Friday, December 30, 2016

The Punk Poet's Birthday

"In my way of thinking, anything in possible. Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs all." —Patti Smith, M Train

I turned 60 years old last November. Last May, Bob Dylan turned 75. Today, December 30th, Patti Smith turned 70.

I'm really starting to like old people.

Bob got a Nobel Prize. Something he certainly did not need for me or anyone else to admire him more. He is the poet of American song. Always will be. Patti, meantime, has been called punk's poet laureate. In the 1970s when she came on the music scene, Smith didn't do much for me. I idolized Stephen Stills and the folk heroes of the time. Patti was not that. But her heart was much like those folk heroes, opening up her soul to the world. Deep inside, she was truly a poet in the traditional sense, a writer waiting to be born again. It was when she put her writing in book form that I fell in love with her. Just Kids is magnificent. That's a silly thing to say, isn't it? Like I'm praising a child's drawing. But the book honestly is magnificent. It's a poetic love letter to her friend, Robert Mapplethorpe and to art itself, the creative process, the deep and soulful ache of opening up a life.

In her book of essays, M Train, Smith furthers her deep and insightful legacy. Some say the book is full of too much navel-gazing. I disagree. Smith uses her life and the tiny details of it to give the reader a truer look at the artist's mind and soul. Like Rainer Maria Rilke or Marcel Proust, Smith kicks open the doors of her existence, exposing the intimacy that all of us crave in order to create something meaningful. Artists of all genres and skills have been navel-gazing for centuries and if you believe Smith is doing that in M Train, then I contend she does it exceptionally well.

It might take a lifetime for some of us to gather the guts to be vulnerable enough to open our hearts. Some find it easy and can do it brilliantly when they are young. Others, like Smith, do it more elegantly and more artfully as they grow old. Time and practice shape the artist, massaging the creative impulse and process in a way that youth does not permit.

I like being 60 years old. I think I might have some things to share. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

To Honor Carrie Fisher, Read

"I don't want life to imitate art. I want life to be art." —Carrie Fisher

I saw the original Star Wars movie when it was originally released. The first one of the continuing series. I stood in line outside a theater in Allentown, Pennsylvania with my college girlfriend. I liked the film but I wasn't crazy about it. My girlfriend, however, loved it and she really loved Princess Leia. A lot of other people did, too.  

I never saw another movie in the Star Wars collection and never again saw Carrie Fisher on the big screen, but I read Postcards from the Edge, and boy, could that girl write.

Forget Princess Leia. Fisher's legacy should be her books. She did dysfunctional memoir better than most anyone who has ever written in the genre. She was funny but poignant. She was sweet but edgy. She was real as real can be. Most of all, she was honest.

In a New York Times opinion piece on Fisher, Lawrence Downes wrote of her books, "They are works where misery and brilliance commingle with wit, the creations of an actual person who had many layers and is worth getting to know, as opposed to Princess Leia, who has none and is not." Maybe a little strong on criticizing the Princess but dead on when it comes to Fisher. 

Downes also questioned whether we might liken Fisher to satirist Dorothy Parker because of Fisher's brilliant wit. But Fisher may have been better. The reason was the interior goodness that emerged from the depression and heartache. One of my favorite quotes from Fisher is not only appropriate for the season but also says a great deal about who she was: "Christmas is not necessarily about things. It's about being good to one another, it's about the Christian ethic, it's about kindness." That's the Carrie Fisher that rose from the cracks of her wisecracks and it is what made her writing so special. It was the light in her darkness and the vulnerability she so genuinely embraced. 

"I'm very sane about how crazy I am," Fisher once said. That mixture is what she brought to her writing and it may have been her greatest gift.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

There Before Me, a Writer's Shed

I step inside and smell fresh cut wood, the raw aroma of sawdust. It reminds me of my father, who loved the scent. He was a craftsman who made cabinets, built fences, and patio decks. My mother also loved the smell. When my father died, my mother said how much she missed the distinctive fragrance of newly sanded and shaved woodworks. 

This is what I think as I walk into the shed, my writer's shed. 

After months of research, studying designs, longing for a space like Thoreau's or Dylan Thomas', the wooden shed is delivered. It has been painted. The roof and flooring have been redesigned to meet building permit standards for the village. The shed is placed at an angle in the yard to allow for a perfect view from the shed's door to the main house, still permitting a level of privacy. The northeast-facing window looks out to large old trees and the wooden property fence, a good spot. Still, getting it to its new home was not easy.

The 8X10 unit is squeezed between the house's south wall and the towering trees. "Squeezed" may not be the best word to describe how a fifty-foot trailer has to be twisted and turned to avoid a ditch near the street, and how gradually and methodically it must be backed in to the property to escape six-inch thick tree limbs and power lines. The crew has an inch of room to maneuver away from the trunk of a tree and a ridiculously heavy and immovable garden barrel.

