PORTAGE: A FAR-FAR TREK FROM DA YOOP , Sunday, November 6, 2016 — Having spent 186 days with wolves, moose, and bears as our neighbors, we have returned Below The Bridge (BTB). I decided that this fall and winter I should make an effort to slide into the fringe of the so-called local writing community. Every article I read in writerly magazines seems to insist that every writer, (especially news ones), have an obligation to show such social responsibility. Such articles seem to suggest that his is critical to craft development and to success over the long haul. Okay, I’ll make a few sorties and see what happens.
As a theory this seems to make sense. But the reality seems a bit different. (In practice the theory is different.)
Should say here that when I was in the suit-world of corporate life (30 years) I urged my people to get their brains out to all sorts of outside seminars etc; my logic was that if you harvest only one idea a day, the money your time are well worth it. I have always believed this to be true and thus, one day after I had an early morning blood draw and Jambe Longues and I had lunch with her mom, two sisters and her mom’s boyfriend, we gobbled dinner and headed for a local bookstore where two authors were to appear in a sort of dual discussion of writing craft, or so promotion posters seemed to say. Both authors were featured, but one seemed “more featured” than the other. The event started late, as such things often do and as it plodded forward, both men offered pearls of wisdom and craft advice that sometimes seemed more like grit in oysters than precious stones. Where there were pearls, they were sometimes overcooked in gobbledygook.
The audience was perhaps 20 souls, some old, some middle aged, and some students of one of the speakers, and store employees.
Confession: There are times when I like to hear myself talk. Too much. This is a painful piece of self-awareness, but even when committing such sins, I try to do my best to make what I am saying, compelling, interesting, and above all, clear.
This caveat aside, I will now share some of my observations from that singular night.
1. One author read a short story in a voice I would call singysongy-choptalk-extremothespianthic tones, in other words, redolent of a poet’s word-singing, when the story read seemed a bridge too far from poetry.
2. The jargon batted bunted about that night was pure vox magisterium (professorial voice), little of which seemed to me to have much craft meaning to practicing, much less wannabe, writers.
3. Here’s some of the banter, as close to quoting and context as I can make it from my notes: “How does that one (a short story the author just read) start out for you? It’s a formal shape, yes?” (Formal to me means a beginning, a middle and an end.)
4. More palaver: “It’s a degree story. I don’t write linearly. I overwrite (often 4x what I need) and then look for resonances between parts” (“Parts” at one point was defined as “a bunch of stuff.”) The author continued: “I grew up reading a lot of plotty stuff.” (His tone here is something between disgust and humor, “plotty apparently being “potty” and far beneath him.) “Every story has a clock, which gives structure to individual sections.” (My impression was that the author writes and writes and writes and somehow hopes a story emerges from what he writes. He said several times he doesn’t plan. Neither do I but I have either a starting point or ending point in mind, and most of the ribs of a story’s skeleton in mind before I put the pen to paper. There are of course many ways to write and no one right way, though this author’s approach seems pretty wasteful to an old codger. Still I do understand getting into the flow of thinking and characters and seeing where it leads. I just like to levy a bit more control than my colleague does.
5. Declared one of the authors, “I look for endings that open rather than close. I want to satisfy the reader, but open new questions.” Remarks the other author, “To create bloomings of multiplicity. You have a prose-poet’s sensitivity, but the story has a definite ending. How do you know when it’s done? ( Say what? Bloomings of multiplicity? I feel like I am floating in virtual reality. Seriously, are students supposed to understand this sort of languagey-language?)
6. Quote: “The world is always feeling mysterious. Writing reduces to sentences and acoustics.”
7. One author talked briefly about the late James Salter (never particularly successful commercially, but often described as a writer’s writer. You may remember a film made from one of his 1956 book, The Hunters. It was set in Korea among naval aviators.) The author that night talked about a device Salter used a sort of dualistic thing, where he would state a fact and then after a semi-colon, immediately describe how the fact “feels.” The speaker said this opened concretions, which may well be trued, but having read everything Salter ever wrote, the speaker’s point landed as a face plant. By the way, Salter is a great writer. Look him up and give him a gander. He has quite a range of subject matter and he writes tightly, using as few words as possible.
8. Someone mentioned useful ambiguity, which was sort of described as a way to “expand multiple true ways to move through stories. People can believe contradictory things simultaneously.” The point he was making, I think, was that a story might be able to operate on such a dualistic level. Could be. Hemingway always insisted he wanted the reader to first and foremost get all of the story and then if he took a way more than that, even better. Now that’s useful ambiguity. As specific and concrete as Hem liked to think he was, he also loved to play the mystic as well. (Now that swallowing a bullet is mystical.)
9. Some jargon escaped me, such as repeated references to writing in “gray space.” I assume this means writing in a world that is inside one’s head and not of or in this world we see, hear, and smell, except incidentally or coincidentally.
10. Here’s a quote that stood out: “Looking for the pith of what matters to people.” Pith means essence, which seems a far better word choice in my gray space.
11. One author told us he wants to “de-familiarize the familiar in order to see it anew.” This made some sense but then he talked about themes of differences, exclusion, violence, and the “not exactly real.”The probably featured author said he uses “phraseal nouns to remove reader prejudices.” Okay admission here. The term phraseal noun landed like a bird smacking the sliding glass door: Plop on the deck. Being old fashioned I looked it up, not in a dictionary, but on the Internet and here’s what I found: Phraseal noun. An extension of the concept of phrasal verb is that of phrasal noun, where a verb+particle complex is nominalized. The particles may come before or after the verb. standby: We are keeping the old equipment on standby, in case of emergency. back-up: Neil can provide technical backup if you need it.” My sense of this is that the author’s claim seems solid — in his mind, but I would have to read his actual work to decide if what he’s claiming works. On first blush, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I’m not sure writers can remove their own prejudices much less those of their readers. Another quote: “I attempt to do something different in that space.” (I assume he means the space both in his mind and on the paper where the story unfolds.)More quotes: “A story that unpacks what’s gone before.” Unpacks seems to be a favored term in the writerly world, and seems to me very jargony. It’s like talking to a fly angler who is also a professional entomologist: One gets mucho losto in a hurry-o
One of the authors told us he engages in “World building.” (I understand this. Every fiction writer (probably nonfiction too) creates the world in which the story takes place and in which the characters must exist and perform. It is not the real world, though it may purport to be.) The author continued: “You have to ruthlessly follow your idea to unpack it. (That blasted term again.). All this seems to mean is that you have to stay true to the rules of the world you have created in order to tell (unpack?) the story.
The writer went on to say that in order to create this new world he makes a sort of what-if determination and then decides that whatever that is, is possible in his evolving world, he then asks if A is possible, what else is possible and ad infinitum to the extent he needs to manufacture the new world.
And finally this quote one author to the other, “I deeply, deeply love that story.”
Sheesh, and wow, and holy bovine: Reading writers’ work is often a helluva lot easier than listening to them. Sort of it takes one to know one recognition. I can understand some of this stuff being appropriate to a classroom of hopefuls, but to the general reading public, not so much.
More from this quarter as the fall progresses. (As always, excuse my typing.) Over.
I know, I know, few entries on the blog, but I just finished the first draft of A SPORTING OF SKELETONS, the 11th Woods Cop mystery and I’ve been reading far deep on other projects. Excuse variations is typefaces, spelling gliches, etc, but there ought to be something somewhere on the list for everyone. And lots more to plow through before year’s end.
