Monday, September 11, 2017

The Power of the First Sentence

I've been thinking a good deal about the first sentence. It's the one writers belabor. It's the starting block, the firing of the starter's gun, the beginning of everything. Sometimes it's perfect at first blush. Sometimes it's tweaked once, twice, a million times. It carries weight, but maybe more than it should. Still, it is the first ingredient of our story's recipe and it must be...just...right.  



Author Joyce Carol Oates thought a great deal about first sentences. "The first sentence can't be written until the final sentence is written," she said. That may or may not be true, but knowing where you're going after writing that first line is critical.

What are your favorite first sentences? Share in the comments below. 

Here are some of the famous ones...

"Call me Ishmael." — Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

"Maman (Mother) died today." —Albert Camus, The Stranger.

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days without taking a fish." — Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea.

"Last night at 3:00am President Kennedy had been killed." — Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke.

"For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can." — Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book I

"The sun shone, having no alternative." — Samuel Beckett, Murphy.

"We were somewhere on the edge of the desert when the drugs started to take hold." — Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 

It can also be for song lyrics.

"So, we already wrecked the rental car." — First line from The Decemberists, "Mistral." 

And the most famous...

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. 


"First sentences are doors to worlds." — Ursula K. Le Guin


My recently published memoir, October Song, starts like this: "It was late in the fading light of the first day of the long trip, somewhere on the Tri-State Expressway about forty miles southwest of Chicago."

I'm working on a manuscript about the nature of home. A few tweaks remain. But I think I'm staying with the first sentence. 

"My boyhood home was on a hill, a Cape Cod in Western Pennsylvania near a forest of wild cherry and locust trees." — David W. Berner, The Consequence of Stars

And what about you? Other writers? I asked. 

"Anastasis Manoulakis loved cats." — Phillip Duke, The Village. 

"Dawn crept in like a ninja in feety pajamas." — Dave Kurman, Pavlov's Dog

"Crap—she's up, the living room lights are on at 2:30 a.m." — Helen Donovan, You Never Know.

"For the record, I am completely against having ice picks shoved into my eyes in order to scramble my brain." — Sue Rovens, In a Corner Darkly: Volume 2

"You see her posters on telephone poles all over town." — Alvarado O'Brien, The Missing Girl.

"Dan smiles at my wife again." — Nigel Cooper, The Pursuit of Ordinary.

"I was getting used to being ignored." — Bruce Wilkerson, A Glance at My Other. 

"Lightning slashed across the storm-swept sky." — Ashley Ledigo, Emajen (Children's literature)

"I don't quite know how to put this." — Stuart Walton, Give Us This Day.

"My Australian girlfriend took a luscious lick of her ice-cream and said, 'Why is that man wearing gloves on the hottest day of the year?' — Peter Bartram, Murder in the Morning Edition.

"Tuck fought the growing urge to vomit." — Danielle E. Shipley, The Legend of Allyn-a-Dale.

"There's a graveyard visible from his window, and it grows a little bigger every day." — Steve Conoboy, A Graveyard Visible.

"On the second Monday of September, Judy Talton put on the new jeans she'd run through three washing cycles and the fatigue jacket she'd found at the Salvation Army resale shop, went to the Student Union and, for the first time, took a seat on the Freak side of the Tune Room." — Rita Dragonette, The Fourteenth of September.

"I'm not psychic." — Steve Bellinger, Edge of Perception.

"I refuse to let my story end with an arranged marriage." — Kim Schultz, Three Days in Damascus.

"He was running as fast as he could through the clearing towards the woods." — Greg Kopp, The Journey of Delphos: Kopp Chronicles. 

"I have come to learn that you mortals like to blame animals for your worst indiscretions as if human reason is the bridesmaid of infallibility." — David Wozniak, An Obliquity.

"Pulliam folded back the sheet and set his bare feet on the hardwood floor." — Floyd Sullivan, Called Out.

"Moods are the weather of the soul." — James Hartley, Cold Fire, Shakespeare's Moon Act II.

"The night sighed and Bethany felt the chilled touch of her dead mother's hands on her shoulders." — Dave Rank, A Godawful Thing.

"Pardesh, look: it's a Humphrey Bogart." — Bull Garlington, The African Queens.

"Mike and I were standing in front of the Music Box Theater on Southport Street in Chicago, looking at posters of the Dirty Dozen." — Roger Prosise, Housing Projects, Mansions, and Schools: An Educator's Odyssey. 

"My Da's uniform hangs in the closet, squeezed in between scratchy wool coats and my Ma's ratty fur,  but my Da went straight to the hospital after the Great War, and never came home." — Bibi Belford, Crossing the Line

Don't you love these? Do you have favorites not mentioned here? Bring them on. 