At one point, the shed's roof scrapes a large limb and the trailer's driver must back up and out, over and over again to wiggle through the opening. Eventually the trailer's hydraulic lift lowers the shed to let it slip to the gravel base. It appears it's about to topple on its side and I am reluctant to say anything to the two-man crew. They are experts after all.

"Bet you've never had a delivery this tough before," I say.

"This is nothing," one of the men says, shaking his head. "Try dealing with one of the 12X16 sheds. Nightmare."

I take his word for it.

Once the shed is on the gravel, they use what is called a j-bar to lift and shift it square to the wood framing on the ground. It is oddly delicate work, twisting and pulling the shed in minor adjustments to fit it into its base.

When the trailer carrying the shed pulled up to the house, I seriously doubted my plans, worrying it was never going to get to the rear of the property. But it did and and what remains the work of tender loving care. Interior painting, flooring, and barn wood siding will finish it off. My Leslie will paint the front door the color of green apple like the entrance door of the house. My desk and books will be arranged, and a chair my son Graham made for me will be placed in the corner. My son Casey's photography will hang on the wall and a wonderful drawing from Jen O'Hare will be right beside it.

For now, I watch from the kitchen window and smile at the holiday wreath Leslie has lovingly hung on the shed's door, a wreath my mother first created years ago, and every now and then I will stand inside, take in the perfume of sawed lumber, and think of what's to come.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Soon Before Me — The Writer's Shed

The fence on the side of the house is down. The gravel base has been leveled to perfection and framed with 2x4s. The space is angled slightly so the shed's door will face the back of the house and not the garage. And sometime in the next few days, the shed, the real thing, will be lowered on a large forklift-style vehicle and slowly moved over the lawn, beyond the fence opening, and on top of the gravel. It will have been painted—coppery brown with a lime green door to match the house's entrance—and the work on the inside will soon begin, a shaping of space that I hope will give me peace and creative solace.

So how does one do that?

You fill your space with the things you love. The first is a pen drawing of flowers in a vase. It's the work Jen O'Hare, a talented artist, teacher, and the daughter of my lovely Leslie. I will add my son Casey's photo of the wild and remote beauty of the Pacific Northwest will hang on a wall. My son Graham's handmade pen—carved and lathed with his tools—will sit on the my desk, awaiting my words, and the handmade chair he designed in a high school woodworking class will accent the far corner. And of course there will be books. Many. They will be tucked on a shelf, spilled on the floor, piled on the desk. I have my stones, rocks of unusual color and texture collected from the Lake Michigan shore, the Puget Sound, and the Irish Sea. There's energy in the hardened earth, and I find some something special in how it's sealed inside ancient petrified dirt.

Why is this important? Why are we compelled to fill creative spaces with...things?

I think a lot about simplicity. I believe the less we have, the more we have. But I'm not always on point. Books, for instance. I try to stick to the "buy one, give one away" practice. But it doesn't always work. Still, I try hard not to fill my space with tchotchkes or nostalgia. A feng shui expert, Karen Kingston, wrote about this: "When all your available space is filled with clutter, there is no room for anything new to come into your life." As a writer, a creative, one wants new to "come into your life" as often as possible. But, that said, there are some items—old things—that trigger new thought: Casey's photo, Graham's pen and chair, Jen's art.

The shed will need a lot of love before I move my creative life inside. First there's the practical hard work: insulation, painting the framed ceiling, barn wood style walls to nail, flooring to put into place. I must purchase a space heater and move my 1940s replica desk fan inside. Then, there are the books. All those books. And of course, the desk. But I'm ready to begin the work, my mind and body are primed to take it on, and prepared to own this space and the simple energy it will offer.

Friday, October 28, 2016

A Man and His Shed—A Permit in Hand

A few years ago, The Daily Telegraph published a story about men and their sheds. Not necessarily writers and their sheds. Just men of any stripe with a desire for a sort of outdoorsy man-cave, a place to escape, to hide from family, kids, life, or to watch football on a Sunday afternoon.  

I read that story with irritation. Not annoyance with the men who wanted such a retreat, but for those who would think my plan for a shed had a similar motivation.

My shed is not what these men desire. It is a writer’s shed, a place the author Michael Pollan has called, “the space of a daydream.” Pollan wrote a wonderful book — A Place of My Own — about his own journey designing and building his writer’s shed in Connecticut. Like his shed, I would like to think that my writer’s shack would also be, as his was, “built with words.” I will not build it. I’m leaving that up to the experts. But its essence, the metaphoric foundation will be constructed with single words, one-by-one.

I am keenly aware of this now, and only now that I finally have the building permit in my hand. With this, I can’t help but consider move-in day—the carrying of books, the arrangement of a desk, the position of my chair. Before this, however, I will paint the ceiling frame white, like the ceiling in Dylan Thomas’ shed, and cover the walls in barn wood or similar like the beautifully clean writing space of E.B. White.