1) A.N.Wilson. The Elizabethans. (2011) [NF]
2) Penelope Lively. Dancing Fish and Ammonites. (2013) [NF]
3) Charlie Lovett. The Bookman’s Tale. (2013) [FICT]
4) John Colville. The Fringes of Power. 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939-1955. (1985) [NF]
5) Charles Clement Walker. John Heminge and Henry Condell Friends and Fello-Actors of Shakespeare and What the World Owes. (1896/2015) [NF]
6) Stephen E. Ambrose. The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II. (1998) [NF]
7) Stephen E. Ambrose. The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany. (2001) [NF]
8) Stephen E. Ambrose. Citizen Soldiers; The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany; June 7,1944- May 7, 1945. (1997) [NF]
9) Raymond Coppinger and Mark Feinstein. How Dogs Work. (2015) [NF]
10) Ralph Steadman. A Triography: The Balletic Art of Gavin Twinge. (2002)
11) Randolph S.Churchill. Winston S. Churchill, Youth,1874-1900. (1966) [NF
12) Kenneth Tynan. He That Plays The King: A View of the Theatre.(1950) [NF]
13) Kenneth Tynan. The Sound of Two Hands Clapping. (1975) [NF]
36) Maria Konnikova. The Confidence Game. Why We Fall For It…Every Time. (2016) [NF]
37) Garry Wills. Making Make-Believe Real; Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time. (2014) [NF]
38) Reza Aslan. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. (2014) [NF]
39) Elizabeth Kolbert. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. (2014) [NF
40) Machu Kaku. The Future of the Mind; The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind. (2014) [NF]
41) William Shakespeare. Henry IV, Part Two. [DRAMA]
42) E. Phillips Oppenheim. The Pool of Memories. (1941) [NF]
43) Page Stegner, Ed. The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner. (2007) [NF]
44) David Hajdu. The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. (2008) [NF]
45) Bob Hicok. Elegy Owed. (2013) [POETRY]
46) Jane Hirshfield. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Essays by Jane Hirshfield. (1998) [NF-Essays]
47) J. Payne Collier & Thomas Heywood. The Dramatic Works Of Thomas Heywood With A Life of the Poet, And Remarks On His Writings, Vol 1: The First And Second Parts Of The Fair Maid Of The West: Or, A Girl Worth Gold. Two Comedies. (1850) [NF & Drama]
48) Wallace Stevens. The Necessary Angel; Essays on Reality and Imagination. (1942) [NF]
49) Lawrence Durrell. Bitter Lemons (Of Cyprus). (1957) [NF]
50) John McIntyre, Ed. Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps. (2010) [NF]
51) George Steiner. Language & Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman. (1970) [NF Essays]
52) Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Castle To Castle. (1968)
53) Joseph O’Brien, Ed. Eyes That Pour Forth and Other Stories. (2014) [SS]
54) Willie Morris. James Jones;A Friendship. (1978) [NF]
55) Tom Stanton. Terror in the City of Champions;Murder, Baseball, And The Secret Society That Shocked Depression-Era Detroit. Lyons Press,. (2016) [NF]
56) Wallace Stegner. On Teaching and Writing Fiction. (2002) [NF
57) Michael Delp. Lying in the River’s Dark Bed: The Confluence of The Deadman and the Mad Angler. (2016) [Poetry]
58) E.M. Forster. Aspects of the Novel. (1927) [NF]
59) David Fraser. Wars and Shadows: Memoirs of General Sir David Fraser. (2002) [NF]
60) James Wood. The Nearest Thing To Life. (2015) [NF]
61) David Foster Wallace. Consider The Lobster And Other Essays. (2007) [NF]
62) George Orwell. A Collection of Essays. (1981) [NF]
157) Bob & Brian Tovey. The Last English Poachers. (2015) [NF]
158) Alexander G. Ruthven. Naturalist in Two Worlds: Random Recollections of a University President. (1963) [NF]
159) George A. Corrigan. L.G. Sorden, Ed. Calked Boots and Cant Hooks.(1976) [NF]
160) Heino A. “Hap” Puotinen. Bull Fight in the Sauna, and Other Finnish Dialect Verses. (PUB DATE UNKNOWN] [POETRY]
161) Daniel Putnam. A History of Michigan State Normal School (Now Normal College) 1849-1899 (1899) [NF]
162) Thomas Kenny. The Life and Genius of Shakespeare. (1864) [NF]
163) Edward Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume II (395 AD – 1185 AD) ( 1781) [NF]
164) Max Hastings, Ed. The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes. (1985) [NF]
165) Bob Linsenmann and Steve Nevala. Michigan Trout Streams: A Fly-Angler’s Guide. (1993) [NF]
166) Jon L. Saari. Black Ties and Miner’s Boots: Inventing Finnish-American Philanthropy: A History of the Finlandia Foundation National, 1953-2003 (2003) [NF]
167) Christine Johnson et al, Eds. Listen to Me: An Anthology of Upper Peninsula High School Writing. (1976) [FICT & POETRY]
168) Lou Ellyn Helman & Maria Vezzetti Matson. Gelsomina’s Story of Caesar Lucchesti: A True Tale of Italian Immigrants. (2011) [NF]
169) Myrtle Barrette. View From My Window. (PUB DATE UNKN) [ESSAYS, NEWSPAPER COLUMNS]
170) Frank R. Bartol. A Season of Benign Neglect and Other Essays. (1992) [Essays]
171) Russell M. Magnaghi, Compiler. A Sense of Time:The Encyclopedia of Northern Michigan University. (1999) [NF]
172) Anton Chekov. The Stories of Anton Chekov. (1932) [SS]
173) James Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man. (1916/1944) [FICT]
174) Emma Smith. Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of An Iconic Book. (2016) [NF]
175) Wyndham Lewis, Seamus Cooney Ed. Men Without Art. (1934/1964/1991) [NF]
176) Wyndham Lewis, Paul Edwards Ed. Wyndham Lewis: Creatures of Habit and Creatures of Change: Essasy on Art, Literature, and Society, 1914-1956. (1989) [Essays]
177) Jane Piirto. A Location in the Upper Peninsula. (1994) [Essays,Poetry,SS]
178) Christopher Bram. The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction and Nonfiction. (2016) [NF]
179) Jane Hirschfield. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry: Essays by Jane Hirschfield. (1998) [ESSAYS]
180) Montagu. The Anatomy of Swearing. (1967) [NF]
181) Rick Yancey. The 5th Wave (2013) [FICT]
182) Cyril Connolly. The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Polinures. (1940/1981) [ESSAYS]
183) Aldous Huxley. Chrome Yellow. (UNK) [FICT]
184) Lady Montagu. Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M-Y W-Y M-R- Written During her Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa to Persons of Distinction, Men of Letters, Etc in Different Parts of Europe. (1724) [NF]
185) Ben H. Winters. Underground Airlines. (2016) [FICT]
186) Wyndham Lewis; Seamus Cooney, Ed. Men Without Art (1934/1987) [ESSAYS]
187) George Beaton. Jack Robinson (1936) [FICT]
188) J. Todd Scott. The Far Empty. (2016) [FICT]
189) Francis Bacon. The Works of Francis Bacon: The Wisdom of the Ancients and Other Essays. (1932) [ESSAYS]
190) Honore de Balzac. The Works of Honore de Balzac: Novelettes. (1926) [FICT]
191) Gustave Flaubert. The Works of Gustave Flaubert: One Volume Edition. (1904) [FICT]
MTU FORD CAMPUS, ALBERTA VILLAGE, BARAGASTAN– Sunday June 6, 2016: I am reading essays from Living With Shakespeare (Viking, 2013). In it, David Farr quotes in “The Sea Change,” lines for the character Antipholus of Syracuse (from The Comedy of Errors):
I to the world am a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drip
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth
Unseen, inquisitive – confounds himself.
I read this over coffee as the rain pounds down. Moments ago an obviously pregnant doe paddled slowly along the lip of the shallow gully beside the house. Perhaps she slept in the long grass last night, hoping wind would keep the bugs off her, or perhaps she is looking for a suitable place to drop a scentless fawn. My attention is not on the animal. Instead I am thinking raindrops fall alone to disappear into the ground or in some cases to find other drops from which they form or swell existing liquid creatures which can wreak havoc until the creature’s natural life is spent (think of Houston recently, or Paris).