Friday, August 25, 2017

Writing as Watercolor

I know why I like Karl Ove Knausgaard.

It's not necessarily his incredible sensitivity to the world around him and his gift for finding the meaning in the mundane as evidenced in his Proust-like opus, My Struggle. It's not his celebrity, although fame comes to him reluctantly. It's not his disheveled yet so very cool writing studio, strewn with coffee mugs, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, the layers of books, a drum set, a guitar leaning on hard copies of his auto-fiction sensation. And it's not his hair, although he has great hair.

(Photo: WSJ. Link: WSJ Magazine)

I like Karl Ove Knausgaard because he is an artist of full heart, clear insight, and he may be the most like American writer Jack Kerouac in his approach to the craft that one has seen since Kerouac himself. Different, yes. But the same.

Knausgaard's writing—at least that found in My Struggle—has been largely linked to Marcel Proust and the masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past, a novel in seven volumes. Yes, a novel. Fiction. But so much has been said and written about its auto-fiction approach—autobiography told as fiction. The same approach employed by Knausgaard in My Struggle. This literary connection has merit. But in a recent NPR interview aired on the eve of the publication of Knausgaard's new work—Autumn and its subsequent three volumes entitled Winter, Spring, and Summer—the Norwegian writer likened his writing to that of a watercolorist, maybe in the spirit of Kerouac and less like Proust?


To understand this, you must understand how an artist works in watercolor. In an interview on the website The Artist's Road, painter Gerald Fitzer was asked why he creates in watercolors.

"...it is the immediacy of the medium and the way the pigment responds on your paper to your personal emotional response to your subject. It is as direct of a medium as can be, there can't be any hesitancy while you are painting. You have to decide where you will place each brushstroke of color and then let it do its magic."

Knausgaard's new volumes were not edited. In that same NPR broadcast, he insisted this was on purpose. He wrote his words and let them be, certain that he carefully chose the right words (his paint) at the very moment he was writing them and let them be exactly what they were intended to be at that very instant. Writing in watercolor, one might say; writing without revision. 

Kerouac did the same thing, albeit, with less discipline, some would argue. Nevertheless, his work was that of a watercolorist. Jazz-like and free form, but still watercolor in that it was created in one take, to use the vocabulary of a studio musician. There was a certain fearlessness in Kerouac's writing. Knausgaard certainly shows the same in My Struggle. Less so in Autumn. But fearlessness is not a requirement for working in watercolor; only precision. And the precision is apparent. Read the piece entitled "Twilight" in Autumn if you have any doubts.


To paint in watercolor and to offer a work worth admiring, one must be a master. The same with writing in watercolor. Mastery is essential. Creating anything in one take requires it. Otherwise, the writing—the painting, the music—is an artistic mess. But yet our natural storytelling instinct is to go forward with just "one take." Knausgaard writes with clarity and exactness without second regard. Therein lies his mastery but also his humanness. He understands that there is no other visual form like watercolor, singular in its beauty and alone in its execution. And no more honest way to tell a more human story, one that is less literary in the traditional sense yet literary nonetheless, devoid of traditional plot and literary tools and more like real life. Knausgaard is that kind of writer, saying what he wants to say, painting in words that he hopes to paint with both emotional spontaneity and accuracy in a single brushstroke.

How can anyone not find that marvelous?




Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Writing in the Dark

I've been thinking a good deal about writing in the dark. Not writing inside my writing shed with the lights off at 3 o'clock in the morning, but instead writing without knowing where I am going, where the story is leading, uncertain of what I am trying to say.


Writers talk about the mysteries of writing, especially fiction, a strange and powerful force that leads you to the story, that propels you to...something. Characters come alive on their own. They take on their own reality. And if it's memoir you are writing, it's that spooky moment when, as you write, the clarity comes out of the shadows. You finally know what you are trying to convey, a relative truth. Before then, you are in the dark and only when the ghostly essence appears does your writing start to come into its own light.

Norman Mailer used to call it "the spooky art." "You never know," he wrote, "where those words are coming from." Others call this spookiness or the mystery of writing—"pantsing." The urban dictionary defines pantsing as "yanking down someone's pants." But in the art of writing, "pantsing" is the act of flying by the seat. It's the opposite of plotting, planning, or outlining.


I have never plotted a story. Don't think I ever will. So, this makes me a "pantser." I write and let the story take me where it will. Inevitably this approach needs an enormous amount of reworking and rewriting for the story to make sense, to have a cohesive presence. But "writing in the dark" is the purest form of the art. This is true for fiction but it is most true—I believe—when writing memoir or personal essays. Joan Didion said, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what is means. What I want and what I fear." Joan is a bit of a "pantser." She writes in the dark. And she may be the 20th century's greatest essayist.