The permit will soon be tacked to a tree in the yard and the men in boots will maneuver gravel and lumber, they will measure twice and cut once, and they will shingle the roof and pound nails with heavy hammers. And in the end I will have a place to fill with words. It will not be Thomas’ boathouse, or Thoreau’s cabin, or George Bernard Shaw’s tiny shack. It will not be designed to what they had. It will surely hold the spirit of those wonderful spaces, but this shed will be mine. Only one hundred feet from the back door of the house, I will have my own uncomplicated “hut in the woods.”

More to come on the development and construction as the days move on. 

                                                    E.B. White's writing shed

                                             Dylan Thomas' boathouse in Wales

                                          George Bernard Shaw's writing hut

                                         Henry David Thoreau's cabin at Walden

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Being Fearless

I walk into a coffee shop this morning and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” is playing on the audio system.

“How are you today?” the barista asks.

“Can’t be bad if I’m starting my day with the Man in Black,” I say.

She smiles.

“He was such a badass,” I continue. “Like Dylan.”

She smiles again. But I’m not sure if it’s a smile of agreement or she’s simply trying to sell me a latte. Maybe she’s appeasing an old man who has been thinking a lot lately about the art of being fearless, and how I somehow missed that important ingredient when I was building my early creative self.

Cash, Dylan, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and countless others of my generation and today have and are creatively without the slightest apprehension. They throw their guitars on their backs, their notebooks in their canvas suitcases, their laptops under their arms and get after it. They go sing their songs, write their words without constraint.

When I was young and playing guitar, writing some songs of my own, I did it the safe way. Sure, I did it, but I didn’t hitchhike to Greenwich Village, I played at the student union on my campus steps away from my dorm. Not so fearless. And my songs, the ones I wrote, had a formula, a tempo, an aesthetic that could be found readily on the radio. Boring. Oh, I was decent enough, people clapped, I was even praised sometimes, but I was far from being creatively fearless.

A few years after those halcyon days, I put on a tie, some cotton khaki pants, and played the part. I was a journalist and I liked the role. I won some awards, did some good work, but was I fearless like a Woodward and Berstein? No. I did my job and I did it well, but I was pedestrian.

Today, I’m thinking about that. What makes the greats fearless, even from the beginning? What makes them take the big and bold chances with their work, their life, their creative self?

At nearly sixty years old, I’m more fearless now than I have ever been. But it is no longer combined with the promise of youth; a young man’s belief that he is immortal and his work—his songs, his writing, his poems—are the most important thing in the world. Like many who work creatively, I find I must do it. I’m compelled to write and from time to time create music, but the fire that rages when one is young is not there. It burns, but not as brightly.

Or does it?

A crazy idea: What if I grabbed my guitar and practiced hard and wrote some more songs and went out to share them? Go on a little tour? Play some bars, small festivals in dumpy towns and learn to be fearless. I play okay. I can write decently. I know how to perform in front of people without fainting. My next book—October Song—is about a songwriting contest and facing big changes in one’s life. So, I think I know how to do this. I could call it the “Fearless Tour” or the “No Regrets Tour” or “The Old Man Needs to Prove Something Tour.”

If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t start writing creatively and without restraints at a younger age, that I didn’t strap on my guitar and jump on a VW bus and play anywhere and everywhere, all over the place. I didn’t realize when I was young that I needed to be more fearless, that I needed to push the edges more often, that I needed to stretch to the point of snapping. It wasn’t that I was afraid of snapping, I just didn’t know any better.

But I do now.

Yes I do.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Why Dylan Doesn't Give a Damn...But You Should

First things first, Bob Dylan, for the most part, doesn’t give a rat’s ass about any Swedish literary prize. He’s Bob Dylan. It’s what he does—shuns the usual, rejects the norm, breaks barriers, dismisses convention.

On the other hand, Dylan loves it. He’s giving the finger to the status quo while reveling, albeit internally, that his life’s work, his body of songs is as important and relevant, compelling and significant as any writer’s writer.

Dylan loves writers—Kerouac, Ginsberg in the early going. There are rumors Dylan visits Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachusetts every year. He loves words, Dylan does. That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?

One of the arguments against Dylan and the Nobel Prize—song lyrics are not literature. Silly. Yes, some are and some certainly aren’t. But in a world where media entities blur the edges of disciplines, that argument doesn’t hold up anymore. Smart for the Nobel Committee to recognize this without specifically saying it. 

And for all those who question the selection of Dylan because they can’t get past the man’s voice, his chameleon-like career, or are dismissing the lesser-songs in his canon, well, you just don’t get it and probably never will. That’s okay. It doesn’t matter. Bob Dylan doesn’t care. And I don’t either.

Here’s why.

Dylan has been my personal Nobel Laureate for decades. Even when he put out music with lyrics that were, I believed, below him—even when he started doing the Tex-Mex thing, even when he got preachy about God, even when his voice got so gravelly that I could hardly make out his words, even with that shaky performance at the Grammy’s, even when he started singing Sinatra. Doesn’t matter. The lyrics, the literature he’s given us in hundreds of songs is worth these small, insignificant hurdles.