Farr is a playwright, screenwriter and a director at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He writes of the words of Antipholus, “This wistfully fluid elasticity of self is a great challenge for an actor. To contain at one moment oceans of passion, at the next to feel as tiny as a single drop, to sense the hugeness of fate and destiny to be both agent and nothingness, this is at the heart the challenge of Shakespearean comic acting.” He concludes, “No one in Shakespearean comedy knows who the hell they are. All are in a constant state of becoming. And the performers need this liquid lightness, their unknowability, this strange magic.”
Fiction writers, (my brothers and sisters of the scribbling craft), like directors, share this state of searching and becoming in all the characters we noodle into life, but whereas action and change must be quite rapid within the confines of a play. The playwright can jump forward or backwards a hundred years between scenes but ultimately is limited to about two hours to get done what needs to get done.
Fiction is more forgiving and more life-like, especially in a series where the author can long-game the table and expose (reveal?) character change gradually, over three or four books of a hundred thousand words each. In a series you write each book in the context of that book’s theme/subject, but with a critical eye on the span of life and change for recurring characters. Seldom do characters act or change as authors expect at the beginning of the series and this is in great part because life itself brings change to the author as the series begins to take form.
It makes one wonder – if one accepts we are “made in God’s image,” – if God (whatever name you prefer) feels change as he/she/it looks at how the characters God created are changing or have changed, or how much he/she/it wished they had changed. I have no answers here, only questions.
Human beings are actors in life’s drama. We all change, some of us consciously, some unconsciously, some of us dramatically and some of us in small measures. But all of us create narratives of ourselves that are most often not visible to our fellow actors, and which may or may not coincide with the facts we use in that narrative. This is why autobiography is sometimes considered so much fiction – under another name – and often not reality as it was, but as it is wished for – an exercise in wishful thinking.
Life is messy, chaotic, unpredictable and cruel (though chance has no emotion; it is only a cold-blooded extension of mathy concepts). A grizzly kills a human to protect territory or for food and without emotion as we know it. The victim is no more than a messy result of chance and crappy location.
Shakespeare’s characters are us. They may dress and talk differently, but their inner lives are ours and one of the things that made Shakespeare great was that he was the first writer to truly express the minutae of the inner life of the characters he created.As his career went on his characters became more and more complex and we got to see and feel more and more of their heretofore secret inner lives.
We writers of today, all of us, are products of all who went before us and all of us are inheritors of Shakespeare’s way of doing things with his pen.
Consider this line from a short story I call “Out Here Your Name is Different.” In Shakespeare (often women, sometimes men) change their names for various purposes (ironically such changes happen in pastoral settings), often in a forest, which seems to me a symbol for outside the mainstream. My mind took this nugget of thought and began to assert mull-mode and I found myself thinking of my air force days and how we gave nicknames to each other, and how these names often replaced the names we used back in our home-base lives.
These nicknames existed only out there where they are both relevant and earned. I recall, for example, Hump, Zorro, Goose, Bear, Baby Huey, Mighty Mouse, and while I can remember these men I can hardly remember the real names of most others. It’s like we go into an artificial world and recreate something for only in that world, then shed it like a stinky uniform when we’re finished with it.
As I was thinking these thoughts a character came to me—not visually, just a voice, which is often how my characters come to me – and I hear this male voice telling someone, “Your name from out there means shit out here till you have a name of here for here. And when or if you finally leave this shit place here, for there, you’re here-name stays here because here-names won’t do out where there-names become their own here-names, copy?”
The short story will grow from this nugget of voice. Sometime over the summer, I’ll sit down one morning and let the voice carry on and reveal the story behind it. Now that I have the voice written down, I don’t worry about losing it. One reading later will put me right back into whatever it is going to become. Got two short story nuggets this morning, both from the Shakespeare essays.
Easy-peasy. This is not a job, it’s a way of life.
I read once that at the time of Shakespeare the English nation was yet struggling to emerge from barbarity. Tomorrow I’ll mosey down to the courthouse in Crystal Falls to a hearing for a female murderer, who may or may not be a serial killer. Not sure yet what will come of my attention, a book alone or something for the series, but we shall see. Here we are 400 years after Shakespeare, yet struggling to emerge from barbarity.
38.Maria Konnikova. The Confidence Game. Why We Fall For It…Every Time. (2016) [NF]
39.Garry Wills. Making Make-Believe Real; Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time. (2014) [NF]
40.Reza Aslan. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. (2014) [NF]
41.Elizabeth Kolbert. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. (2014) [NF
42.Machu Kaku. The Future of the Mind; The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind. (2014) [NF]
43.William Shakespeare. Henry IV, Part Two. [PLAY)
44.Phillips Oppenheim. The Pool of Memories. (1941) [NF]
45.Page Stegner, Ed. The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner. (2007) [NF]
46.David Hajdu. The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. (2008) [NF]
47.Bob Hicok. Elegy Owed. (2013) [P]
48.Jane Hirshfield. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Essays by Jane Hirshfield. (1998) [NF-Essays]
49.Payne Collier & Thomas Heywood. The Dramatic Works Of Thomas Heywood With A Life of the Poet, And Remarks On His Writings, Vol 1: The First And Second Parts Of The Fair Maid Of The West: Or, A Girl Worth Gold. Two Comedies. (1850) [NF & Drama]
50.Wallace Stevens. The Necessary Angel; Essays on Reality and Imagination. (1942) [NF]
Most of the time we seem to be reading forward, always consuming new books and pieces, but sometimes it’s rewarding to go back and re-read something, especially something that had an impact on your, or which you remember as having an impact.
Somewhere it’s written we can’t step in the same river twice, which means the place is dynamic and so are we and this makes each time unique. When I was sixteen or so and just moved to the Upper Peninsula I read Erich Maria Remarque’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. My choice from the base library, not something from the family or school. I was riveted because this was the time of John Wayne and Audie Murphy and World War II glory, war it all its Hollywood drum-beating.
Of world war I knew virtually nothing beyond some dates and barren facts. Then I read Remarque and was astounded at the sheer power and ugliness of soldiers trapped in what we would later refer to as “the shit.” Remarque was conscripted into the German army at age 18 and sent in to combat after minimal training. He was wounded five times, the last one putting him out of action and into the hospital for the rest of the war.
His writing is spare, almost like a newspaper report. Critics call it emotive and indeed it is that, but Remarque has the eye and ability for the perfect odd fact to drive home his scenes. Here’s s fine example of what I mean. This is in the aftermath of a particularly brutal bombardment by French artillery: “Two were so smashed that Tjaden remarks you could scrape them off the wall of the trench with a spoon and bury them in a mess-tin. Another has the lower part of his body and legs torn off. Dead, his chest leans against the side of the trench, his face is lemon-yellow, in his beard still burns a cigarette. It glows until it dies out on his lips. We put the dead in a large shell-hole. So far there are three layers, one on top of the other.”
The story is written in first person and oddly the narrator almost always relates what others are saying rather than letting them say it; this technique doesn’t get in the way once you get accustomed to it. It would be frowned upon in most modern writing classes.
Most of All Quiet stays solidly among the comrades in battle and between battles, but Remarque also sends his protagonist home on an extended leave and here we see the glowy ignorance of civilians rubbing against personal military reality. This sort of disconnect takes place during and after every war, including our most recent misadventures around the globe. Here’s what Remarque wrote: “I imagined leave would be different from this….It is I, of course, that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and to-day. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed because of it. I find I do not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world. Some of these people ask questions, some ask no questions, but one can see that they are quite confident they know all about it; they often say so with their air of comprehension, so there is no point discussing it. They make up a picture of it for themselves.”
Just like here, just like now and as we have a smaller and smaller percentage of combat vets in our population the distance of the public experience grows away from the realities.
On last example of Remarque’s detail. “The days are hot and the dead lie unburied. We cannot fetch them all in, if we did we should not know what to do with them. The shells will bury them. Many have their bodies swollen up like balloons. They hiss, belch, and make movements. The gases in them make noises…when the wind blows toward us it brings the smell of blood, which is heavy and sweet. This deathly exhalation from the shell holes seems to be a mixture of chloroform and putrefaction and fills us with nausea and retching.”
