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.

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.


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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.

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The Wild Fruits of Summer

basket of tomatoesThis weekend is my birthday weekend, and in anticipation of the joyous acclamations that will probably ring out for hours, I am temporarily laying down the arduous task of making sense on this blog (a lofty goal I seldom attain anyway).

Instead of trying to say something sensible and literary, I can relax and be my real self. That opens up a full Pandora’s storage shed (way too much to fit into a box) of potential nonsense that I can use to litter the internet. I feel a little bad about the littering, knowing how rigorous the internet normally is for maintaining rational, logical information. But here I am anyway.

Given that birthdays allude to the passage of time, I’ll float back in time and tell a true story from when I was around thirteen, though I don’t remember exactly how old I was. There’s probably not a lot that I remember exactly. At that time we lived in a house next to my grandparents, more or less on their farm not far outside the town of Gainesville, Georgia, in a house my grandfather built for us in what had been a field of peas. Our first year in that house, in fact, in the front, facing the road that was still tar and gravel at that time, we had to wait for the peas to be harvested before we could create a real lawn.

Next door, in my grandparents’ yard, they had two pecan trees which had been there quite a while. Pecan trees grow to be surprisingly large (surprising to me, anyway), and under one of those trees, on one side of the yard, was a picnic table. I’m also remembering that at some point there was a pile of sand under the tree, and we played in the sand.

The pecan tree was not far from the road that ran past our houses, and near the tree was a small parking lot, as my grandfather also ran a little country store next to his house. As kids we’d go to the store to beg for enormous candy bars, and my grandfather, not being a dentist, would sometimes give them to us. The store had a concrete tank outside with minnows that people would buy to use for fishing, so of course we’d sometimes lean into the tank and play with the little fish. Inside the store was a small gas stove, surrounded by a half circle of chairs with woven cane bottoms, where we’d sit in the winter to wait for the school bus.

My story, however, takes place in the summer, when large wooden baskets would be sitting in the yard full of vegetables, including tomatoes so full of juice that each one was like a handful of summer by itself. One day my brother, the wild one just under me in age, climbed up in the enormous pecan tree, having somehow gotten up there with several tomatoes. Maybe he was with friends. Maybe he was with me. As I said, many things I don’t remember now.

Unlike winter tomatoes, available now in the supermarket all year long, which will bounce off whatever they’re thrown at, the summer tomatoes on my grandparents’ farm would burst like a bomb of tomato juice when encouraged to do so. So up the tree my brother went, and even though it was summer, and the tree was full of leaves, and the view was no doubt impeded, he could see enough to know when a car was coming down the road past our houses.

Perhaps he threw at one or two and missed. I’m sure it would take both planning and luck to have a tomato appear just in front of the windshield as a car was passing by, but my brother managed it. Now I’m thinking I must have been in the tree as well, or maybe I’ve just imagined the sight of that same car after it turned around down the road and came back to the parking lot of my grandfather’s store, the sight of a very angry man getting out, and just before that, the sight of my brother leaping down from the tree and running like a deer toward the woods down the hill behind the houses.

I can understand now why that man was angry. I’m sure I would be, too. At the time, though, he just seemed like one of those adults whose purpose was to make life harder for children. “These kids got to wash my car!” he yelled. I suppose someone got some water from the spicket that stuck up in the yard, next to the sand pile, and rinsed off his windshield.

And maybe he saw my brother running away, which made it easier for us to explain that the actual criminal had left. Some guy we barely even knew.

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Pins and Pens

painting of blue womanIf we stick you with a pin, you will cry out.

If we take away your friends, you will moan with loneliness.

Thoughts: impressions of sensory data, with abstraction and calculation using those data, all of which appears to take place in the brain.

Feelings: more of our animal nature, based on emotions, which definitely seem to take place in the brain.

If we experience both thoughts and feelings in the brain, which seems rather evidently true, another strange fact is also evidently true. If we stick you with a pin, you will make sounds and cry out. If we take away your friends, you will make other sounds, and moan with loneliness.

We might posit an imaginary world in which thoughts and feelings are experienced, inside the brain as now, and yet they stay there. In this imaginary world, there is no external indication of what is being thought or felt. This strange imaginary creature may think and feel many things, but from the outside, that creature is a quiet mystery from birth until death.

Obviously, not like humans. Things that we experience inside our brain must come out through the body. This exiting of thoughts and feelings necessarily requires movements of the body: eyes, mouth, tongue, muscles of the face and legs and arms. Thus we make sounds, thus we have facial expressions, we wave our arms in the air, we jump. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter exactly what we do, only that the body must move to release what is in the brain.

What I’ve just said is true, and anyone will have a hard time to question it. You might, however, question why the body must release our thoughts and feelings. I have thought about this quite a bit over the course of years, and it is an inscrutable puzzle for me. If we’re sad, why do we cry? Why not simply feel sad inside?

As evidence of how true it is that things must come out of the body, if for some reason we do not release thoughts and feelings, we will grow mentally ill and probably physically ill as well. People who have been prevented as children from expressing themselves (to an abusive degree) are emotionally damaged. There are types of therapy for both adults and children that consist of finding ways to encourage them to express themselves, such as art therapy for abused children. And of course, very many people are helped just by talking to a therapist.

In the complexity of human life, we have developed so many symbolic ways of expressing ourselves, that it is miraculous how many people are walking around holding in things that need to be set free. The options for letting it out is a long list—painting, dancing, playing music, cooking cakes, planting gardens, designing clothes, writing computer games.

But of them all, is there a more profound form of expression than writing? If you are dealing with a problem that is pulling you into the darkness, sitting and writing about it can sometimes bring light back into the room. Nothing is more quintessentially human than language, and using the symbolic sounds and shapes of language can let the heart fly like a bird.

I’ve often used writing, even in a fictional form, to deal with things. When the world felt like a hurricane made of knives, when love was only a distant word in a foreign language, when the simple fact of being born felt like a great mistake had been made, I could write, “The world stuck me with a pin, and I cried out.”

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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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