Thursday, December 28, 2017

Commit to Writing in the New Year

Here's my New Year's resolution...write until the well is dry.

I am convinced we need more writers in 2018; more fearless, more brave, more courageous writers. Not that we don't have them now. We do. But more is better. More is necessary. Humans are meant to tell stories, to shine lights on our lives, our dreams and fears, and shared realities. But to do this, it takes more than simple desire or nebulous inspiration. Writing—fiction, nonfiction, personal essays, memoir—is essentially a hard-won discipline.

I am fortunate to conduct workshops of all kinds from time to time, and much of what I hear from writers and would-be writers is this: I can't find the time. How do you find the time to write?

Here's the answer: There is no time to write. You have to make time. And in 2018, I am kicking all of us in the collective posterior, including myself,
I'm pretty disciplined with my writing but just like you, I falter. There certainly was a time when I would say exactly what many of you say—I don't have the time. Now, writing is a part of my existence. I make time and refuse to wait for "inspiration." If you wait for some higher power, you may never write. For those trying to get to this point, I have a suggestion: In 2018 take part in what I call the Take Ten writing project. It's pretty simple. And even if you already have a disciplined routine, this project might help to renew your commitment. 

Here's how it works in three easy steps:

1. Get a notebook. Something you use daily to dedicate to your writing. This can be a file on a computer or a nice leather journal or even a simple spiral notebook. 

2. Write every single day. I know you've heard this before, but the Take Ten approach is a bit different. This time we want you to focus mainly, at least at the beginning, on simply creating a routine. You want writing to be like brushing your teeth, habitual. Find ten minutes. That's it. Morning, lunch, before bed. Find a spot that yours. On the train, on the couch, at the kitchen table.

3. Lastly, write for those ten minutes and only those ten. Time it on your phone, your watch. Write anything. If you think you can or want to write longer, DON'T. Just write for ten minutes. Then, after ten days or so, write as long or as short as you like. But, and here's the key, from here on out keep writing at that time of day and at that same place. After ten days, the routine is likely to have become sealed somehow. If you set the routine in cement, the writing will come. 

Routine is what you are looking for. It's the bugaboo of the discipline like it is for anything worthwhile and Take Ten helps you to set that routine.

The approach is not unique, but it is simple. And the less complicated, the better. You can do this.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Surrounding the Writer with Great Things

Many of you know I have a writing shed. It's an 8x10 studio in my backyard of my home outside Chicago. Nothing fancy, but it's my singular space. I built the interior myself. It's heated. And inside, I have surrounded myself with wonderful things. Not a lot, but special items that either inspire me, motivate, or simply make me feel creative.

In your artistic space—whether it be where you write, sketch, paint, sculpt, sing, post in your daily journal entries, or mediatate—are you surrounded by beauty, love, comfort, your muse? Without sounding too pretentious, is that space "holy?" Not necessarily a place associated with a divine power, although it can be, but rather a sacred space of pilgrimage? When you enter this place, you should melt into it. There should be transformation. And sometimes the "things" we allow inside that space are what can help do that for us.

Here is what is in my space.

My shed has many books, but not all of them, only the ones that truly inspire and stimulate my own work.

Art from loved ones gives me comfort. The photography is my son Casey's work. The bowl is my son Graham's. The tree painting is Jen's, my stepdaughter. And there's the pen Graham made. I use it to enter notes in a journal.  
There are remembrances. The hat is from the trip to Cuba with my boys; a baseball I caught in the stands at old Comiskey Park along the first base side; a photo of myself with a number of writers honored at the Chicago Library Foundation's Carl Sandburg Literary Awards. And an old typewriter just like the one in Hemingway's home in Key West. I found it in an antique shop decades ago. 

On my desk, a watercolor of Dylan Thomas' writing shed above a boathouse in Wales, a gift from Leslie, my wife, that I will forever cherish.

Silly things, too, like a Jack Kerouac bobblehead. I spent three months in 2009 as the writer-in-residence, living at Kerouac's Florida home. And against the wall, one of my two acoustic guitars. It's the old Yamaha I bought when I was 16 with the money I'd saved from delivering the Pittsburgh Press newspaper to my neighbors. The guitar still sounds great.

