Reading sometimes reveals some interesting quandaries. Lucius Annaeus Seneca ,aka Seneca the Younger, was long-time tutor and advisor for the Roman Emperor Nero. Around the year BCE 59, the boss tried to kill his mother Agrippina in such a way as to make it look accidental. When this failed he had to send hitters to take her out with knives and in the aftermath he was faced with explaining this to the Roman Senate.. Naturally, like any corporate or institutional head-dog, he called in his flak-writer to put together a public explanation. Seneca, who authored DE BREVITATE (On the Shortness of Life) got the shoulder- tap for game-time. Only one line of the letter extant survives. The rest of it we know of in paraphrasing in various sources, but it was the lone surviving line that got my attention. Elizabeth Kolbert in this week’s NEW YORKER (“Such A Stoic: How Seneca Became Ancient Rome’s philosopher-Fixer”) tells us the one line was considered an example of Latin rhetoric at its finest, though, Kolbert notes, it loses something in translation: That I am safe, neither, as yet, do I believe, nor do I rejoice.”
This struck two chords: First, it sounds like every bit of gobbledygook that issues from Washington and corporations around the world. Second, Wah, youses know dis sounds hullhelluvalotlke my Yooper pals dey tawg, eh?
For a quick brain scratch, here’are definitions of rhetoric. “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques, e.g.,language designed. Synonyms include: oratory, eloquence, command of language, way with words, “a form of rhetoric…or, another definition in similar light, to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content. “All we have from the opposition is empty rhetoric. Synonyms include: bombast, turgidity, grandiloquence, magniloquence, pomposity, extravagant language, purple prose.
Bombastic is defined as” high-sounding but with little meaning; inflated.” The dictionary should add, “See FACEBOOK.”
Purple prose is “prose that is too elaborate or ornate.” The dictionary should again direct readers to, “See FACEBOOK, again.”
Czech novelist Milan Kundera reminds us “The future is always mightier than the present.”
If you’re a blog follower, you know my mind sometimes takes fancy flights of fancy. I breaks loose and I let it go until it’s tired. As light now comes, this was born in darkness before morning twilight (BMT).
Here I sit I ere fruhstuck in the garden of gloaming, sotto voce I love the language I am born to, am drawn to its music and possibilities yes, even to the smell of it, not so much to the meanings, which are relative lacking metal or mettle, and temporary at best. Word play, mindplay, myplay, yourplay, ourplay, allplay in the innards. Medical students carving human brains and sheep brains asked to compare, quoth one, “Felt tough and rubbery. When cutting into it, it gets a lot softer as you cut through.” There is an appalling lack of specificity here, are we talking quadrupedal ruminant, or bipedal hominidae? We are now past the doldrums, subsumed in the ticktockery of glacial time (and if glaciers are melting, what is time doing?), just having traversed the puolitiessä that halftheway mark, the Finnlanderen Heikinpäivä, grand celebration of arf-winter, the time in Yooper parlance to “Wah, make sure half in your barn is the hay eh.” Mountainmantously, our Finnish brethren take it slowly, sixteen days to celebrate half-winter, (half a month for half a winter, a world of halfs and semis and hemis and quasis and all that good stough). The celebrating (a relativist concept at best in the Soumi sense) so measured that it actually starts on January 10 and lasts to January 26. Our baseboard for normal in the slowdownsnowdowndays (icefornosefollicles) we be farfarfaraway from Suthin’ Caliporneyeay and it seems somewhat different this time of year, plumbed differently, like Alternative Rock of snow and ice against the memory and hope of that Pure and Driving Rock music of summer and Speckled Trousers. Thoughts pile up in drifts in winter, painstakingly transparent, for example yesterday a lesson in uglity, fiddlesticking with legal documents (écrivains de testaments et les procurations) preparing for orderly earthy exits at times and locations yet to be known, much less determined, things of nullity vs unfullity, papierrhic victories, forlorn majesties of the billing hour. All this work in the unseen wake of the anniversary of the Challenger (instantaneous disjecta membra) and it reminds us that safety is a terribly relative thing. What good is an ejection seat in outer space, or inner to not put too fine a line on it? How did Dudedarwin put it? a grain in balance will decide which lives, which dies, hey there hi, here there, bye bye. Odd are a human self-fooling.What’s it offalabout, Alfie? (Pigtail gals wonchucomeouttonight, comeouttonight?) We feel the gravitational pull of chicken gravy, drink up-pinky wines with friends of the Martian modernist construct, quasi-vegan, chi-chi free-range, andyibiondock-free locavores in-shoveling dainty portions of chicken pot pies. It is fact that dances may appeal to mermaids, but they will never be able to cut the rugs of reality on equal footing, especially those creatures frozen into cryogenic ice cubes of idled minds, take mine and have a glass of vinicultured fluid, please pretty. My life bogs down. I sense gravity pulling on Mensewer i Pad (a new cargo cult deity, the equivalent of a ‘39 Ford coupe in Melanesia, not a lot more intelligent, and far less useful in real world terms, and is that less-than capital shrimpy “I” for Apple idolator or idiot what might be called pomme dumb?). We dwell in this vertiginous world of continuous vertigo, in Kundera’s quipping, a world without shared values, we lack ontological bedrock and fossil-records, remain stuck in the mass of the unwashed we of the unspeakably unsanitary bottom dweller class, which relatively comprises 99 percent of all of us in the lowlife-e-teria (declared by certain statistical counter-uppers). I am, at of this very only moment, 1/ 6,500,000,000th of our world of brothers and sisters, distincts and trannies (and other should they be), and may we remind ourselves that we started as and shall remain pure Africans if we care to go back far enough and laserly excise all irrelevant ponderings of color. We down here en masse in mass and out, keep our pedagoggles surreptitiously toward our feet, not out on horizons of hope; we must look for mines, step by step, not for glowing Disneysations in our mmmminds. We walk among mounds of doggydirt with the hugely discounted minority niney-nie, essai enigmatic dogmamen, coincidentia, unprecedentia epoch-see glue (transparently holding over advert eons) we stick to each other like Velcroids and deny it all. Lo we pull, pull, pull, we cannot separate. We got the snap, we got the crackle, but where wenteth the pop? We lack a speculum for neurologists and other brain diggers, we are lopsiders and ontological aural nulls, Speculum humanae rectum usque in aeternum, Eye esswhyenn, all this trainspotting painmaking even in the absence of same. Where goes life collectively? Heidegger The Unreadable, imagines indderweltsein, I referoogle here to that a konditioning of all, that is, being in this world, we are bound to each other like snails in shells. What changes without, forces conditions within, and though not written, it pertains, ask thunderKunderakunderakundera, once present at the bloodlettingdoom wrought in Prague by Red Russkings, no one believes in the driffeldown of propaganda, not even them who manufacture it. Fallout? Tha’s diff, bro. If ISIS attacks Turkey in the rear will Greece help? The horror of such imponderables in our fleshy pusses. We make religions (yes, make them, assemble them like long lasting eternal jigsaws or outhouses or teeter-totters for kittles) in the hopes of telling good and evil apart, clearly, black from white, no effing gray, thank you very much. We build whole castles of religions on these desires for clarity, which life by definition denies. The smallness of our world, 24 hour news cycle included, means we are all on the Mothershee-ip, mutha-mutha, breaker-breaker, ain’t nobody getting outten da shit, sayin’? Each life needs a themesong to keeps us on course, but don’t ask Old Bill Bailey, who ain’t been much heard of and is (in Startrekkyan terms), no doubt out there, somewhere in die Lebenswelt, the life world, Heaven to some, replete with virgin legions, and to others the old notion of do-overs. We seek and never find the kamidana, God’s shelf. C’mon summer, don’t treat me this way. I remember a special moment in Flight of the Intruder. “Low Lead, Sandy Low Lead, this is Cole/ Go ahead/ I’m done, Sandy. I’m all screwed up. My back’s broken. They’re everywhere. I’m sitting on a ZSU. They’re using me for bait. Do it, Sandy. Lay it in on me, man. I’m popping smoke/Virgil!/Virgil!/Do it, Sandy. Do it now. I’d do it for you.” All the buildup for $uperboil XLIX (do we pronounce it Ex-lax?) and not one damn bit of the big play-game matter$ in comparison to what our troops have been through. In these times, you think it accident we use Roman numerals to enumerate the game, and not Arabic? But now I must get back to teaching the dog to kill the groundhog with kind teeth, should that sucker show face soon. I love the language I am born to.
