Friday Feature ~ “Diaspora”

Posted May 7, 2021 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Friday Feature

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This speculative fiction story is perhaps the one I had the most fun writing. “Diaspora” is a conversation between a bright pupil and a wise elder in a future civilization of humans no longer on earth. I had the core idea for a long time, but I never looked at it as a possible story. But when I did, it seemed to flow from my fingers.

I was in an other-worldly location when I wrote it, which probably helped with the work. My wife and I were staying in a bed and breakfast in a hundred-year-old hacienda near Cimarron, New Mexico for a week, and I wrote the entire story in that time. We were there to visit our middle son, who was doing his pediatric rotation for medical school at the Scout Camp Philmont just down the road. Not a bad gig for medical school studies. As I recall, most of his work involved sunburns and twisted ankles.

Anyway, imagine having this view every morning with your breakfast:

That’s called the Tooth of Time and it was just behind the hacienda. I understand Scouts can hike to the top of it, to the very edge. I don’t think my son had to treat any patients who might have fallen from that height.

If you go to the link you will see that “Diaspora” appeared in the online magazine Crossed Genres in 2010. I had submitted to its “characters of color” theme and the story was accepted. Sadly, Crossed Genres is no longer being published, but I’m glad the old issues are still online.

bits and pieces

Posted May 5, 2021 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

Before we had a cabin at Roundrock, we took shelter under a series of tarps strung in the trees. They were valiant, but the weather was always too much for them. (And for those plastic chairs.) I once described this as a “hurt yurt” and got howls of laughter from readers of my old blog. This is where the cabin now stands.

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I am now fully vaccinated — the last in my extended family other than the grands — and a week into the two-week incubation period. I intend to remain cautious, and I will still wear a mask in public, but I will also be happy to spend more time with my children and their children. I did not have the post-vaccination reaction many have reported, so I hope my immune system has ramped up properly.

I’ve heard from several credible sources that because we didn’t get ahead of this pandemic fast enuf and variations were able to evolve that a COVID vaccine may be a yearly thing just as with the flu. Still, if this is an example of socialized medicine, sign me up for more!

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RIP Pete Lit

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My truck had been away from me all of last week. When my son (and his wife and Small Paul) were visiting two weekends ago, he took my truck back with him to help him move furniture into his new (for him) house. My wife went along with them (driving my son’s Prius — we seem to be a Toyota family now) and stayed for a week. During that time, I had one day when I might have gone out to the cabin (weather, obligations not conflicting), and I might have ventured out there with my wife’s car (Honda Accord), but I didn’t want to get it bogged down in the mud that is likely there or washed away in the flowing stream we have to cross. My truck has much higher clearance and four-wheel drive. So it’s been a few weeks since I’ve been to my cabin.

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Small Paul says Jambo again. He’s almost eight months old now and nearly crawling. He’s also a very vocal child, stimulated by music and often by just nothing at all.

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During the work week I am part of a number of conference calls. Generally, my contribution lasts five or ten minutes of an hour (or longer) call. It’s how I pay the bills and I have no complaint about that. But lately, because of the direction “latest big project” has been going, I’ve found these calls to be fruitful when the talk drifts into buzzwords and arcane business phraseology. I often will be taking notes not on the subject matter but on how it is discussed. So far, much of this has found its way into “latest big project.”

Oddly, a number of what I think are really good ideas for short stories have been crowding into my brain lately. I make notes and fool around with them a little, but I haven’t been able to work on them as I’d like because of “latest big project.” I’d say it’s a good problem to have.

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Currently reading The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch (second time through). Not as odd as it sounds.

books read in April

Posted May 3, 2021 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

Tags: , , , , , , ,

I’ve been busy with “latest big project” (I think I’m about halfway done with a first draft), so maybe I’m not devoting as much time to reading as I typically would. There was a time in my life when I wanted to average reading one book a week — and I achieved it — but I now consider that unhealthy and a little disrespectful to the authors and the works. So I savor the books I’m reading rather than race through them (mostly).