When I was a teenager, I remember hearing the song “Masters of War” played from a vinyl album in a friend’s basement family room. Dylan was pissed. He didn’t yell, he didn’t growl, he didn’t beat his chest. But he was pissed and every word in that song screamed disgust with those “masters.” I remember thinking: Who has the guts to do that? To get that pissed off in a song? To sing those words, those glorious words. Then I heard “Girl from the North Country” and I cried. I still cry when I hear that song. Again, it’s the words, those wonderful words.

Last spring I had the opportunity to sing a couple of Dylan songs with my guitar at a Dylan birthday party celebration at the Filament Theatre in Chicago. One of the songs was “Boots of Spanish Leather.” Words. Such words.

Words. These are what Dylan has given us. It’s what the Nobel Committee heard, read. It’s what moved them. It’s what moved me, moved America, moved the world. Just like all the Nobel Laureates of Literature. Dylan joins a mighty list. Just consider the American writers:

Sinclair Lewis
Eugene O'Neill
Pearl Buck
T.S. Eliot
William Faulkner
Ernest Hemingway
John Steinbeck
Saul Bellow
Issac Singer
Czeslaw Milosz
Joseph Brodsky
Derek Walcott
Toni Morrison


I do truly believe, as I first wrote, Dylan doesn’t give a damn about a Nobel Prize. But he does give a damn about words.

Thank God he did and still does.

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Writer Considers Building a Shed

I think I need a writer's shed.

I've always been a writer who loves to write in the chaos of a coffee shop—the whir of the espresso machine and all the clinking of ceramic, at least in a cool/good coffee shop.

But I've also been enamored and in love with the writer's spaces of those who long to be alone and in their own little world—Thoreau's cabin, Roald Dahl's hut, George Bernard Shaw's hut, Emerson's shack, or, my favorite, Dylan Thomas' primitive boathouse in Wales.

My wonderful Leslie gave me a present not long ago—a watercolor original painting of the inside of Thomas' space in Laugharne.


The boathouse is deliciously ruffled, yet full of Thomas' inspirations. Photos and drawings of favorite creatives—Walt Whitman and others. These are tacked and taped to the walls. There are drawings and quotes littering the space. Books on the floor and scattered on a shelf. And windows to the stunning beauty of Wales. 


I'm not considering a boathouse. And I'm not as ambitious as Shaw was. His hut was actually on a turntable so that it moved with the sun, allowing him to create primitively efficient solar power heat.

But I am ready to embark on this idea. A 10x8 space in the corner of the property—a getaway, a sacred space, a writer's haven. It's not a man cave; it's not an escape. Electricity? Maybe not. A hurricane lamp seems efficient. Heat is needed? There are propane-powered space heaters, right? Cooling? A good fan and some air flow built in through the design. Simple. Clean. Heavenly.

I've read about other writers who have built their own and it can be expensive or you can go the cheaper route, dressing up a shed from Home Depot. I'm not looking to build a separate housing unit, but it has to have some aesthetic appeal. It has to look like a place one would want to be—where one would want to find themselves on a breezy fall night, massaging words and themes.

Journalist and author Michael Pollan built a shed for himself and wrote a book about it—A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams. In the first paragraphs he writes:

"Is there anybody who hasn't at one time or another wished for such a place, hasn't turned those soft words over until they'd assumed a habitable shape? What they propose, to anyone who admits them into the space of a daydream, is a place of solitude a few steps off the beaten track of everyday life." 

I ordered the book. Let's see what happens. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Every Writer Wants to be Something Bigger

I had a blah day. It was angsty (is that a word?) and self indulgent. I was lost in my own ineptitude and my own mediocrity.'s okay. These things happen to people who care about their craft. At least that's my excuse.

It started, I think, from hurdles I needed to get over with the publisher of my forthcoming memoir, October Song. Nothing that can't be fixed. But issues are issues. And I would rather not deal with them. I would rather just write. I won't go into all of it here, not necessary. But it comes from the details of modern publishing—trusting proofreaders and copy editors, and believing that your work is worthy when it sometimes is minimized into just another book on the shelf, just another author in a world full of them.

So, that got me thinking about writing and its bigger meaning. Maybe not just for me, but for anyone who writes. This can get us into trouble, you know? If we think there is a bigger meaning and we are not living up to that meaning, well, it could get "angsty."

Consider this...a quote from the writer Don DeLillo:

"The writer is the person who stands outside society, independent of affiliation and independent of influence. The writer is the man or woman who automatically takes a stance against his or her government. There are so many temptations for American writers to become part of the system and part of the structure that now, more than ever, we have to resist. American writers ought to stand and live in the margins, and be more dangerous. Writers in repressive societies are considered dangerous. That's why so many of them are in jail." --Don DeLillo, from the 1988 interview with Ann Arensberg.

Wow. If every writers tired to live up to this statement, we might just all off ourselves. Don't misunderstand, I love this quote and I love what it stands for. But, seriously, it's heady. And what happens when we aren't so "dangerous?" Are we failures? Should be just give it up? Consider ourselves hopelessly mediocre and move on?