I’m currently plowing through the prodigious AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN and ran across this little entry concerning authors and popularity. Twain and the author Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, one of his pals) were sitting on a public bench at Washington Square in New York City. They were engaged in (no doubt smoking cigars) what we now call people-watching. Twain wrote:
“There on that bench we struck out a new phrase – one or the other of us, I don’t remember which – ‘submerged renown.’ Variations were discussed: ‘submerged fame,’ ‘submerged reputation, and so on, and a choice was made, ‘submerged renown’ was elected. This important matter rose out of an incident which had been happening to Stevenson in Albany. While in a book shop or book stall there he noticed a long rank of small books cheaply but neatly gotten up, and bearing such titles as DAVIS’S SELECTED SPEECHES, DAVIS’S SELECTED POETRY, Davis’s this and Davis’s that and Davis’s other things: compilations, every one of them, each with a brief, compact, intelligent and useful introductory chapter by this same Davis, whose first name I’ve forgotten. Stevenson had begun the matter with a question:
‘Can you name the American author whose fame and acceptance stretch widest in the States?’
I thought I could, but it did not seem to me that it would be modest to speak out, in the circumstances. So I diffidently said nothing. Stevenson noticed, and said –‘Save your delicacy for another time – you are not the one. For a shilling you can’t name the American author of widest note and popularity in the States, but I can.’
Then he went on and told me about the Albany incident. He had inquired of the shopman – ‘Who is this Davis?’
The answer was –‘An author whose books have to have freight trains to carry them, no baskets. Apparently you have not heard of him?’
Stevenson said no, this was the first time. The man said – ‘Nobody has heard of Davis, you may ask all around and you will see. You never see his name mentioned in print, not even in advertisements; these things are of no use to Davis, not any more than they are to the wind and the sea. You never see one of Davis’s books floating on top of the United States, but put on your diving armor and get yourself lowered away down and down and down till you strike the dense regions, the sunless region of eternal drudgery and starvation wages – there you’ll find them by the millions. The man that gets that market, his fortune is made, his bread and butter are safe, for those people will never go back on him. An author may have a reputation which is confined to the surface, and lose it and become pitied, then despised, then forgotten, entirely forgotten – the frequent steps in surface reputation. A surface reputation, however great, is always mortal, and always killable if you go at it right – with pins and needles, and quiet slow poison, not with the club and the tomahawk. But it is a different matter with a submerged reputation – down in the deep water; once a favorite there, always a favorite; once beloved, always beloved; once respected, always respected, honored and believed in. For, what the reviewer says never finds its way down into those placid deeps; nor the newspaper sneers, nor any breath of the winds of slander blowing down from above. Down there, they never hear of these things. Their idol may be painted clay, up there at the surface and fade and waste and crumble and blow away, there being much weather there; but down below he is gold and adamant and indestructible.’
Pretty interesting comments it seems on the vagaries of literary reputation and realities.
When asked my own status in this vague realm of relativity, I tend to put it this way: I began my writing career as internationally unknown and have risen steadily to regionally obscure. With the number of people who tell me how many of their lifelong non-reading relatives (usually husbands) have eagerly devoured all the Woods Cop books, on might even term me the poet lariat of the illiterate. See, there’s lots of company down here deep in the sea or reality, even for one who makes a living off unreality.
My office is unencumbered by walls. I wear gray — the color of a menacing sky, and green from the forest. My truck is usually brown from mud and dirt. As are my boots.
I am: spouse, parent, grandparent, child, sibling, I am part of an extended birth family and there are times I know my work won’t allow me get to everything families do together.
I pay this price without complaint.
I am male, female, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, married, divorced, separated. I am 25 or 55 on the job six months, or 26 years. All of us are also a family of brothers and sisters in a common cause and uniform.
I am equipped with some of the finest equipment made. I carry handguns, pepper spray, a taser and baton, a rifle, a shotgun, weapons all.
I can shoot a ping pong ball off a mouse’s ass a thousand yards down range.
But it is my brain that makes me special. My brain — my training, and the men and women I serve with.
I have a computer that lets the state, other police agencies and my colleagues track my location. The cab of my truck crackles with sound: I am monitoring dispatchers from the state police, counties, townships, city police and sometime campus police.
I take calls from Station Twenty in Lansing, directly from citizens lodging complaints, or wanting to provide me with information, or just to ask questions. I have two cells phones in my truck, e-mail on the computer and two radios everything squawking at the same time and sometimes my nearest backup is fifty miles away — if anyone is on duty, which during some time periods they are not because of budgets. But I am out there because this is what we do.
When I hear or see trouble, I go to it immediately, without being told. My job is to preserve and protect our natural resources, but human life comes first.
I am trained not just to look, but to see — a critical distinction.
I never get behind a vehicle on the highway that I don’t check the bumper or tailgate for blood or hair.
I watch people’s body language when I approach them — their eyes, their voice changes, their demeanor.
While we talk I try to take in everything.
I pay special attention when people start repeating my questions before answering them. If there is more than one person, I keep them all in front of me. Safety comes first.
I have never shot anyone and I hope I never will. But situations can force decisions none of us welcomes. I hope if that day comes, I won’t hesitate. If I don’t come home safely at the end of a patrol, I will have failed myself, my department, and most of all my family.
I know that every day I go out I will be lied to, sometimes yelled at, and often cursed.
Occasionally I am threatened sometimes openly and aggressively, other times with a whine.
Mostly I meet many normal, law-abiding sportsmen. But I also swim among the wood ticks and wing-nuts with mean minds, driven by greed.
Sometimes the people I meet want to wrestle (We don’t say fight.). If it must come to that, I will put them on the ground as fast as I can. If they want to run, I will track them down. I don’t back down.
My family is special. My spouse and children are used to opening the fridge in the morning to discover a pile of fish or birds confiscated at 4 AM while they were asleep. They rarely comment.
I tell my family what I do, but spare them most of the details.
Most people call police stations when they need help. But out where I live they call my home and my wife is on first-name basis with the top ten scumbags in the county. She is my unpaid dispatcher.
I accept the solitude, long hours, and the dangers inherent in my calling.
I have been scoped as I approach a hunter, had guns pointed at me, found night scopes and silencers on rifles in deer blinds, and I’ve caught drunk snowmobilers driving 70 mph through the woods.
And yes, sometimes it falls to me to tell next of kin their beloved will not be coming home.