I'm currently working on a project that I have no idea where it will take me. Yes, I have a rough focus and I'm taking daily notes and jotting down thoughts many times a day. But what it will become at the end is a mystery. What I will eventually write remains in the darkness. At some point, I will gather my notes, find what rises to the surface, and start writing...start pantsing...begin my work in the dark and hope for the light.










Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Five Books for Summer's Last Fling


August is here. For so many this triggers an awful feeling of woe. Summer is coming to an end and fall is lurking. Truth is, there's plenty of summer left. But August brings with it thoughts of another year of school, returning to classes, lost vacation time, and the dread of squandered seasonal opportunities. Still, there are days remaining, precious days...time for walks in the park, canoe trips, golf, a swim or two, a rod in the water, a road trip, and, yes, time to read. 

Here are the five books I'm concentrating on in the last days of summer. Old and new. 

Travels with Charley—John Steinbeck: This classic is worth rereading many times over. Certainly Steinbeck was a master writer but he was also a master observer. This cross-country journey in 1960 is teeming with spot-on insight and remains keenly relevant more than fifty years later. Be sure to reread the paragraphs on "Lonesome Harry" at the end of Part-Two. They are brilliant. 

The One Inside—Sam Shepard: The great artist's death is fresh. But I started reading his last manuscript several weeks before he left this world. Yes, like much of Shepard's work, the book is otherworldly, challenging, spiritual, odd with a Twin Peaks sensibility, and yet marvelously insightful of the human condition. If it starts to move out of your comfort zone, I urge you to stay with it. It's worth it. 

So Much Blue—Percival Everett: I'm not sure why Everett is not on the top of the bestseller list every single day. Well, I actually believe I know why, but that's for another blog post. This novel is absolutely perfect. I am not one who quickly puts books in the "perfect" category but his story of artistry, love, death, danger, and human longing is as good as any story you will ever read. 

The Zen Commandments—Dean Sluyter: I have always been interested in Zen philosophy but I've  struggled to immerse myself in the discipline. Much of what I read is either too simplified or far too complex. Believe me, I've tried. I've wondered many times if I am simply incapable of fully understanding, reaping the benefits. That was until I started reading this book. Sluyter quotes Bob Dylan, William Shakespeare, the great rock critic Lester Bangs, and Aristotle. How can a freshman student of Zen go wrong? 

Walking—Henry David Thoreau: This was originally an essay in the Atlantic Monthly, taken from a lecture Thoreau gave around 1850. It remains a classic for the environmental movement, linking man and nature as profound partners. But what I find most endearing about this short, tiny book is how it promotes the art of movement, how it urges man to get out and see what is around him, to saunter and wander. Not to hurry through life; not to rush from one event or the next. It encourages and champions what many of us would categorize as "wasting time." Take a walk, Thoreau says, because it will replenish you.

The days are ticking away. Go read. 






Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Digitized: The End of the World?


Let’s get one thing straight from the top. I am not one who believes the Internet, the smartphone, or the digital revolution are going to destroy mankind, turn us into cyber zombies, or wither our brains. If you are old enough to remember, similar warnings were made when TV sets became affordable enough to land in living rooms all over America. And oh my, then there was cable! And let’s be clear, author Larry Kilham, the very knowledgeable and astute observer, researcher, and scholar of the digital world and author of the book The Digital Rabbit Hole (FutureBooks, 1/2016) is not suggesting society’s digital transformation is the beginning of the end of the world. But he is suggesting a cautionary tale. And that is enough. 

https://www.amazon.com/Digital-Rabbit-Hole-Larry-Kilham-ebook/dp/B01A3MTVBS


This is not the place for the debate on whether smartphones and the digital arena are a detriment or a revelation for society. Certainly all of us have experienced both sides of this issue—the good and the bad. There are incredible merits to smartphones, the Internet, wearable media, and the overall digital dynamic, but when our children appear to have been sucked in by the power of the cyber monster and zone-out on us, well, that’s the time we curse the new world order. This argument and dilemma have been bandied about in myriad of ways—op-ed pieces, documentaries, countless news stories, and certainly books. What is debatable is whether we needed yet another book on the subject, one more cautionary tale. Despite my disbelief that the digital world will somehow end all good and bring us only despair, I believe we do need this book.