Every writer goes through times of uncertainty, self-doubt, believing that what they are doing is unworthy and pointless. It comes with the territory. But I wonder—aren't most of what we are doing, writing, ultimately forgettable? I'm not being defeatist; I'm being realistic. Aren't only a handful of us—the truly great—immortal? Aren't those the only ones that really matter?

Yes, this it getting a bit bleak. But here's where it turns around.

I was interviewed the other day on the radio about NIGHT RADIO, my novel. The interviewer had pulled quotes from the book that had "moved her." Really? I had written words that moved someone? And when she read them over the air, I questioned, aloud—did I write that? Not that I was impressed in some way, I was simply astonished that I had put words down that were worth repeating, worth sharing, worth interpreting and considering in some spiritual way, some deeper way.

I'll carry that with me now through this "angsty" phase. I suggest, as you write and create and find yourself in that "angsty" way when you want to be something bigger and bolder, that you find a piece of your art that you are proud of, or better still, something someone else has been moved by and let it wash over you.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Truth About Writer's Block: There is No Such Thing

I'm calling you out.

You do not have writer's block. There is no such thing. It is not contagious, and no one, not you, not anybody will ever catch this non-existent ailment. It's an excuse.

Who says so? Me. And many others.

From Lois Lowry, the author of The Giver:

"Did you ever go to have your braces adjusted and hear your orthodontist say. 'Oh, I'm sorry, I can't dot it. I have dentist's block today.' Of course not."

And from Linda Sue Park, author of A Long Walk to Water:

"I think it could be called I-do-not-feel-like-writing block."

Face it. Writer's block is bullshit.

Novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of Love in the Time of Cholera, once said the only cure for the writer facing a blank page is death.

So, if you don't want to better write!

I agree that we all have times when writing feels like digging a ditch or we are simply ill-prepared for the task or Game of Thrones is on or the NFL season is getting started or our car needs an oil change. Pick a reason not to write. There are a million. But if you are a writer, you must write. Something. Anything.

Make a goal. "I will write one good paragraph today." Stay away from word count. You'll focus too much on the numbers. Then whatever you write, before you close the laptop, leave a little behind, a bit in the tank. Ernest Hemingway said he never stopped writing until he had a pretty good idea where he was going next, so when he returned he was ready.

And lastly, drop the phrase from your list of excuses. Drop it from your vocabulary. If it isn't there, then you can't see it, hear it, feel it, or experience it.

Think of your writing as working out. It may not be pleasant getting started on that elliptical, but once you get going, you'll feel great. And when you're done for the day, you are on top of the world.

So, sit down, open your laptop, your journal, your note pad and write, write, write.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Writer in Cuba

There's only one English language bookstore in Havana. Cuba Libro is said to be a literary oasis...with Cuban coffee. It's run by the travel and health journalist, Connor Gory. I've never met her, but I want to and I hope to when I visit Cuba in June of 2017.

I have longed to travel to Cuba for more than a decade, probably two. Its mystery to Americans, its Hemingway history, its people, its reputation for social justice, its love of Che Guevara and the idealism of revolution, all of this is deep in me. Where it all comes from is not necessarily clear to me...and maybe that is why I so believe I need to go.

I do not pretend to be a Cuba scholar. I do not pretend to know its true nature or its spirit. But I hope to and maybe Cuba Libro can help. I've reached out about a possible visit when I'm in Havana, maybe the chance to hold a reading in this restful, organic, spiritual place. Wouldn't that be a special thing—reading from one of my books in a Havana bookstore? Wouldn't it be lovely to donate some of my books, and others, to Libro? I have reached out to Cuba Libro, but have not yet heard from the staff or connected with its owner and driving force, Connor, but I certainly hope I do. There's time.

When booking the travel,  I was asked by the agent helping me, a Cuban named Jane, if the Hemingway leg of the trip—to his home, Finca Vigia outside Havana—was "necessary." She was trying to help me keep the cost manageable. "Jane," I said, "I am the writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois. I have to go to the Finca. I must go. That stays." I think it was after this exchange that Jane really understood some of my motivations about my travels. "Plus," I continued, "my two sons are coming with me, and they would think their father had gone daft not venturing out to Cojimar, the tiny village near the Finca, where The Old Man and the Sea was set." Jane laughed. It wasn't a joke.

I plan to learn more Spanish—more than pollo and holasince Cuban Spanish is different than Mexican or Madrid Spanish. It has Afro-Caribbean roots. I want to understand the draw of the Malecon and learn to savor the music and its importance in the culture, and to welcome the Cuban way—talking loud and often, embracing people physically and emotionally, and celebrating the good they do.  And I want to smoke a cigar in the middle of the day in Old Havana.

But I also want to write—when I'm there and when I return. I want to put thoughtful observations on paper—the things I see and the things I feel. I want the place to envelope me, to be a part of it in real time and to capture it in words, and not simply walk through it as if I'm watching animals in a zoo.

