a Monday accounting

Posted January 10, 2018 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

My recent post proposing that I spend Monday evenings “working” on my writing without actually writing resulted in some action on my part. I actually did devote a couple of hours on Monday evening doing writerly things, just as I intended. Here’s an accounting:

  • I began by taking my wife out and buying her a new winter coat that she’s been saying for months she’s needed. Then I got back home and settled in at my desk.
  • I wrote a blog post (which I think counts).
  • I made some notes on a new story. Lotsa brainstorming. Early stuff, but promising. (I also consulted with a certain pediatrician I am related to about vaccination practices for infants — related to the story idea.)
  • I made the rounds of my usual submission calendars (Duotrope’s Digest, New Pages Classifieds, The Review Review, Calls for Submission on Facebook) and lamented things like tiny word count limits and submission fees. (If you have suggestions for other places, let me know.)
  • I almost submitted one of my stories (“Fire Sermon”) to a publication with a call theme of “fire” but then discovered that I already had. (No response yet but the issue comes out next week.)
  • I did submit one of my stories (“Forest Succession”) to a publication with a call theme of “liminal spaces.” No info on response time but it’s an annual publication and the submission deadline is still two months hence.
  • I browsed the statistics page at Duotrope’s Digest and learned four things: the publication with the slowest response time is McSweeney’s Quarterly at 528 days; the publication with the fastest response time is Whiskey Paper at 0.4 days; the publication with the highest rejection rate is Fantasy & Science Fiction at a 0.09% acceptance rate; and the publication with the highest acceptance rate is Scarlet Leaf Review with an 88.51% acceptance rate.
  • And then I read (Everyman by Philip Roth).

I didn’t do anything I couldn’t have done any other day of the week except that I generally don’t do it any other day of the week. My goal is to establish and respect a dedicated day to this kind of shop work. Not sure I’ll give a weekly report, but maybe I should to keep myself honest.

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looking backward*

Posted January 9, 2018 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

The other day I decided to have a look at the many comments people have left on this humble blog since I began it more than ten years ago. I remembered “conversations” then with people that I don’t see anymore, and I wondered what had become of them.

It turns out there have been (as of this writing) 1,314 comments on this blog, spread across 1,041 posts. That’s a little better than 1 comment per post on average (when you remove the hundred or so response comments I have made), which I think is acceptable. Not spectacular, but decent.

I went back to the very first comments and began moving through them toward the present. In those early days I had some regulars who generally had something substantive to say about whatever I was saying. But I haven’t heard from many of them in long years. Fortunately, their comments usually included a link to their own site, and I could go to those to see what there was to see.

Sadly, many of the links were dead. Or they linked to blogs that haven’t had a post in five years. I know that most blogs have a very short shelf life, and I suppose the bloggers have moved on to something bigger or better or less time consuming or just got lives in the real world. Still, it was sad to see familiar names and realize that I’ve lost touch with them after having had lively conversations and “relationships” with them.

Of those early commenters, only two are still around and leaving comments here. I’m grateful for that. And new visitors have replaced the old who are gone. The cycle continues.

 

*No, not the novel by Edward Bellamy, which I read years and years and years ago (though not when it first came out).

housekeeping

Posted January 8, 2018 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Process

I have this conceit that I must enter some (semi-mystical) mental space in order to write my stories. I must have the means, motive, and opportunity just right or I can’t spend any productive time with whatever piece(s) of fiction I’m working on. Generally this means rising at an absurd hour when the house and the world are quiet (and having a pitcher of iced tea — unsweetened, of course — beside me) and cracking open the latest effort, easing into the universe, the tone, the theme, that narrator’s mind, and all that stuff so that the words will flow (or stagger) properly. In other words, I can’t just sit at my computer after dinner (though who eats dinner anymore?) and start hammering out some words. That’s what I tell myself.

I’m pretty sure it’s bogus. I’m pretty sure that if I have uninterrupted, quiet time I can continue work on a story simply by a) reading what I’ve written so far, and b) putting in actual effort.