The Digital Rabbit Hole is an insightful scrutiny of our digital place in the world. It does not necessarily offer gloom and doom; although Kilham does make the suggestion that tossing your smartphone off a bridge into a river might be a good idea. And at times the book even offers a true hopefulness for what a digital life can bring. “Digital media and services will be a basic resource for people to advance their lives,” Kilham writes. The caution in this cautionary tale comes in the strong proposition that all of us must find a way to limit our time with digital media in order to manage potential anxiety and the seeds of narcissism—our desperate need to be noticed and recognized. But the most important observation Kilham makes is a much larger one, a societal one. He writes prophetically about how digital media may be eroding truth. “A major problem in households as well as in an active democracy is whether people lose interest in the truth or even how to find it,” Kilham writes. He intimates that by gorging on instant and constant information through a deluge of digital media outlets, we are many times only confirming what we already believe or just using this collected information to “make us feel good.” And if that is the case, then “why take the time and effort to see if there is deception, misinformation or misunderstanding involved?” This is the most significant of the cautionary tales. Not that we might ignore a dinner guest because we can’t wait to check our online banking account or that our children are compelled to Snapchat one more experience when they should be doing homework. It’s a bigger, bolder issue, one of profound consequences. Kilham addresses it clearly and with a sharp vision.



The Digital Rabbit Hole is written in a readable, relatable, and conversational style, yet it delves into serious and sometimes complicated issues. Kilham explains them and shares them with ease. This makes for a gratifying read and one that I would suggest might be good to share as a family—all members agree to read the book and take some time to discuss it, talk about it, debate it. You’ll not only be focusing on one of the more pertinent issues of our time, but think about all the personal non-digital talk time you can chalk up without once looking at your smartphone.



Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Writer Went Walking

I've been thinking a lot about walking. Coincidentally, I was reminded about walking and its intrinsic connection to writing when I was...taking a walk. It is the ultimate mindful release. One foot in front of the other—briskly or leisurely wandering. And it has been celebrated by writers for centuries. 




Great writers walked. William Wordsworth, it has been said, walked some 180,000 miles in his lifetime. Virginia Woolf walked the English countryside. Dickens walked at night when he couldn't sleep. Hemingway walked to work out kinks and hiccups in his writing. Think A Moveable Feast. Henry Miller said most writing happened away from the typewriter, much of the work while out for a walk. And Henry David Thoreau famously walked in the woods around Walden four hours each day. “The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours …but it is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day," Thoreau wrote. 



We know the health benefits. Blood flow. Exercise for the muscles. But there is also mindfulness. Silence. Solitude. Walking permits the gods to enter your spirit, especially when one has no destination. No place to be. No set agenda. No Google map to adhere to. It's the essence of freedom; freedom at its most primal. Walking frees the mind. Famous thinkers walked. Aristotle—a great mind working while moving. John Muir—the man who walked through the woods he called home. And the Danish writer, Soren Kierkegaard who wrote until noon each day and then walked his way through Copenhagen each afternoon—thinking and writing in his head. "I have walked myself into my best thoughts," Kierkegaard said. 



But yet, with all this talk of walking and its benefits for the creative mind, one must also be reminded of the beauty a simple walk allows—for the process itself, when properly permitted, is a journey of the soul. 

I leave you with Rilke. 

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and charges us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave...
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.


                       —Rainer Maria Rilke

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Write or Publish...or Both




Are you a writer? You are, you know? If you write most days, you are a writer. If you write poems to yourself, you're a writer. If you write lyrics to songs no one hears but you and your closest friends, you're a writer. If you write short stories, personal essays, big books, little books, manuscripts unread, posts in your journal—you are a writer. And you can call yourself that proudly. 

It's the next step that makes you a professional. 

Writing is one thing. Publishing—in any form—is another. When a writer publishes—self-publishes, posts an original poem on Facebook, or has one of the Big-Five sign you to a contract, you are immediately compromising. You are adjusting and reworking and editing for an audience. And if you get paid, in any form, you can call yourself a professional writer. But I don't want to confuse the profession with the obsession, if you wish to label it that. Maybe that's too tough a word. (It rhymes with profession, so it seems good to use.) Still, writing as a profession is different than writing because it's a form of expression. Yes, some writers do both beautifully. Many of the greats had and have this dual spectrum. Still, as a writer—and you are one—you must decide what category you best fit into. 

It's okay to be in any one, or both, or have the desire for one or both. But the sooner you decide what kind of writing life you want to lead, the better writer you'll be. And, the more confidence you'll build. 



