Review, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Great Reading
Great Reading

I just finished Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short story collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. This is Campbell’s fourth book and each, whether in novel or short story form, brings us into terrain most never see and fewer want to navigate. All of these stories have appeared elsewhere, from Southern Review to Kenyon Review on Line, all fine literary places that are read by fairly small audiences (of which I am not a regular member), so it is good to see her stories get wider circulation in a book collection. Not that she’s not well established and increasingly well known, but collections make it easier for a wider range of readers to gain access to her fine work.

Campbell’s  stories are a fine reminder of the erroneous  tendency of some readers to confuse autobiography and fiction (or to extrapolate one from another). The author in this instance is a smiling, happy, empathetic, helpful, funny human being,  and though some of her characters share some or all of these traits, they are clearly not anything like the real human who imagined them into life. The difference between the public figure and her characters must hit some folks like running their Volvo into a big tree.

The characters here are nothing like those from Disney or Sitcom TV. These are real folks in what at first blush may seem unreal situations, but they are actually all very real and very messy, a fine definition of life itself.  Herein we meet masochists and sadists (some part-time, some who alternate roles), stoics, and impulsives — trying to do what they see as right, or best (the two aren’t synonymous), often failing, and lamenting such failures and their inability to understand, or “do right.”

I once read a comment from the late Nelson Algren that came to mind as I was reading Campbell’s stories. He was referring to Richard Wright’s work (Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son, Black Boy, etc). Algren told an interviewer, “Dick Wright was the only one in the thirties, who wrote anything not just from the bottom of American society, but a bottom where a tremendous number of people lived inarticulately and had known Wright and had seen that he made these multitudes articulate to himself.”

Campbell is on similar ground, but the whole notion of articulateness gave me pause. In our time this word carries a number of potential meanings, including: parts connected by joints; distinct syllables and words that have meaning as human speech; the ability to speak; expressing oneself easily and clearly; and, well formulated, clearly presented.

In Elizabethan times, the times of Shakespeare, four hundred years ago, the word meant something else and (having been camped for the better part of a year in the WS world) I quickly saw the distinction and difference. Back then the word meant, “negotiating, making deals, coming to terms.”

Seems to me that the characters created by Campbell are a blend of these meanings, but mostly they seem to be in the Elizabethan mode, trying their best to find ways to deal with the realities life has dealt them. The folks in these 17 stories are anything but inarticulate, in the sense of being unable to communicate. Hell, these folks flood each other with words, but their language, syntax, vocabulary,  metaphors, and descriptions are far from the well-mown path of college prep students. Whatever these women lack in formal education and paper baubles, they possess immense measures of street smarts, intuition, and introspection.

Being human, they all seem doomed, as are we all. Humans are born with a death writ in hand and only the date and cause missing. This is a shadow that hangs over every life and is felt keenly in this body of work.

I remember from another life a survey of “corporate culture” in which a respondent wrote, “This is a place where you can drown, but you can’t swim.”  This remark hung in my mind the whole time I was reading this collection. Campbell’s characters may be on the verge of drowning, or not, but they do not give up. They endure everything from poor choices to rape and  dog-paddle in all manners guild, self-blame, and self-recrimination.

In a war in another life, during POW training, I watched educated, smart, physical fit young men after only a few days of stress, lie down on the ground in the fetal position and literally give up. There was even a name for it, “Giveupitis.” Campbell’s characters may flirt with this, but never succumb.

I should add this is not a world where men earn many (any?) merit badges or kudos. Campbell’s characters inhabit what a world of women — at varying socioeconomic levels, but a set of conditions rarely spoken of, much less acknowledged. There may be a tendency to think hillbilly when one first reads of these people, but little of this is rural and so, if anything, they are suburbillies, all of them tiptoeing and stumbling along the ragged, jagged edges or reality.

There’s no point to talking about a book without a straight forward recommendation, so here  it is: Buy this book. And, please do not borrow it from a friend or loan  your copy to another person, because these behaviors do not helping authors. If you want more from Campbell, and I suspect you will, buy the book and tell your pals to do the same.

Be forewarned: This is not a happy-face read, but it is an amazing look into a fine array of characters, ranging from a circus candy-hawker called Buckeye,  to a phlebotomist.

Fiction writers must become other people in order to tell stories and good writing should help us to empathize and make us think. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, does both.

Crusiing the Herman Hills and Western Extremis of Les Hurons

This was Sunday morning after breakfast. We had to drop some materials at the Keweenaw Greenhouse and used this as an excuse for color touring.

 

Brook trout sleep here.
Brook trout sleep here.
The awful things L'Anse kids have to look at on the way to school.
The awful things L’Anse kids have to look at on the way to school.
Silver River
Silver River
The splurgery
The splurgery
Looking AT behinds.
Looking AT behinds.
Looking behind
Looking behind
Summer business over.
Summer business over.
Apples turned wild
Apples turned wild
Splashes
Splashes
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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Da Gravel Pit
Da Gravel Pit
Autumn mist
Autumn mist
Plumbago Lake/ Alberta Pond
Plumbago Lake/ Alberta Pond

 

Full frontal color
Full frontal color

 

Changing Seasons: Goodbye to soft Air and Some More Thoughts About Scribbling

All right, we’re technically and callenderically (not sure this is a legit word)  into autumn, but it was 80 degrees a couple of days ago and we were cavorting in shorts. We have begun the twice-a year baggage drill and preps for our Progress southward, including mailing boxes of books to the home hacienda. Most of this summer was spend on starting two new novels, one now at 50-60K words and the other around 20K. Will prolyl finish the shorter one first, after I return from DNR patrols in November.