I have saved people from drowning and heart attacks, or found them too late. I’ve located folks lost in the woods, who have accidentally shot themselves, or fallen on an arrow.
I have seen a lot of bad luck, but few truly bad people.
What I do see most is stupidity, huge portions of it. I have seen unspeakable things and dealt with them because I am sworn to do so.
I have found suicides and taken care of people mutilated in wrecks or by hit-and-run drivers. I see some people on their best and normal behavior Far too many at their worst but most people aren’t bad, they’re just acting stupid, without thinking about consequences. If safety is involved, I’ll write a ticket. If the issue’s not safety, I may just warn.
And most people who get tickets or warnings never repeat their error. Knowing this helps me do my job and remain positive.
But details haunt me, inspire me and even make me laugh. Sometimes you have to laugh because there are no tears left for what you see.
A felon just released from prison is out riding and drinking road beers with a pal, windows down, shining fields late on a starry summer night. We stop them and approach. The felon is in the passenger seat, starts fumbling beneath it. My instinct tells me to intervene. I grab his wrist as he extracts a handgun and I pull him through the window and put him on the two-track and cuff him. His last words leaving jail had been he would shoot the next cop who stopped him. Nobody got that word to us.
A window comes down and out rolls a cloud of skunk weed smoke and when I ask what he’s smoking he will say, “Nothing, dude” even as smoke curls up from a spliff in the ashtray.
If I ask someone who seems under the influence, “How much have you had to drink,” the standard answer is, “Two beers.” Sometimes I think this must be one of the questions on the DMV new driver’s test.
I have a hunter emerge from the woods three hours after shooting hours with a loaded rifle and spotlight because he was “afraid of rabid coyotes.”
I see this see an archer twenty feet up, back against the tree and tell him to come down, three times. Finally he relents, walks over to me, asks, “Dude, how did you see me?” I told him camouflage doesn’t make you invisible. I didn’t mention the knee-high white boots he was wearing.
I ticketed a hunter for hundreds of pounds of bait and learned he had been a felon but had his record expunged. Curious, I asked what he had gone to jail for. “Robbing banks,” he said. “How Many?” I asked. He answered, “Twenty seven.” When he was 17, and never spent a dime.
I once walked up on a night shooter who yelled at me for scaring him — after he squeezed off a shot from this truck at midnight.
Every year when we hold the briefing for Michigan elk hunters we tell them someone in the group will shoot more than one animal. They all smile and shake their heads. The record is five. Two isn’t even unusual.
I have had dads tell me that their brother shot the deer on the buck pole, but had to go back to Indianapolis, and a ten-year-old son chimes in to corroborate the lie, “Yeah he had to go back.” Kids are sponges. Sadly, they learn early and will learn the wrong things as easily as the right things.
The number of cops I’ve come across not following the law in spirit or letter is far too many to count. I don’t like this and I don’t understand why, but don’t dwell on it. Is what it is.
I don’t make a great deal of money. I have had as many as six unpaid furlough days in a year, and I long ago stopped counting how many hours I donated to the state because there was no overtime available, but the work had to be done. I hear repeatedly how soft state workers have it. Come walk in my boots.
I’ve been called Fascist, liar, bully, and accused of planting evidence, or intimidating people with facts.
In private camps I’m told I have no right to be there, even though our plane has seen six truckloads of bait in front of six tower blinds –and I have the photos in my pocket.
When citizens have snow days, I am outside. Rain, fire, floods, blizzards, sleet, tornados, wind, riots, demonstrations, Presidential visits: you name the condition or emergency, I’ve worked in it or helped other first responders clean up the aftermath.
I am an employee of the state, but my work is more a calling than a job. It is a passion, something that flows from my heart.
I try to treat everyone I meet with respect and courtesy. And I hope for the same from them. Usually I am not disappointed.
“You ain’t no real cop!” people will gripe at me.
Or one who refused to stop for my blue lights, and I had to chase him down and PIT him off the road, “I knew you was the man in the woods, sir — but I didn’t know you was also the man out on the road.”
I don’t make the laws. I enforce them — even when I don’t agree with some of them. I leave my personal politics at home and try to listen to the people I meet and answer their questions.
I could grow bitter, but I choose not to.
Yes, I’ve heard the wolves have eaten all the deer and that coyotes were planted by the state.
And no, five hundred pounds is not just a shade over two gallons.
When the law says you have to hunt with your minor it does not mean being just in the same section, or county. You have to be with them.
I know one day that I will retire and slide quietly into another life, at a far different pace, one it will take time to adjust to. Putting away my badge and boots will be among the hardest things I’ll ever do.
I walk a hallowed path that thousands have walked before me and try my best to uphold what they created –some with the ultimate sacrifice of their lives.
I am determined that when it’s time for me to go I’ll know it; I want to go with my head up.
I’m not just a real cop, I’m something a lot more.
My badge is gold, my blood is red.
I am a Michigan Conservation Officer and I proudly serve the people of our state, all of them.
Growing Up Global 1. Football in a barren lot with Paolo His not ours, no need for arms. He had but one. I suggested baseball But he demurred, said he’d tried it once With a grenade It took away all sporting options But soccer, and even then No goalkeeping, Fated to be strictly a field player, Cutting grass with his feet.
2. Joy of precocious anatomical gifts Adultified lust in full flower She panted like a dog on a hot day, Out in the hedgerows, like paratroopers Miles inland from beaches and all that stuff, She confided she wanted to be A math scholar, or stripper in Rome Un po ‘di questo , un piccolo di quello The same attitude clothed or not.
3. Silly Mairizia, All-A’s we caught a freight To Pisa, the old way, jumping aboard As it chuffed up a slight incline, Our plan to escape Latin taught by A woman in a wheelchair who Loathed males and assertive girls, Equal in our faults, one by gender, The other by action.
4. Gonfalons in Sienna Men in gaudy yellow uniforms And shiny armor su destrieri, Classmates cheering with winter snots smettere di correre! The American boys are hopeless In their untamed ways.
5. By the sea by the bay Bare tits, fully grown, and in full play, In Napoli, well known to tars On shore leaves when the Fleets came in. We watched the Ladies parade the piazza.
6. Pompeii we find is still still, Eighteen hundred,seventy five Years down the road, leaving Only us and small serpents Moving around the paved graveyard.
7. We live between two lingos, “Andare al negozio di pane , Ottenere alcuni colpi , Non si fermano a giocare con Paolo, yew lis-nen?
8. Plane home, measles Three weeks in the Azores, Just more to the adventure.
9. We crossed on a ship of cement All adults puking for two weeks straight.
10. Our world is small and real, a globe breathing real air.
Had a fine turnout last night at the Richland (MI) Community Library. Text is posted here before a couple of photos from the event.
“Some Thoughts On Writing Fiction”
Take a deep breath. Hold. Now let it out slowly. My intention tonight is to give you the finger.
As a novelist and a maker of fiction I work hard every day to find ways to give the finger to all of my readers. My success depends on my ability to trick you into the suppression of simple truth. I want you to take a lie for reality, to treat it like it’s real.
I’m being quite literal. I get paid to lie.
The word “fiction” is old and comes down to us from Middle English, about a thousand years ago — that period roughly between the 12th and 15th centuries. In Middle English the word meant “invented statement.” The Middle English word developed from Old French, which in turn grew out of the Latin noun fictio and the verb fingere meaning “to contrive.”
Fingere, a contrived or invented statement… the finger if you will.
