacking one another personally. How much discussion of actual policies do you remember from the election last year (I’m sorry to drag you back to that time of horror)? Why do politicians use ad hominem, the miserable assholes? Because it works. And why does it work? We can all go look in the mirror to answer that.

Since I’m free in this blog entry from the ugly chains of consistency or sticking to a topic, I want to mention that I went to a new bookstore this week. I’m using the word “new” the way I might refer to a shirt I bought at Goodwill, it was new to me. This was actually a used book store called Atlanta Vintage Books that I had never been to before. I had thought I was running out of books, forgetting I just bought a new one, so I went in to browse a bit and pick up a book or two.

I was thinking about Mark Twain or Dickens, but then I bought books by three writers I never heard of. You know, for a writer it’s kind of overwhelming to go into a bookstore, even an old used bookstore, because good God, where did all those books come from? Someone wrote those books one by one, in some cases with great effort and spending years to do it, and they may have spent even more years trying to get the book published, and then at last it happened. Perhaps they celebrated and drank champagne and did a happy dance and stayed up late. And here the book is piled up with other old books in a dusty bookstore not far from the municipal airport.

So that’s how it goes. It doesn’t seem to make sense to write novels, I guess, but I’m going to keep writing them.

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I Am Definitely Doing This, Right After I Take a Nap

geese flyingNo matter when I write, I’m distracted. If I continue to write, I become more focused and less distracted, but never entirely. When I first sit down, however, no matter what I’m writing, or when I write, even if I’m not writing late in the evening when I’m tired—which I almost always am—at first I really don’t want to do it.

I can imagine someone who isn’t a writer, but who knows I am, saying to me, “So you enjoy writing” and I would have to think Hmm, not exactly. To say that we want something is complicated. I can, for instance, really, really want to see the play that’s being performed at a theater downtown, and just as much I can want to sit quietly on the couch and not drive through the rain to the theater.

We can want many things that all contradict one another. The essayist Montaigne even refers to this dichotomy of desire, because it is, after all, a basic fact of human psychology. I want to lose weight and eat half of this apple pie, at the same time.

So if I say I want to write, that’s absolutely true, probably more true than almost any other fact about me. I do want to write. Yet I can walk down the street “wanting to write” without being bothered by the actual writing process at that moment. I can walk along thinking that the hero in my book will be good and kind except with a harmful flaw of jealousy. It’s easy to think such a thing without having to write sentences that I will then look at and think “Well, that’s stupid”.

I noticed several times in the past week that fairly often when I stood up from my desk, within seconds my mind shifted to thinking about something I was writing, either the novel or a poem. As I walked down the hall to the restroom, I was thinking about how to handle a scene in the book, and when I got back to my desk, sat down, and looked at the computer screen, suddenly I was back to thinking about what the proper abbreviation for spondyloarthritis is in the medical journal I work for.

As a general rule, during free moments in the day, it’s fairly easy to ponder what I’m writing, and to wish I was home doing it, instead of having a job. It’s easy, that is, to think about writing. I’ve known a number of people who apparently think about it as well, based on their declarations that they write, or want to write, or at least think about being a writer.

Actually doing it, though, sitting down to the cold fact that there must be a first word (Summer), followed by a second word (geese), until a full sentence has been created (had gathered on the pond, ready to head south), that’s only one sentence, and that felt like work. I mean, why geese? Why a pond? And consider all the possibilities that have been lost because of that sentence. Before it was written, everything in all of time and space was available, but now that one sentence says that we’re near a pond at the end of summer. That’s a lot less than all of time and space. The very act of writing seems to limit the options.

Thus when I say that I want to write, what I mean is something like “I’m compelled to do this, I realize that, and I accept it.” Whether I like doing it is not relevant.

So every evening, often when I’m tired, I sit down at the computer, where I tell myself I’m going to write—after I check email, read a couple of news articles, look to see where the Gipsy Kings are from because I’m listening to their music, go get a bowl of nuts for a snack, check a different email account, make a note to email someone tomorrow, and look to see which town Van Morrison was born in because . . .

Eventually, late, I do finally slip into the writing, until at last I’m in that world, the one I’m creating, and there comes a point where I do rather enjoy it. Summer geese had gathered on the pond, ready to head south. As they flew over the interstate and past the mall, they moved back through time, landing finally beside a lake where the Aztec priest had said a city was to be built.

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