Archive for the ‘Rants and ruminations’ category

how I see my stories (most of the time)

December 30, 2019

The painting you see above is titled (entitled?) Interior with a Book and it was completed in 1959 by Richard Diebenkorn. It hangs in the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art here in Kansas City, and the first time I saw it I recognized something about it.

This is pretty much how I see my stories. No, not as works of art. Rather, as what my first impression was when I originally saw this painting: not quite in focus. It’s all there, but in the case of my stories, it needs tightening. It needs refinement. It needs to be better focused.

Even when I finish a story, and I allow myself to say it is “finished,” I always feel like it could be better, that it needs more attention to detail or something. That it isn’t really, really finished when it’s finished, but it’s beyond my ability to see what’s not right or to know what do to about it.

My stories leave my hands as not-fully-formed things. That’s exactly what I felt when I saw this painting the first time, and every time I visit the museum, I stand before this painting for a while, puzzling to no avail what I’m missing in my own efforts.

flailing

December 2, 2019

With the “completion” of One-Match Fire, I’ve been flailing. I’m looking everywhere for my next great subject or character or theme that will consume me as OMF did for a decade. I have written a half dozen stories about those characters in the years subsequent to the completion of the OMF storyline, and while a few of them have been good, others just feel thin and forced.

I’ve written other stories too, and while several have been published, they’ve been one-offs that are more “manufactured” than written. I’ve also revisited two of my Finnegans cozy mystery novels, preparing them (and myself) for the thankless effort of submitting them here and there. (They are good, but they are completely outside of the “literary” writing I do; I’m even using a pen name for them.)

I’m also trying to be more businesslike in this hobby of mine. I’ve been researching potential publishers for OMF and have made a half dozen highly targeted submissions, all of which will have no response until the spring. And I keep searching.

And so, in my otherwise directionless state, I reached way back for a story idea I had made notes on more than a decade ago. (A friend once told me that the good ideas never go away, and she was right. Thanks, Margie!) It’s an ambitious blend of literary pretension, meta machinations, some Poe influence, too much alliteration, shaggy doggedness (which kind of serves the point), and the clear influence of all of the Borges I was reading in those days. Plus it all hinges on the very last sentence, which pulls the rug out from under the reader. “Wait! What?”

I’ve actually completed the story, and I’m sure it’s nothing like what I had imagined writing back then, but it feels like a worthy piece nonetheless. It gets the job done, though perhaps a bit more directly that I’d probably originally intended. Still, it’s nice to get an old, old idea in shape. Or rather, started into shape. I’ll need to come back to it many times. (Next up, perhaps one I tinkered with during my equally distant Faulkner phase.)

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The image above is detail from a Dore illustration titled “Don Quixote in his Library.”

“You hatching some kind of scheme?”

November 21, 2019

I’m currently reading Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. The central character, Quichotte (Quixote) and his wholly imaginary-though-becoming-tangible son, Sancho, are traveling across the country to reach the beloved Salma R (Dulcinea) in New York. Quichotte is a U.S. citizen of Indian extraction — “dot, not feather” he notes — and has dark skin. Because Sancho springs from his imagination, he too has dark skin.

At a campground in Lake Capote, Colorado they are poring over a map to determine their next step and one of the nearby campers sees this and raises a ruckus.

“What is that?” the white lady said, jerking a thumb in the direction of the map. “You hatching some kind of scheme?”

“We are travelers like yourself,” Quichotte replied mildly, “so it is not unreasonable that we should map out our route.”

“Where are your turbans and beards?” the white lady asked, her arm extended toward him, an angry finger pointing right at him. “You people wear beards and turbans, right? You shave your faces and take the headgear off to fool us? T u r b a n s,” she repeated slowly, making a swirling turban gesture around her head.

“I think I can say without fear of inaccuracy that I have never worn a turban in my life,” Quichotte replied, with a degree of puzzlement that displeased his interrogator.

“You got a bad foreign look to you,” the white lady said. “Sound foreign too.”

“I suspect few of the campers at Lake Capote are from around here,” Quichotte said, still smiling his increasingly inappropriate smile. “It’s a destination for visitors, is it not? You yourself must have driven some distance to get here?”