On July 20 at 7pm at the American Writers Museum in Chicago, I will be conducting a workshop on how to get your writing out into the world...how to get your writing published. That can mean a lot of things and the kind of writing you do and the kind of writer you are will help shape your publishing goals. What do you want to accomplish? What is the next step for you? I will touch on this and all the practical steps for getting your work out there. We'll discuss your writing, self-publishing, traditional publishing, and hybrid publishing. We'll talk about editors and agents and how and when to submit your work. There are a lot of places for your writing these days, more than ever before. 

 American Writer Museum, courtesy CBS2

Let's figure it out together what kind of writer you want to be, set some goals, and develop practical steps to move forward. You can sign up HERE. The American Writers Museum is a great space and I promise to make it worth your time.

Let's get your work out to the world. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Havana Dog Days


"For centuries, Cuba's greatest asset has been its people."—Pico Iyer

Havana is the home of the street dog. They can be found most especially along the cobblestone walkways near the Plaza Vieja. The dogs, in a symbolic way, are the soul of Cuba, a living creature seeking companionship and a place to live in peace, a place to call home. The street dog is as much Havana as the 1959 Chevy.

Credt: David W. Berner Instagram: @davidwberner

One night on a recent five-day trip to Cuba with my two sons, we sat in the late hours in the patio not far from the Plaza de San Francisco with the ancient statue of St. Francis of Assisi just down the walkway. A smallish, dirty-white, short-haired dog, curled up under our feet. He did not beg for food; he did not lean in, hoping to be scratched about the ear. The dog simply wanted to be near and he stayed with us until we left for our hotel under the steamy light of street lamps in the early morning hours. As we walked in one direction and the dog in the other, I remembered an old lesson from elementary catechism: St. Francis was the patron saint of animals, believing that all creatures are our brothers.

https://www.instagram.com/caseyberner/
Credit: casey berner Instagram: @caseyberner

Earlier in the day, a number of Cubans, certain we were Americans, had been intent on discovering from which U.S. city we had traveled. They asked about Chicago and the Cubs. Did we dislike Trump as much as they did; did we love Obama as much as they did? One young man, after asking how long we would be in his country, pleaded with us. "Please stay," he said. "You are from USA. Stay." He, like the street dog, seemed to want to be close to something more hopeful.

Cuba has changed and is changing. You see it everywhere. This beautiful country lost in time is both enchanting and exasperating, and as it stretches out from its isolation, shifting ever-so-slowly, it seeks hope, hope that something, someone will be its savior. Its people are proud of the revolutions—the three against Spain to gain its independence and even the one led by Fidel Castro against a right-wing, authoritarian government despite its lost idealism—and they are quick to find goodness in Che Guevara, the country's omnipresent spirit. But the people are keenly aware the idealism born in these conflicts was never fully realized. Because of this Cuba is still reaching for something else, curling up under the feet of the world, waiting to be delivered to the rest of us. 

For several days, my sons and I immersed ourselves in cigars and rum, silky black beans and sweet plantains, the sights of strikingly beautiful women, giant ceiba trees, royal palms, and the taste of sugar cane. We walked in Hemingway's footsteps and drank the liquor he drank. But we left remembering the street dogs and the hearts of the Cuban people passionately beating for more.

Credt: David W. Berner Instagram: @davidwberner

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Denis Johnson's Best Nine Paragraphs

“English words are like prisms. Empty, nothing inside, and still they make rainbows.”--Denis Johnson.


He was addicted to drugs and alcohol, even heroin, and was admitted to a psychiatric ward when he was 21 years old. But Denis Johnson got sober and got better. And so did his prose. Or should I say he simply became more prolific. He once said he thought his sobriety might hurt his writing. It didn't. In fact, his best writing--and in my estimation the best nine paragraphs in modern literature--came when he was straight. 


One of my favorite books of all time is Johnson's Tree of Smoke. It was the National Book Award winner in 2007. Not everyone liked Johnson's Vietnam War novel. The Atlantic called it "bad prose" in "unrelieved bulk." I cannot imagine what on Earth the reviewer could have been reading. Tree of Smoke is a masterpiece, on the same shelf with The Things They Carried, (another big favorite) and The Naked and the Dead. If you read anything from a war novel, read the first nine paragraphs of Tree of Smoke. It is as perfect as any opening in modern American literature. The Atlantic does not agree and the reviewer seems to be stuck on grammar and stylistics.One can miss art when they only concentrate on mechanics.

That's not Johnson's only great work. Jesus' Son is worth every word. His poetry and journalism is also not to be missed and his influences may have been as telling as his works. He once noted Dr. Seuss, Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, and the guitar solos of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix as ingredients in his creative juices.

But despite all the drama in Johnson's own life (he was married three times)and his work, what might be the most interesting thing about him is that he considered himself a "Christian writer." In a New York magazine article he said, "I have a feeling God finds us pretty funny. But that's all the speaking I can do for God--he doesn't go around talking about me." Johnson said God is always a theme in his work, always wondering about his existence in our troubled world.