Now and then I add items, but not many. Recently, I purchased an illustration, a print by my friend and colleague Nick Young. It's a portrait of Albert Camus. Camus' book The Stranger is on my top twenty list of all time. The framed print is on its way by UPS and there's a spot on the shed's wall waiting for it to arrive.

Fill your space with what invigorates, soothes, or stimulates you, and rid it of anything that takes you out of that experience. Build a place for solitude and daydreaming, where you can get out of your own head. Eliminate the distractions and embrace the creative.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The world is but a canvas to the imagination.”  Take his advice and paint your space with all that triggers the beautiful, the daring, the expressive.

Friday, December 15, 2017

How a Detox Cleanse Helped My Writing

My wife and I recently went on a cleanse. It consisted of two weeks of greens, very few carbs, no red meat, a mind-spinning number of salads, plenty of fish, no dairy, tons of water, and no alcohol or caffeine (which we cheated on a bit). We tolerated broccoli for breakfast and endured absolutely no chocolate. But we made it. 

For me, the first few days induced a carb-crash. I was irritable, tired to the point of being weak, and even dizzy. I missed toast with my coffee. I missed my occasional scone. I missed my sandwich with thick bread for lunch. But I got over it. After 4-5 days in,  it was a breeze. Energy was back and even renewed. When I struggled, Leslie shined and was incredibly supportive, making nearly all the meals and preparing my food for away-from-home lunches. Now, a week after the cleanse, we are accepting and embracing a new way of eating. It wasn't as if we were daily burger eaters, fast-food junkies, or Twinkies addicts. But this new commitment to eating leaner and simpler foods, and focusing far more on whole foods rather than processed, is a distinctly new discipline for eating, especially for me. 

So what's this have to do with writing?

As I was chewing on another Brussels sprout, (which I love, by the way) I also considered how the choice of what we put in our bodies is much the same as the many choices we make when writing. We all know that certain words are better than others, a major factor in good prose. "Processed" words—that is to say words that are overused, pretentious, or pompous, words with too many junky "carbs"—are bad. Look for lean, simple words, "whole" words that are distinctive and clean. Don't over-garnish your meals or your writing. Too much sugar makes for an over-sentimentalized story. Too much "salt" leads to water retention and bloated prose. As writers, when we overdo "red meat," it can lead to "clogged arteries" and the story (our blood) struggles to flow with any ease through our vessels. Our hearts—and the hearts of our stories—suffer.

Go on a writing cleanse. Rid your writing of excess, waste and empty energy. You'll not only feel better, your writing will be better, too.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Evidence of Flossing: Review

I am not a student of poetry, meaning I am not an academic of verse. But I am a lover of poetry and those who write it well. William Butler Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Mary Oliver, and my modern day favorite, Billy Collins. Poetry is personal; it is visceral. If I feel something when I read it, then it has done its job. If it makes me cry, smile, or laugh out loud, then it has cracked the space between poetry's far-too-often perceived pretentiousness and given me art, art for the heart.

Much of what one finds in Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind by Jennifer A. Payne, does just that. The collection is a mixture of photo art, journalistic photography, and verse that runs from social commentary to wide-eyed and microscopic observations. The poems are mostly about connection, how all of us and everything in the universe, even flossers, those weirdly shaped do-dads we use to clean our teeth, are part of the human condition. One of the themes of the book is linked to photographs of found flossers—in parking lots, on grassy knolls, next to a cigarette butt and to vegetation in a nature preserve. In mostly succinct verse, Payne wonders about the universe, the threads that connect and bind, and how even the most obscure items—like flossers—blend into our being, and at the end of the day, belong here just as all of us. I don't like to compare the works of authors to others, but I could not help feel and read the similarities in the themes to those of Patti Smith's M Train. Smith's wonderful book is not poetry,  but it is about the ephemeral and the everlasting, the threads between modern life, people, art, nature, and the spirit. Payne takes on the same themes and includes, as Smith does, the photography of what one might call "the instant." Photography that is of the moment, unpretentious, real, and utterly of the world.  

And the verse? Payne has a keen eye and a warm, tender heart. This is evident in poems like "The Times They Are a Changin'" and "Grocery Store: November 2016." Payne reveals an almost spiritual connection to the lives of others and proves how observation can unfold someone's story. In "Time Peace," she wonders about our unbearable links to the clock, how the man-made construct is capable of throwing us off the personal timepiece that ticks inside our souls. Payne takes on nature in several poems, but particularly in "Carpe Diem," where she touches on the fleeting nature of the natural world and how inattention to wonder—like the flight of a butterfly—can only diminish our well-being. 

