bits and pieces

Posted August 19, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic, Rants and ruminations

I finished reading that collection of short stories, Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson. And even though most of the stories were published in places like The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Paris Review, I just don’t get what’s appealing (or even well done) about them. Guess my stuff will never appear on those pages. (I seem to be okay with that.)

Now I’m re-reading Bruno’s Dream by Iris Murdoch. Altogether different kind of story telling.

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I also finished a first draft of the story of the man wandering in the woods and touching on many of the points of the hero’s journey (which I wrote about a little bit here). It’s nearly 4,000 words! I don’t think this writing approach worked for me. About half way through I disregarded whatever the next step of the hero’s journey was according to the scholars and just wrote in the direction the story was taking itself. If the second half does happen to line up with the HJ, then it was not done so consciously. (I seem to be okay with that, too.)


The photo above is the last known image of Peregrine. Peregrine was a log — about four feet long — that floated around my lake for years. It was part of a burn pile of trees removed from the valley (to make way for the lake), and it didn’t burn fully. When the lake filled, Peregrine floated to the surface and then just seemed to wander around the lake. Each time we visited, we’d seek it, and while it was often by the spillways, it was just as often at the other end of the lake. Some times it was high and dry when the leaking lake water receded, and then it would be moved when a storm recharged the lake.

Peregrine wandered this way for years, but I noticed that after a while it was floating lower in the water. Then, on one visit, I could no longer find it. That was years ago. I suspect that it got sufficiently water logged that it could sink. So it’s possible Peregrine is still in the lake, on the bottom.

Peregrine got its name from a sort of contest I held on my old blog. Readers suggested names, and this name came from someone in a place called Alabama (I know, it sounds made up). She said it was suited to the log’s wandering nature, and I agreed. (My truck, Prolechariot, was also named this way.)

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When I was a boy and even a young man, I loved violent storms. I loved to watch the sky light up and hear the crash and roll of thunder. I enjoyed seeing the branches of the tall trees getting whipped around by the strong winds. I suppose it was an early appreciation of forces greater than I am.

These days, not so much. I’ve noticed my appreciation of a good storm has diminished over my decades of being a homeowner. My house is near the top of a hill, so while I don’t have the basement flooding that many of my friends do (including my son whose first floor is partially below ground level), the high situation seems to subject my house to more of the force of the storm. In recent years I’ve spent nearly $10,000 on a series of sometimes ineffective roof repairs. And though this last time seems to have finally fixed the problem of the leaking skylight (by removing it altogether), I still listen for dripping water in that room, even during a light drizzle, and I still have to do something about the stained ceiling in there.

Plus my poor dog, Flike, is terrified of thunder (and flies). He cowers in the shower stall of our master bathroom at the slightest rumble (which has included our neighbor two doors down throttling the engine of his motorcycle). Friends have suggested Benadryl and thunder vests, but as soon as the thunder stops, he’s back to his ten-year-old puppy self.

short story collections

Posted August 15, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Reviews and Responses

Tags: ,

There’s something about reading short story collections that just doesn’t work for me.

I’m currently halfway through Denis Johnson’s collection Jesus’ Son, and I’m not enjoying it. Johnson is pretty much known for this particular work, and it received praise from high quarters. I acknowledge that I’m probably missing something, that my poor mind isn’t catching some nuance or insight, and that’s fine. Everyone has their interests, and his subject/style apparently isn’t for me.

But I wonder if I tried one of his novels I might feel differently. Sure, the characters in his short stories are mostly “low lifes,” living on the edge of society and not making very bright decisions (though I don’t have trouble with those same kinds of characters in Willy Vlautin’s novels), but it’s hard (for me) to build up any kind of interest or investment in these characters before the story is finished and it’s on to the next one. And I think that’s due to the short story-nature of the collection. Any one of the stories, read in isolation, might stand better for me, but grouped as they are, something happens or doesn’t happen.

Sitting abandoned on my reading shelf is a collection of Raymond Carver short stories. I could only get about halfway through it before I had to set it aside. (Johnson’s characters are a lot like Carver’s.) And before that I had to set aside a collection of Grace Paley’s short stories. And at my cabin I have a collection of Dorothy Parker’s works that I haven’t been able to soldier my way through.

There seems to be a pattern here.

random photo Monday

Posted August 12, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

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Another photo from the archive. This is not only one of the round rocks from my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks, but it is my favorite round rock. I keep it on the bookshelf beside my desk at home so I can see it constantly.

It’s not perfectly spherical, but it is among the smoothest surfaces I have unearthed. These rocks “grew” in the chemical stew that was created when a meteor slammed into the shallow, salt-water sea that once covered what we now call Missouri. The mix of pulverized minerals and the salt water (called breccia) caused substances to adhere to shards of stone (mostly shale) and grow into the round rocks that dot parts of my forest.