“That’s something. You asking me where I’m from. Imma tell you where I’m from. I’m from America. Who knows how you got here. This ain’t a place for you. You shouldn’t be allowed past the border controls. How’d you get in? You look like you come from a country on that no-entry list. You hitch a ride with a Mexican? What you lookin’ for in America? What’s your purpose? That map. I’m not loving that map.”

They manage to escape the campground, but later on they face a similarly hostile crowd at a breakfast diner in Oklahoma. I expect there will be other such incidents as I continue reading the story.

Rushdie never disappoints me.

in short

November 5, 2019

So I’m working my way through a collection of short stories called Male of the Species by Alex Mindt. There’s a Pushcart Prize winner among them, and most have already been published in top-tier journals. And each story I’ve read has been well told, but I just can’t get excited about it.

There have been many books I’ve read where I can barely wait to pick them up again to see what comes next: plot, character development, tone, theme. Even books I’ve read more than once will do this to me. (Maybe the fact that I want to read them more than once is why I know I want to get back to them. Did that make sense?)

But short story collections just don’t do this for me. I think I’ve mention before that I have unfinished collections by Grace Paley and Raymond Carver on my shelf. This Mindt collection has kindled the same “fire” in me.

I’ve tried to understand what it is about myself that consistently causes this, and I think I’ve figured it out. A short story is self contained. You consume it wholly in one reading. A novel is more of a commitment, taking generally more than one reading. So while a short story may have a compelling plot or character development, when you’ve read it, you’re done. And that’s fine. But a novel demands more visits, and if it’s done well, I grow eager for those visits. (I’ve read plenty of novels that I dreaded getting back to and wished they would just end.)

So I’m reading pretty much one story a night of the Mindt collection, and while I’m immersed in it, I’m satisfied. But because each story ends, I’m not driven to see what comes next.

regarding dialog tags

September 25, 2019

From time to time I just can’t keep myself from shrieking into the void about this topic. I think the “rule” that one should only use some form of the word “said” as a dialog tag is ridiculous. It’s a waste of a verb.

I suspect that the notion of this quickly evolved into dogma after Elmore Leonard issued his famous 10 Rules for Writing, one of these being to never use a verb other than “said” to tag dialog. How did the writing world ever get by without this rule?

Quite well, I suspect. (I’ve noted here how Joseph Conrad has his characters “ejaculate” their words.) Some intrepid graduate student might do well to survey the use of dialog tags before and after Leonard’s rule suddenly set such a stupid standard. I suspect that before this rule, there was no reluctance using better verbs than “said.”

Anyway, as I read contemporary literature, my eye is always on alert for rule breakers in this regard. And the more “violations” I see, the more I know that this rule is bogus.

I’m currently reading Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie. It’s a lot of fun. The story involves jinn (genies) who have left their world and entered ours, and the mayhem and countermayhem that goes on is relentless. Rushdie’s writing appears so effortless that it is breathtaking sometimes.

But what I want to point out is a conversation that takes place between a dead philosopher (Ghazali), so dead it’s his dust that is talking, and one of the jinn (Zumurrud). The philosopher is engaging in a bit of sophistry, but Rushdie seems to be taking the opportunity to put the “said” rule in its place:

“Just is,” Zumurrud repeated doubtfully.*
“Yes,” Ghazali confirmed.
“So God is a sort of time traveler,” Zumurrud proposed. “He moves form his kind of time to ours, and by doing so becomes infinitely powerful.”
“If you like,” Ghazali agreed. “Except that he doesn’t become. He still is. You have to be careful how you use your words.”**
“Okay,” Zumurrud said, confused again.
“Think about it,” Ghazali urged him.
“This god, Just-is,” Zumurrud said on a third occasion, after thinking about it, “he doesn’t like being argued with, right?”