These are the books I read in April of 2021:

Jewfish by Andrew Fuhrman – I had never heard of this book or author, but a friend sent me an old clipping of a review this man wrote of Philip Roth’s alternative history work The Plot Against America, and when I looked him up online, I found he had several novels to his name, so I immediately bought this one. The title can be read on several levels. There is a grouper that was once called “jewfish,” and that reference features briefly in the novel, but the protagonist happens to be a Jewish man who is a professional fisherman in south Florida, trying to keep his business running without compromising his values. There is a lot of backstory about his family and the changes in the small-scale fishing industry. This is deeply and broadly imagined with credible characters in credible situations. It has not so much a happy ending as a sufficient ending. It was a worthy read.

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth – It’s purely coincidence that the Roth connection to the prior book happened when it did. I picked this up (my second reading) because I thought it could relate to how I am trying to develop “latest big project.” Roth’s novel is a first-person, novel-length monologue with a whole lot more going on than the ostensible, naughty subject matter. As with all of Roth’s work, I get the sense that everything, every word and bit of punctuation, is exactly right. I think he developed the style he would use for much of the rest of his career in this novel, most closely in Sabbath’s Theater.

Miss Jane by Brad Watson – This one didn’t work for me. I picked it up at the used bookstore because it sounded interesting, though I’d not heard of the author before. It is based on some apparently true history in his family about a person born without certain body parts to identify gender. This malformed plumbing is not, however, life threatening, and the child grows into young adulthood, eventually identifying as a woman. It’s set on a farm and in a small town in Mississippi a century ago, and there is the usual bleakness typical of such settings in fiction. Everyone around her is unhappy. Everyone around her dies. But she seems unaffected by all of it. Maybe that’s the point. Still, I found the writing chaotic. At times the narrator has a folksy tone, using phrasing that must have been slang of the time and place, yet in other passages the voice was clinical and abstracted. I thought it could have used a good editing. It was long listed for the National Book Award.

Upstate by Ben Tanzer – Full confession: I’ve been listening to Tanzer’s This Podcast Will Change Your Life for a while. Even so, I had known/known of Ben for years through a mutual friend, and I’d read one of his collections of essays about writing and running before: 99 Problems. Upstate is a collection of short stories linked by recurring characters/events and a common location (a small, depressed town in upstate New York). Most of the stories are spare like Raymond Carver would write; some are surreal. The characters are all too relatable. As I read this I thought of some parts of Richard Russo’s and Willy Vlautin’s novels. (Not to be confused with Upstate by James Wood, which I’d also read recently.)

Friday Feature ~ “Unfinished Business”

Posted April 30, 2021 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Friday Feature

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They say that every writer has to write the story he has about a friend’s death, and every writer has a friend who died. The point is to get it out of your system so you can get busy with your real writing. I guess that applied to me, but I managed to get my story about this, “Unfinished Business,” finally written and published.

The writing of this story dates back to my St. Louis life, so more than 30 years, and the origin of this story is in my early teen years, which is a terrible count of years. It is based on the actual death of my best friend at the time. The story tracks pretty closely with our friendship. We were really not much alike. He was sporty; I was a reader. I had a huge family; he had just his mother. We went to different schools. But we lived two houses away from each other, and we were the same age. We did stuff together and hung out, and I guess that was enuf. Sometime shortly after I entered high school I learned that he had “spots on his lungs,” which my mother told me was cancer. As in my story, he had already lost his arm to cancer, and it had moved into his lungs. I was wholly unequipped emotionally to accept or understand what was happening at the time, and I recall several adults taking an interest in me because I seemed so unaffected by it. I guess they never saw my episodes of rage. (My mother’s friend in far-off Connecticut even wrote me a letter trying to help me understand what I was going through.)

And that is the foundation of this story. The character is grappling with his unresolved emotions; he is haunted by the ghost of his friend. They say that ghosts linger because they have unfinished business in the life they cannot quite leave. That felt like a perfect metaphor for how my character (and I) saw things. He struggles to make sense of what he didn’t and still doesn’t understand about himself, and he tries to fabricate a happy ending, which he knows won’t happen.

To this day I still feel the loss of my friend. Or rather, I feel the hole that seems to be inside me about him. I actually think about him often, even after nearly half a century. I have visited his grave several times over the years. It took me more than 20 years to get this story finished. It went through various very different drafts and had a number of titles. But I think once I settled on the character being haunted by the matter, I knew how to resolve the story.