Other poems like "First" and "Sustenance" are less impactful, falling a little flat for their subjects, but none-the-less important to the overall tenor of this otherwise thoughtful collection, a beautiful undertaking that is more than just a book of 'poems, but an artful, multi-layered statement about our very humanness and the universe. 

The French poet and novelist, Victor Hugo, wrote, "The reduction of the universe to the compass of a single being, and the extension of a single being until it reaches God—that is love." Jennifer A. Payne expands on those words with an unflinching account of our unshakeable relationship to the modern world around us, God, nature, and ourselves.  

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Five Tips for Reading Your Work to a Live Audience

I like doing readings. It's great to be in front of people in a tavern, a bookstore, a lit event at a library, reading your words to a crowd. Even if that crowd is five people. Yes, I've had that happen. Just the other night, in fact. Sometimes reading events just don't work out the way you hope. Still, you knuckle down and do it. You read with the same enthusiasm and with the same love of the words as you would for a hundred people. 

Billy Collins

There is a trick to reading aloud for an audience. Some authors are not very good at it. I attended a reading for a well-known bestselling author a few years ago (I won't say who—It was NOT Billy Collins) who was an awful reader of his own work. Reading takes a bit of acting, if you will. Now, I'm not suggesting I am the world's greatest live reader. I'm not. But I think I do know how to approach it and mostly my readings have gone pretty well.

Here are a five tips for reading your work to a live audience. 

1. Choose something that is self-contained—a scene, a chapter—something that has a reasonable beginning, middle, and end. A part of a book that needs too much explanation before reading or while reading doesn't work. It slows down your pace and energy. 

2. Read slower than you think you should. Reading aloud takes patience. Don't rush it. 

3. Vary your pace. When the action is cranking, read faster. When that lovely moment in the story is emerging, slow down. 

4. Keep up the volume. Depending on where you read, be sure people can hear you. If there's a microphone, use it if the room is big. If it's a small place, I suggest NOT using the microphone. It destroys the intimacy. 

5. Look at your audience. Try your best to lift your head and look around the room. Smile. Laugh when appropriate. Be present.

Keep these in mind when you do a radio interview, too. Obviously the microphone is necessary and you may not have a "live" audience in studio. But they are out there. That's for certain.

I recently broadcast a recorded reading for a radio station, WNIJ outside Chicago. And although I think I could have been a bit livelier with this read, I think it went pretty well. Take a look and listen to the first chapter of my memoir, October Song. 

Oh, one final thought about reading to an audience. Have fun. It should be fun. And if you have fun, your audience will, too. 


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

NaNoWriMo: How Not to Stop Writing

So, you’re working through NaNoWriMo. How’s it going? No, really, how’s it truly going? Be honest. Stuck? Is the flow being knocked off balance because you are incessantly editing? You’re worried everything you’ve been writing is garbage so you go back and check it, “fix” it, and edit, edit, edit.


If you’ve read my blog before you know I have a love-hate relationship with NaNo. I get the idea; I even applaud it. But really, do we need a special month? Why can’t we just get to it anytime, anywhere? Write, people. Just write. And learning to HOLD OFF ON THE EDITING—in the month of November or any month—is key to shredding your anxiety.

If you're so concerned with your work that you are continually going over it, page-by-page, sentence-by-sentence, while you are writing, then you are wasting valuable time and effort. Stop self-editing, pulling yourself back into the prose you wrote the day before, tweaking and twisting the story...before you create it. Create first.

Here are five tips to help keep you writing and not editing.

1.  Write while listening to music. Make a playlist of songs that fit the theme of your work and time it out roughly to the amount of time you have dedicated to write. Play it loud, through speakers or in your ear buds. Let music be your guide. Write with its rhythm, think of it as a workout, and don’t stop typing until the last chord.

Some music to consider: Miles Davis, Kind of Blue; The Decemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World; Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks.