The books holds up very nicely upon rereading and I would recommend it to all who know little about World War I.
As an aside, the book was a best seller in Germany and in the U.S. and elsewhere and when Hitler came to power, Josef Goebbels banned and publicly burned the book and the move based on it were banned for Good Germans. By then Remarque was living in Switzerland. One of the main Nazi complaints was that Remarque changed his name from Remark to the family original of Remarque and that no “good German” would make such a change. The Nazis also claimed that Remarque had not served in WWI. His citizenship was revoked in 1938, and a year later he married his former wife to keep her from being repatriated to Germany and the two of them moved to the U.S. for the duration.
In 1943 Remarque’s sister was tried and found guilty of undermining morale because she had stated the war was lost. The court president declared, “Your brother is unfortunately beyond our reach – you however, will not escape us.” She was beheaded 16 Dec 43 and the cost of her arrest, prosecution, imprisonment and execution (495.80 RM) was billed to her sister Erna. Remarque was unaware of these events until after the war.
Remarque died in 1970 at the age of 72. All nine of his novels deal with the common soldier in military service ; all are worth your time.
Been awhile since I’ve blogged. We’re back in the U.P. now, but before gunning north I had a couple of books events, in Gaylord and in Adrian. Photos above this, and the text of the Adrian talk follows. Enjoy. Found bear sign and wolf scat this morning.
Thank you for inviting us and thank you for showing up because I come to you as an author who began 30 years ago as an international unknown and has soared over three decades to regionally obscure.
I love libraries. Any town without a library is a town without a soul or a heart, and little hope. At gatherings like this, I like to talk about aspects and angles of writing, which, writing, like fly fishing, being a life-time venture; both undertakings are long journeys during which one may accumulate a lot of knowledge and skills, but never fully master.
Most journeys, at least at the start, require a map to help one find the way. Thus, to ask for a map is to say, “Tell me a story.”
If you are of the G.P.S. and exclusively digital generation, it’s likely that you have little clue of the joys, mysteries, stories, and potential joy inherent in paper maps, which, like books, open mind-doors and enable us to economically and efficiently visit places we may not be able to get to on our own, physically or financially.
What is a book? At its most elemental, it’s a story, and it is also a map. Map = story; Story = map. See the connection?
Humans live on and by stories. We crave stories, make life decisions based on them, create dreams from them, and sometimes even plan our lives based on them. We use stories to help us compose the narrative of who we are. Much of the content of such self-stories is fiction, some of it intentional — and a lot of it the result of faulty memory.
As a once upon-a-time-navigator in the heat of the Cold War, I found our way around the world at 500 knots with minimal and marginal equipment, and today retain a particular affinity for paper charts and maps – as well as for stories. Let me add that we trained on the most minimal equipment imaginable (looking out the window, called map-reading, a periscopic sextant and a magnetic compass), Why such meager support? Because we did not want to be tied to the ground. The strategic assumption was that if the Cold War ever turned ugly hot we would not have anything left on the ground to support us. Therefore, we had to be able to exist and press forward alone, disconnected from all earthly contact until our missions were complete.
We had heat and light shield inserts for our windows so that we wouldn’t get blinded by nuclear flashes, and to minimize the amount of radiation seeping in as we passed through hot zones. This may seem a bit surreal and even fictitious to you, but it was our reality and the purpose of intense, continuous training to do our jobs and execute our mission in the event nuclear war became real.
Every time we flew, either for training or in combat support, I prepared a navigation plan of a route or path that led us to a destination — an outline of a story if you will, to go from A to X via Y and en route to accomplish all of our mission tasks, whatever those might be.
But, as someone once noted, Plans are obsolete as soon as the first shot is fired. Also true for writing fiction. You can have a good idea of where you want to go, but the characters and situations can sometimes assume a force of their own reality and push you in other directions.
This is no different than flying across the Atlantic and running into a towering wall of thunderstorms far over our heads (think 60,000 feet and upwards) – too high for us to fly over, and therefore requiring me to use the APN-59 radar to pick our way through all sorts of airborne violence, turn right, now turn left, HARD LEFT! More left! Roll out, Okay, back to the right, and so forth, until we finally popped out into the clear. Then and only then did I have time look back, and reconstruct what the hell I had done and where we had ended up. When you are a thousand miles from land, your determination of current position can be literally critical. True for writing a story as well.
As an aside, we did our utmost to avoid such meteorological monsters in peacetime missions, but if we were out over the Gulf of Tonkin and got jumped by a MiG which happened from time to time, I was expected to guide us quickly into the worst vaporous scheisse I could find, and fortunately I only had to do this a couple of times. If you have a MiG on your nose and the two of you are closing at 1,500 mph, there’s not a lot of time to figure out what the hell to do other than run for cover. We had no guns and no missiles, no defense whatsoever, just an aircraft filled with up to 80 thousand pounds of JP-4 fuel, which could make for a pretty spectacular airborne fireball.
Boompf! Not a good mission outcome.
During the ongoing political primaries there’s been a lot of blabber about killing “families of terrorists” and other innocents, and almost all the candidates insist the US. does not and did not and would not do such a heinous thing, which is to say we would never intentionally attack presumably innocent civilians. Such statements are abject baloney – ignorance on display. Do these people have no knowledge of history?
Neal Stephenson wrote in a 2011 essay called “Locked in,” that” The rockets of the 1950s and 1960s were so expensive and yet so inaccurate, that their only effective military use was lobbing bombs of inconceivably vast destructive power in the general direction of large urban areas.” Stephenson had it right: I was there and part of that machine and there was never a distinction made between family or foe, civilian or uniformed enemy.
Now, let’s me us remember a few names from World War II and add the two nouns, fire bomb and A-bomb: Now think Dresden, Cologne, Berlin, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. Then tell yourself America doesn’t kill wantonly. Circumstances dictate what we have to do. Always have, always will. But I digress. (Almost all novelists have this tendency, though some work hard to hide it.)
The late Wallace Stegner has likened every book to a voyage of discovery and it is implied then that would-be explorers may find nothing, or something. It’s a truism that nobody can teach the geography of the undiscovered. One must have the will to explore and understand some of the basic dos and don’ts of such voyaging.
In the end, the delight of discovery is a major pleasure of reading Stegner tells us that reading is, one of the best ways to light a fire in a creative mind.
Writers can experience some emotional jinking when characters take control of the story, and willfully start bullying the author, pushing this way, then that way, until finally the author can wrest back control and take a moment to wonder, “Where the hell am I? And what the hell is going on here?” Same as popping out of the clouds after avoiding storms, or enemy aircraft.
Writing and navigation both require tremendous focus, attention to detail, and continuous revision. The failure of one’s writing effort, however, is not as lethal as a failed flight over unknown territory. But some writers take failure too seriously, or take promotion to extremes. I have heard of one author, after having finished his first book, committed suicide to focus attention on his work. His plan worked: the book was widely adjudged by the critics to be not good. So it goes, This story is no doubt apocryphal
Just as I create artificial worlds in my fiction, when we operated over polar regions, I un-slaved our compasses (meaning I deliberately disconnected them from magnetic mode) and pointed them, not at the magnetic north pole, but at an arbitrary point in a vast sky and named that point grid north, thus creating a false yet real reference point. Based on this I then created a mission map with the new artificial grid and the result was an all-white expanse of white paper, some maps stretching out six or seven feet and badly folded. I never did master map-folding.
Planning done, we could head out over the polar ice caps in this false and artificial mode, hoping our compasses wouldn’t malfunction and by doing so, put us into Soviet Territory to be captured or euphemistically “splashed.” Flights of this nature almost always involved some involuntary and predictable sphincter-tightening.
We sometimes referred to these missions as excursions into Glubina, an obsolete Russian word meaning depth, a term that came eventually came to mean the deep geographic guts of a country, or a far-fly zone. Our job in peacetime was to skirt borders readying ourselves for the dark day when we might be going full bore and hair on fire into the Glubina.