I am returning today from my long weekend in Paducah, Kentucky. I got to see my mother and aunt and sister as well as my daughter and her husband and my three sweet grands who travelled there from New York, some of whom are coming to Kansas City tomorrow for a two-week stay!

“Sweet Affton” has found a home

Posted August 9, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: short stories

Tags: ,

My 520-word story “Sweet Affton” has been accepted by Bended Genres Journal. It should appear in October.

You may recognize the reference in the title to Robert Burns’ pastoral poem “Sweet Afton.” My story is an anti-pastoral response to that, sparked in large part by the fact that when I was first married, we lived in Affton, Missouri, a pleasant suburb of St. Louis. The story is set in two-f Affton, though my depiction is grim (as any anti-pastoral work would be). I understand Burns’ poem was quickly mocked by others, more or less sparking the anti-pastoral movement, so my story is part of a fine tradition.

This piece is unlike most of my writing. The sentences are short and staccato. I drop the F-bomb (and not as an expletive) as well as use the words “an age of restive foment” and “curettage.” I reference a flattened squirrel. It’s not pretty.

But it seems to be just what Bended Genres wanted. I had only submitted it five days before the acceptance came.

random photo Thursday

Posted August 8, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic, Roundrock

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What you see is a collection of throwing sticks for Flike out at my little cabin on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks.

As far as Flike is concerned, the cabin exists as a site where I will throw a stick for him to chase and then to bring back but not give to me, keep-away apparently being the preferred game of Border Collies.

When we would arrive at the cabin, he would leap from the truck and grab a stick from the gravel then bring it to me to throw. His timing wasn’t the best since there was the unpacking of the truck and the opening of the cabin to get done.

Eventually we moved his sticks into the cabin for safe keeping, but that merely led him to scrounging for any stick he could find in the forest for me to throw.

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Apparently I am an advanced sleeper. I’m not sure if it’s innate or if I’ve trained myself this way. I can remember sleeping in on the weekends until noon sometimes — which seems horrible to me now.

something new

Posted August 5, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons, Process

I began something new over the weekend, but first, some backstory.

Nearer the dawn of civilization, which is to say back in my St. Louis life, I was a member of a small writing group. We met monthly to critique each others’ stories, and though I am sure none of my writing from that period survives, I really thought I had arrived then.

Among the members of the group was the leader’s sister, who professed that she was not a writer (I think her field was the Polish language), but she regularly had a story for us to dig into. One I specifically remember was an interior monologue about a character grieving over a friend who had recently died. The sister announced that she applied the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief when she developed her story, carrying her character through each stage.

I can remember bridling under this, thinking that grief was personal and unique to each individual and didn’t necessarily comply with prescriptive stages. When I eventually wrote my own friend-dying story, I paid no attention to the “official” stages and just wrote from (my) experience. (The story eventually became “Unfinished Business,” and it was published many years later.)

And all of that is the backstory.

I began a new story over the weekend, “North, East, South, and West,” (which you’ll, of course, recognize is a reference from the first chapter of Moby-Dick), but the real new thing I did was begin writing this story from a prescriptive series of stages.

The “plot” of the story involves a man wandering through a forest on a hot August day. But it’s more than that, as you might imagine. And the new thing I am doing is applying the stages of the hero’s journey to his wandering. I’ve never written like this before, from someone else’s script so to speak. Most of my stories have been organic, if I can use that word, and while I might have an ending in mind when I begin, the ending I actually reach is often something completely different.

Not so in this case, or at least not so in the journey to the ending. While my character has many comical mishaps as he moves through the woods (he’s a city boy), his interior monologue (about certain aspects of his life) is where the steps of his hero’s journey take place. I made a list of the steps and then noted what aspects/events in the story would apply to each. (Dropping a couple.)

The story is speeding along. I sat Saturday morning intending to tinker with maybe a first paragraph and rose 1,300 words later. I added another 300 words to that in a second session. I can understand why some writers will develop detailed outlines before they begin.

I’m not sure I’m completely comfortable with this process of writing a story at someone else’s “direction”; even the things I’ve read about the hero’s journey concede that not all heroes hit all of the common points along the way. But for this story, it seems to be working for me.

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(In that last paragraph, should the semicolon go inside or outside of the quotation mark?)

nearly wordless post

Posted August 1, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic, Roundrock

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My engineer son tells me that this is probably an insulating block from a kiln at a metal smelting plant. He collected two of these for me at a job site, and now they are part of the decor at my cabin in the woods.