2. So you don’t stop to look something up or do research, write in a placeholder. This was a suggestion I’ve seen in several books and web articles, including the BREVITY’S Nonfiction Blog, and I’ve been doing it in my work for years. Instead of wrecking the flow of your writing to search for information about which way the Chicago River runs, just type: LOOK UP CHICAGO RIVER INFO. This reminds you to do it later and and not while you’re writing. 

3. Consider a hard deadline and a stop sign. Don’t write until you have depleted the well. Leave a little. Write for an hour, or two. Set a timer. (Use that music!) But when the time is up, stop. Even in mid-sentence. This helps when you come back the next time. You can get going right away.

4. Turn off your Internet connection. It takes away the temptation to check your email, Twitter, or roam the web.

5. This is the time to only look forward. Do not look back. You are writing something meaningful, interesting, compelling, beautiful. But to get there, remind yourself that you have to let the flowers grow first before you prune. No pruning now. Let the garden grow, weeds and all. Then, and only then, when it is in full bloom, start the work of trimming, clipping, shaping, and fertilizing. Weeds may choke real flowers if you let them invade the garden, but the weeds in writing will only help you to see the beautiful blooms.

There’s a wonderful scene in the movie Finding Forrester when Sean Connery’s character—a recluse writer who befriends a young city boy who dreams of being a writer—teaches the young man a lesson about the craft of writing. He sits him down and demands that he get on with it. You have work to do. Go write.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

EVERY Month Should be NaNoWriMo

A couple of years ago, I produced a piece for radio on NaNoWriMo. The writing initiative was fairly new back then, so fewer people were taking part. But still, the idea was unique and inspiring for many aspiring writers. It was a chance to buckle down and be held accountable, especially when you publicly announced you were taking part, or joined a NaNoWriMo group, which is what my radio story was about. I like NaNoWriMo. It can be a motivator, a coach. But I think it's run its course and it's time writers in all stages see the difference between a gimmicky way to get writers writing and a lesson on how to be disciplined about your craft.

It's time NaNoWriMo morphed into NaNoWriYEAR.

You want to write? Make it part of your life. Get to it like you do your yoga class. Do it regularly and don't let anyone or anything knock you off your schedule. Five minutes a day? Do it. One hour every other day? Do it. Write on the commuter train? Do it. Write before the kids get up. Write after they go to bed. Find a place and a time and stick to it. And most of all, don't wait until November. Why can't June be the month? February? And better yet, every single day.

Hear NaNoWriMo radio story at my web site. left column, on the home page. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Best Book Titles?

I have been playing around with a newly "completed" manuscript, tinkering really. Actually, I'm not doing much of anything. An editor that I greatly respect has just finished combing it for...issues. She's been doing all the work. At the top of that manuscript is a title, and right below it, a second title, an alternate. The first is more poetic than the other, you might say, but the second is more succinct and clear.

"Which one do you like?" I asked. She chose the first over the second because the subtitle included words she believed were essential to the meaning of the manuscript. The second, she thought, included a word that was probably overused. Several others have read the manuscript and they made the same conclusion. So, was it a visceral response? Was it sheer math? (Too many other books with the same title or combination of words—think: The Girl With the...) Or was it something else, something that's hard to get one's head or heart around? Mysterious? Challenging? Compelling? What is it that makes a great title?

Great books are memorable in their entirety; they're great stories. But many times, books stand out simply because of the title. And there are the few that are great literature and possess wonderful, unforgettable names.

To Kill a Mockingbird

What a fantastic title! Now, put that up against another great piece of literature.

War and Peace

Frankly, too general. I can't imagine a publisher today agreeing with Tolstoy on that one.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 


A Confederacy of Dunes


Everything I Never Told You

How could you not pick up Celeste Ng's book and not read at least the first page?

It reminds me of another intriguing one.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

You also have the absurdly silly or provocative. The novelty acts.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

John Dies at the End

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

Steal This Book 

And the titles lifted from other works of literature.

Of Mice and Men—Steinbeck snatched the phrase from the Robert Burns poem, "The Mouse."

As I Lay Dying—Faulkner took it from Homer's The Odyssey.

A Farewell to Arms—Hemingway lifted this title from a poem by the Elizabethan writer, George Peele.

The worst titles? Far too many to mention. But try these on for size.

I Heart You, You Haunt Me


How to Poo at Work

Yep, a real book. 