Regardless, I’ve been thinking lately that I should put my after-dinner time to more productive writing uses. If I can’t actually write (right!), I could do other things. I could edit (which might lead to writing) or I could do more mundane things like submitting stories to likely publications, or making much-needed back ups of my files, or house cleaning my folders and version drafts, or even researching possible venues. (I also tell myself that whatever novel I’m reading — and even nonfiction — is “work” since it can inform my own fiction. See how he rationalizes!)

Even if I can’t “create” something new, I could/should work with what I have already created. I looked in my files the other day and determined that I currently have five finished stories that I think are ready for submission. (Also, two novels, but that’s a different kind of flagellation of the soul.) And since the publishing world generally looks tolerantly on simultaneous submissions, these five pieces could easily become a dozen or more submissions pending out in the wild. (Looking in Duotrope’s Digest, where I track my submissions, I saw that I have a half dozen of them out there, including one I made yesterday.)

I decided that I should devote Monday evenings to this. Mondays are an onslaught on the mind anyway since they generally mean a resumption of selling my labor to those who own the means of production, so this kind of tangential entry into the higher calling of creative work can be a kind of consolation (or escape). Maybe two hours of devoted effort to whatever housekeeping I find needed or beneficial would be satisfactory.

So today is Monday. I should haul myself to the warm room upstairs where all of my creative ferment swirls and put in my two hours. Maybe I’ll let you know how it goes.

Do you do anything like this?

Some books I liked in 2017

Posted January 3, 2018 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Reviews and Responses

I am not a book critic. I don’t think I’m actually a very discerning reader. (How else can I explain that I’ve read a certain novel* more than 30 times and still find something new in it each reading?) But sometimes books stay with me and compel me to read more by the author.

Here are the books I read in 2017 that stayed with me:

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski – I wrote about it here.

The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine – I first read his acclaimed novel An Unnecessary Woman in 2016 and found I wanted to read more of his fiction. I have another of his novels on order at my local indie bookstore.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – This novel is as much about story telling as it is about the men of the Vietnam War. I’d actually read quite a bit of O’Brien before coming to this novel, and I was surprised I had missed it for so long.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – I wrote about it here

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout – I was introduced to Strout by a comment from Teri Carter some time ago. I’ve since read every piece of fiction by Strout, and I expect to keep reading her words as they come out.

Of course I read plenty of other novels and nonfiction in 2017 including other works by Strout, and my re-readings of Iris Murdoch and Alvaro Mutis. Oddly missing throughout the year was anything by Philip Roth. I’m sure 2018 will correct that.

 

 

 

*The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth

called “Three Small Words”

Posted January 2, 2018 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons

Tags: ,

You’ve seen this photo of me on the humble blog before. Sometime in my early years I was afflicted with something that was severe enuf to get me hospitalized. The only person still alive who was around at the time (aside from myself, of course) is my mother (and my older brother and my younger twin sisters), and she’s vague on the details any more. Years ago, when I first came upon this photo in a dusty album, she told me I had pneumonia, though maybe she said whooping cough. Now she is no longer sure.

I keep this photo on my desk and see it every day. The mystery of it has affected me deeply. (I’m hoping whatever the affliction was, hasn’t.) As you may recall, I used a photo like this as a MacGuffin in one of my One-Match Fire stories: “Moving Day.” The son finds a picture of his father in a similar circumstance, and it basically sets the course of his life. (“Moving Day” will be published in THEMA Literary Journal this summer.)

In that story universe, I’m revisiting the photo in a new story that I’m calling “Three Small Words.” The son, now an adult, has reason to think that there may be some very long-term consequences to whatever had afflicted his father a half century before. But with no one around to tell him what it was (his father having no memory since he was only a few months old at the time) he has to begin his research blindly.

Similarly, I have made a few tentative steps toward finding out whatever had afflicted me. I asked my mother what hospital I would likely have been in and she told me it would have been where she had trained as a nurse. So I called the medical records department at that hospital and asked about documentation from more than a half century ago. I was met with barely suppressed laughter. The woman I spoke with said that any records predating 2005 had been long since destroyed. I suspect that’s not wholly true but patient confidentiality laws being what they are, I’m finding that hospitals are pretty tight lipped about all of this. (I’ll try a different route later. It may be that the records were microfilmed or digitized and I could still have access to my information.) Early in my St. Louis life I was hospitalized again with appendicitis. I’ve wondered if my record from that event might contain a reference to my earlier hospitalization, and so I’ve inquired at that hospital as well. So far, no response.