There’s always a lingering question for writers, How does one know one is working on the right one? Answer: One doesn’t, not really, but as a general guide, the story that compels one most to give it attention if probably the right one for one to be focused on. Squeaky wheel syndrome.

Writing is all about choices, continuous, never-ending choices about every possible aspect and detail, all of this fueled by what ought to fuel a professional athlete and I refer here not to 7000 – 9000 calories of foodstuffs daily, but to the fire inside pushing one to go “all out, balls-to-the-wall, all throttles firewalled, and as you approach all-out, nearly out of control speed, you also have to feel that you may end up looking like a fool, which awful as that may sound, is peanust beside a badly broken bone. You made a fool of yourself with this attempt? Big deal. Press on. All imagined wounds heal and they don’t need licking.

I often get asked about plots and seldom can find an adequate answer, probably because I go round and round about definitions of elements in stories. This sort of thinking ought to be normal. Part of the longevity in writing involves how we conceive of what it is we do, or are attempting to do. This is an inescapable consequence of all the hours and sweat bands involved.

I find at this point that some event combines with characters born pretty much out of nothing and nowhere, which then necessitates some sort of narrative from me. Once this begins to run and change into a solid flow, a plot always seems to suggest itself, plot being important only as a sort of exoskeleton for playing with eccentricities, settings and language. Think of the Bard who created nothing, used plots of old stories, but made his are of what he did with language, both what he said, and where it was coming from.

Ironically we commence a story with careful control, hoping ethereal juice will jolt our brains, another gear if you will, and then let that have its heady head. When this happens, as it sometimes does, this brings into place an entire new set of rules and craft needs because it then seems like you are writing down a movie instead of making the movie.

I have thought a lot about how we summer – in virtual isolation. Art, even my crude form, does not allow time for social wasting, cocktail parties, etc. By age 72, one wonders how long it will be until one breaks a leg or worse. Meanwhile you keep rushing the ball downfield, loathing any and all social obligation that entail time-wasting preparations and obligatory quids. Those who don’t create for a living don’t have much of a feel for this kind of ruthless focus.

Yesterday I began making arragnements for my ridea-along patrols for the 2015 firearms deer season. The plan is to be in DNR trucks Nov 14 through 24, then a quick drive home for Turkey day and two more patrol days to finish of the season in southern Michigan. Will of course, blog about it when all is said and done and I have gotten some sleep and wits back.

This truck thing is valuable time spent valuably, which is to say not in dutiful  idle chatter with chums and loved ones, but rather, living close to the source of what I write about, living with them, like them and suffering their successes and failures as if they were mine, which they are. I think I’ve been blessed by a USAF brat-upbringing, which is to say, learning to make friends quickly and accept losing them just as quickly, knowing that even if ten or 20 years passes, the feelings and memories remain secure and solid so that when you do see each other again, it’s all right there, as immediate as ever. I had this from the USAF as a kid, from my teammates at MSU and from my time serving in the USAF, not to mention my life in the corporate lanes. Most folks never experience such transience and find it hard to understand and accept. I get that.

Most people want to fee relationships like pets or hothouse plants. Not me, nor Lonnie, who values time similarly, but often goes further toward nurturing others than I do.

I also don’t spend much time with other writers and though I am a fairly effective networker with various law enforcement agencies and personnel, I tend to be poor with my own scribble-crowd. I don’t belong to any writer groups (formal or informal). I submit almost nothing for publication except through my agent. I have no contact with MFA universe. I do not teach or tutor. I do not read manuscripts except in the most extraordinary circumstances. I seldom address classes at any level. I participate in no professional organizations. I don’t court reviewers, though a couple are now friends. I don’t attend writing confabs or other gatherings. I live pretty much in my own world where the main goal is writing and nurturing experience  to push the writing and thinking that goes with it forward.

I also don’t feel competition with other writers. In my book, the more the merrier and I know deep down audiences will reward those who can deliver. I figure the bigger the base of the pyramid that produces writers and writing, the more that will advance to the upper levels and that benefits all of us.

Time is too damn valuable to waste. I once read that Nelson Algren told an interviewer that he tried to “put himself in the position to hear people talk he wanted to hear talk.” Makes perfect sense to me. Think DNR patrols and all that goes with that.

Now with 30 years of being published I have a few notions or guidelines I try to keep in mind. They are not universal, though some are surely shared.