One night while we are there, we plan to stay with a family in Trinidad, Cuba's central tobacco town with its 17th century streets under the striking Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco and its iconic bell tower. I want to drink rum with the locals. And I want to converse, to talk, to listen, to spend time and forget the clock. And then maybe have another cigar.

It's months away but I am already in Cuba in many ways, reading Pico Iyer's Cuba and the Night and a wonderful book of essays entitled Cuba in Mind, and dreaming. There has been a great deal of dreaming. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

What I Learned Editing a Literary Journal

As the Writer-in-Residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois, I was privileged to edit the inaugural Hemingway Shorts publication. It was a bigger, more demanding job than one might imagine. But I loved it and learned a lot, and for any writer who would consider submitting their work to any publication, there are a few things for all of us to consider.

More than 450 international submissions entered the online portal. We would choose one winner, and 10 finalists—all would be published in the new literary magazine, what we hoped would be an annual endeavor. Honestly, most of the work was not very good—mediocre or poor at best. I had been told by colleagues who have done this work for other publications that most would be forgettable. They were right.

But there would be good things to come. 

Former Writer-in-Residence, Annette Gendler helped in the process. She was invaluable, as we felt obligated to read every single one of these entries. But honestly, some we never finished reading. Others we read over and over again. Some knocked us off our chairs, and those ended up in a pile of semi-finalists, some thirty of them. Those thirty were well-constructed, compelling, heartfelt, emotional, intriguing. I was admittedly concerned at the start about the quality of some of the work, as we wanted this publication to be the best of the best, certainly. But then the heavens opened up and wonderful work fell to our hands.

There are many good writers out there, but only a few cut through to the soul.

As an editor I learned to be patient. To wait for the good stuff. I also learned to cull as you go. Do not wait for the deadline to start working through the submissions. That would have been a nightmare. And I learned to trust that the cream would rise to the top. It did.

As a writer...some advise. Stick to the word count in the submission guidelines. Stories that did not, were not considered. If the submission guidelines are written in English, assume that the stories must be. And do not send a quickly written first draft, figuring the "editors" will fix your grammatical and syntax errors. The story may be wonderful, but that is lost in sloppy work. You would be surprised how much sloppy work is submitted. This is not the editors being grammar Nazis; it's about taking pride in your work.

I am proud of Hemingway Shorts. I am honored to have been part of the process. And I am looking forward to doing it again and again.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


The early going on my new novel, NIGHT RADIO, has been good. It was released June 1, 2016 and since then has received wonderful customer reviews and a solid review from Windy City Reviews.
I've had interviews on KDKA in Pittsburgh and shout outs on WXRT in Chicago. Soon, I'll be starting a blog tour with WOW, guest blogging about an array of subjects and telling a few secrets about my writing life and the making of NIGHT RADIO. I also have a number of new reviews coming soon, including new reader reviews, which many times are the most rewarding.

I say all this to make a point.

We live in a RIGHT NOW world. Tweets, Instagram, Snapchat and more. We want and even demand results immediately. That is just not the case in publishing. The work is incremental. It is slow and sometimes slogging. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and finishing first is not the goal. The goal is to just finish, sometime. In fact, the true goal may be to keep going.

This weekend, 7/16,  I'll be making a presentation at the Chicago Writers Association Summer Social about my fortune roles as the writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac Project and the Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park. And on 7/23, I'll be at the Hemingway celebration to announce the inaugural Hemingway Shorts publication—the work of eleven writers from all over the world chosen from some 450 submissions. It's in conjunction with the Hemingway Society's festival in Oak Park, Illinois this summer. I was honored to edit this first edition of this new publication. In addition, this October, I'll be one of the authors honored at the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards dinner at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago. Humbled to be a part of this.

So, again. It's the step-by-step journey that gets you there. I hope you'll come along with me.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Papa Deserves Better, But...

I'm not a movie reviewer, but I feel compelled to say something about the new film Papa Hemingway in Cuba. It's directed by Bob Yari who did Crash and The Illusionist. Two pretty good movies.

Papa is not. As much as I want it to be.

But, this is not going to be a bashing. That's too easy. There's plenty that is overwrought about this movie. Like several  reviewers have written, the movie makers should have taken Hemingway's advice and done less to show more. Some of the narration is helplessly obvious, the dialogue heavy handed and cliched. Still, it's pretty impressive that it was filmed in Cuba and at Hemingway's home outside Havana. But it's not enough to save the movie.

Still, what the movie does very well is this: It reminds writers that writing is a blessing, a curse, and to do it well, it has to be the essence of your being. NOT writing is NOT an option. For Hemingway, not being able to write eventually killed him. Certainly, I don't wish that on any writer. But his commitment and his devotion to the art is not only legendary, it's inspiring. 

We can thank this movie for reminding us of this.

And with that, we remember what Hemingway said about his craft.

In one form of another, this is what Ernest Hemingway said or wrote about writing.

