We’ve passed the Ides of January, which this year also fell on Friday, ergo a concern for all those afflicted with paraskevidekatriaphobia (from ????????? Paraskevi, Greek for Friday) or friggatriskaidekaphobia (after Frigg, the Norse goddess after whom Friday is named in English).
This is in some ways and in some years my favorite time, largely because we are currently without snow on the ground (no doubt a temporary condition) but every day of snow escaped is escaped and put behind us, a good place for it to be.
My Januaries, Februaries, and Marches, tend to be loaded with work of choice with little socializing or other time-wasting events. This is the time of year to see the lay of the land (literally) and likewise to have a good long look at the lay of one’s own internal turf.
Best of all, the hard-winter months are a fine time for serious reading and thinking. I read every day all year long, some days all day long, and I relish the time with the ideas, notions, and words of others. Much of what I read, I come to via serendipity, which is a nice path for discovery. As a regular reader of the London Review of Books I became been familiar with Alan Bennett, who’s seasonal diary features used to show up around the holidays or new year. And some years ago I saw a picture called “The Madness of King George,” which I found entertaining and interesting. Turns out Mr. Bennett was screenwriter of that movie. Then I found Writing Home (1994) and Untold Stories (2005) and dug in. A.B is what I would call a clear writer, with an eye for detail and humor, a man who spends an inordinate amount of time plumbing his own psyche and history. Some of the two works cited above contain myriad material which is full of potential ideas for other scribblers.
For example, in a small funk after turning down an honorary degree at Oxford, Bennett wonders if he has “slightly made a fool of myself.” And he wonders “whether after more momentous refusals martyrs ever went to their deaths not in the strong confidence of virtue, but just feeling that they had somehow muffed it.”
This seems to me a marvelous premise for a short story, a form that A.B. does not seem to be much interested in except as practiced by Kafka. But it’s potentially a great idea for me and has gone into my short story idea book with a simple line or two about the basic plot. I never develop a short story beyond one or two sentences until I sit down to actually write the first draft and then I find out if there is adequate substance to make something happen. Obviously the short descriptions must bubble somewhere in my subconscious because almost always when I sit to write they come flapping right up like eager pats begging to be bagged with the trusty old Brazilian single-shot .20 gauge.
Most short stories take me one to three days to write, not including typing. I write every draft longhand, shortstory or novel, no diff. I approach each short story with no notion of length and “let (as my editor and late pal Joe Fox once advised) the story have what it needs, and worry about editing later.” I enjoy writing short fiction, and reading some of it but there is so much out there now that is strange and indecipherable(okay, there undoubtedly is an age or generation gap) that it’s difficult to find original voices.
In one of his entries, A.B. opines it may be a good thing God has no name, otherwise in this increasingly informalizing fragmenting de-globalizing world (let’s call it feckless antidignifarianism, my term) he might very well be tagged Dave. This made me smile and brought forth the voice of Hal the Computer from 2001 A Space Odyssey, with Hal calling in his (it’s) dulcet tones to Dave the astronaut. No doubt someone has massaged this idea before but that should never be a barrier to one’s own efforts because every writer, like every human is unique and finally all that matters is whether one can make the idea work, or not. The only test is on paper and all chat-talk and mind-wandering is meaningless. And yes, yes this too has gone into the idea book. (Remember, there are only two plots: someone goes on a trip; a stranger comes to town.)
Writing is about doing the work, not yakking and theorizing about doing the work.
Recently being on my butt with pneumonia I found it impossible to get any real work done and instead contented myself with inventories and end-of-year, start-of-year chores and tasks. One of these involved updating my inventory of short stories where I found I had 52 stories written, either by hand or partially typed, and another 35 with the two-line plots sitting there calling my name.
As my lungs cleared, I dove into the short stories, attempting to get them all typed and clean (“fair copy” to Shakespeare and his lot) so I can revise the dickens out of them (if needed; sometimes there’s no revising needed at all).
AB writes somewhere, “Its like cutting a play, the zeal and pleasure of finding a cut far exceeding the joy of writing the stuff in the first place.” All writers will “get this,” even me, though in the revising world of putter-inners and taker-outers, I far more of a putter-inner than the other. Still, I can cold-bloodedly kill 100-200 pages of text writeen over months, without a second thought.
There are several clusters of stories, some may comprise a start on a third collection of Woods Cop Stories. The first two published collections were called, Hard Ground (2013) and Harder Ground (2015), each of these containing 27-29 original stories. Right now I have 20 new stories done, but for a variety of reasons, I’m not ready to put them into a collection quite yet.