As the crew’s only navigator I had to be able to create paths across real places, which we could all recognize, as well as create paths over largely unknown expanses, and back to safety, all done on the great featureless expanses of white paper that served as the mission chart. It was, I realize now, unexpectedly good preparation for becoming a story-teller.
Authors can be involved in similar situations. And stories can be a little bit like this– depending on what the writer is doing and how he or she is telling the story.
James Joyce, once said in a letter to poet Ezra Pound, “In Ulysses, I have recorded simultaneously what a man says, sees, thinks, and what such seeing, thinking, saying does, to what Freudians all call the subconscious.”
The subconscious is of course, unknown and unmapped and not much different than that blank polar grid map I had to construct. We humans, each and all of us, sometimes find ourselves in the unknown and uncharted. As a navigator I was trained to intentionally take us into such terra incognita and to bring us safely out, no matter what.
Writers do the same thing, though writers don’t and can’t get the same kind of intensely technical training that navigation required back then. In reality, GPS and other things have pretty much eliminated the need for human navigators because most of what we did back then, under considerable stress, can now be done efficiently and accurately by computers, software programs and space-based electronic reference gear – which is to say, we have been replaced by electronics and machines, a familiar theme in the 21st Century.
I would quickly add that a good navigator must not only have the requisite technical skills, but also an undefinable “feel” for locating himself and his crew in whatever space they were in at the moment. Those who lacked this “instinct” are relegated to mechanical behavior, which increased operational and group risk.
Unlike the flying game, where black boxes and avionics rule, the writing game won’t allow you to install in a human being a black box called imagination.
We are born with this capacity, or not. Most of us have some semblance of creativity, though out on the fringes of the Bell Curve, there are probably some with none, while some others have so much they can’t control it, focus it, or even function in a real world. What most of us can do is exercise our ability to imagine and create, and critique it, and practice it. But if we lack the essential element needed, no amount of classes or study will install it. Can’t be done.
Folks often ask me if they can learn creative writing in school and the answer is both yes and no. Bear in mind that this is solely MY opinion. I’m not aware of any consensus with regard to this question, which is mostly asked by non-writers. Lots of writers teach as a day job in order to finance their word habit.
In my view, what schools can and should teach are the tools of writing: vocabulary, syntax, grammar, structure, all that good stuff. What schools cannot teach… is imagination. Teachers can recognize, encourage, and help students exercise their imaginations, but make no mistake, imagination is the fuel of fiction and as I mentioned earlier, it can’t be installed like new software. Imagination is, like foot speed and mental quickness, something you are born with, or not, and whatever life gives us , we can almost always improve, but without imagination, writing will not happen.
With regard to maps and stories, let me share an experience with you. My father was dying in 1976 and in the hospital in Lansing, Michigan, and he sat up one evening on the side of his hospital bed, and grumbled, “The Virgin Mary and all that stuff. How do you know?”
Wah! Of all the people to ask! I was clueless, but thinking quickly, I said, “You know how you love to drive all over the country and see new places you’ve never seen before, just because you want to? Well that other junk is a sort of road map too. You trust the maps you use for your road-trips, right? I guess you’ll have to depend on the road map you have for this trip.”
His answer was a painful, ambiguous grunt, and he lay back and died that night. He was 55.
The reality for most of us is that we follow a map on the assumption and faith that it will take us to where we want to go.
When we read a story, we trust that the map it contains will to take us to a place or places the writer chooses to take us, same as we hope the map-maker does with that work.
Writing fiction is to some extent a matter of two separate, related functions. First is the writer’s role as explorer, which can take in planned or unplanned excursions or jaunts. Second is the writer’s role as presenter or reporter, and here the writer takes what’s in the exploration phase and shapes it into a story, to create a journey for the reader.
It’s like this: first you have to think the story, and then you have to get it down on paper. This is an easy process to describe in terms of output, but difficult to actually do, especially repeatedly.
Each book looms as a challenge to most authors. You’d think after a goodly number of titles, more than 20 for me– the process would be like riding a bike. But it’s not that at all: It’s more like riding a wild horse given its own head and the author -– me– grabbing like hell for reins I sometimes find difficult to get my hands on.
I admire every writer who manages to get something down and a first full draft complete, even if it never gets published. Completion alone puts the would-be author into a new special category, one few have the ability to reach. Writing fiction is a zero sum game. It’s also an antisocial activity with immense potential social benefit, meaning writers must work alone in their own space and cocoons, not in committees or groups in public.
Our contract with the reader is on the printed page, not standing up blabbering like this.
Each time one gets ready to write a new book, it feels a bit like stepping to the plate, only with writing the pitcher and batter are both you, and you have to let the pitcher -– your subconscious– throw at you what it will, and then direct your conscious hitter to do what it can with whatever looms at your plate.
By the time you get down to the actual physical writing stage, the problems and challenges are different. Earlier I pointed out that teachers can teach mechanics, but not imagination. Teachers can deal with the following sort of sentence of errant pronouns: “She’s the mother of an infant daughter who works twelve hours a day.” This is the sort of problematic sentence you should learn to avoid, or if not to avoid, to fix. (As writers we tend to entirely rewrite such sticky parts. And everything around them.)
Here’s another example of writing that gets at the heart of technique and craft; Listen to this: “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears.” Use of the word “stupid” 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 an auditorium. Thus, what we have here is the author assigning this one special word to the character, and giving it to the character in such a way that he does not interfere with or interrupt the flow of thought inside that character’s mind. The author might have chosen to write a more traditional omniscient third-person voice, such as “’It’s so stupid to be crying over this silly piece of Brahms,’ he thought.”
Hear the difference? This last sentence is in conventional third-person and it is 12 words long; the previous example is only 7 words, meaning the first version is 40 percent shorter, which makes the composition tighter and performs the alchemical trick of putting you directly inside the character’s head and helps you follow the character’s thinking and feeling as it happens, without obvious outside ham-handedness from the writer. All of this, we note, is achieved by using that one word, “stupid.” This is a poignant yet simple example of why the craft and skills of writing are sometimes referred to as art, and this is also why good teachers will repeatedly remind students that every word is important.
I have tried to employ in most of my later works a form of first-person voice called free indirect style, a term probably only writers and students bother about (or should). It is one of the craft and technique secrets or devices for parachuting the reader into a character’s mind and emotions. The beauty (and utility) of this choice is as with the example of stupid tears, that you sense what you are reading are the character’s words and thoughts, when in fact they are the words the writer has deliberately chosen for the reasons we’ve talked about.
The 10th Woods Cop story, featuring Grady Service, came out March 1. It is called BUCKULAR DYSTROPHY, and it deals with the crazy and extreme side of deer hunting and killing. As said a few moments ago, there is in writing an exploration phase and then a reporter phase. It was my intention to step over to my other series, set in the 1910-1920 period – and I had even. done some noodling and composition (approximately 10,000 words) on the third entry to that series. But damned if my mind would not let go of Grady Service, who is in a predicament when BUCKULAR DYSTROPHY ends.
One morning, a month or so before Buckular hit bookstores, I woke up with four words burned into my mind. A SPORTING OF SKELETONS. I knew immediately that this would be the title of the 11th Grady Service tale, and as much as I enjoy all the characters in the Bapcat series, I realized deep down that I would be compelled to explore what happens to Grady in the wake of BUCKULAR DYSTROPHY, which ends on New Year’s Day, 2009. That morning when I woke up with those four words, I awoke also with a whole suitcase more and plodded down to my writing table, picked up my pen, and literally scribbled the following scene. [For the record, Lonnie spends an inordinate amount of time helping me decipher my own handwriting, which began bad, and worsens every year]:
“With his out-of-the-blue suspension from duty now in effect, the unexpected hiatus had, after decades of action left Grady Service with nothing to do, his ship dead in the water, becalmed, perhaps permanently, and then came the headaches, sudden, blinding, painful, a hurt beyond the reach of any known drugs or therapies. Endure, he told himself. Just get through this, but something deep down was also telling him not to sit back, to fight. And for one of the few times in his life he had no idea how or who, much less what.