Your favorite titles? Or maybe the worst you've ever seen? Let's hear them.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

I Hate My Writing

I'm at a five-way intersection. It's midnight. My headlights are not working. There are no street lights. A few street signs point to destinations but the signs are old or have been mangled by minor accidents of the past, they are twisted and no longer point to their designated endpoint. I  know where I'm going, or should I say I know where I want to be, where I want to end up, but the road there is unclear. So, here I sit, inside my vehicle with no map, no wifi, no cell service, mildly paralyzed.

This is exactly how I feel about where I am with my writing. I have two unpublished manuscripts that have been read by several reviewers, being read by several more, edited several times, tweaked and re-tweaked, and are making the rounds of publishers who accept unsolicited works. I feel good about them. I have a third in its infancy. More like the embryo stage. It's memoir, unconventional, and at this point in the process is little more than journals full of notes and computer files of documents. So, the work awaits.

And in the meantime, I hate my writing.

I've recently conducted readings from my published books and I despise what I'm hearing. Those in attendance appear to be pleased enough, but I hate my words. I want to rework everything, change the sentences, rewrite the paragraphs, redo it all.

Why is this?

A few other writers say they have experienced some form of this self-hate, this self-loathing. Is it the final self-realization that you truly are a crappy writer? I've been told it's just a matter of growth. You have grown as a writer and your earlier books don't stand up to what you expect from yourself now. That sounds like a pretty good excuse, doesn't it? Oh, I'm just better now. That's why those books suck! This appears far too convenient of an explanation.

I sulk. I pout. I wallow in frustration. Do I keep writing? Do I keep querying with new work? Do I give it all up completely and toss those earlier books in the trash? My publishers liked them enough, right? Do they still like them? One publisher told me this aversion to your own words is not so unusual. Every writer, at some moment in time, rejects their own writing. Not uncommon for all kinds of artists, he said. His cure? Go read a successful book that is poorly written. There are plenty of them, he insisted.

Kurt Vonnegut was said to have graded his published works, giving Happy Birthday Wanda June and Slapstick Ds. The critics didn't like these much either. And Franz Kafka famously asked a good friend to destroy all of his works after his death. Of course, the friend did not. So, knowing even the greats hated their words is supposed to bring comfort?

Sometimes I feel like I'm practicing and not really writing. So I remain at that dark intersection. My car stalled; my headlights still not working. Not sure where to turn next or how long I'll sit here. Not sure where my writing story is going. I wait for a sign, a flicker of light, the dawn, something to show me and this old jalopy the way to go.

Maybe I should just take the bus. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

What Makes Great Literature?

I have worked in broadcasting for 40 years in different cities, in varied genres, and I think I know what makes great radio. It's relevant, pertinent, compelling, authentic content. It can be delivered and presented in many ways, but the test is how it resonates with the listener—is it worthwhile and memorable. This I know. 

But what about literature? What makes great literature?

I remember a New York Times article that tried to answer that question. It listed several aspects that contribute to a great book: It's a good read; It's quotable; It's memorable; It touches people. Those seem rather pedestrian to me.

In a recent interview, literary rock star Karl Ove Knausgaard said good books had as the main attribute an element of "resistance." Bad books, he said, one could "glide through like a knife through butter." That cliche surely wouldn't show up in a "good" book. But, nonetheless. He suggested that literary rebellion is superior to familiarity. That may be part of it. But is it that simple?

How about these attributes: The high quality of language; The complexity of theme; The element of universality; It's re-readable. Pretty good. But the truth is, great literature is hard to define. 

If this is true, then how are the big literary awards chosen?  Why does a book get a Pulitzer, a Man Booker? How is a Nobel chosen? What are the criteria?

A blog post a few years ago by author and academic Anne Trubek was critical of the awards. She asked why are the elements of what makes a great piece of literature not clearly explained? Trubek recalled a conversation with a board member of the National Book Critics Circle about the organization's annual fiction award and why a certain work was not chosen. 

The reason? 


The characters, at least one, must be highly memorable. In this particular book, they were not. This may be the ultimate criterion. Fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction—it doesn't matter. Characters are key. Are they unforgettable? Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Dean Moriarty in On the Road. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Charlotte in Charlotte's Web. Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking.

It might be silly to think that one element of a book holds such weight. But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, characters are the ultimate test of what makes great literature.

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.

" 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.

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.