There also seems to be a cluster of stories about Yoopers and their lives, a strange collection of tales in a place where white dirt buries most life for 7-8 months a year. This is where most of my concentration is at the moment, and where I expect it will remain, no title in mind yet, though I favor the title of one of the stories in the collection for the entire collection, “Hearts of Wolves.”
And there are other stories, difficult to categorize, like one I call “Bringing Home Sheep,” about a Vietnam veteran and an Australian WW2 vet who go to Camp Pendleton looking for company employees who escaped the fall of Vietnam and have been brought here so they can restart their lives.
Other outside a category stories include: “Standardized Testing,” about a man who worked for H.Ross Perot for 20 years, been a valued, well paid employee. On Friday he gets the highest performance rating in his department. Come, Monday the company gets rid of the whole department and he is forced to find other work, in this case with a Texas company that scores standardized student tests used to qualify students for university, scholarships, etc.
There is also a story called “An Old Gray Packard,” about a black man who serves as a hangman for the Klan, just as his father did.
And the story “Last Man Out,” of a tailgunnerm whose B-24 Liberator has an engine fire near the Porcupine Mountains and the ten-man crew is forced to bail out where the snowfall is more than 300 inches. It is late April, a long month from real spring even starting but bears are already out of their dens this year. He lands in a tree and therein begins the tale.
And there is “St. Certain’s F.C.,” the story of Yooper gravediggers.
“The Pool Hall Ain’t Open Weekends,” isset in Mississippi in the 50s or 60s.
Finally there is a short story taken from a chapter of the unpublished novel Brown Ball. It is called “El Cabra,” which means the goat. The story begins with the line, “He is called the Goat for how he smells.”
Where does all this come from? Reading others and seeing possibilities where others might not have seen them.
Most short story writers, especially early in their careers are not lucky enough to have their material in collections of their own. Some do end up in anthologies, which is good, but most get published one little magazine at a time until they build up a sufficient following that a publisher usually a university publisher decides to commit to a collection. Short stories and essays are notorious poor sellers in commercial markets. The collection then, is a holy grail, and like all holy grails, damn hard to get to. There seems to be one other route to a collection, this for someone who had just died or is about to and who has been a long-time slogger, much admired, or even a lion, in which case publishers seem to be drawn to collections by writers in these categories.
The most difficult thing to explain to non-writers is the importance of time to writing. It has to be in chunks, four to 8 hours or more at a dime, multiple days on end, the sort of immersion in which you become the work and the work becomes you and you hardly notice when you have eaten, or what, or care. These periods it is critical to have a supportive spouse who understands this whole immersion thing (which some non-artists) mistake for drowning or wandering.
I’ve just regretfully turned down an invite to speak at Beaulah where I have a large contingent of fans, but most of these speaking gigs come up in summer when we are Baraga County and 8-10 hour drives back below the bridge. I am still not convinced of the value of writers yakking at readers, though these affairs are always nice with multitudes of fine folks. Last year I turned down a dozen offers during the summer season. I never do the same presentation twice, which means it takes me 4-5 days to prep a new one, then two days of travel, including an overnight, which now puts each commitment at a week, roughly and f or a dozen of them, we are talking about 12 weeks out of an already too damn- short-summer during which I chase brook trout and do site-scouting for new stories. Add to this most libraries don’t have budge to pay fees and the whole thing, while nice for egos, is practically a waste of time for the writer. Few authors have publishers who underwrite such activities and thus the fees are important for writers who actually make a living off their wits and writing. I always laugh when I get a note saying, “We are a small library with a small budget.” I always reply “And I am a small writer with an even smaller budget.” In summer I’m more likely to visit places in the UP or northern Wisconsin, but I am wont to drive below the bridge until I have to in November.
But this is January, the reading and writing are good, and I tend to put all else out of my mind. I did manage to get in a splurge of drawing painting over the month of December, the 24th canvas now perched and roughed in on my easel. I hope to get to that this week.
For the record, I’m awake every morning at 4 and working until 1en or noon, then a short nap and up for lunch, a couple of hours of reading, and back to writing or painting into late afternoon or early evening. Evenings I read until 11 or so, then to bed. I have lived most of my life on 5 hours or so of sleep with the occasional sleep-in. Not every author works this way, nor should they, but every one of them is beset by eaters of time. One of my author friends has taken a job teaching in in another state this winter so they can find time to write uninterrupted every day. If here, they would be deluged by the professional writing community, neighbors, friends and family, who have no understanding of the demands on the author’s time. I always advise young writers or those just starting out to be selfish with your time. If not, someone else will use it and nothing will get done.
Enough blather. Time to go find breakfast and a Sunday New York Times. Have a fine week. Over