Adding to the pain, he suddenly felt no identity, no purpose, was reduced to a lump of human protoplasm taking up valuable space on an overpopulated planet.
Limpy Allerdyce held the thing in two hands, like a supplicant to his master. “Dis take care dose headaches, Sonny, youse betcha.”
“A human skull for Chrissakes?” What is wrong with this old man?
“How my ‘posed know, Ind’in? Dunno. Real old.”
“You know it’s against the law to possess human body parts.”
The old man winced. “Ain’t no meat on ‘er, jes old head bone.”
“Where in the Mosquito?
“Have to show youse. Don’t got no words for place.”
“When did you find it?”
“Twinnyfuckin’ Questions? Found wit’ youse’s daddy in da way back.”
“My old man knew about this?”
“Yah sure, he know all sorts places got ole bones, but he don’t pay no attention.”
“He damn well knew where all the bars and taverns were.”
“Wah. Dose important to ‘im. Old bones, nobody give two shits. Youse need take dis fella, use ‘im for pillow.”
Service drew back in disgust. “I’m not sleeping on a skull.”
“Youse’s choice. Youse da one wit’ da head-pounders.”
“How do you know it’s from a man?”
“Who else gets seff kilt outten bush? Take look, dat slicy t’ing dere, like knife, mebbe, tomahawk bonk on noggin, hey.”
Service looked, examined the thing, and after a while asked, “Is it clean?”
What was it Treebone always preached, “If nothing works, try something else.” He doubted his old friend would stoop to putting a human skull under his head. No chance of that. But he would. What other choices were left?
An important reason for employing the free indirect narrative technique is the desire to create a sense of veracity, or truth. My protagonist Grady Service is the eye-witness to his life, as you are to yours, and he is testifying to you the reader that the things he is going through are actually happening and you are a participant within his mind, from his perspective. Ironically, you know full well that none of this stuff actually happened or is happening, and that the story is fabricated, but if I do my job I can draw you into the story and help you to stay there as it unfolds to its conclusion help you follow the map to the end.
I have written books from different narrative viewpoints but both current series employ the indirect first because I want the stories to unfold from a single point of view in a realistic, (some say, naturalistic) way. If I am doing my job effectively and my editor is helping me, the reader should never experience the inside of another character’s head. You will hear them express feelings and think out loud to Service and to and with others, but you will not partake inside the way you do with Grady Service. I want Grady to be human, which means he can see only his own viewpoint and he cannot read the future, so he must face that unknown alone, and we get to share that experience with him
The exploration by artists and writers is always into the unknown, off our map if you will. The stories we create then become maps for others.
I think that if you’re going to write, you have tell a story. This is the contract with your reader. They read and you tell them a story. But one of the things we see with young writers, especially in graduate creative writing programs is a fascination with doing the novel just for the purpose of being different, a phenomenon the late David Foster Wallace called, ‘dreaded grad-school syndrome.’ which he described as, ‘Watch me use 17 different points of view on this scene of a guy eating a Saltine.’” Wallace added, and I quote, “The point of such shit is ‘Like me because I’m clever, ‘which derives from the commercial axiom about audience affection determining art’s value.”
Let me share a secret. I write for myself, not for an audience. I have no face in mind when I write, other than the faces of my characters. I write with my heart and edit with my brain and an audience never enters into the formula except in some technical editing questions.
Wallace loved crisp, clear good writing and was a severe critic of what he once called lit-speak, as in this example: “formal innovation is no longer transformative, having been co-opted by the forces of stabilization and post-industrial inertia, blah blah.” Most of us who write for a living, exist in a world far away from such jargon-floods, where political correctness in literary attitude is sometimes as important as political correctness in certain social circles. There’s no political correctness in the worlds I inhabit.
Post World War II Censors and Holier Than Thou-ness authorities made it impossible for Norman Mailer in THE NAKED AND THE DEAD to employ the very functional and common four-letter word, “fuck.”
Now anyone who has served in any branch of the military knows that language in such a place lives rough and if you are trying to write or tell a story that is true to the subject, the language has to match it. Mailer’s publisher was forced by its lawyers to substitute the word “Fug” for the real McCoy, which to my thinking effectively heightens attention for the word. For people in combat or “in the shit” as was said in my day the word “Fuck” was used for just about every conceivable part of language, so much so that it became invisible to those using it. But now you substitute “Fug” and instead of the real world disappearing in the flow of the story in the reader’s mind, it now jumps up like a loud and brassy clown from a box every time it gets used. How stupid is this — and what a beautiful real-world example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.
If you want to make a book disappear, don’t read it if you have read it, and don’t talk about it. But I promise you this: If you ban it, you will give the work a good shot at lucrative bestsellerdom, multiple printings massive sales. From an author’s selfish perspective, ban my books…please!”
Let me give you an example of how words disappear when they are used regularly. Writers learn quickly (or should learn) that dialog needs only a hesaid or she said after a line of dialog. Anything more slows the flow and as the reader reads he said or she said, it simply disappears. The same is true of other words used in bulk in certain segments of human life. Cops and game wardens, like soldiers, have not only their own jargon and lingo, but they tend to talk with a language others might find offensive. But if the aim is to paint the life the way it is, I have to portray it that way.
Like all of you in this room, I’m a reader first and foremost. All writers are readers. As readers sit down to read a novel knowing full well that the story is made up, and that, while it may be constructed of much substance that looks and feels and sounds real, it’s actually neither reality nor 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 could never get on our own.
What we are talking about today is to me a kind of magic, and like all magic, success often hinges on slick 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, which we all learned in sophomore high school English class as “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?
Absolutely! Think about the story of Cain and Abel – which is only 60 lines and fewer than 700 words in the Bible: How many times has that story served as a structure for writers?
Authors find multiple paths to originality. Inventing a plot from scratch is one way, but not the only one. Our deservedly great Shakespeare used great slabs and chunks of work of others before him, and even from some sources roughly contemporary to him.
Playwrights in those days expecially until their reputations were established, Shakespeare included, often worked in teams the way Hollywood scriptwriters now cooperate in twos and threes. In our current legal and cultural value systems, using something someone else wrote is called plagiarism, but this was neither ethical concern, nor law in Elizabethan England. Copyright law didn’t come along until 1709, at which point plagiarism was legally called forgery and the penalty for forgery was death. Now, if you’re caught plagiarizing you will have your reputation killed, not your corpus.
Shakespeare had a remarkable eye for potential in stories and tales made by others; his method at times was to use those things as his raw materials and churn them through his personal 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 long-dead words, but words that you and I use on a regular basis in this room even, today even: 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 durability and lasting impact? He died 400 years ago today.
In addition to his creation of words, let’s look at just how efficient and economic he was as a writer. Here are the first five lines of HAMLET:
Bernardo: “Who’s there?”
Francisco: “Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.”
Bernardo: “Long live the king.”
What has Shakespeare the writer done here? In five terse lines he has established first, it is night time and cold (unfold yourself means draw back your cloak); second, the two speakers are soldiers on guard; and third, there is tension in the air. The terseness of speech conveys this tension. Master Shakespeare has with only 15 words, 11 of them monosyllables, set the play’s action in motion and captured the audience’s full, rapt attention. This is the epitome of skill and craft, and why we continue to admire and study the great bard.
Let me provide a bit more from the writer’s view. Shakespeare thought in scenes, not acts. Scholars are learning that he cut speeches and whole scenes entirely, or replaced them with new speeches and scenes based presumably on how they were working on the stage. This is called professionalism. He did use stories of others, but then did things with this material only he could do, including the following things, all of which he invented: he plotted scenes in dramatic form, took new perspectives on various subjects, moved scenes in different ways and juxtaposed the plot with subplots. And he varied he on-stage activity, varying action with the inclusion of songs and other set pieces, presented narratives with choristers sometimes doing the presenting, and he built in prologues, epilogues and plays within plays, not to mention creating new words still in use today.
