Archive for the ‘Rants and ruminations’ category

sonder, out yonder

January 17, 2018

I once found a stubbed-out cigarette on one of the blocks of the retaining wall behind my cabin.

My first reaction was alarm. The back of the cabin is where dried out fallen leaves collect against the wooden wall. Cigarettes require a flame and themselves burn. But it seemed that the smoker was fastidious about his habit (I assume it was a “he” though I have no reason to think that) and snuffed it safely, though packing out his trash was apparently beyond the range of his perceived responsibilities.

But after my initial alarm, I began to imagine my interloper and his visit. Had he arrived by car or had he walked the considerable distance from anywhere to reach my end-of-the-road little cabin? Did he come down my road or hike cross country? Did he walk around the cabin and appreciate the setting? Or did he sit on the retaining wall as he enjoyed his cigarette? If so, why at the back of the cabin and not on the porch where he could look down on the glinting lake? Though perhaps he started there and merely sauntered. Did he try the door to see if it was open? Peer in the windows? Did he sit in one of the chairs? On the porch or around the fire ring? Did he heft the round rocks all around? Did he come with intent, to see the cabin in its place? Had he heard of it? Or was he just wandering the woods that day and come upon it? How long did he stay? And what did he think while he was there? Did he imagine for the time that the place was his own? Imagine throwing a line in the water? Throwing a steak on the grill? Telling stories around a fire? Or did he scoff at its humble setting? What was his name? Was he tired when he arrived and rested when he left? Was he alone? Did he meet someone there? Has he ever been back? Does this happen often?

I sometimes find the spoor of interlopers in my woods: beer cans, candy wrappers, footprints, emptied shotgun shells. Once, a horse shoe.

I have no illusions about the concept of private property, especially in isolated places infrequently visited. I also think it’s presumptuous in a way to think of “owning” a piece of land, at least on the time scale of land. I sometimes think of myself as more of a tenant of the 80 acres than an owner. A caretaker, maybe. A steward. Transitory. I can point to my influences, the changes I’ve made, both successful and not, and speak of the emotional connection I have to the place. But in a century, my connection won’t really be known to the next tenant in the woods. It seems unlikely that anyone will ponder who I was in my time and tenancy.

Maybe that’s why I write stories. To live beyond myself.


embrace the hopelessness

January 16, 2018

“Belief is the enemy of a storyteller.”

Ismael al-Kharrat
from The Hatawaki
by Rabih Alameddine

I am reading The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine*, right now. It is a 500+ page novel of stories — because a hakawati is a story teller in many Middle Eastern cultures — with a unifying narrative thread running through them. I’ve read two of his other novels (An Unnecessary Woman, which is his most conventional, and The Angel of History, which is his most current). I can recommend both.

I’m only one-fifth of the way through this novel and I’m already filled with despair. I think I could write for a hundred years and still not match one-fifth of Alameddine’s range of vision (or characterizations, or vocabulary). With every paragraph I read I ask myself why I even bother to write my little stories. (To be fair, I usually think this way about every writer I read.)

In the Acknowledgements section Alameddine has this to say:

“By nature, a story teller is a plagiarist. Everything one comes across — each incident, book, novel, life episode, story, person, news clip — is a coffee bean that will be crushed, ground up, mixed with a touch of cardamom, sometimes a tiny pinch of salt, boiled thrice with sugar, and served as a piping-hot tale.”

Despite all of my perceived shortcomings, I’m glad I live in a world with books like this.


*This name is a variation of the name Aladdin, whose tale was not originally part of the One Thousand and One Nights stories but was added by a later translator. Also, I love how Borges translates that title as A Thousand Nights and a Night.


subtle jolts

December 26, 2017

Profound shifts in my life often come in subtle, unexpected ways. And, I’ve found, sometimes the most obvious thoughts or understandings just don’t come to me in the fundamental ways they should (though perhaps they do come to others) until I am jolted into “receiving” them.

For example, and tangentially related to the point of this self-indulgent post, Iris Murdoch has a statement in one of her philosophical works* that goes like this: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” My understanding of this is that other people actually exist and are whole human beings with lives and dreams and frustrations just as valid — and apart from — my own. They are no more “walk-on” characters in the story of my life than I am a “walk-on” character in their lives.** (And that we can’t truly love another person until we acknowledge that they exist apart from us. And until we do, we only love our fabrication of this other person and not the actual other person.) Doesn’t this seem like the most obvious thing in the world? That other people really exist? And yet it is not my first thought when I see someone walking down the street, that this person I glance at briefly has a life beyond me, a life that doesn’t include me at all. Maybe I’m more self contained (or selfish) than other people who grasp this understanding — and live it — readily.