Johnson will not be considered alongside the greats like Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Instead, he may be looked upon by some as a Kerouacian kind of character. Not in that he burned out in flames like Kerouac. Plus, he was a lot more formally trained as a writer. Unlike Jack, Johnson was able to turn around his early troubled life. Kerouac was not. Jack's life suffered and so did his prose after The Dharma Bums. But Johnson was like Kerouac because he could, like few others, shine a light on the troubled among us--the downtrodden, the under belly, the slightly off--who, in some way, always carried a bit of heaven in them. Kerouac was the same. Some would say his traditional Christianity helped him connect to those forgotten lives. In that way, Denis Johnson deserves to be considered among the very best.


Monday, May 22, 2017

The Final Days With Hemingway

In a couple of weeks, I am heading for Cuba and I feel like I'll be traveling full circle. 



For the last two years, I have been privileged to be the Writer-in-Residence at the Hemingway birthplace home in Oak Park, Il. I've conducted workshops in the home's living room and wrote stories in the attic office set up for the WIR. I've also helped choose the finalists and the winners in the Hemingway Shorts competition in the small library of the magnificent Victorian house and been honored to edit the literary magazine.

But now it is time to say goodbye to Hemingway's birth home and hello to Finca Vigia, the Cuban home where he lived for two decades, where he wrote The Old Man and the Sea. I will also visit Cojimar, the tiny village nearby and eat in Hemingway's favorite restaurant, which is still there, I'm told. I will walk the grounds of his home where he occasionally played baseball with the local children, and peer in the windows of the house, left just as it was in 1960.


And as I do this, I will remember the home in Oak Park and especially the solitude of one early morning.

One of the questions I have been asked more than any other is whether or not I have encountered any ghosts in the home. I won't say that I have. But I will say I have experienced a presence. Much of the time I spent writing at the Hemingway House was in the early morning. It was the best time. The attic office was cool, there was no one around, and the light through the southern window was always just right. One morning as I sat at the desk editing a manuscript that would later be published as the novel Night Radio I sensed a kind of momentary euphoria. It is that fleeting moment when the world seems in perfect balance; when all is well with the world; when the creative work seems effortless and there is no flinching or second-guessing your work. That's a rare thing in creative endeavors. But the Hemingway house gave me that, at least for one beautiful morning. Now, it's off to Cuba.


The birthplace home has a dedicated staff, smart and thoughtful people work and volunteer there, and they have made my stay unforgettable. Thank you, Hemingway house. Thank you for your kind shelter and particularly for that one magnificent morning.



Monday, May 8, 2017

The Best Thing You Can Do For a Writer

October Song, my latest book, is now officially out there. It's time to review it and tell everyone you know—friends and family and colleagues. Post to social media. Buzz, buzz, buzz. And you are the only one who can do this.


The book launch party at The Book Cellar in Chicago was a wonderful time. Family, friends, colleagues, supporters, and lovers of memoir came out to support the new work. It was humbling and surreal in many ways, seeing all those people—some 45 of them—from all walks of my life along with the Cellar's patrons. My son talking to my college roommate. How weird is that?

So what now?

All authors know the process is a marathon and not a sprint. And yes, I want to sell books. But for me it's mostly about the story—getting it out there and touching people somehow. This is what really drives me to write. And to help get the word out, Amazon and Goodreads are key.

I love the independent bookstore. The Book Cellar is one of the best. And I applaud the radio shows, podcasts, newspapers, and journals that talk and write about literature, authors, and books. But the reality is many of the previous avenues of "getting the word out" are no longer or have small audiences. There are fewer and fewer places to spread the word. So, Amazon and Goodreads reviews are the new normal.
 
If you like October Song—if you like ANY book you read—the best thing you can do for me, for any writer, for literature in general is to put in an honest review at Amazon or Goodreads. It doesn't have to be long and tedious; it simply has to be real. One paragraph is plenty. Write from the heart. Be true to how you feel. It is the new way to share your feelings on the written word and it is invaluable to authors, writers, and readers everywhere. Next, share it. Tell your friends. Post your thoughts and reviews on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram.

Those first few weeks are CRITICAL. Buzz is big. And your reviews and sharing of those reviews are gigantically important.


So, with that, read October Song and click on the Amazon or Goodreads links below and have at it. Post to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest.

Every book lover, every storyteller everywhere will thank you.

