The Invisible Wall Between Worlds

old couch

Just put it on the front porch

One day this week I was working on an article (if you have been sadly deprived of reading this blog until now, I’m a copy editor for a medical journal in rheumatology), so anyhow, there I was looking for acronyms, and you know some of those articles are like alphabet soup. That’s not a perfect metaphor, since you might actually want alphabet soup, whereas a piece of writing full of HAQ and PsA and WOMAC and SF-36 and . . . you get the idea, it ain’t no day at the beach. Or even a day at one of those weird indoor fake beaches.

So anyhow, there I was looking for acronyms, which I have to hunt down and clarify (as much as they get clarified in this kind of writing), wondering what HCQ means, when it suddenly occurred to me to walk over to the cafe for a cup of coffee. I stood up from my desk, and the very moment I walked out of my office, it was like a switch had flipped. Almost instantly my thoughts turned to the scene I was writing in Moonapple Pie.

The ten minutes it took to get a cup of coffee were like this:

From my office I headed down our stark grim stairwell, because our building is like most modern buildings. If you want to waddle over to the elevator, it’s in plain view in the middle of the building, but if you want to walk because it’s healthier, you have to search for the stairs, and when you find them they have the ambience and charm of a hallway in a prison. Nevertheless, as I walked down the stairs, I was seeing my character Oleander, who was fifteen years old, riding with her father up to the north Georgia mountains to see his parents. I wondered if she should say more in the car with him. I also decided she should be looking forward to going, because her grandmother makes biscuits.

Leaving my building, I went out to the park between us and the ATT building, where the cafe is. I think the park is pretty fabulous, and at the bottom of a long grassy hill is a small lake with a fountain that shoots up rather high in the middle. As I turned from the park to walk up the long flight of outdoor steps to a second garden, I was thinking of the scene that follows Oleander in the mountains. This would be her brother Eston, an artist, in a flashback when he was in college. He goes to a party with his friend Karl, and it occurred to me that since they’re at a college party, someone might drag the living room couch out onto the front porch. So Eston and Karl could sit there later in the evening.

I went into the ATT building, to stand in line at the cafe. I always order a medium coffee, and by now the guy who works there just hands me the cup, and since I know it costs $2.09, sometimes I hand him exact change, without either of us saying anything. We do talk on occasion, however, and I know he’s an artist. As I was waiting in line this time, I was thinking about my own artist, Eston, and his friend Karl talking about art, having a disagreement over what the purpose of art is.

The barista gave me my cup, I added milk and filled it up with coffee, then left the cafe. When I walked over the weather had been wanting to mist us with rain, so I decided to take the covered route back, through the parking garage. I walked down the stairs, which are far more hidden in the ATT building than in my own. It took me more than a year to find them. Walking down the stairs, I decided that Eston and Karl will have their conversation late at night, after being at the party for hours, and they will be drunk on the front porch couch.

In the parking garage, I passed a woman who might have had dreadlocks, and who might have been wearing a dress that had flowers on it, but I wasn’t paying much attention to her. Instead I was thinking about Eston and Karl, about their conversation on art. It occurred to me that it would also be interesting, and would fit the college scenario, if they were to just fall asleep on the porch and wake up there in the morning.

Then I came back to my office, sat down at my computer, and in a minute I found that the acronym HCQ stands for hydroxychloroquine. I was back in the medical editing world.

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Layers, Like a Cake

chocolate cake

Naturally, I would put up a picture of chocolate cake

Let’s have an extreme example. Picture a man dressed in a nice gray suit walking into his boss’s office, where he suddenly shoves everything off her desk. Then he calmly sits down and tells her he’d like a raise, and he goes through reasons he thinks he’s a good worker and deserves it.

Does this sound like a real person?

And a less dramatic example. A person is waiting at a bus stop, gets on the bus and rides for a while, looking out the window, and finally gets off.