The best comparison I can make at the moment is Shakespeare was the Elizabethan Theaters’ equivalent of the late Prince, or vice versa, unique artists both, original and risk-taking to the core. This is why we still study the old guy. This is why his material still works.
I can hear you wondering, Why in the world is this jamoke – Questo scrittore di gialli magro, this meager mystery writer– bringing up Shakespeare? Well, , I lived in Italy for three years when I was a kid, and Shakespeare often set plays in Italy, so I thought I should reply in his borrowed tongue.
Make no mistake about who is doing the work: the late Shakespeare, the late Harrison or the still-above-ground-for-the-moment Heywood, all stories have to be made, word by word.
The fact is that every writer alive builds on every writer who came before us. You don’t buy the assertion? Here’s Shakespeare in A Midsummer’s Night Dream describing the magic writers create for their readers, and the power of imagination: “The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven; and as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name; such tricks hath strong imagination.” This is about as good a description of the creative act of writing that has ever been scribbled and is as valid now as it was four centuries ago. We ride on the shoulders of all who have gone before us.
Given that yesterday was Earth Day, a final note on Shakespeare seems appropriate. There are a lot of words and lines ascribed to bard, many of which, in fact, are not his. When one sees an alleged W.S. quote, one needs to be sure it is attached to one of his plays or poems or sonnets, because there is no other writing from him, none.
A classic misquote is fitting for this day: “The earth has music for those who will listen.” I love this line, and it sure sounds like the Bard, but it’s not. This is actually a line from the marvelous Spaniard, Jorge Augustin Nicolas Ruiz de Santayana y Borras, better known as George Santayana: Philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist, who died in Italy in 1952. So no, definitely not Shakespeare. Qui legit, adtendite. Let the Reader Beware. And be twice as vigilant with the Internet, which has more junk than your local dump.
Remember the advice of Oscar Wilde: “It’s what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you’ll be when you can’t help it.”
Had book events on Friday (Kazoo Books in Kalamazoo) and Saturday, Saturn Books in Gaylord. As I was signing and jabbering I got a hankering to go back and look at the first sentence in each novel. At some point I’ll probably look at all my published short stories as well, to see what trends I might see. Here’s the novels…. Conclusion: star with and in the action.
Opening Lines of Heywood Novels, Chronological Order
TAXI DANCER (1985)
The two MiG19s came out of the morning sun from north of Haiphong.
THE BERKUT (1987)
Colonel Gunter Brumm strained to slide himself down into the tight cockpit of the toy glider.
THE DOMINO CONSPIRACY (1992)
The two soldiers squatted in icy ankle-deep water, scanning the horizon.
THE SNOWFLY (2000)
“I was eight when the floater drifted past our cabin on Whirling Creek and hung up on the rocks.”
ICE HUNTER (2001)
It was a week after his sixteenth birthday, four days after deer season opened.
BLUE WOLF IN GREEN FIRE (2002)
Grady Service got out of bed, tugged on his ratty sweat pants, and went down to the kitchen where he made coffee, set the table for one, pour orange juice, boiled water for instant oatmeal and heated a cinnamon roll in the micro wave.
CHASING A BLOND MOON (2003)
Grady Service stood at the aged brick entrance of Monroe’s Custer Memorial Municipal Ice Arena and recalled that the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer had been raised in Monroe and that his life, after some exhilarating moments, had ended badly at the Little Big Horn.
RUNNING DARK (2005)
Eldon “Shuck” Gorley was in the Newberry DNR office for the last official time – to turn in his badge and state-owned equipment.
STRIKE DOG (2007)
Grady Service stared down at the large white metal drawers, his mind cluttered by unconnected thoughts, mostly fragments: spring, the season of change, breakup and runoff, a time of sloppy excess; his old man, whom he’d never gotten along with; more than two erratic decades as a conservation officer, mostly alone; the divorce from his late first wife; and finding Nantz and learning he was a father – all of this rolling around in his aching head as he stared at the drawers.
DATH ROE (2009)
Grady Service had found a vantage point under the canopy of a cluster of white cedars and sat on a low bluff watching the dark riffle through his thermal imager.
SHADOW OF THE WOLF TREE (2010)
The last Saturday in April was Michigan’s traditional trout opener and Grady Service began his day mesmerized by the reflection of a battered face, looking down into a mirror of black frog water.
FORCE OF BLOOD (2011)
Grady Service glared at Milo Miars, forcing his lieutenant to look away.
RED JACKET (2012)
“Sharpshooter to me!” Colonel Theodore Roosevelt shouted in his oddly pitched voice, sweat streaming down the sides of his face, forming a thin red paste and leaving him looking more flushed than he actually was, his skin color matching the blood trickling down his left arm.
KILLING A COLD ONE (2013)
Chief Eddie Waco stared at the stiff cloth stripes Grady Service had dropped on his home office desk.
MOUNTAINS OF THE MISBEGOTTEN (2015)
“What say you to the charges, Deputy Warden Bapcat?”
BUCKULAR DYSTROPHY (2016)
Like Pavlov’s pup to food, Grady Service was programmed to serve, not just during official duty hours, but whenever and wherever he was needed.
Maria Konnikova. The Confidence Game. Why We Fall For It…Every Time. (2016) [NF]
Garry Wills. Making Make-Believe Real; Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time. (2014) [NF]
Reza Aslan. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. (2014) [NF]
Elizabeth Kolbert. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. (2014) [NF]
Machu Kaku. The Future of the Mind; The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind. (2014) [NF]
William Shakespeare. Henry I V, Part 2 [Play]
Phillips Oppenheim. The Pool of Memories. (1941) [NF]
Page Stegner, Ed. The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner. (2007) [NF]
David Hajdu. The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. (2008) [NF]
Bob Hicok. Elegy Owed. (2013) [P]
Jane Hirshfield. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Essays by Jane Hirshfield. (1998) [NF-Essays]
Payne Collier & Thomas Heywood. The Dramatic Works Of Thomas Heywood With A Life of the Poet, And Remarks On His Writings, Vol 1: The First And Second Parts Of The Fair Maid Of The West: Or, A Girl Worth Gold. Two Comedies. (1850) [NF & Drama]
Wallace Stevens. The Necessary Angel; Essays on Reality and Imagination. (1942) [NF]
Lawrence Durrell. Bitter Lemons (Of Cyprus). (1957) [NF]
John McIntyre, Ed. Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps. (2010) [NF]
George Steiner. Language & Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman. (1970) [NF Essays]
Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Castle To Castle. (1968)
Joseph O’Brien, Ed. Eyes That Pour Forth and Other Stories. (2014) [SS]
Willie Morris. James Jones;A Friendship. (1978) [NF]
Tom Stanton. Terror in the City of Champions;Murder, Baseball, And The Secret Society That Shocked Depression-Era Detroit. [NF]
Wallace Stegner. On Teaching and Writing Fiction. (2002) [NF
Michael Delp. Lying in the River’s Dark Bed: The Confluence of The Deadman and the Mad Angler. (2016) [Poetry]
M. Forster. Aspects of the Novel.(1927) [NF]
David Fraser. Wars and Shadows: Memoirs of General Sir David Fraser. (2002) [NF]
James Wood. The Nearest Thing To Life. (2015) [NF]
David Foster Wallace. Consider The Lobster And Other Essays. (2007) [NF]
George Orwell. A Collection of Essays. (1981) [NF]
L. Austin. Philosophical Papers. (3rd Ed) (1979) [NF]
Nathalie Babe, Ed. Cynthia Ozick, Intro. The Complete Works of Isaac Babel.(2005) [NF +SS]
L.Austin. How To Do Things With Words.(1955) [NF]
Ann Powers. Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America. (2000) [NF]Andy Saunders. Battle of Britain: July to October 1940: RAF Operations Manual. (2015 [NF]
Natalie Angier. The Canon. (2007) [NF]
Neal Stephenson. Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing. (2012) [NF]
Kevin Wolf. The Homeplace (2016) [Uncorrected Proof for blurb) [F]
Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. (1955) [NF]
O. Scott. Better Living Through Criticism: How To Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. (2016) [NF]