*Another of Leonard’s rules is to not modify the dialog tag with an adverb.
**Ha!

bits and pieces

September 9, 2019

This is a photo of a sort of landmark on my neighbor’s land out near my cabin. “If you come to the burned out truck, you missed the turn.” This was a working vehicle when it was parked. When we would come to our cabin, we would see it moved, so we knew he was using it for something. Then we found it looking like this. The story I heard later was that he was doing some controlled burning of the dry grass nearby and pretty much lost control of the fire. (You can see that this sits on a ridge top, thus wind.) So it sat like this for years but then one visit we saw that it was gone. I suppose it was worth something as scrap metal.

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I’ve gotten into a little flame war on Facebook about submission fees for journals. My position is that I will not pay to have my story considered for publication. (We’re all cautioned not to pay to have our novels published, so why should it be different for short stories?) When I see a call for submission that interests me, and I click the link, if I see that there is a submission fee that they “forgot” to include in the text of the call, I graciously add the fee in a comment below. And I’ve found I’m not the only one to do this. My submission-to-acceptance ratio is such that I can’t throw $3 (or as much as $25) in with each story I submit, even if they do pay for published stories.

Some editors have gotten feisty about this, writing at length about their cost of doing business, and I understand that, but I feel that they’re transferring this cost onto the submitter. I don’t make any money doing this either, so why should the funding onus fall on me?

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I was also a little feisty myself when I saw a different call for submission to a magazine I had submitted a story to several years ago. I had never received a response from the magazine, and I logged it as No Response in my tracker. Now I realize this is one way to manage the deluge of responses, but if so, it seems that the publication ought to say so. The same thing happened with a submission to the magazine a year ago. So when I saw their call, I added my comment that I’d never received a response. Factual, if a little embittered. The editor then responded to my comment with a profuse apology and noted that I was not the only one to raise such a concern. He said they are working hard to correct this. Then he sent me a personal message saying the same thing. That was nice, but it wasn’t really necessary.

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Sometimes I think writers are seen as merely commodity producers and revenue streams. (Note: I feel much this way when I go to the doctor.)

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I rode the 26+ mile Indian Creek/Blue River Trail on Saturday. Probably my best ride so far, not only because it was cool in the morning, but because my muscles and heart and lungs seem to be getting on board with the plan. (Just in time for cooler weather when I’ll put the bike away for the season.) On Sunday, I was struck down with a throat cold and wandered the house in a semi-conscious state, when I wasn’t napping. I don’t think the two are related, though I have no idea where I picked up the cold.

bits and pieces

August 19, 2019

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.

Order No. 11

July 15, 2019

I have a friend who, once or twice a year, sends me clippings from newspapers or magazines on topics that he thinks might interest me, or that he recalls I had expressed an interest in, or that he’s interested in and wants to share. (We also exchange postcards from wherever we travel.)

He’s meticulous about neatly trimming the articles from the mother documents, and if he happens to remove the information, he will write on the pages the name of the publication and the date of issue. He’ll also usually include a short note about what he has sent (though not always, which leaves me puzzling sometimes how he thought I’d be interested in whatever he’s sent).

Most recently he sent me clippings from two different newspapers about the George Caleb Bingham painting “Order No. 11.” The painting is being moved from one location to another in Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri.

If you read the link, Order No. 11 (1863) is about a misguided effort at ethnic cleansing in west central Missouri during the Civil War. It was eventually rescinded, though some have observed that the economic consequences to some communities affected then continue today.

And all of that is fascinating to me, but my friend got one detail wrong. There was another Order No. 11, which was attempted a year earlier, and which ordered the expulsion of Jews from parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. A man named Ulysses S. Grant issued this order. Prominent among these places affected was Paducah, Kentucky, where I had spent many summers of my youth (a hundred years later) and where my mother currently lives.

The accusation/assumption/assertion/rationale was that the Jews in these areas were profiteering from the inflated prices of cotton due to the war. (Never mind the non-Jewish cotton merchants who were also benefiting from the higher cotton prices.) Grant’s order was intended to affect only the Jewish cotton merchants, but it was worded poorly enuf that all Jewish people in the region were considered the target.

The Order lasted only a few weeks when the outcry against it reached President Lincoln’s ears and he ended it. It happens, though, that my mother’s condo is just down the street from Paducah’s synagogue, and I think of this dark bit of our history every time I visit her.