As readers we’re all complicit in this process. In fact, without us, there is no contrivance, no fiction, no story, no purpose. Although writing is a loner’s game, the drive to tell stories is quite social.
Over the past fourteen years I’ve spent about a month a year on patrol in trucks with DNR officers all around the state: Detroit, Lansing, Flint, Muskegon and literally all around the U.P. In this time I’ve done solo patrols with more than 50 officers and various group gropes with close to 150. I’ve worked with uniforms on routine patrols and I’ve also worked undercover jobs in both the Upper and Lower Peninsula. I’ve seen COs rise from newbies to captain and retire, and I have known four chiefs.
I’ve worked just about any kind of case you can imagine and in every kind of weather. I had one day with an officer in Leelanau County which began with recovering a suicide from the Sleeping Bear dunes and ended with chasing and arresting a drunk driver who already had four convictions and “Just wanted to go home.”
But I’m not going to tell DNR war stories or flog my books. You can ask me about DNR stuff when we get to Q&A tonight. Rather I want to talk to you about writing and what sorts of things authors concern themselves in fashioning their work.
We sit down to read a novel knowing full well that the story is made up, and that, while it may be constructed of a lot of substance that looks and feels and sounds real, it’s not reality or history. And it’s not autobiographical in the sense that the author is not the main character or protagonist. We all know these things, yet we still want to read, in the hope we’ll be taken away by the “contrivance” and given an experience we probably would never get on our own.
What we are talking about tonight is in my mind a kind of magic, and like all magic, it rides on misdirection, which is to say, we want the magic trick to work, and we don’t want to think too hard about how it works. What happens then is that we as readers prepare ourselves to be magically graced. This was once called the suppression of simple truth. The late Samuel Coleridge, he of “Ancient Mariner” fame, called it suspension of disbelief.
What we’re looking for in this magic is compelling originality. Some literary wags contend not only that all plots have already been done, but that there are only two plots — a stranger comes to town, or someone goes on a trip. Can plots be successfully used again and again? Think about the story of Cain and Abel, which is only sixty lines and fewer than 700 words in the Bible. How many times has that story served writers who followed?
Writers find multiple paths to originality. Inventing a plot from scratch is one approach, but only one. The great Shakespeare used work of others before him, or even some sources roughly contemporary to him. Many playwrights in those days often worked in teams the way Hollywood scriptwriters now cooperate in twos and threes. In our value system using something someone else wrote is called plagiarism, but this was not considered so in Elizabethan England.
Shakespeare had a remarkable eye for potential in stories and tales of others and he made those his raw materials and churned them through his creative filter, which was not so much focused on plot as it was on characterization. What the Bard did was make characters come alive with many words he created himself. In Hamlet, for example, he used 600 words that he never used in any other play. Over the course of his career he invented more than 1,700 of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original. I am not talking about strange ancient now-dead words, but vocabulary you and I use on a regular basis: gloomy / laughable / majestic/ lonely / radiance / hurry / generous / frugal / critical /courtship /zany/undress / rant. He made new words and expected audiences to understand them in context. Many of the 1,700 words fell into common use and are still used today by people right here in this library. How’s that for impact?
Shakespeare’s originality came from in his ability to make compelling a pretend-story — a contrivance– but he made his stories in the form of plays, not novels. Although many of the basic stories he chose were in large part known and had already been rendered, he brought them to life and his own fire and chemistry. In doing so he made the old and worn look, feel, and sound new, and made them come shockingly alive to his audiences.
What made his work so compelling? More than any other writer of his time he took his audience directly inside the minds of characters in a way no author had ever done before him. Going into the individual mind was just not done then or before. This was a huge shift, which now seems pretty common to all forms of our literature.
Scholar James Shapiro tells us, “The sense of inwardness that Shakespeare creates by allowing us to hear a character as intelligent as Hamlet, wrestle with his thoughts is something no dramatist had yet achieved. He had written memorable soliloquies from early on in his career, but as powerful as these were, they fall short of the intense self-awareness we find in Hamlet’s. The breakthrough is one that Shakespeare might have arrived at sooner or later, but it was given tremendous impetus at the time he was writing Hamlet by his interest in a new literary form, l’essai.”
Biographer Sarah Blakewell tells us French writer Michel de Montaigne created the new genre of the essay and he did it using the plentiful material of his own life rather than either pure philosophy or pure invention. This publication took place in the late 1580s and it seems likely Shakespeare either read or was at least aware of the work. It is this sense of looking inward from both Montaigne and Shakespeare that put literature on the road to where it is now, and this is why we still read both authors and their works.
Finding meaning and story in the ordinary was also picked up upon by Walt Whitman. It was the poet’s contention that the ordinary is the storehouse of the extraordinary, and the only place we’ll ever encounter the extraordinary is in the ordinary, in the daily events of life. Think of the old saw, the devil is in the details. From the ordinary details of life, those we all share, Whitman took it further, declaring, “I am you. We are one creation.”
Literature had moved from the external and large to the internal and small and in the process found us the same, an astonishing leap. There was a time when asking Who am? was punishable by death. One view ruled and no questions were brooked.
Realism, inward or outward looking, focusing on the stuff of everyday life, this is an essence of Shakespeare.
Why I the hell am I — a mere mystery writer – bringing up Shakespeare? Our great author Jim Harrison recently told an interviewer that prose is “all about character,” and that his stories are driven by language, not plot. The key, Harrison says, is to find the voice of the character and let that voice tell the story, or guide you through.
Harrison’ s right. So tonight I am going to create a character for you and use that character to illustrate some of the decisions authors must make in making a story. Make no mistake about it, Shakespeare, Harrison or Heywood, all stories must be made, word by word. And I am going to make this character with the sort of realism that Montaigne and Shakespeare brought to us.
How the writer puts together the story will affect how and if it gets read.
I hope when we’re done here tonight, you’ll have some understanding of how the mind of one writer thinks and operates, not all writers, because there is no one right way, but how this one writer does his work, and the sorts of mental gymnastics involved in creating what I think are essentially fairly straightforward stories about folks who perform interesting, important, and dangerous work.
Writing is like trout fishing in that you are constantly trying to read the river, seeking the location of fish and what sort of activity they might be engaged in. Often you don’t see the entire fish, only a small part of it, and a great part of learning to spot fish and read rivers rests on learning to conjure whole fish from small parts. It’s not substantially different for a writer.
Writers and artists tend to see almost everything differently than others. Virginia Woolf wrote: “An ordinary mind on an ordinary day amasses impressions haphazardly, inattentively, and keeps a latent but later accessible stock of…encounters from which rises a sense of self, which is then the product of its conditioning by this random accumulation.”
Ergo, we have a recent statistically valid Pew poll reporting that 10 percent of Christians polled thought Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. I’m not making that up. This chaotic and scattered approach to observing and experiencing life is one reason people make lousy eyewitnesses. We all claim to look, but as it turns out, few of us actually see, and probably none of us see fully all the time.
Now please bear with me. I’m going to try to mess with my voice. This usually happens almost exclusively inside my head, but tonight I’ll try to bring in the inner audio here to the room. It may slow me down. I read out loud everything I write to Lonnie to see if and how she reacts, but mostly this sort of voice thing goes on inside my head. Tbe more accurate, it goes on while characters are being born, a process which is largely divorced from any direction from my conscious brain. Birth seems to be more a matter of their choice than my will.