But onto*** the point of this self-indulgent post. I recently had one of these subtle jolts. It was about something that should have been the most obvious thing in the world to me, especially since I’ve written so many stories about fathers and sons, but the point had never occurred to me. I was in Seattle for the Thanksgiving holiday with my son, his wife, and their daughter, Ela. Ela is fussy. She is willful (which I think is a good quality for a future woman in our culture!) and often won’t willingly do what is requested/required of her. One example is bath time. My son must cajole her into taking her nightly bath if she is not in the mood for it. I first observed this when he began walking about the house singing “It’s bath time for Dad and Ela. It’s bath time for Dad and Ela” (to the Popeye tune).

My first thought when I heard this was that I was not going to take a bath with my granddaughter. And here is the big revelation: He was using the name “Dad” in reference to himself! I, who defined myself as “Dad,” was not “Dad” any longer; I was now Grandpa. And the jolt wasn’t that he was “stealing” my identity from me but that it has passed to him. I had to stop seeing myself as this person and start seeing him as this person.

And, of course, I had known all along — intellectually — that my son was a dad in the lower case. But seeing this fundamental yet profound quality in another person — as another person — was something I had not grasped, had not given myself motivation to see and accept or even consider.

I’m not sure that I’m making my point very well. It isn’t that my son is a Dad in the upper case. It’s my realization of it in more than just an intellectual, abstracted way. The world has shifted and it took a jolt for me to see/accept/understand/be at peace with it.

And, further of course, I’m going to incorporate this into one of my stories. My father character David will be a grandfather and will hear his son use the word “Dad.” David will automatically think it’s a reference to himself and then have his own jolt when he realizes it’s a reference to his son, his boy, his child who is now a parent. As it should be. Right on time. Part of the natural, wholesome order of things. Yet hard to internalize for him.


At this point you might be saying to yourself, “But I thought One-Match Fire was finished.” And you’d be right. I’m now working on stories for the inevitable sequel, which I’m calling Nature Always Wins.


*”The Sublime and the Good” – I don’t profess to grasp her philosophical writings very well.

**The recently coined word “sonder” seems to be just what I’m attempting to define here.

*** or should that be “on to”?

recent reading adventures

December 12, 2017

You’ll recall that I traveled to Seattle over the long Thanksgiving weekend to visit my son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter. (They have another on the way!) I find flying tedious and time consuming and hardly an adventure, but it is an effective way to get from right here to far there. And I look on it as a way to get a lot of good reading done. Generally I treat myself to a new book to carry on, one that I can conceivably finish en route.

I began with great ambitions. This was to be the trip when I would re-read Moby-Dick. (I would not have finished it en route.) I have a nice paperback copy of the Norton Critical Edition that would travel well, and the night before departure I pulled it from the shelf to flip through it. I was daunted. It seemed too dense for easy reading in unfavorable conditions — it deserves close and careful reading and time for reflection, none of which, I’ve found, is possible on an airplane. (Plus the print was really small.) And so, that night I found myself at Half Price Books, scouring the shelves for something to take on the flight with me.

I settled on The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin. I’d not read any of his writing before, and the story looked interesting enuf to keep me reading on a plane. (Plus the print was not really small.)

When we got to the airport that next morning, I found that — yes — I had left the book on my desk at home, dagnabit! This meant that I would either face a nearly four-hour flight with only my murky thoughts to occupy me or I would have to find something tolerable to read in the tiny, over-priced newsstand tucked into terminal B at the Kansas City airport. I approached the newsstand hopeful and doubtful. (Would that qualify as cognitive dissonance?) Best sellers mostly, with a horrifying selection of self help and business management tomes. I read the titles several times, trying to find something I thought I could stomach. The least offensive-seeming was a novel titled All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I had known of this book before, but because it had to do in large part with (historical) Nazis, I had never picked it up. Pickings were slim, however, and boarding was approaching, so I bought it. It was only then than I noticed the embossed emblem on the cover saying it had won the Pulitzer Prize. Well, that took me from doubtful to full-on hopeful.

I bought it under a sort of lending-library scheme. I could return the book when I was finished to any seller in dozens of airports around the world and get half my money back. Then it would go back on the shelf for the next reader. I doubted that the copy I would return would be in decent enuf shape to be returnable, with it going in and out of my carry on, getting stuffed in the seat back pouch in front of me, and all of the rough handling travel tends to cause. To verify my understanding, though, I asked the cashier if I could return it to the bookstore in the Sea-Tac airport when I got there, and she said yes but then scoffed that I could finish it in the time it took to fly there. Well, I saw that as a challenge. At 530 pages, it was beyond me, of course, but I began reading it as we waited to board, determined to give it a try nonetheless.