I intend to use my frustrations in the story, my character coming up against the same brick walls. And since the photo is only the MacGuffin, finding the information is not nearly as important as the quest.

subtle jolts

Posted December 26, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons, Ramblings Off Topic, Rants and ruminations

Tags: , ,

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”?

a day in the woods, with a three-year-old

Posted December 22, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

This story begins at the place where I work. We recently merged with another company and among the many upheavals was a change to our vacation policy. Now, instead of accumulating vacation time based on the number of years you’ve worked there, you are given no specific time off and simply ask for what you want. Your manager then approves or disapproves (likely based on the number of years you’ve worked there). Never mind that this has apparently been shown at other companies to cause employees to take fewer vacation days than in the past. But the most immediate consequence of the new policy is that we can no longer carry over any unused vacation days into the new year. We have to use ’em or lose ’em. And so I did, taking Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of this week off.

Since I had a free day in the middle of the week, I decided to try getting something done at my cabin that I’d been wanting to do for several months (since I had finished the retaining wall near the fire ring area). I wanted to get a new load of gravel to spread around there, to level the ground a bit and perhaps get ahead of the grasses and other green things asserting themselves in the currently sparse gravel. To do this, I understood, I needed to be present to accept the delivery from the nearby quarry, and since my little cabin is very remote, I needed to lead the delivery truck to it as well. And this had to be done during the work week when the quarry was open. So I had called the quarry the week before and talked it through. The volume of gravel I thought I needed was actually too small for them to deliver, being only five tons! So arrangements had to be made with a local, independent hauler who could meet me at the quarry and then follow me in to my remote cabin. The plans were laid and I looked forward to a solo day in my woods. Even the weather looked cooperative for mid-December in the Ozarks.

But as you know from recent posts on this humble blog, I have family in town, including my three-year-old grandson, Kenneth. And somehow it became part of my plan that Kenneth and his dad would join me on my trip to Roundrock. This was fine. Kenneth, likely for lack of discernment, seems to like me and wants to do activities with me. A trip to my little cabin would be a great adventure for him.

And so the plan was executed. I picked up Kenneth and his dad, Travis, early that morning, earlier than necessary to be at the quarry at 9:00 as I’d arranged, but intended according to Travis to allow Kenneth to sleep most of the two-hours of travel time to get to the woods. No one had told Kenneth that, however, and he was awake and chattering the whole drive down, which was endearing to my black and shriveled heart.

We arrived at the cabin a hour before we needed to be at the quarry, so we knocked around a little, Kenneth leading us on a hike. Kenneth is a New York city boy. He is, apparently, used to pavement under his feet and did not much like the uneven surface of the forest floor, with rocks hidden by the generous fall of leaves. So his hike soon took us to the road leading to the cabin. We walked up the hill a ways, Travis and I comparing the lack of signals on our phones, until Kenneth said he was too tired to go on. That was fine because it was nearing the time for us to depart for the quarry. So Travis carried Kenneth back to the cabin; we got ourselves organized, and then hopped in the truck and drove to the quarry.

I had hoped that we could go into the part of the quarry where the rock is dynamited from the hillside to show Kenneth, but the man there told us we could not (as I fully expected), though we could drive around the piles of gravel and see some of the (idle) big machines. The man there also wanted me to select the kind of gravel I wanted, cleaner or with fines (powdered rock and dirt). Since my goal was partly to prevent grasses from growing around my fire ring, I didn’t want the fines. So we drove around the quarry until we came to the pile of gravel I wanted. I pocketed a handful to show the man and then returned to the “office” to wait for local hauler. And wait we did. Fortunately, I had some donut holes to keep Kenneth occupied. We had told him that it was too dangerous for him to be outside of my little truck, but he’s a clever boy and pointed out that he could stand in the bed of my truck and watch the activity of the quarry from there. (He’s only three years old!) So we did that. Later he had to push all of the buttons on my dashboard because he was flying us through space, pausing occasionally for a bite of donut hole. And finally, the local hauler arrived. His truck was weighed empty, then he drove to the pile of gravel I had selected, it was loaded and then the truck was weighed again. Some money exchanged hands and off we went.