E.L. Doctorow insists “the language you use is a decision made in the depth of your brain before you even begin. A voice comes to you as something compelling, with its own diction, and its own level syntactic simplicity or complexity. And it’s your animal.”
He’s right. Make sure your trays are in the upright position, and secured, and that your seat belts are fastened. Here we go.
“THEY CALL ME DOUG. I WAS A COP FOR TWO WEEKS. NOW I RUN A ROCK SHOP FOR MY UNCLE ALPO. WE GOT ALL KINDS OF ROCKS, LIKE THAT BLACK GUY BUBBA AND HIS SHRIMP IN THAT MOVIE GOT HIMSELF KILLED OVER TO VIETNAM, IN THAT MOVIE ABOUT FORREST WHAT-S HIS FACE? I HAD ME TWO WIVES. FIRST ONE TOOK TO SEX LIKE A TROUT TO COLD WATER – ANY COLD WATER. SHE SLEPT WITH FOUR DIFFERENT MINISTERS AND AN ANGLICAN PRIEST. ACTUALLY THEY WEREN’T SLEEPING, EH? MY SECOND WIFE, ALL SHE DOES IS GO DRINKING WITH HER SISTER AT THE INDIAN CASINO, AND RUN UP A TAB I GOT TO PAY OFF EVERY MONTH. I DON’T DRINK NO MORE. LIFE HURTS. I GOT THIS SKIN CONDITION AND EVERY BUG THAT TOUCHES ME EXPLODES ON CONTACT, SUMMER MONTHS IT SOUNDS LIKE I’M POPPING CORN ON MY SKIN AND I ALWAYS SMELL LIKE BRIMSTONE. DON’T GET ME GOING ON MY FIRST WIFE.”
It’s me – Joe — I’m back here again. If what I do confuses you, think what it’s like to be inside my mind all the time. Poor Lonnie has to live with this.
Okay, brief background here: There is really was a Doug, he had two wives, and he ran a rock shop. I never met him. All the rest is creating just for us, just for tonight. I conjure a person – a character – sometimes they arrive without invitation – and I then listen to the character talking only to me. Sometimes I’ll eventually postulate what if X or Y happened to Doug? What if always acts as the catalyst or launch pad for stories.
My process always begins with character, and character always arrives first as a voice Harrison says his stories usually begin with a series of images and that he thinks about his novels for a long time, a year or sometimes many years, and a lot of this thinking happens when he is walking or driving long distance. Mine brew and ferment a long time as well.
My voices may come to me in dreams, or when I’m in the woods, or sitting in a restaurant, or standing here talking to you. The trick is to learn to hear and then listen to them. I write down the things I hear people say because it is a good way to capture the rhythms of real speech, and this in turn later helps me to make dialog seem real. It’s not, but it has to seem so.
To repeat an earlier point: Stories must be made, word by word.
But the making of fiction is somewhat like an iceberg. That is, the part you see on your book-shelf is just a teensy fragment of the whole undertaking.
Writers’ minds sometimes inhabit other worlds and this world simultaneously. I once told my daughter that something I had seen or heard would probably please Grady Service.
She said. “Earth to Dad: He’s not real. He’s made up.”
“To you,” I said.
What…? Wait a minute…What’s that? Sorry, Doug is here again.
“I REALLY LIKED BEING A COP, BUT I AIN’T ONE NO MORE ON ACCOUNT I SHOT A DAMN WOLF AT MY DEER BAIT PILE. MY CHIEF’S WIFE WAS A WOLF- AND TREE-HUGGER. THE CHIEF, HE JUST LAUGHED WHEN I PAID THE FINE, CALLED ME A DUMB-ASS. THAT WOULDA AND SHOULA BEEN THE END OF IT. BUT HIS WIFE, SHE NEVER LET UP. CALLED ME MORTALLY DEPRAVED. AND WHAT THE HELL DOES THAT EVEN MEAN? SHE WAS BEST FRIENDS WITH MY FIRST WIFE WHO WAS OUT BANGING SO-CALLED MEN OF THE CLOTH, AND I’M MORTALLY DEPRAVED? MY FIRST WIFE WAS A BITCH FROM HELL. HER FRIENDS TOO. THE CHIEF’S OLD LADY, SHE WOULDN’T LET UP AND FINALLY THE CHIEF GAVE IN. I THINK HE THOUGHT IT WOULD BE CHEAPER TO FIRE MY ASS THAN TO DIVORCE HIS OLD LADY. SO OUT I WENT, AND HERE I AM NOW IN A MUSTY OLD ROCK SHOP. LIFE STINKS. MY SECOND WIFE GAMBLES AND DRINKS. SEE WHAT I MEAN ABOUT LIFE?”
Thus far I have used only 347 words to introduce Doug, his voice, and some of his backstory. I can’t impart the actual voice in writing, but I can impart a sense of tone by the vocabulary I select, the order I put the words into, and in this case the idiosyncrasies of his speech. All of this gives you some glimpse of who Doug might be and I hope keeps you reading.
It ought to be obvious that I really love to write. And I respect the craft. It is demanding and sometimes frustrating, with long hours and days and weeks and months and even years. Most of what I do is the long game, not the short one. And there’s never a guarantee that all the time and sweat I invest will ever become a full-fledged manuscript, much less get published. Even after 30 years in the book business, yesterday doesn’t count, except perhaps to readers.
To publishers everything is pretty much meaningless other than financial results, a stanza in the old song. What have you done for me lately? If your publisher makes the money they expect, you get to keep publishing. If not, it’s ciao e arrivederci,signore.
Welcome to the reality authors must live with.
Noted author Jerry Dennis writes in The Windward Shore about the need to use solitude as an avenue into a mood of enchantment – or as Jerry puts it, re-enchantment, the default condition of childhood. When we are in this condition, writing, reading, playing golf, making love, whatever, we discover that time races by quickly and when we step back from the enchanted feeling, we are shocked to find how long we have been engrossed.
Childlike default: this is probably the ideal description of the artist’s creative state.
I know quite a few people who think they want to write a book, but I suspect what they really mean is that they want to be known as someone who wrote a book, not that they want to actually do all the work it takes to produce one, which is an entirely different creature. Even Doug is in this large and amorphous wannabe group.
“PEOPLE TELL ME I OUGHT WRITE A BOOK ON HOW TO MARRY THE WRONG WOMAN. WAH! THAT’S A JOKE! THEY’RE ALL THE WRONG WOMAN IF THEY MARRY ME. DOUG DEFINES WRONG WHEN IT COMES TO SPOUSES AND LET ME TELL YOU IF A WOMAN TELLS YOU SHE LOVES SEX WITH YOU, SHE MEANS SHE LOVES IT WITH ANYONE AND EVERYONE.GEEZ OH PETE.”