John LeCarre. A Murder of Quality.(1962) [F]
Tim Clayton and Phil Craig. Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain.(1999) [NF]
Christopher Bergstrom. The Battle of Britain: An Epic Conflict Revisited.(2014) [NF]
Richard Hough and Denis Richards. The Battle of Britain: The Greatest Air Battle of World War II. (1989) [NF]
The National Trust. Chartwell.(1992) [NF]
Tom Hickham. Churchill’s Bodyguard. The Authorised Biography of Walter H. Thompson. (2005) [NF]
William F. and Elizabeth S. Friedman. The Shakesperian Ciphers Examined. (1957) [NF]
Andy Saunders. Aircraft Salvage in the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. (2014) [NF]
Jane Gallop. The Deaths of The Author. Reading and Writing in Time. (2011)
J.L. Austin. How To Do Things With Words.(1955) [NF]
Ray Bradbury. Bradbury Speaks: Too Soon From the Cave, Too Far From the Stars. (2006) [NF]
Wayne C. Booth. The Rhetoric of Fiction. (1983) [NF]
Lilly Fischer Hellmann. Jumpcut. (2016) [F]
Peter Turchi. Maps of the Imagination:The Writer As Cartographer. (2004) [NF]
Andy Saunders. Luftwaffe Bombers in the Blitz 1940-1941.(2015) [NF]
David Richarde. The Yellow Dog River: Magical Dialog of a Woodland Stream. (1997)
William Grange. Hitler Laughing: Comedy in The Third Reich. (2006) [NF]
Stephen Marche. How Shakespeare Changed Everything. (2012) [NF}
Roy Porter.London: A Social History. (1994) [NF}
E. Foley and B. Coates. Shakespeare- Basics for Grown-Ups: Everything You Need to Know About the Bard. (2014) [NF]
F.E. Halliday. A Shakespeare Companion. (1964) [NF]
Jacopo Della Quercia. License to Quill. (2015) [F]
Andy Saunders. Finding the Foe: Outstanding Luftwaffe Mysteries of the Battle of Britain and Beyond Investigated and Solved.(2010)
Rebecca Rovit. The Jewish Kulturbund Theater Company in Nazi Berlin.(2012)
John London, Ed. Theater Under the Nazis. (2000)
John Harris and Richard Wilbourn. Rudolf Hess: A New Technical Analysis of the Hess Flight, May 1941. (2014)
John Stow. A Survey of London. (1598) [NF]
Donovan Bixley.Much Ado About Shakespeare. (2015) [Lit Picture Book]
An Stalcup. On The Home Front: Growing Up in Wartime England. (1998) [NF]
Let me be quick to add that if you are of the G.P.S. generation and under twenty, the chances probably are that you have little or no clue to the joys, mysteries, or stories inherent in and on a map. This is a great loss or your inner life because maps, like books, open mind-doors and let us visit places we may not be able to get to physically, time-wise, or financially.
And what is a book? At its most basic, it’s a story.
Human beings live on stories. We crave them, make decisions and create dreams and plan based on them. And we use stories to tell ourselves our own stories of who we are.
As a once upon-a-time-navigator of the Cold War and Vietnam era, I found my way around the world at 500 mph with minimal and marginal equipment, and thus have a particular affinity for maps and stories. Let me add that trained on minimal equipment, that is, nothing tied to the ground because we assumed that if the Cold War ever turned hot we would not have things on the ground to support us. We even carried heat and light shields for all of our windows so that we couldn’t get blinded by nuclear flashes, and to minimize the amount of radiation seeping in as we passed through hot zones. This was business as usual.
Every time we flew, either for training or in combat support, I prepared a navigation plan including a route or path and a destination — an outline of a story if you will, for us to go from A to X via Y there and en route to accomplish our mission tasks.
But as someone once observed, “Plans are obsolete as soon as the first shot is fired.” Absolutely true, and it’s also true for writing fiction. You can have an idea of what you want to go and where you want to go, but the characters and situation can assumed a force of reality and push you in other directions. It’s no different than flying across the Atlantic and running into a huge wall of thunderstorms far over our heads (up to 60,000 feet – too damn high for us to fly over, and therefore requiring me to use my radar to pick our way through all sorts of airborne violence, turn right, now turn left, more left, back to the right and so forth until we popped out, and then and only then I had to take some moments to try to retrace what the hell I had done and where we had ended up. When you are a thousand miles from land, your final determination of position can be literally critical.
As an aside, we did our utmost to avoid such meteorological monsters in peacetime missions, but if we were out over the Gulf of Tonkin and got jumped by a MiG, it was my job to guide us quickly into the worst shit I could find, which fortunately I only had to do a couple of times. If you have a MiG on your nose and you are closing at 1200-1300 mph, there’s not much time to figure out what to do other than run for cover. We had no guns, no missiles, just an aircraft filled with JP$ jet fuel, which would make a pretty spectacular airborne fireball. But I digress.
Writers can experience this same sort of emotional jinking when characters take control of the story and push this way, then that way until finally you wrest back control and have a moment to wonder, “Where the hell am I?’
When we operated over polar regions we used to unslave our compasses and point them at an imaginary point in the sky, thus creating a false reference point, and based on that we created a map a grid map all blank, all white and planned our missions onto the great white paper. Sometimes the paper would be 6-7 feet long and this planning done, we could head up over the ice in this false and artificial mode, hoping to hell that the compass wouldn’t precess or malfunction and in doing so put us into Soviet Territory to be captured or splashed. Normal flight could be very up-tight in this situation, and usually they were. As a navigator I had to be able to create paths across real places, which we could all recognize, and create paths out and back to safety over great featureless expanses of white paper.
Authors can be involved in similar situations. And stories can be a little bit like this– depending on what the writer is doing and how he or she is telling the story.
Think about James Joyce, who once said in a letter to poet Ezra Pound, “In Ulysses, I have recorded simultaneously what a man says, sees, thinks, and what such seeing, thinking, saying does, to what Freudians all call the subconscious.” The subconscious is of course, unknown and unmapped and not much different than that blank polar grid map I had to construct and use. Point is that all humans find ourselves in the unknown and uncharted sometimes. As a navigator I was trained to takes us into such situations and to bring us out, no matter what happened.
Writers do the same thing, though writers do not and cannot get the same kind of training that navigators must have. In reality, GPS and other things have pretty much eliminated the need for human navigators now because most of what we did can now be done by computers and programs.
But you can’t install in a human being a black box that will create imagination. We are born with this, or not. Most of us have some semblance of creativity, though on the edges there are probably some with none. We can exercise our ability to imagine and create, and critique it, and practice it, but if we lack the essential element needed, no amount of classes or study will install it. Just won’t.
When this happens, it makes more sense to stop trying to make something beyond your capability and enjoy the work of others who can. In other words, turn to the stories which will be maps for you to journey elsewhere and to see some facet of existence in ways you could not do on your own. To repeat, maps are stories, and conversely, stories are maps.
When my father was dying in 1976 and in the hospital, and he sat up one evening on the side of his hospital bed and grumbled, “The Virgin Mary and all that stuff. How do you know?”
Of all the people to ask. Sheesh I was clueless, but I could think pretty quick and I said, “You know how you love to drive all over the country and see new places you’ve never seen before, just because you want to? Well that other stuff is a sort of roadmap too. You trust the maps you use for your road-trips. I guess you’ll have to depend on the roadmap you have for this trip.
His answer was an ambiguous grunt and he lay back and died that night. He was 55.
So we follow a map on the assumption it will take us to where we want to go. With a story we trust the map of that device to take us to a place or places the writer chooses to take us.