Does that one sound like a real person? Compared to the weird first example, which does not fit normal psychology, the second case sounds like something a person might actually do, but what do you know about the person on the bus? It’s almost like an empty space that we can fill however we want:

  • an old man in a military uniform, looking very tired, got on the bus
  • a young woman with pink-tinged hair, carrying a bag of fruit, got on the bus
  • a girl in her Catholic school uniform, talking nonstop on her cell phone, got on the bus

When I think of a character in fiction as being “real” I suppose two basic things are involved for me. First, the character must behave the way a person might be expected to. Of course people are varied and unpredictable, but if we get someone like the lunatic in the first paragraph above, we need a very good explanation. For me, this is extremely important, and my interest in psychological realism also concerns what kind of character the writer has created. A quiet, shy character, for instance, leads us to expect a certain kind of behavior. I’ve put a book down because the characters seemed unreal and it felt like psychological incompetence on the writer’s part.

The second thing I need for a character to seem “real” is enough detail for them to start to seem distinctive, with their personal habits and tastes and quirky bits. Like a real person. I think this is really hard to do, but when you get into working on it, it’s fun as hell. You can give that old man in a military uniform a white mustache, or he’s carrying a bouquet of white roses, or he’s reading a book of Persian poetry, or he’s humming a Willie Nelson song, or more than one of those at the same time.

This week I’ve been writing on the new novel, and I’ve been focused on getting the story down, just working out the plotline. So I was basically trying to figure out how to move from incident to incident, trying to say “this happened, then this happened, and then this”. Merely doing all of that takes quite a bit of energy, but when you get it worked out, you still don’t have very good writing. Maybe for some types of writing it’s good enough, but not for what I do.

My main character this week is an artist, and I had him mostly in two situations: at an arts center (Quinlan, if you happen to know Gainesville) teaching a class, and then he went home and helped his neighbor catch a goat.

So I worked all that out, but even as I was writing, I kept thinking that my character didn’t seem to have much depth. He was moving and speaking only because I needed him to, so that I could move the plot. He wasn’t moving or speaking because he wanted to, and he didn’t seem very real.

The way I write—and it just happens this way, I’m not planning this—is that I struggle to get some plot down, and then I go back and work on the characters, trying to do things that add some depth to them. One of the tricks for me, especially if they’re minor characters, is to have them speak, so that they aren’t just robots who move across the stage. For every character, I try to think a little about distinctive appearance and habits, so someone has a dangling silver earring, someone else has a baggy old corduroy coat, someone keeps brushing her hair out of her eyes, someone keeps looking out the window while he’s talking, and so on.

I think of this as writing in “layers”. The plot is one layer, adding depth to the characters is another layer, and eventually polishing the style is still another layer.

So I think my artist needs to go home, eat a piece of goat cheese, and think about goats.

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The People Who Came From the Sky

Australian dreamtime pictureLast weekend I saw a photograph of a small statue from about 30,000 years ago showing a human figure with the head of a lion. It was not a particularly sophisticated sculpture, but it clearly was a human-looking figure with an animal head.

The important thing about this small sculpture is what it says about human beings. No doubt 30,000 years ago seems like an awfully long time, yet even that far back, people were similar enough to modern humans to be able to imagine something that did not exist. Whatever else we might think about people from that time, they had the ability to mentally picture something far beyond the physical reality they lived in.

I was visiting friends in Charlotte, North Carolina, last week where I borrowed a book I’m reading now, called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. The book so far has been filled with ideas I’ve never considered, which makes it compelling to read. One point the author makes is that if we start with the physical world and the biology of a human being, much of our modern world consists of fiction, of things that exist only as ideas in our heads.

For example, money is fictional. Ten dollars can be a piece of gold in the shape of a coin, or ten pieces of printed paper, or the movement of electrons in a computer. Nowadays, in fact, money is most often abstracted down to nothing but an idea, such as when we make a purchase with a debit card and “money” is taken from the bank. In reality, money is only an idea that exists because we all agree to it.

The book Sapiens also argues that the “fiction” idea applies to organizations and countries, which also exist only because we agree they do. If tomorrow everyone agreed that Texas was at long last a separate cranky country, it would be, just because we all said so. Contrast this with the physical world, which does not depend on what we think. No matter how many people agree that an oak tree is a butterfly, you just have to look at them to see the difference.

Whether you can easily accept these arguments or not, you can probably see, at least with the money example, that many things do depend on the human imagination. We seem to be inherently wired for imagination. Being human means to have a capacity for fiction, for mentally picturing what does not exist.