I should tell you that Doug is quite the reader but it’s the writer’s job to show, not tell, so we’ll let him do just that:
“I DON’T BUY NO BOOKS NO MORE. THEY COST TOO DAMN MUCH — JUST SO SOME FATASS WRITER CAN LIVE THE EASY LIFE OF SMILEY – LIKE MY FIRST WIFE LIVED OFFEN ME — JUST FOR SCRIBBLING DOWN SOME DAMN STORY HE PROB’LY HEARD FROM SOME JAMOKE LIKE ME WITH A REAL JOB? I DON’T THINK SO. I USE THE PUBLIC LIBRARY. BUT THAT COSTS ME MONEY TOO, ONLY IT AINT’ AS MUCH AS BUYING A BOOK, AND WHEN IT’S DONE WHAT DO I WANT WITH THE DAMN THING ANYWAY? BOOKS AND BOWLING SHOES JUST COLLECT DUST. BUT LIBRARY BOOKS, YOU CAN TAKE ‘EM BACK, NOW THAT I THINK ABOUT IT, MY FIRST WIFE WAS KIND OF A LENDING LIBRARY, A BOOK TO BE OPENED AND READ FAST OR SLOW BY ANYONE WITH THE SLIGHTEST INTEREST AND COOL COVER TO GET HER ATTENTION. SHE WAS A REAL BITCH AND SOMETHING ELSE I CAN’T SAY IN NO MIXED-UP COMPANY, I BELIEVE THE CONSTITUTION AND THE BILL OF LIGHTS OUGHT TO INCLUDE A THING THAT GIVES CAPITAL PUNISHMENTS FOR ADULTERY. MY FIRST WIFE SAID SHE’D SUPPORT CAPITAL PUNISHMENTS FOR LOUSY PERFORMANCE IN BED AND THAT PISSED ME OFF AND HURT MY FEELINGS TOO. YEAH, IDO GOT FEELINGS. TRUTH IS, I ALWAYS ENJOYED MYSELF IN BED WITH HER. LIFE AIN’T FAIR.”
Doug and Joe Heywood both grew up as a library kids. In Heywood’s own military brathood his family used to cycle from time to time between assignments, meaning his father went ahead of the family, who then spent weeks or months at the paternal grandparent’s home in his birthplace in New York State, on the banks of the Hudson River, about 20 miles north of Poughkeepsie and 40 miles south of Albany. The town of Kingston and the Catskill Mountains are directly across the river.
By the time the village took its current name of Rhinecliff, it had already been inhabited for 150 years. Formerly known as Kipsbergen, it was founded by Dutch settlers in 1686, nine decades before the American Revolution. At 329 years old, Rhinecliff has not changed all that much and it is in the author’s heart, his true birth home, the place that wherever he may wander, he always relates back to. Heywood feels history and nature deeply and when he first moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the summer of 1957, he immediately felt the depth of both history and nature there. A sense of history often develops from travel and reading.
There was a Boy’s Club in Rhineclifff, which met weekly at the Morton Memorial Library and Community House, one of those once-a-week-lets-make-crap-with-plywood, using coping saws with blades as thin as dog hairs.
“MY WIFE WAS THE CRAFTY TYPE. SHE BELONGED TO BOWLING LEAGUES, KNITTING CIRCLES, QUILTING CLUBS, THE WOMAN’S CURLING CLUB, BEAD GROUPS, PAPER TROLL MAKERS ALL THAT CHEAP-ASS WORTHLESS CRAP, BUT SHE NEVER BROUGHT NOTHIN’ HOME, TOLE ME IT WAS LIKE CATCH-AND-RELEASE FISHING. ONLY THING SHE EVENTUALLY BROUGHT HOME WAS CLAP, FIRST SHE TRIED CLAIM I GIVE TO HER. TALK ABOUT BURN! WHICH IS HOW SHE BECOME MY FIRST EX-WIFE.”
Now, this Heywood kid we were talking about before Doug butted in, he wasn’t exactly enthralled with woodworking, but he loved books. He would halfheartedly cut plywood for a while, and after a while sneak upstairs to the stacks where Mrs. Maude Zegelbrier was the honcho. Mrs. Z described her job as the “village’s book hander-outer,” a job she held for 35 years. Mrs. Z let the Heywood kid skip woodworking and come sit Indian-legged between stacks where he was free to explore anything on her shelves, no restrictions, no rules, no warnings. It was a place where he could follow his young fancy, even if it meant staring at the breasts of south sea dancing women in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHICS, which he did. You bet he did.
Because he’s an old man now, some of Heywood’s friends insist he still fondly remembers the slightly musty smell of leather bindings and dusty shelves, and old yellowing pages, some of which crumbled to the touch. And the naughty pictures, of course. Yessir. Old is not synonymous with dead.
If you’re of an analytical bent, you have noticed that I switched voice from first person to third person, where it’s not entirely clear who is telling the story of young or old Heywood. Probably because I happen to be the one talking at the moment, you’re thinking it’s me. And you might even be right, but you don’t really yet have enough evidence to draw that conclusion. As an author I can see myself in the third person as a character in youth, or in extreme old age. My mind and imagination can take me anywhere in time and place and then it’s my job to use words and language to bring you there with me.
Hey, Doug’s first wife just whispered to me that she wants s a word and I guess it’s only fair to hear her out:
“DOUG LACKS…HOW CAN I SAY THIS DIPLOMATICALLY, A CERTAIN JE NE SAIS QUOI? YOU KNOW, LIKE HIS IDEA OF THE DURATION OF LOVEMAKING WAS THE EQUVALENT OF FLIPPING A COIN TO DETERIMINE THE KICKOFF, AND SLAPPING THAT COIN ON THE BACK OF YOUR HAND. FLIP-CATCH-SLAP-SHOW, DONE. DO YOU WANT TO KICK OFF OF DEFEND AN END? I’M TALKING SUPERSONIC SPEEDS AND SUBSONIC IMPACTS. LIKE HE WAS TOO FAST FOR FAST AND OF THE HURRY-UP-AND-I’M-DONE MINDSET. THAT’S DOUG. BUT HE’S A REALLY FINE PROVIDER, I HAVE TO GRANT HIM THAT WHERE WORLDLY GOODS ARE CONCERNED, HE’S TERRRIFIC. BUT A WOMAN NEEDS MORE, AT LEAST THIS WOMAN NEEDS MORE, HEAR WHAT I’M SAYING?
I can see in some of your eyes now: what in the hell is he doing? The answer is that I am trying to demonstrate how we construct fiction and nonfiction. While stories may seem to materialize out of a quasi-dream state, it’s the writer’s challenge to use his or her craft with language to make sure the story he is telling grabs and holds you. I’ve constructed two characters so far tonight and given voice to each.
Folks often ask me if they can learn creative writing in school and the answer is yes and no. What schools can teach students are the tools of writing, vocabulary, syntax, grammar, structure, all that jazz. What schools cannot teach is imagination. Teachers can recognize, encourage, and help exercise their students’ imaginations, but make no mistake, imagination is the fuel of fiction and can’t be installed like new software on a computer. Imagination is, like speed, something we are born with, or not, and whatever life gives us, you can always improve. Without imagination, truly creative and compelling writing will not happen.
Here’s another way to come at this writing and craft business: In the words of Todd Lockwood, a founder of the Brautigan Library in Vermont, “Ideas with vision will usually survive a less-than-perfect presentation. But the most elaborate presentation in the world will not substitute for vision.”
Like the old burger advertisement’s punchline: “Where’s the meat?”
A writer’s job — his or her challenge — is to make a story seem authentic to you as you read it. Authentic leads to compelling and to an air of veracity. I think I must do all right in this regard as a considerable number of people each year ask me if I am a retired conservation officer. I’m not.
Author Mary McCarthy once wrote: “We do really expect a novel to be true, not only true to itself …but true to actual life.” The reader not only makes believe that he or she believes a novel, but believes it substantially, as being continuous with or contiguous to real life, which is to say made of the same stuff and it is the presence of fact in fiction, of dates, and times, and places, and names, and distances that provide a kind of reassurance, a guarantee of credibility.