It was published in the Green issue of Midwest Literary Magazine in 2010. I have no records on how I came to submit to this magazine though I suspect that it had to do with the Midwestern setting. I had only submitted it to two other publications at the time. Now Midwest Literary Magazine is defunct and the bound copy with my story in it is the only thing I have left.

Friday Feature ~ “Rebecca Finds Her Way”

Posted April 23, 2021 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Friday Feature

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This odd little story came to me on some suburban street in Little Rock more than a decade ago. My wife and I were visiting our son, who was living there at the time, and he showed us this new-fangled GPS device he had that not only showed him how to get to any chosen location but actually spoke to him, giving directions on where to turn, how far to go, and things like that. Pretty high-tech at the time.

We used that thing the entire long weekend we were with him, and there must have been a few times when we disobeyed because this was the first time I heard the word “recalculating” used in this sense. If we missed a turn, for example, the little device said it was “recalculating” a new route for us. And I wondered if the little device, which was programmed with a woman’s voice, grew annoyed when we didn’t follow her directions. The story “Rebecca Finds Her Way” grew from that.

In my story, the GPS device is in league with Rebecca’s controlling boyfriend, and it’s leading her to their new apartment. But as she gets closer to her destination, she begins having second thoughts about the relationship and disobeys the device, which rebukes her. Rebecca then finds a satisfying solution to the situation.

Because of its slightly fantastic premise, I thought it might be a good fit for Mirror Dance, which has published my earlier story “The Manuscript.” I sent it to the editor who promptly accepted it.

I’ve never considered myself a fantasy writer, and if I did lean that way I would be more attempting magical realism, but I was pleased with this little story then and now as I re-read it.

another tree falls in the forest

Posted April 21, 2021 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

Tags: ,

But first, this nice photo of some native phlox that was blooming downhill from the cabin. It’s getting to be spring flowering season in my Ozark woods, and while I used to try to identify each type I found, I gave that up and just enjoy them as they come.

So it looked as though we were going to get a break in the weather on Sunday, and since we’re occupied this coming weekend, we decided to make a dash out to the cabin when we could. Despite the weather not cooperating fully, we did have a productive time in the woods.

Arrival at the cabin involves a few routine chores. I will fill the bird feeder with safflower seed, and in the coming weeks, I’ll replace that with a hummingbird feeder. I always set (unsalted) peanuts on the old log near the cabin for the wood rat who lives in it, but I think the birds take most of them. I’ll rake the leaves away from the wooden cabin if there are any (not this trip). I’ll light some balsam incense in the small burner on my table so the cabin won’t smell (too much) like gym socks when the summer heat comes. I’ll inspect the water level in the lake (full pool this trip). I’ll think in the abstract about a hike to some far corner or working in the pines or the pecans. We set the comfy chairs on the shady deck overlooking the sparkling lake, and there we will have our lunch when the time is right.

On this trip I had not intended to cut down another large tree, and instead I began my chores with shoveling nine wheelbarrow loads of gravel to the west side of the cabin to clean and level the area (and to bury part of a drain pipe that the critters have moved into). I considered that a day’s worth of work: shoveling the gravel into the wheelbarrow, pushing it across un-level ground, spreading it evenly, then going back to do it eight more times. There is a good possibility that most of my grands will be visiting the cabin this summer, and I’d like them to spread marbles in the gravel, so I need to get it laid down while I can. (I’ll also need to get another load of gravel delivered so I can cover the area properly.) I was just finishing this work when the rain that was not in the forecast began. It was really a drizzle, but it was a good time for me to retreat.

When that was done, we sat down to lunch (cheese sandwiches on pretzel buns, fruit, and for me, iced tea, unsweetened, of course). Some geese visited the lake, and we watched for an appearance by the beavers. They’ve been busy in our absence, cutting down more trees across the lake (and trimming some cedars on the cabin side of the lake), and they’ve built a large pile of sticks against the mud bank to protect their den. So far, though, no appearances.

As we sat and mused, something like sunshine began penetrating the clouds overhead, and I got the notion that I could cut down a cedar tree beside the road down to the dam. We have an old weather vane that once caused leaks in the roof of our garage, and I thought I could mount it on a stump, if not for actual weather prognostications then for whimsy. I had been planning to put a mailbox on the stump (if I ever cut down the tree) but the weather vane took top position when that idea struck me.