  • –Don’t think about sales or movies or softcover iterations or large print or any of that crap. Let your agent take care of the commercial ship. Your job is production and quality control.
  • –Have your own time and place to work and be ruthless in carving out and protecting your time. Don’t tolerate distractions. Most people who know you cannot conceive that writing is actually hard, demanding work. You have to look out for yourself.
  • –Write what’s in you and what interests you. Do not try to emulate others, nor shadow what others are doing. Be you. The good news is that you get to define you!
  • –For a novel, stay at it until the first complete draft is done. Then start revising and revising, and revising.
  • –Be hard on your own work.
  • –Read more than one book at a time and write more than one book at a time. Never have your airport empty after you’ve launched your latest. Have another cockpit to slide into.
  • –Work every day and remember: reading IS writing too.
  • –If you get stuck in mud, do something else.
  • –Answer your fans personally, no exceptions unless you get too big, and then find a way to get close in to the answering. This contact is important.
  • –Speak only to groups for pay, or for some other really compelling reason. If you accept a speaking engagement, have the courtesy to put your words on paper and leave a copy for later use of your hosts. The spoken word has no endurance. This whole thing of public appearance is a wart for most writers. I think of the great Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, who insists, “Once a book is published, there’s no longer a need for the author.” Nobody knows her or even if she is a her. She writes, she published, she remains invisible. If you like the book, you like the book. You do not like the book because you think you like her.
  • People who pass your books to friends and relatives truly believe they are helping you. They aren’t, but don’t tell them the facts unless a moment presents itself. This does happen, not often, but it does.
  • –Reputation is a wary thing, hard to measure and something that grows as slow as a tortoise, in bits over decades. One book and months don’t mean anything for most writers. It’s the cumulative thing that matters. People confuse respect and reputation. They are not the same, but both largely accrue over time
  • –“I could write a book,” or “people say I ought to write a book, or people think I have a pretty good book in me. “ Okay, fine. Too many people want to be known as writers or artists, not actually do the work required. Most of the people who say this can’t or won’t follow through and its not your job to coach them.
  • –If you do a hundred or two hundred readings and Q&A sessions you are unlikely to get more than 2 or 3 unexpected questions. People always ask the same things, and one of the things they rarely ask, but always want to know is how much money does a writer make. None of your business is my response, but far less than you may think, especially on a per hour basis.
  • –You can’t worry about what mom, dad, Uncle Scuz, or your brother or  sisters will think when you write. The words are not technically yours. They belong to your characters. Most starting writers have a hard time with  taking this plunge. If you are worrying about what mom thinks you are self-censoring for reasons that have nothing to do with the story you are writing
  • –Bringing a book to life takes years. If you need instant gratification, take up video games, not writin
  • –To write novels, you have to temporarily become other people, outside yourself. This takes a lot of practice, but finding that voice is critical.
  • –Life is largely unplanned for most and violence can be both comical and gruesome. This is reality. There is a huge difference in focus between Big Book Lit and most other fiction writing. I think the diff is mostly smoke, but that’s my opinion. There are great writers writing stuff with no boosting acclaim. That doesn’t make the product less valuable.. There always will be great writers operating under critical radar.
  • –Fiction embellishes, bends, exaggerates, and though it may read like reality, it remains only fiction. Journalism should be reporting of what is, without embellishment and absent the voice and presence of the writer. Even the most creative journalism is not fiction. (It better not be.).
  • –Though I have no love for golf I tend to think that writing books is somewhat similar: There is the long game of driving (practice and persistence), a short irons game (imagination) and putting on the green (art and craft to fine finish).

 

I need lunch and a nap. Naps are about writing? Damn betcha but that’s for another time.  Over.

Showy Showy Days and Then Snowy Snowy Days

For all Yoopers and Yooper lovers who can’t make it to the Yoop for leaf-peeping. 80 degrees yesterday, Snow forecast for friday night, saturday morning. Sheesh. Breaking photos into three posts. Enjoy. Over.

Sally and Randy Clarke in the Clarkemobile Pilot House
Sally and Randy Clarke in the Clarkemobile Pilot House
Reflections Can be telling
Reflections Can be telling

 

Passing Mandan.
Passing Mandan.
The spine to Lake Medora
The spine to Lake Medora
Medora River at the outlet
Medora River at the outlet
Lake Medora
Lake Medora
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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Lindy.
Lindy.
The walls on Brockway Mountain
The walls on Brockway Mountain
Translation: This curvy road and colors will make you dizzy.
Translation: This curvy road and colors will make you dizzy.
The new ride, still being broken in.A
The new ride, still being broken in.A
Copper Harbor, the end of Hunter's Point and surf crashing healthily.
Copper Harbor, the end of Hunter’s Point and surf crashing healthily.
Poseur
Poseur
Peering off the heights.
Peering off the heights.
300 feet to the floor.
300 feet to the floor.
Looking down from Brockiway Mountain
Looking down from Brockiway Mountain
Hanging on.
Hanging on.
Lake Superior. On a good day you can see Isle Royale to the North. This is looking southwest.
Lake Superior. On a good day you can see Isle Royale to the North. This is looking southwest.
whole different ecosystem atop Brockway.
whole different ecosystem atop Brockway.
Rosehips on the mountain.
Rosehips on the mountain.