I try to tell my stories using what critics call the close third-person narrator, which means a free and indirect style. Take this sentence: “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears.” The use of the word “stupid” here begs the question: Whose word is this? It’s unlikely the author wants to call his character stupid merely for listening to some music in the auditorium. So what we have here is the author giving the word to the character without interrupting the flow of thought from the character’s mind. If the author chose to write conventional first person, he might have written something like, “It’s so stupid to be crying over this silly piece of Brahms, he thought.” But this last sentence is 12 words and the previous one is only seven, or 40 percent shorter, which makes the composition tighter and performs the alchemical trick of putting you directly into the character’s head. All this achieved by using that one word, “stupid.” This is an example of why writing is called an art and why you will hear authors, critics, and teachers talk about how every word is important. It is. Some writers call this “mastering compression.”
The second example which ended with “he thought” is a stark reminder that the author is in the story, at least as an observer, so the first approach is better at removing a potential item that might distract your reader’s focus.
This is what I strive for with Grady Service and Lute Bapcat and, of course, I fall way short of what I strive for in my hoped-for-effect, which I suppose is a kind of inner voice of free thought, or stream-of-consciousness aimed at the moment in the story, the way things happen in our minds every day, in fact are happening right now as we gawk at each other. The goal, of course is to make the characters as human and believable as possible.
Technically this approach is called free indirect style, a term probably only writers and students bother about (or should), but it is the secret to the alchemy of getting the reader into a character’s mind and emotions. The beauty of it is that as with the sentence with the “stupid tears,” you sense these are the character’s words, when in fact they are words the writer chose for the reasons we’ve just talked about.
An advantage of this modified first-person approach is what it does for apparent veracity. As my narrators, Grady Service and Lute Bapcat, are eye-witnesses testifying to you the reader that the things they are relating to you did indeed happen, even though you the reader know they did not happen, that the story is fabricated. This gap is as we described earlier, the willing suspension of disbelief.
I have met dozens of folks who insist on telling me that they never bother to read fiction. Either they’re “too busy,” or they only want to read fact, and truth, and reality, so whadya think of that, buster?
These people live in a fool’s corner. Think about this: Truth or fiction is only a matter of degree. A novel is both nonfiction and fiction, real but altered (and sometimes only very transparently).
Passion for fact in a raw state is a peculiarity of most novelists. Most of the great novels contain blocks and lumps of fact – stubborn, obstinate, sometimes unmanageable lumps, and chunks, that provide the porridge of the tale, the things that stick to your ribs. Someone once wrote that probability judgments are higher for richer, more detailed scenarios, which may seem contrary to logic and common sense, because adding details make story-telling more persuasive yet less likely to come true. Habitual liars know this. Hemingway boiled it down to, “A big lie is more plausible than truth.”
Novelist Alice McDermott once told an interviewer, “I write fiction because it is a way of ordering the world and if you are to make the world orderly, you have to change it, because it is not orderly on its own.”
Let me say one last thing about audience and again I’ll lean on Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V: The chorus opens the play with some words to the audience. This is an advantage the playwright has over the novelist, though it’s also possible to do this by various techniques in fiction. Here’s what the chorus announces to the audience right after they step on stage:
“Think when we talk of horses, that you see them printing their proud hoofs I’ the receiving earth; for tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, carry them here and there; jumping o’er times.”
The message is “Hey, folks, it’s up to you to listen to the words and let your minds create the detailed pictures of the action we’ll be playing. In other words, let us transport you to another time and place, but you have to be willing to make the trip and do some of the work. The reader of a book can be no less attentive than the groundling watching the play on the stage above him. Stories, we can argue, are a bit of a dance and as we know it takes two to tango.
Enough on technique, let’s turn briefly to subject matter. People, critics and media folk often talk about my use of the U.P., not just as a setting, but as an overarching force and even a character in my stories.
As an author, I seek first to grab the collar of your attention, to give you the feel of something alive and moving ahead. My way to do this is to orient you with geographical descriptions, names of towns, mountains, roads, landmarks, counties, rivers, everything, the so-called social topography. I want you captured and on edge and curious, and of course, comfortable to the degree that you keep reading.
Description creates a comfort zone, a familiar site and place, but the Upper Peninsula itself is a character with force because it is physically isolated, semi-wild, and like all such places, sociologists tell us, a magnet for extremes in personalities. I do not however give you a detailed picture of Grady Service because visually I want each reader to have his own Grady or Lute. Going short on description of the main character, forces the reader to form a picture from what he hears and imagines and in this way he becomes a participant in the story, and this alone guarantees more interest and focus.
As for the UP and wilderness, I make it integral in most of my work for a couple of reasons.
Edwin Way Teale, one of our greatest American naturalist writers wrote in his 1945 The Lost Woods.
“In nature, just having been is enough. To be the thing is its own justification. The frailty of passing beauty is no cause for mourning. Nature raises no monuments. The grass that is eaten by the browsing deer has met a worthwhile end. The snowflake that perishes after drifting downward through the sky neither asks for nor deserves oour pity. It has been what it is supposed to be.”
As the late and great Bernard DeVoto once wrote,
“A wilderness foes no coddling. You succeed or you die, fast or slow. Mother Nature reserves the upper hand and the last word.”
Matter-of-fact-carnage and brutality are part of the fabric of wilderness life.
Here is an excerpt from a series of family memoirs about the settlers of Summit, Michigan (which is a suburb of Herman, MI) both of which are about 5 or 6 miles east of us as the crow flies over the steep hilly woods. The author writes:
“My mother recalled a neighbor boy by the name of Uno Niemi who was hanging on a pole close to the railroad tracks, and fell down. The train passed over his legs and the boot with his leg still stuffed inside it was dragged about a quarter-mile when it finally fell off. Uno’s brother, Rudolph, who was running along the tracks, came upon the boot and threw it aside, not realizing the boot still had a foot in it. Uno never made it to the hospital.”
This truly an awful story told with no fanfare, and almost no emotion, told with exactly the sort of attitude wilderness life breeds in those who choose to face and survive it. An old T-shirt with an outline of the U.P. proclaims, “Rugged as its coastlines, Tough as its winters, Independent as its people.” These are my people, the ones I care about, the ones I admire and write about.
In our modern bumper sticker culture lingo we would say, “Shit happens.”
Dialog is another way of creating tension, providing information and setting tone.
Here’s Doug’s second wife, whom we’ve not met until now. Doug is standing quietly beside her.
‘I’M DOUG’S WIFE, THE CURRENT ONE? THEY CALL ME HOSTA AND I KNOW DOUG COMPLAINS ABOUT MY SIS AND ME GOING OVER TO THE CASINO, BUT I’M A NURSE, I GAMBLE WITH MY OWN MONEY AND SIS AND I GO OVER THERE ONCE A MONTH FOR A GOOD MEAL AND TO BLOW OFF SOME STEAM. ONLY ONCE DID DOUG HAVE TO PAY AND THAT’S BECAUSE SIS AND I FORGOT OUR CREDIT CARDS AND THE MANAGER WAS NICE ENOUGH TO SHOO THE BILL TO DOUG WHO PAID IT WITHOUT TALKING TO ME FIRST AND HAS BEEN COMPLAINING EVER SINCE. AIN’T THAT RIGHT HON?
Doug says: “I GUESS.”
Here a small point: I opened this paragraph in the dialog with the phrase “Doug says.” That’s active, the noun before the verb. If I wanted a slower pace, I might have instead written “says Doug” the verb preceding the noun. This is called the passive and while there is a place for passive moments passive books are almost always dead in the water.