Amazon-October Song Review
Goodreads-October Song Review






Thursday, April 27, 2017

Throwing a Book Launch Party



Prepping for a college party at your tiny sophomore apartment: Pick up several six packs, maybe a cheap bottle of tequila, lemons, some chips, some dip, make sure the ashtrays are empty, and be certain the music is ready. In my day this meant the turntable's stylus was relatively new and the vinyls were stacked in an appropriate order so you could play entire sides without having to change the record.

Preparing for your wedding: Say yes to everything she wants and show up on time.

Prepping for your child's birthday party: Order lots of pizza. Make sure the pies are cheese only. Kids aren't into your garlic and mushroom slices. Have plenty of cake and ice cream. Vanilla is best. Hire a clown. No, scratch that. Bad idea. Instead, buy a pinata that will break with only a few weak whacks, not one you have to take a chainsaw to. Get balloons.

Preparing for a book launch party: Don't forget to order books. Either you or the bookstore. Make a list of people who like you, or at least can tolerate you. Invite them. Tell them there will be wine. Remind them. Tell them again there will be wine. Remind them again. Pray they show up.

I've written several books, but I've never had a full-out book launch party. October Song is my first. So, please be gentle.


I've done readings, signings, and appearance events. But this is far different. This is the arrival of your newborn, fresh from the hospital. You walk up the driveway holding it tight and everyone is going to want a look. Ugly baby? If it is, no one will admit it. You'll coo after it, kiss it, and caress it. But ultimately in time, your child will have to find its own way and people will decide on their own whether the person you brought into the world is a good, solid human, someone who will contribute to our existence. It may seem odd to compare your book to a baby, but the book is your baby and you want people to like it. Hell, you want people to love it!

Saturday, May 6th at 6pm at The Book Cellar, the wonderful independent bookstore in Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood, I will offer up my bouncing infant to a room full of people—hopefully, a room full. They will listen to me talk about all the work it took to deliver this sweet child and they will hear it speak its first words. And they will judge. Pretty baby. Nice kid. Can you get it to stop crying? 

Writers know this all too well: Writing is admitting vulnerability. It is opening scars and wounds and your heart. Certainly with memoir or personal essay, but also with fiction, there is always a little of us in everything we write and when we let the reader into our world, well, that means we are going to be judged. It means people will have something to say about us...and our babies.

I am so grateful to The Book Cellar for hosting the book launch and I am forever humbled by the people from all walks of my life—family, friends, colleagues, students, fellow writers—who say they will be there, will listen to me talk and read, consider buying a book, and tell me how beautiful my baby is.

Last thing when prepping for a book launch: Remember to be thankful.











Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Why We Write

"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking." These are the words of Joan Didion, arguably one of the best essayists to ever put down words. This quote has been repeated many times. But I use it here because it's so true—to some degree—for nearly all of us who write. We write to own our thoughts.


Why do we write? More specifically, why do we bother? It can be laborious work. That too has been repeated so many times in many renditions from many writers. We all know that quote from Hemingway about bleeding at the typewriter. Frankly, that notion—that writing is drudgery—is just not true for most of us Nearly every writer will tell you when things are going well on a story, it is far from painful. It is glorious. Pure pleasure. When it's not going so well is when writing is true work and there's at least a bit of bleeding.

There have been many ideas about what motivates great writers to write. Truman Capote said it was about hearing the "inner music that words make." F. Scott Fitzgerald believed you write not because you "want to say something but because you've got something to say." Each of these suggests a sort of obsession, a visceral need to tell a story.

For me, these comments and all the many that have been shared when I've asked the question, why do you write, are really about creative energy, the energy of life. So, why do I write? To feel fully alive. And that seems to say it all.

I asked several writers in the Chicago area to offer their thoughts—Why do you write? Although there is a similar thread weaving through the answers, they also are as varied as the stories we tell.

Rita Dragonette is the author of The Fourteenth of September, a manuscript she's currently shopping. For Rita writing is about relevance. "Nothing is irrelevant," she writes in one of her blogs posts. "We are the ancestry.com of our times and to continue to move forward there's an imperative to connect the dots..."

Sandra Colbert: "I write because I must. Some questions get answers. Some demons purged. And then there is the laughter."

Barbara Barnett: "I think I write because I have all these stories cluttering my mind. I go to the grocery store, or whatever, and every observation becomes a potential scene or impetus for a new story."

Lou Holly: "I began writing novels several years ago because I had characters that wouldn't leave me alone."

Joyce Pyka: "For therapy...to educate myself and others, to make discoveries about new things, places people and myself."

Kristin Oakley: "Because my characters get pissed off if I don't!"

Sandra Tadic: "I write to purge."