So when I respond to my friend’s latest letter with the clippings, I’ll thank him and gently point out that my interest was actually about the other Order No. 11

bits and pieces

July 8, 2019

This is a not-so-random image from my massive photo inventory. I tell the interesting and perplexing tale of this book in an old post here.

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I’ve been bike-less for the last few days. When I bought my bike last summer, the neighborhood bike shop — where we’d begun buying bikes for our kids when they were young — offered a free 30-day tune up and then another at one year. My riding on the Indian Creek Trail has not been kind to my bike. Mostly it’s covered with mud on the underside, but it also tends to shift poorly into second gear, it rattles a lot when I pedal, and now the rear wheel feels out of alignment (from, it turned out, several broken spokes). So, as I was fast-approaching my year anniversary, I thought I should get it into the shop for its free annual tune up.

Except the bike shop closed. It had been a family business for all of its decades, and the family decided to retire. I was told that another bike shop, deep in the urban core, would honor the one-year tune up, and so I hauled my bike down there last Friday. I expected to be disappointed or at least cross sold on gear or services I didn’t want/need. But nothing like that happened. They said that of course they would honor the tune up, and they’d get to it right away. Right away turned out to be Monday (today), and my hope is that I can pick it up this afternoon and begin punishing my legs and lungs again.

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Not counting my initial (fumbling?) attempts at finding an agent for OMF, I currently have six stories in submission at ten publications. Seems a little low, and one of those has been out there since September, but most of my new writing has been stories with the OMF characters in the years after that story ended (in fact, some are actually in the future from today, but as long as no one looks too closely at the timing hints, no problem). These stories are in various stages of completeness, and when I think I have them all worked out and polished, another thought pushes into my head. But as one wise friend told me, they’ll never be good enuf in my mind, so there’s that.

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I did not get out to Roundrock over the four-day weekend as I had hoped/planned/wished. The weather forecast was always iffy, with rain predicted until the day of the event, when it was removed. I could have gone down there after all, but I managed to fill my long weekend with other activities. This coming weekend, however, seems likely.

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Unless something interferes. Grandchild #7 is expected in ten days (by C-section), but if the little girl, Alice will be her name, hurries things along, my weekend may no longer be my own.

this week’s rescue read

June 19, 2019

This week’s rescue read is The Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth. When I finish a book that I don’t really like, I search for one I do so that I can “rescue” my reading self from its wander into the wilderness. I’ve said here before that I’ve probably read The Ghost Writer thirty times, and while I have ready it many, many times, on reflection I don’t think it’s been thirty.

I came to the novel in the first year of my marriage (more than thirty years ago), and for a while I read it every year. I think there may have been a year when I read it twice even. But it is part of a trilogy (and the central character makes appearances in other Roth novels not related to the trilogy) so when I finish this novel, I tend to pick up the next two, and that, along with reading everything else in the world, tends to spread out my visits.

I think it’s safe to say, however, that I’ve read The Ghost Writer more than twenty times. Many people find American Pastoral to be Roth’s greatest novel. Some cite The Human Stain. Some even think Sabbath’s Theater earns the title (in which Roth first discovered his angry old man theme). But if I were going to introduce someone to Roth’s writings, I would make the case for The Ghost Writer, at least as the best place to begin.

Add to this the fact that the central character is in search of a new spiritual father and you can see why I like it so much.

Here is a single sentence from the novel. A young, aspiring writer is meeting who he thinks is his hero novelist:

In fact, the writer who found irresistible all vital and dubious types, not excluding the swindlers of both sexes who trampled upon the large hearts of his optimistic, undone heroes; the writer who could locate the hypnotic core in the most devious American self-seeker and lead him to disclose, in spirited locutions all his own, the depths of his conniving soul; the writer whose absorption with “the grand human discord” made his every paragraph a little novel in itself, every page packed as tight as Dickens or Dostoevsky with the latest news of manias, temptations, passions, and dreams, with mankind aflame with feeling — well, in the flesh he gave the impression of being out to lunch.