Hosta continues talking to us:
“THAT MAN! MY HUSBAND LIKES TO PLAY THE CURMUDGEON, BUT HE SORT OF STRETCHES THE TRUTH AND I THINK HE LIKES TO PLAY THE VICTIM, HIS FIRST WIFE – I CALL HER HIS PRACTICE WIFE—HER NAME WAS BIBI AND SHE USED HIM BIG-TIME. UNLIKE SOME OTHER MEN, HE NEVER BEAT ON HER OR NOTHING LIKE THAT. DOUG’S GRUFF, BUT HE’D NEVER HURT NOBODY, WOULD YOU HON?”
Doug replies sheepishly: I MIGHTA THUNK ON IT A LONG WHILE, BUT NO I GUESS NOT.”
But Hosta tells us, “ME? I’D PROBABLY HAVE SHOT HER AFTER SHE BROUGHT HOME A SOCIAL DISEASE. THIS IS A SMALL TOWN, SO EVERYBODY KNEW, EH?”
Now we have met three characters, Doug, his first wife Bibi, and his current wife Hosta, (A name I took while looking at a neighbor’s garden). Four characters, if you count the narrator, which at this point may or may not be me. And we now have had some dialog between Doug and Wife No. 2, Hosta. I haven’t actually taken you inside any of the three heads so you can hear innermost voices, but I have suggested to you what those inner voices might be sharing what that characters declare out loud. The truth is that if I took you into their heads you might find them think altogether differently than they are speaking, which is very human. We often hide what we think under a barrage of words, or in silence. As we move from character to character I can cause you as the reader to emote in certain ways and this in turn is used to create dramatic effect and tension in the story as it unfolds.
Until this point I’ve let you hear Doug talking directly to you, out loud. Now let’s move another step and watch him using the close third-person narrator.
It is snowing outside and Doug had just gotten to the shop and he is using his key to turn the lock and he is thinking, “I NEVER WANTED A THING TO DO WITH ROCKS, BUNCH OF OLD DEAD THINGS. I TOLD UNCLE DAVE I’D HELP OUT. I OPEN THE SHOP ON TIME, AND PUT IN MY TIME. STRANGE, BUT A FEW YEARS WENT BY AND I FOUND MYSELF SO INTERESTED IN ROCKS I COULD HARDLY THINK OF ANYTHING ELSE. AND ONE DAY UNCLE DAVE SAYS HE’S GOT THE OLD TIMERS AND HE LETS ME BUY THE SHOP AND ALL THE STUFF IN IT. I COULDN’T BELIEVE IT. MY OWN SHOPOF DEAD STUFF. I PRICE MY STUFF FAIR. I TREAT FOLKS WHO COME TO ME WITH RESPECT AND I TRY TO GET THEM INTERESTED IN ROCKS. IT’S NOT BECAUSE IT’S MY BUSINESS, WHICH IT IS, BUT BECAUSE I REALLY LOVE ROCKS. THEY WERE HERE BEFORE US AND PROBABLY WILL BE HERE LONG AFTER WE’RE LONG GONE AND REPLACED BY WHATEVER WILL COME NEXT. I TRY NOT TO DWELL ON WHAT’S GONE WRONG IN MY LIFE. I TRY TO FOCUS ON WHAT’S GOING GOOD, AND NO MATTER THE WEATHER, OR HOW MANY BILLS I’VE GOT STACKED UP OR HOW MUCH MONEY THE WIFE IS GAMBLING. I WOULD’VE MADE A DAMN GOOD COP, BUT THAT DIDN’T TURN OUT FOR ME AND SO IT GOES. I STILL LOOK FORWARD TO EVERY DAMN DAY AND I BET NOT TOO MANY PEOPLE CAN SAY THAT. UNCLE DAVE’S STILL ALIVE, DON’T RECOGNIZE ANYONE BUT WHEN I TAKE A NEW AGATE TO HIM, HE LIGHTS UP LIKE THE SUN.”
A major focus of most writers, I think and hope, is that of language-tightening, compressing it, trying to get what we write tighter and tighter, so tight that little extraneous light can squeeze through it. I try to start my stories as close to the end as possible, letting dialog tell the story as much as possible. In the stuff I’ve given you on Doug there is not a single clue to his looks, size, age, anything. I provide a minimum of description of characters, preferring to let the readers’ minds create their own pictures. This is why books made into movies often fail — because the actor chosen for the role looks and or even sounds nothing like the one in your head. So it goes. They’re different animals, books and movies. But that’s a topic for another night in another place. Speaking of compression: The Gettysburg address was only 272 words.
Thank your for wasting your perfectly good night on so many more words.
Got this note from a reader in Chesapeake VA. Came in the website yesterday but didn’t see it until this morning. No greeting or salutation. “My husband and I enjoyed your books but he died two years ago from lung cancer tho he had quit smoking 22 years before. It is not fun to read about a character lighting up all the time. If your protagonist is so smart why doesn’t he stop?”
My response: Dear Ms.— Thank you (I think) for your somewhat astonishing (and entirely unique) note. You seem to be confusing fiction with reality. My character is not real flesh and blood, only written to simulate same, which means weaknesses, warts, and all, just like real human beings. Sorry to have disappointed you.
I put it up on FACEBOOK to see what reactions my friends and other readers might have. Here’s what I’ve seen back so far:
Henry KisorUnfortunately, working class Yoopers are smokers. You’re just being realistic, Joe.
Jeff CountsYou’re a writer, not a sociologist or a health reformer. The job is to write the truth, not portray some politically correct version of it. Political correctness is the Islamic terrorist loose in our society.
Tom SweetJoe, We know all Game Wardens are perfect. We have no faults…and no bad habits. lol.
Zael LutzOnce worked at a company where the substance abuse counselor was a chain smoker, and also an M.D. Smart doesn’t help much when you are severely addicted.
Sue AcklandUnfortunately, I haven’t the mind nor inclination to be as charitable as the previous posters. I’d just tell her to ‘kiss my ass’.
Robert SchneiderI would tell her that you have discussed this with him many times but he refuses to quit smoking. You are very concerned as a dear friend about his health, but you have no control over his actions. You will be very sad if he gets lung cancer, but it will be the consequence of his own bad decision.
Henry KisorAs a former smoker I know how hard it is to quit, and feel very sorry for the uneducated folks who get hooked.
Terry TrepanierSo here’s my take: The character is portrayed in a time where smoking is accepted. And especially returning from Vietnam on a combat tour, smoking is a part of his life. Now, think about this, 50 years from now someone will develop a character that eats at fast food outlets consistently and someone will say, “Why did your character eat fast food all the time, didn’t he know it was bad for him
Cindy MarkhamThe woman probably felt instantly better once she wrote the note. I think it was just part of her healing
Steven BurtonYou should have wrote her and said “my pain in the ass partner from the UP used to get on my ass all the time over the same issue.” That be m
This morning I emailed BUCKULAR DYSTROPHY, the 10th Woods Cop novel to my agent in New York. Publication fall of 2015. Next assignment, finish updates and new essays for a re-publication of COVERED WATERS later in 2015. The third Lute Bapcat story is forming in my head no. Next actual publicatio , March 1, HARDER GROUND. My second collection of short stories. It’s great to be in a productive streak but a little break is welcome too. Will probably spend some time painting this winter. Been too long, and I miss it.