Danielle E. Shipley: "First I wrote for fun. Then I wrote for passion. Now writing has become so much a part of my identity, I wouldn't know who I am without it."

Tricia Wagner: "I write because I feel I have more lives to live than the one I  was born to."

Maria Hansburg: "To keep the voices in my head alive!"

Lee Delarm: "I write for two reasons...it feels good...and...because I feel it's the only way I'm going to have a true legacy behind...even if the books aren't popular."

Iris Orpi: "I write to feel powerful again whenever I feel powerless."

Tamara Gaumond: "It's cathartic. I have stories to tell and I can live vicariously through my characters."

Pat Camalliere: "I've had a book in my hand practically since the day I was born. It was time to move out of the audience and see what it was like on stage."

Cynthia Clampitt: "I love ideas. I love words. And I love more than anything else sharing everything I discover with others."

Tanya Talmadge-Ethridge: "I write for fun, passion, and release."

Mary Ann D'Alto: "I write for the same reason that I breathe; I simply must. There really is no other answer."


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Most Memorable Memoir

I have read a wonderful memoir.

I love memoirs. I write them. So, there's that. But I'm not necessarily a fan of memoirs about highly dysfunctional lives, diseases, abuse, overcoming incredible tragedies—the so-called addiction/recovery/messed-up family/Mommy Dearest memoir. There's a place for these stories and they can have great impact. Some are superbly told through brilliant writing. Some have been labeled classics and are studied and dissected in creative nonfiction classes at universities. Still, I'd rather not.


I do love memoirs that go deep, however, deep into self-examination, adventure, escape, and exploration without the unspeakable tragedy underneath. Troubles, yes. Pain, yes. And that's where the book The Point of Vanishing comes in.

This memoir by Howard Axelrod is about his two years in solitude in the woods of Vermont after losing the sight in one of his eyes. It was published two years ago but I'm only getting around to it now. I wish I had read it sooner. I'd have read it twice. Three times.

Yes, there is a life-altering accident at the center of Alexrod's story but it's at a level that relates. This is to say, it is not over-the-top. What happened to the author could happen to any of us. I'm not intending to lessen the severity of Alexrod's injury but his experience could be any of ours. Like a car accident, his accident could occur at any time or anywhere to anyone. However, the injury is not the true thread of the narrative, but rather it is Alexrod's own inner uncertainties. The eye accident only triggers the deeper story and so the book is far more about personal examination—who he is, where he belongs and why.  


Memoirs come in all shapes and sizes, just as tragedies do, just as lives do, just as we do. But no matter the story, in the end, personal narratives have to connect with the lives of the readers in a visceral way. Not all of us experience unthinkable tragedies but all of us at times live the unmanageable life, the unbalanced existence, and any of this can be eloquently examined. Always, however, the story needs to go deeper than the source of the pain.

The Point of Vanishing is not the only memoir that accomplishes this. But it was the one most on my mind today and the one I would recommend for those looking for a memoir that goes beyond the horror of one's personal catastrophe.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Breslin and Berry


Here's what famed New York newspaperman Jimmy Breslin once said...

"Pick up any newspaper in the morning. Count the words in the lead sentence. There will be at least twenty-five in all of them: Guaranteed. The writers just want to tell you how many degrees they have from this college or that university."

  


He was the king of simplicity. Beautiful, succinct, telling words that could cut through you and cut through to the heart of the story. Try this on for size, a column he wrote about the gravedigger for a fallen leader...

"...he hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment o he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy." 

While every other reporter covered the main story of the funeral for JFK, Breslin stepped away from the pack and wrote the best, truest story of them all. Simple and unforgettable. 

Breslin died at the age of 88. A long life of telling great...simple...stories. 


And on the day before his death, another great left us. Chuck Berry. He was 90.

Here's what John Lennon said about Berry...

"One of the all-time great poets, a rock poet."

And what was Berry's approach? Simplicity. 

Yes, he taught every guitarist how to plant their feet in the middle of rock-n-roll, but his lyrics were groundbreaking. Not in the Dylanesque way, but think about it...before Berry who ever wrote a song about the agony of paying bills? Simple; to the point. 

Runnin' to-and-fro,  hard workin' at the mill
Never fail, in the mail, comes a rotten bill
Too much monkey business
Too much much business for me to be involved in.


Hemingway is always touted as the one to emulate when it comes to simple prose. But truth is, Breslin and Berry may have collectively touched more people with their clean style and observant eyes. Breslin was likely the greatest newspaperman of all time. Berry was likely the greatest rock-n-roller of all time. Both laid foundations. Both told it like it is. Both knew how to touch the Everyman. Both were heart, guts, and soul. 

And they did it with simplicity.