Join Blog

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