I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Ernest Hemingway

You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you. Or rather you can if you will be ruthless enough about it. But the best writing is certainly when you are in love. Ernest Hemingway

Live the full life of the mind, exhilarated by new ideas, intoxicated by the Romance of the unusual. Ernest Hemingway
In order to write about life first you must live it. Ernest Hemingway

Writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up. – Ernest Hemingway

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. Ernest Hemingway 

Once writing has become your major vice and greatest pleasure only death can stop it.  Ernest Hemingway

Monday, March 14, 2016

Hemingway Shorts

It's time to write. You. The one who has been considering entering or submitting your work for publication or consideration. You. Yes, you.

The Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park is announcing a special project to encourage creative writing. Hemingway Shorts is an initiative that asks you to submit your best work to be judged by the current Writer-in-Residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home (me) and two other former Writers-in-Residence—Susan Hahn and Annette Gendler.


The point of this is this...

Write to a goal.

Many of us who wish to write continually tell ourselves, "Oh, I'll get to it." And we never do. Sometimes the better process to write toward something. Set a goal. "By Friday I will write 500 words in my journal." Or...submit.

Plan to enter a contest, a competition, a chance to publish. Knowing you have a deadline for something REAL, not just a personal accomplishment, kicks in the creative juices and knocks us off the procrastination couch.


Friday, January 15, 2016

And All That Raw Land



He looks like Floyd, the barber on The Andy Griffith Show. Same horned-rimmed glasses with the thin silver metal at the bottom of the frames, same haircut, same slur to his words. He says “right” a lot.

“We’re a few minutes outside St. Cloud,” I say, an answer to his question about where we are on the line.

“Right,” he says. “I can’t see much in the dark of the morning here. And I just got up. But I know this line well.”

He likes talking about the train line, the towns it runs through.

“We're heading for St. Paul,” he says, cutting into his pork sausage and sipping apple juice. He’s directly across from me in the diner car. I look at my phone. It’s 6:35AM.

“That’s where you’re going? St. Paul?”

“Right,” he says.

“Where you coming from?”

“Cut Bank.”



“What's in Cut Bank?”

“Just wanted to see what I can see,” he says, smiling. He smiles after everything he says, a shy, quick grin. “I live in St. Paul.” Another smile.

“Cold up here,” I say.

“Yes,” he says, acknowledging my obvious observation. “How cold is it right now?”

I look at my phone. “15 degrees,” I say.

“That’s not too bad,” he says. He’s a Minnesotan. He knows cold.

“Not bad?” I say.

He laughs, pushes his sliding glasses back up his nose. “There’s no bad cold. It’s just what it is,"

“It's cold to me,” I say.

“Right,” he says then looks out the window and sighs. “The stop before St. Cloud was Staples, North Dakota.”

At Staples, I saw an Amish family standing outside the station in the light of street lamps, waiting for the train doors to open. Several men in black brimmed hats gathered their luggage and two women in bonnets nestled infants tight to their breasts. They moved slowly, as if the frigid weather would allow only deliberate motion, as if they would crack it they moved too quickly. They chose several of the seats behind me in the coach car, their luggage in the racks above. They spoke softly in what sounded like German, but I wasn’t certain. The babies cooed. Someone sang a lullaby.

“The Staples station is on the north side of the tracks,” Floyd the barber says, with a grin, of course. "The St. Cloud station is on the south side of the tracks. And they go on like that. Back and forth.”

“You do know this line,” I say.

“Right,” he smiles.

This is not the kind of ride one takes when in a hurry. Despite a schedule, despite the notation of exact departure and arrival times on every ticket, those on the train, although keenly aware of the element time plays on this journey, are less concerned about its passage. Time is not something to maintain or adhere to here, not for the passenger, it is instead only a marker, the clock’s stamp on individual moments of the journey.

This is the third day on the train. My last. I will be in Chicago in late afternoon. But if I were a true train passenger—like Floyd—I would not be counting days or noting arrival times, would I? I would instead be noticing on what side of the tracks the stations stood, how I slept, on what page I would return to my reading, and if my body was ready to eat pork sausage.

In St. Paul, the train’s power is out. We are switching locomotives and they must unplug for a few minutes. The coach car goes oddly quiet. Engine off. Heat off. The hum of movement on the rails is gone. I can now hear only soft breathing, the creak of seats as people adjust in them, the crinkle of plastic being removed from a packaged breakfast muffin, and the sigh that comes after a sip of coffee in a paper cup—sounds that had disappeared in the chug of rail travel. A few passengers step out for a smoke on the platform, others to stretch. This is also where Floyd departs. It’s his stop. He passes my seat in coach.

“You enjoy your day, now,” he says, smiling. “The next stop after Minneapolis is Red Wing.”

I check my schedule. “Right,” I say. Floyd is right.

The power returns in a few minutes and the conductor announces all aboard. We are again in motion.


At La Crosse everything changes.

This is where we cross the Mississippi, more frozen and wider than anyone who has never seen it could ever imagine. And at the La Crosse station the Amish step out of the train, and the party steps on.