So with the rain stopped and a weak sunlight reaching the ground, I decided to fire up the old chainsaw and bring down the tree. Once I got started, it was quick work. For some reason, the wood was easy to rip through. I did the wedge cut and then the back cut (a little too low, but I wasn’t killed, so that’s a win). The tree landed in the road just as I intended when I cut the wedge where I did. Behold:

There’s the stump on the right. My trusty chainsaw in the foreground. The fallen cedar tree. The bright green strip you see beyond the tree is the top of the dam. (It’s farther away than it appears.) And through the trees on the right you can see part of the lake. The water was muddy because of the recent rains. I don’t think the fish mind. When it rains, all kinds of good things to eat wash into the lake.

You can see I had begun trimming the branches from the fallen tree. My wife and I dragged them into the forest here and there, and then I began cutting the trunk of the fallen tree into manageable lengths for carrying into the forest as well. Cedar is aromatic when it burns, but it pops a lot and throws embers out of the fire ring.

I’d say we were about a third finished with this project when the rain began again. It was more than a drizzle this time, and we had to retreat to the cabin porch and wait it out. We could have just packed to go home then, but I didn’t like the idea of leaving a tree in the road like this, so I paced and looked to the sky and fumed a little. And it seemed to have worked, for the rain let up and we could finish the job. The rest of the trimming and cutting went quickly, and soon we had the tree parts dispatched in the nearby forest.

Here is the top of the stump in raw form:

It won’t retain that rich red color, which is a shame. I need to trim this into two angles down, both to shed water so it doesn’t rot too soon, and to accept the bracket that the weather vane is mounted on. But that will be a chore for another visit since the rain decided we were getting too much work done and resumed its falling.

So with gravel shoveling and tree felling, I decided I had gotten enuf work done too, and we began packing up to head home. It was then that I discovered that during the two downpours, the windows of the truck and been left down. No serious flooding though since the slope of the ground where it was parked meant the truck was tilted away from the rain. Still, I seem to need this kind of lesson a few times each year.

Here is what fresh cedar sawdust looks like:

progress amidst lack of progress

Posted April 19, 2021 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Humble efforts

I’ve mentioned here once or twice that I’m working on a new, big project that I’m calling Losers (for now). And while I am making a lot of progress with it, it feels like I am standing still. I have more than 10,000 words written, and I have a clear idea of how to develop the rest of it, and then I have a clear idea of how to really develop the rest of it (mostly the story behind the story), but the sense of completing it is so far in the future that I feel as though I’m making no progress at all despite unbroken hours before my laptop.

While this will be a novel, it will be an unconventional one, at least from the way the tale is told. (And thus, unmarketable?) And before I can get the meat of the story into it, I must “assemble” the parts in their proper order so that I can hang the real story on them. I realize this is all cryptic and perhaps precious, but it’s the only way I can think to describe it without giving away the plot. (A writer I respect once said to me, “Tell your story once, and tell it in writing.” The point being that the motivation to finish a story can dissipate if you tell it before you’re done writing it.)

Helping or hampering this effort is the continuing fact that I’m having profound (in context) “realizations” about what this novel really is. In the last two weeks I’ve had three of these realizations that made everything that came before them just pencil work. “Of course, what’s really happening behind all of these words is . . .”* And “Aha, that’s who the narrator is!” And “I see now. This is why the tale is being told in this way!”

These kinds of revelations visited me when I was writing Obelus, and it resulted in a very different story from what I had started out to tell. I certainly welcome them, but what I have after is so much “better” than before that I fear I can’t finish writing the work until ALL of the profundities reveal themselves to me. And they don’t seem to be on any schedule or announce their pending arrival.

So I make slow but gratifying progress.

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*Should I put a period after that ellipsis? Or maybe an exclamation point?

Friday Feature ~ “Moron Saturday”

Posted April 16, 2021 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Friday Feature

Tags: ,

I remember having a lot of fun writing “Moron Saturday.” It’s pretty much my retelling of the Diana and Actaeon myth, which had always intrigued me (and which is used in Iris Murdoch’s novel Henry and Cato). In my story, Actaeon is an English professor named Hunter who, through a series of mishaps, stumbles upon my Diana who is showering. He’s caught in the act, and the story closes with him being chased by a vicious dog. You take it from there.