All the Light We Cannot See turned out to be an engrossing read, an ensemble of characters well drawn with an adventure before them just up to the edge of being implausible, but not quite. I wouldn’t call it a deep read, but it was very good storytelling. I did not finish it before reaching Seattle. I got half way though, and if I was diligent, I could at least return it to the same newsstand where I had bought it when I was back five days later.

I was more than diligent. Given that our trip to Seattle was governed by the whims, patience, and naps of a fussy two-year-old, we didn’t do much sightseeing and I had a lot of downtime at my son’s house. (Remember that I finished writing one story and wrote an entirely new story while there.) I finished the novel a couple of days before our return flight. Fortunately, one of the places my granddaughter allowed us to visit was an outdoor shopping mall that included an Amazon brick-and-mortar bookstore, which was a sort-of sight to see of its own. I wandered the fiction shelves there (while she frolicked on the covered playground) and bought myself a slim novel (186 pages) called A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. He is another writer I had never read before, and the novel seemed readable on the coming, shorter flight back home. (Tail winds and the conceit that it was “downhill” meant shorter travel time.)

Realizing that I would easily finish the Isherwood novel on the flight, I visited the Sea-Tac bookstore at departure to find something else to use up the remainder of my air time. And once again, the choices that would interest me were slim. I settled on The Painter by Peter Heller. I didn’t know this writer at all, but the blurb on the back cover sounded interesting, being either a penetrating view into the souls of several complicated characters or a tough-guy shoot-em-up. I couldn’t tell, but it was a book in hand that would fill the tedious hours.

When we boarded the plane I opened A Single Man and began reading. The style was interesting, and since I haven’t read much gay literature, I was looking forward to the tale. But then I decided I was going to close my eyes for just ten minutes. The next thing I heard was that we were beginning our descent into Kansas City. Dagnabit, again!

I finished the Isherwood novel several days after returning home (it was a good read) and then picked up The Night Listener, which had been waiting patiently for me. I was engrossed and managed to finish it quickly. One sign that I enjoyed a book is when I find myself interested in reading another by that author, and I intend to explore more of Maupin in the future. I’m also interested in watching the film made of it. The ending is ambiguous in the extreme, and I’m eager to see what they do with it in the film. (There is also a film version of A Single Man that I want to see now.)

Shortly after this I finished Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (so you don’t have to). I had been poking away at this autobiography for several weeks and left it at home during my travels. This book was disappointing, though I suppose to fans it would be interesting. The book is packed with anecdote and admissions, boisterousness and betrayals, but throughout I found myself wanting to hear the other side of the many story he told. He seemed to be trying too hard to make himself seem like a flawed but decent man. At 500+ pages, I still found little in the way of actual substance in the book.

I am now reading The Painter. I fear it’s going to be the shoot-em-up, but I’m giving it a chance.

As for All the Light We Cannot See, when we got back to Kansas City I did not return it to the newsstand there for half of my money. It was packed in my stowed luggage, and by the time we had collected that, it was time to find the shuttle to where we’d left our car so we could dash off to the “camp” where we’d boarded our dogs. So the novel sits on my desk. A dedicated trip to (and from) the airport to return it would cost in gas a good chunk of money that would negate much of the refund, and with family coming to town for the holidays, it’s possible that I will be traveling to the airport. If I have the presence of mind to take the book with me should I make that trip, and I have the time whilst there, I could return the book then.

But my wife has said she might like to read it. She usually has a half dozen books going at one time so she’s not a fast reader (of a given book). The return window for the Doerr novel is six months. I suspect this book will join the others sitting on a shelf to eventually be donated to the small-town library near my woods in the Ozarks, but that’s a good thing too.


an acquired distaste

October 23, 2017

I’ve written about this at various times over the near-decade that I’ve been keeping this blog, but it’s a thought that comes to my mind often. It has to do with writing (and reading) and what many people have come to believe is proper (and improper). Essentially, it bugs me when people object to what is not, objectively, improper grammar. Or rather, what is perfectly clear speech or writing that doesn’t match some arbitrary “rule” of grammar. For example, a split infinitive: “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Or ending a sentence with a preposition. Or use of the passive voice. Or sentence fragments.

Usages like these work perfectly well to get meaning across to readers/listeners, and their composition can be elegant or at least not clumsy. But that someone would automatically object to these instances, claiming them to be poor grammar and sniffing disdain at them, strikes me as unconsidered. It strikes me as an acquired distaste. This is something one has learned to object to without there being anything inherently (or effectively) wrong with the usage. They might never have objected to the usage unless and until someone told them it was “wrong.”