Men and women. All of them drinking. I’m guessing they are in their early 30s, holding beer bottles and blasting Neil Diamond from a portable speaker presumably connected to a smartphone.

“Sweet Caroline! Good times never seemed so good!!!”

They take a spot in the back of the lounge car and order wine and more beer. The conductor, a burly man in his navy blue uniform and cap greets them warmly. He takes their tickets and asks where they’re headed.

“Chicago!” Several scream and raise their drinks. “To debauchery!” someone belts. More cheers.

Someone in the group asks to take a selfie with the conductor. He agrees. The partier asks if one of the women can sit on his lap. He reluctantly agrees. “This is not going viral, is it?” he asks.

They cheer again. “To the conductor!” someone yells. A woman with blonde hair and what looks like Mardi Gras beads around her neck takes her seat on the conductor’s knee and wraps her arms around his bearded neck. Another cheer, many smiles, and the click of smartphone cameras.

We are some 300 miles from Chicago.

I find a quieter spot. How boring I am? I ask myself. I read a new book on my iPad—A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable. A novel about the treasures discovered inside an abandoned apartment in the French city. Across from me, a husband and wife argue about meeting friends for dinner. She wants to; he doesn’t. “Who will feed your horses if we go out?” he asks. There are a number of husband and wife travelers on this stretch. Some young and some old. Some sit together, up close in the lounge seats, others separate themselves with the booths in the eating area of the lounge, across from one another but seemingly miles apart. There are few words. Their eyes do not meet. Strangers in some way. I think of the novel, the Hitchcock movie, Strangers on a Train. I don’t think there’s anything sinister going on here like the story’s two travelers who swap murders. But there is a kind of sadness.

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” – Henry David Thoreau.

The cackles from the rowdy crowd in the back now echo in the front of the lounge car. They are singing Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. The volume grows as others in the group join in. A man in a blue denim shirt and CAT hat walks past them and towards me and stops.

“If that’s the tavern back there, this must be the library,” he jokes.

I smile.

I’ve moved all of my belongings—one overstuffed backpack and a light jacket—to the lounge car after giving up my seat and the one next to it to another group of Amish who boarded a stop or two after La Crosse. I was asked to take the seat behind me next to another man. “Happy to,” I said. But I didn’t stay. The man’s body odor was overwhelming, the stale smell of a high school boy’s locker room after a Friday night basketball game.

No one smells in the library.


I’m ready for Chicago. I’m not tired of the ride, the humming motion, or the marginal food. I desperately want to step out and walk. Really walk. A long way. There’s a lot of sitting on the train. But that's not my biggest annoyance. What I’ve had enough of is the granny factor.

At every turn on the train now, from Columbus, Wisconsin, heading south and east, grandmothers have stepped aboard. And at every chance grandmothers are telling other grandmothers how many grandchildren they have, their names, their ages, their favorite colors, and the times of their hockey practices. Grandmothers in the lounge car, the dining car, outside the restrooms, in the café. This stretch of the Empire Builder should be called the “Granny Train.”

I have not switched trains; not left one for another, no transfers. But much has changed over a few hundred miles. There was a solitude and even a reverence in the ride from Seattle through North Dakota. All that has slowly evaporated. No, it’s not all about the grandmothers. There something deeper.

The wide open spaces of the West and all of what that offers the mind slips away as you head East. There’s a book I truly love. It’s a bit obscure but I offer it to anyone who sees the connection between the human condition and the harshness of dense populations—Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces. I think of it now, somewhere between Columbus and Milwaukee.

“Everything in nature constantly invites us to be what we are. We are often like rivers: careless and forceful, timid and dangerous, lucid and muddied, eddying, gleaming, still.”

And I wonder if we also are often like a train: quiet and brooding, accommodating and mighty, scheduled and tardy, journeying, chugging, at rest.


The conductor calls for Chicago.

“This is the last stop on the Empire Builder!” He then adds something about checking your baggage and connections at Union Station, and something about Red Cap service, whatever that is. I dismiss this. It doesn't matter.

All around are the last of the passengers, an eclectic mix of students, traveling businessmen, couples, Amish families heading for a connection to Pennsylvania, and a few remaining grandmothers. The crew gathers trash and collects the white cloth covers that protect the head rests. The lounge area is now closed. The drinkers and the singers are silent and in their coach seats in another car. In the distance is a big, hard, sulking city, and in the rear view mirror, as Kerouac once wrote is “all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast.” And in my mind, right in front of me I think about what is present, how none of us know anything about what will happen to us tomorrow, tonight, an hour from now. We plan, we schedule, we prepare, we organize, we arrange, but we can only be certain of this very moment. So, what I know for sure is this: The rock of the train entering Union, the pungent smell of oil and diesel, the familiar screech of train wheels on steel, and the rush of that unmistakable Chicago air, chilly and damp. And as I step from the train, I think of what I have seen and those I have met, brief but nevertheless lasting encounters, gone now along the tracks stretching out over my shoulder and disappearing in the last light of day.