As a writer of fiction, I’m struck by the idea that fiction itself is one of the things that makes us human, as well as by the idea that using fiction has helped us to create the civilization and cultures we live in. Of course this creation has both its positive and negative sides. We’ve created an awful lot of hideously stupid and harmful things, like racism, and we’re not done yet with our appalling sprawl of misery.

On the positive side, our imagination has allowed us to create not only good things, like the idea of justice—which doesn’t really exist, but it’s a nice idea—as well as myths and stories that we use to try to make sense of the kaleidoscopic chaos reality requires us to live in. And with the fairly recent invention of writing (about 4,000 years ago) we’ve been able to develop our imagination into amazing things, like Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and the Star Wars movies.

So most evenings, I’m sitting at my desk, doing something quintessentially human, imagining what doesn’t exist, like characters in a book.

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Waking Up Slowly

Slavery memorial from Savannah, GeorgiaDown in Savannah, Georgia, a very popular riverwalk runs along the wide Savannah River, where you can to stroll along looking at the water or stop to gaze up at the huge paddlewheel boats preparing to take tourists on their adventure. Facing the water are restaurants, pubs, candy stores, and souvenir shops, and on the railing that lines the walk are plaques commemorating various aspects of Savannah’s history, while in among the trees and flower beds are a few sculptures. The most surprising find among the sculptures is a memorial to people freed from slavery.

A statue of a father, mother, and two children, all dressed in 20th century clothing, stands on a stone pedestal. Around their feet is a chain, and on the pedestal is a quote from Maya Angelou. Last weekend I was in Savannah for a night of vacation, and since I knew beforehand that this memorial was there, we made a point of finding it. As I’ve read about the memorial on multiple websites, I see that it appears to be officially called the African-American monument.

The Savannah slavery memorial interests me because the book I’m working on now, Moonapple Pie, which will take place in Gainesville, Georgia, involves two brothers who decide that instead of building a memorial to one of their ancestors who fought in the Civil War, they want to create a monument celebrating the emancipation of people from slavery.

Because racism is still an ocean we swim in, even if most white people do not see it, I can imagine someone asking why two white men would build a memorial to freedom from slavery. The fact that such a question even theoretically makes sense indicates how deeply racism runs in our society. How many people, in fact, will perceive commemorating freedom from slavery as a “black” memorial? I make note, for instance, that the name I found for the Savannah memorial (“African-American monument”) refers to race, not to slavery or to freedom.

I’m asking the question differently. Why wouldn’t two human beings create a memorial to celebrate the fact that fellow human beings were freed from the horror of slavery?

In doing research for Moonapple Pie, I looked for memorials that celebrate freedom from bondage (I was looking specifically in southern states). You can find some things that show our history, such as saving old slave cabins. In Charleston, South Carolina, for instance, there is a small, not very unimpressive museum in the Old Slave Mart; or in 2016, a new memorial for African American history was dedicated in Austin, Texas; or in Wallace, Louisiana, the Whitney Plantation is effectively a museum devoted to slavery.

We certainly need to recognize our true history—for a change—but acknowledging the facts of history is not the same as commemorating the profound and joyful change from enslavement to freedom. How many memorials of that type are there? It depends on how you define such a memorial, but in the historical states of the south, I count perhaps two (yes, 2). Besides the statue in Savannah, there is a large well-done Freedmen’s Memorial Arch in Dallas, Texas.

Of the very few celebratory memorials that I’ve found (of any type), almost none of these things existed until the 21st century, and even now, it isn’t much. Just from curiosity, I also investigated how many Confederate memorials of any type exist. The estimate I’ve seen is around seven hundred (yes, 700). I mention this number only for comparison, as my subject here does not concern Confederate memorials. I’m writing here about putting up memorials.

As you read this blog, I would like your opinion on two questions:

1) What memorials celebrating freedom from slavery are you aware of, and do you know of any in the south?

2) For future memorials that will eventually exist, what do you think they should include?

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Poetry Month Stops to Look at Rain on a Window and Realizes the Month Is Over

rain on a windowNational Poetry Month will be over in a few days. How much did you write? Did you write a poem about the person who you love with a passion oh so true, but they just don’t love you? Or maybe you wrote some small lyrical piece about three birds on a wire at sunset. Poetry can just be about anything, can’t it? About Napoleon’s exile, or your daughter learning the flute, or the faithfulness of an old dog on an autumn afternoon.