I get it. Writing is a perilous business. We work with uncertainty and doubt, never sure if we’re getting our meaning across as well as we can, (sometimes not even sure what our meaning is). And so “rules” of grammar and composition can give a kind of certainty, can relieve us of a next-level effort of expressing meaning through creation. Similarly, they can relieve a reader of the effort needed to understand a writer’s work. (There are plenty of cases when I’ve had to reread a sentence two or three times to extract its meaning: Moby Dick, anything by Faulkner.) And in my observation, many people need clear rules in order to get through life.

But I’ve always thought that creative types are here to create the culture rather than merely reflect it.

Still . . .

I’m finding myself struggling with this very “distaste” thing in the book I’m reading. The writer has gotten excessively creative with wording, and I suppose it’s intended to leave strong, lasting images in the reader, but I think the writing gets in the way of the story; the clever writing seems to exist for its own sake rather than to advance the story. And then it makes me object.

Here are some examples:

  • “his shirt wounded with gray sweat stains”
  • “a toast-colored mustache”
  • “earlobe-sized berries”
  • heat lightning “luminescing distant acres of wheat”
  • the glow of the television “fire-flying” her face

Why was the word “wounded” used in that context? The character wasn’t suffering or victimized; it was merely a hot day. I have a hard time picturing what color toast is. Why compare the berries to earlobes? There was no connection in the context. “Luminescing” seemed like a reached-for word rather than the right word. Fire-flying?

There is something like this on every page. I understand that these create images, but are they useful images to the purpose of the story? Or are they ornamentation that pulls the reader out of the story? Yet not every sentence contains such a device. It seems as though the writer has a workable, readable basic style that carries the story along effectively and yet has picked occasions to doll it up.

And so I get yanked out of the narrative. Is this an acquired distaste of my own?

writing is hard work

September 14, 2017

Not hard like farming or construction or breaking rocks or futures trading or writing poetry or countless other truly hard things are, but hard work in its own way.

I’m in New York right now, getting acquainted with my new grandbabies and trying to peck out a few words on my latest One-Match Fire story. (Once I have this one done and consolidated with the others, I’ll consider the novel finished and begin sending it out again.) My daughter’s household rises late in comparison to how I now live, so I was able to rise early on my first day here (despite sleeping in for an hour later than my usual time, though in retrospect, my actual usual time according to my body clock given the time zone change) and sit in the quiet darkness before my laptop, tapping away at the keys to spin gold from dross.

Or at least attempting to. The words come slowly. And I really need to get into the tone of the story I’m working on before the words will come at all, which means I need to re-read it from the beginning. Which in turn means that I need to revise it as I read it, perfecting this or that word choice, chopping or lengthening any given sentence, crafting the perfect metaphor, and on. So by the time I get to where I’d left the story my last writing session, enuf time has passed that the sleepy household begins rousing. Just as the words begin to flow, the solitude begins to end.

As problems go, it’s not so bad. As work goes, it’s not so hard. My visit here is intended to be a help to my daughter: rocking or changing either or both of the twins, playing with their older brother, and generally doing whatever I can to lighten her load. So it’s not like I begrudge the interruption in the writing; that’s not why I’m here.

But if I can get a few words in as well, I’ll be pleased.

(By the way, the story has a couple of flashbacks in it. I know this device is not currently in vogue, but I don’t care!)

ten years!

August 19, 2017

It was ten years ago today that I began this humble blog as a way to hold myself accountable for the writing I was attempting. At the time I had only one published story to my name. But I was embarking on writing a series of cozy mystery novels with the unique hook of not having a murder in them. I managed to write four of them, lost one in a hard drive crash, gave up on one as apprentice work, considered one as okay but needing work, and felt that one was good enuf to submit around, which I did, though I never got more than nibbles from agents.

In that time my writing has evolved. I still work on plots for the cozy mysteries (including one with a half marathon in it), but I’ve also written that weird novel The Sleep of Reason, which got more than nibbles but ultimately never went anywhere. (Why don’t I try sending it our more?) And I did a lot of work on a project I called Larger Than Life, which was based on the central character in my story “Travel Light,” but that fizzled, and I don’t feel any desire to return to it.

I also wrote a number of unconnected short stories in various genres, many of which found their way to publication.

And then I seemed to have found my great subject: the relationship between fathers and sons. All of my One-Match Fire stories, originally the few of them not intended to be anything more than independent stories with common characters, sprung from finding my subject. There are more of them for me to write.

Had I looked ten years into the future when I started this blog, I’m sure I would have seen myself as jaded with all of the commercial success I would have achieved. That hasn’t happened (neither the commercial success nor the jadedness). But I’ll persevere because I don’t know what else to do with myself.