I remember thinking at the time that I could probably retell a different myth each year and get the story published, (it turns out there are quite a few lit mags that have a classical mythology focus), and I did do that one more time, but I’ll get to that in a future Friday Feature. Long after this appeared in the now-archived online issue of Danse Macabre I tried getting the story accepted in a couple of anthologies, but I never heard back from them. (Danse Macabre did accept another of my stories later, but that will also be the subject of a future Friday Feature.)

I submitted “Moron Saturday” to Danse Macabre, for its upcoming Commedia issue, at the end of July in 2009 and received an acceptance at the beginning of September. I must have been getting used to acceptances after only one try and thinking it the norm. If so, I’ve long since grown more jaded.

As began with “The Lively Arts in Kansas City,” I was further developing my snarky narrative style with “Moron Saturday.” It’s a reliable tone I can take up with the right story, and sometimes I wonder if it is my true style.

bits and pieces

Posted April 12, 2021 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

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Just a random photo from the archive. I pretty much have to unearth each round rock I find in my woods. If they’re keepers, like the basketball-sized one above, I then have to carry them to the cabin even if they do weigh a horrible amount.

It’s getting to be bug season at the cabin, and I find that they seem to enjoy prancing on the back of my neck. But when I reach back to brush them away, it turns out to be my pony tail.

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I used to think that the term “gather together” was redundant. After all, we’re never going to gather apart. But now, in the age of Zoom, I think “gather together” might have some traction. (Or maybe “gather apart” does.)

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Resolved: Elton John’s song “Bennie and the Jets” is his response/homage/echo of the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Both incorporate cheering audience sounds. Both sing nostalgically of a musical group. Both are parts of concept albums. Discuss.

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I was poking around in Duotrope where I log my story submissions and came upon an old one that I had submitted to a stretch target. The average response time reported for this lit mag is 97 days. Mine was with them for 318 days. Does that mean my story was given a good deal of consideration or that they finally got around to cleaning out the slush pile? (The story was subsequently accepted elsewhere.)

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I’m making good progress on my latest big project that I’m calling Losers. It will (eventually) be a novel but it’s not taking the most direct route there. In fact, I’m not really “writing” it right now as much as “assembling” it. Through the week (when I’m working for the man) I get insights about how to develop this point or what that point “really” means, and I write them on a small pad I keep at hand. Then, when I have my weekend writing sessions, I transcribe all of those handwritten notes into a Word file and attempt to organize them. From all of that I’ve come up with a working idea of how to develop the novel — a skeleton for it — and now I’m beginning to hang the ideas onto the skeleton where they belong. Of course none of it is what the story is really about, but I can’t add that story until I have more of the matrix for it in place. From where I am, this actually makes sense.

I’m also doing a lot of work with a few short stories. I’ve even sent some of them out. So far I haven’t broken the string of rejections yet this year, but I remain hopeful.

Friday Feature – “The Manuscript”

Posted April 9, 2021 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Friday Feature

There was a time in my life when every company I had ever worked for subsequently went out of business. For a while I felt like a) I was the kiss of death, or b) only pathetic companies would hire the likes of me. (I’ve not settled on which is the case yet.)

And because it’s what writers do, I decided to make a story out of this portion of my life. The story that resulted, “The Manuscript,” was a more exaggerated version of what had been true in my life for a number of years, with much bigger consequences. It was also my first, and only as far as I remember, framed narrative. One reader wondered if the framing was necessary, but it was intended as a sort of homage to a wonderful used bookstore here in town (that has since gone out of business — maybe I do have a death touch).

I’m happy to say that the publication that took my story back in 2009, Mirror Dance, is still in business. It’s an elegant place, filled with art by the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and it leans toward fantasy stories. Mine is not fantasy, but it is fantastic in a way, which is why I think it was accepted. (We’re now into the stories I had begun tracking in earnest on Duotrope, and my record for it there shows I’d only submitted it to one place and was accepted. I suspect I was responding to a theme call.)