My cabin is about five miles from the quarry, and since rock is cheap compared to its delivery cost, this is fortunate. When we finally got to the cabin — the man driving the big truck had crept along at places, which I guess is a consequence of hauling five tons of gravel on steep and twisting Ozark roads — the driver marveled at how remote the place was. (This is a common statement made by visitors.) I showed him where I wanted the pile, and he deftly turned his truck around and backed it into place. Once that was done, we allowed Kenneth to get out of my truck so he could watch the dumping operation. It was over in about thirty seconds, five tons being, it seems, a paltry amount of rock.

Kenneth’s first response to seeing the pile of gravel was the climb to the top of it. And then slide down it. And then climb it again. And so forth. Which was perfect in my mind. I wanted him to have a fun time in my woods in whatever way made sense to him. We emptied his shoes a number of times and helped him up and down as needed.

Just for show, I wanted to spread a little of the gravel behind the retaining wall. Kenneth was not too interested in this, but Travis was. I had raked away the accumulated leaves at the wall and wrestled the wheel barrow out of the cabin. Travis quickly filled it and pushed it to the cleared area, dumping the first load of gravel into place. Kenneth watched, “helping” with his little hand shovel to load the gravel but soon just “spreading” the gravel near the pile until that bored him and he returned to summiting the pile and generally getting in his dad’s way. Travis has a deluxe camera, and he took some time to set it up on the roof of my truck. It turns out he had made something like a video of his work with the gravel (a photo taken every ten seconds), and he got to work, moving nearly a third of the new pile of gravel behind the retaining wall. (The video wasn’t available at press time, but if I can arrange it, I’ll post it here.) As I said, I just wanted to shift some of the gravel as show for Kenneth, but Travis is a doer and he kept working until we began to discuss pain relievers.

Since Travis and Kenneth had evening plans with his family, and since we had some other plans at the cabin, we stopped the gravel work. Kenneth, of course, had to stomp on the piles of gravel behind the retaining wall to level them for us. Such a fine boy!

Since there had been rain in the forest recently — it’s been a dry December — I wanted to have a small fire in the ring for Kenneth to marvel at. And Travis kept reminding Kenneth that a good woodsman — hint, wink — could light a fire with only one match. (He was throwing down a challenge to me, one I was determined to meet!) So Kenneth and I collected the wood for our small fire. Mostly I collected, but he was interested.

I built the fire as I normally would though I’ll confess that I put in more tinder than I might have typically since I didn’t want to fail in front of my son-in-law and grandson. Kenneth stayed near, “helping” Grandpa with the sticks and watching closely. When it came time for me to light the fire with one match, Travis got in close too, with his camera in hand.

Needless to say, I got it roaring with only one match and Kenneth began learning about fire safety as well as how smoke can get in your eyes. He wanted to burn leaves but we told him they could fly out of the fire and burn down the forest. I think that concept was too grand for him to understand though.

Kenneth then wanted the chairs to be arranged around the fire so we could sit before it and stay warm. (I don’t know where he picks these things up.) He also assigned our seats and then later re-assigned them. He could certainly feel the heat but there was too much smoke for his little eyes.

I had deliberately used dried out, partly rotten wood for the fuel so that it would burn quickly because I didn’t want to be stuck at the cabin waiting for too many coals to wink out. (As it was, I eventually quenched the fire with two gallon jugs of water, explaining it all to Kenneth as I did so. He also “helped” me stir the ashes with the shovel.)

Time was passing, and we had a two-hour drive home. Kenneth would then need a bath (to remove the evidence of the Oreos and chocolate Kisses) to prepare for his evening hay ride with his other grandparents.

But he did say he wanted to return to Grandpa’s cabin, bringing his brother, Everett, next time. Everett is five months old, and he’s a twin to his sister Evie. But Kenneth insisted Evie could not join us. It was only for boys!