I wrote a poem about the end of time.

Here at the End of Time

Here at the end of time,
there have been some changes.
The days that are left have swelled up, for instance,
like balloons.
Now each one lasts a week,
and it takes seven hours to eat breakfast.
This means drinking a lot more coffee.

Here at the end of time,
gravity has also become irregular,
and things keep floating away.
My hairbrush is gone,
so I look like I just woke up,
and the sky is full of lawn furniture.

Here at the end of time,
strangely enough,
there’s more time to think about things,
as most things don’t need doing.
There’s not much point in canning the summer tomatoes.
No need to study for the history test.
Now we can sit here and dwell on our past iniquities,
or think about the fact that we had better hurry up and commit new sins,
if we still have a few in mind.

Here at the end of time,
several days ago
every religion came true,
and then they ended.
So all that fighting was for nothing.
Now there’s no religion,
but we don’t have time to worry about whether that’s going to make a difference.

Here at the end of time,
I’m surprised it even came.
I always read that time went on forever.
So much for that idea.
Maybe I was reading the wrong books.
It wouldn’t be the first time.

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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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It’s Hard to Describe What I Feel

two people standing on a cliff

What are you thinking about?

Picture yourself back in high school, and the bully who has been paying attention to you recently comes along in the hall, pretends to accidentally bump into you, and knocks everything you’re carrying into the floor. “God, you’re so clumsy!” he says, walking off laughing. Later in the day, if you happen to see him slip on the ice in the parking lot and smack down on the ground, what emotion instantly goes through your mind?

The Germans have a word for this emotion: Schadenfreude (if you don’t know German, it’s pronounced something like SHAH-den-froy-duh), to take pleasure from the suffering of another person. This week I read that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, the one who paid off the porn star, suddenly had his office and home searched by Federal investigators. I knew what Trump’s unhappy reaction would be—something along the lines of screaming and cursing at the TV.

I don’t think Schadenfreude is a positive emotion. It’s just the opposite, in fact, but we don’t choose our emotions, they choose us. Given what a horrible person Donald Trump is, I could not have been more delighted to learn about the raid on the lawyer’s office. Schadenfreude, baby.

I’ve read that psychology researchers have identified six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust. Notice how common each of those words is, so common you would expect to easily find a translation into any other language. All humans experience those six emotions in some form, but in the complexity of our lives, we can experience more than one emotion at the same time, or subtle gradations of an emotion, or the emotion can be evoked for various reasons.

Language is limited. As it’s based on cultural and social interaction, language can only do so much. In the vast ocean of human psychology, we might experience and feel many things that we actually don’t have words for. As an example of this complexity, take the Japanese word “natsukashii”, which means to long for the past with a mix of being happy for having the memory of something that was good, together with sadness that the thing you remember is gone.

I don’t intend here to simply make a list of such words, but let’s have one more example. The French phrase “l’appel du vide”, which we could translate as something like “the call of the void”, describes a feeling that comes from realizing we could throw ourselves into a great empty space, like jumping off a building. It doesn’t mean you actually want to, but rather that you experience both exhilaration and fear from the thought of it.

If you care to find more such words, you can easily go online and find lists. I think the existence of all these words is one of the wonderful things about the human mind, that we create words for the variety of our experience of the world. By analogy, we’ve done the same thing with other aspects of life. In English, for instance, we have the words teal, vermillion, and mauve, not limiting ourselves to green, red, and purple.

It is possible to live without all these words. Years ago I read that there was a language in which the people had only two color words, basically meaning “warm colors” and “cool colors”. It’s not that they couldn’t see the range of colors, they just didn’t have words for them, because they didn’t need them. In the same way, you may have experienced “l’appel du vide” when standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, but maybe you didn’t have a word for that creepy idea that you could just jump off.

I think we’re better off to have a wide range of words, representing some of the small intricacies of our lives. The more words we know, the more we can think about things in subtle ways, so that we possibly live richer and maybe even more civilized lives. So if you’re in the mood to invent words, how about more words to describe garlic? We could use words for things like: a slight hint of garlic in the air, the strong smell of garlic cooking, the zing of raw garlic in a dish, the mellow savor of garlic cooked in food, and so on. Don’t we need special words for all of this? We could use those words in my house.

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