Leaning Against A Shovel

I feel fine. Resuscitating my blog has given me literary notions to live indolently.

God, the last post I wrote was way back in August. Tempus fugit. But I’ve been busy, right. Busy with master stuff. Like brainy stuff. Stuff with brains in it, like headcheese.

I’m now the happy owner of an MFA in creative writing from Stonecoast. Honors and privileges have come my way like a stray dog, and like a stray dog, honors and privileges have sniffed me, raised their legs, and trotted off.

At my very last residency as a graduate student, I met with an agent. She wasn’t interested in my novel. As she romanced the other two writers, I drifted away like Pluto, no longer a planet, just some large chunk of ice.

My ears did perk up, though, when she went on a about Twitter, how authors need it like a chamber pot under the writing chair. But I just don’t know if I’m ready to Twitter yet. I mean, why would I Twitter and have 2 or 3 followers, if that? How sad is that. I’d rather go for a walk and bump into a couple of strangers and ask them if they prefer a culture of perpetual complaint or one of unlimited imagination.

I like what Mr. Wilde has to say about Twittering: “The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.”

You wait, though, when that day comes when I eventually have a book deal and a pound of stolen chocolate, I’ll be asked if I would care for a cup of Twitter and I will go giddy in the knees and say, yes, bring on the 140 dancing characters.

The thing about these tiresome social platforms is that we are being intoxicated by them while not getting truly drunk. All we have to do is look back, oh, I don’t know, 10 years, and how on earth were writers reaching readers then? Who was picking up books then? Did nobody fucking read 10, 20, a hundred years ago? Why have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater and don’t believe that before these social platforms people did read, read lots, found writers out (I know I did), because look at all the authors out there, surely they didn’t come fully formed through social media, right? I’m sick of hearing that all these social platforms are the new sliced bread.

Write the books and they will come. But the thing is, publishers, agents, even writers don’t have patience now. Every book must sell right off the press. What ever happened to building a readership over time, nurturing a writer, writing and living and even having another job? It’s all get to the shagging now, no time for seduction and courtship and romance.

Yes, I know, I’m an old crone in young man’s boots. But just because something is “new” it’s not entirely satisfying. Being satisfied shouldn’t be equated with 50 Shades of Gray.

“It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” Wilde

Like everyone else and their colonist ancestors, I’m enjoying Downton Abbey, the new class struggle. But, my interest was waning. There was just too many subplots to keep straight and not enough family secrets in the pantry. And then what do I get? Lady Sybil dies! There were so many buckets of tears at my manor, I had to haul them downstairs. Why did they have to do that? Couldn’t they have at least had Edith try to lure Sir Anthony Strallan to a wheat field and a combine harvester cuts him down or couldn’t the Countess of Grantham be found in Ethel Parks’ bed?

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Advice To a Curmdgeonly Middle-Aged Writer

“You are old, Mister Timms,” the young writer said. “Why, aren’t you closing in on 45? Surely you shouldn’t be still standing on your head. Surely you should have both feet firmly planted in the publishing world.”

“In my youth,” Mister Timms replied, “I feared.”

“Feared what?”

“Everything. Nothing. And I suppose, I’ll do it again and again.”

“You are old,” said the young writer, “as I mentioned before. And you’ve grown most uncommonly fat with words, with reading, with keeping notebooks. Don’t you want to slim down and get a book deal?”

“In my youth,” said the sage-smelling Mister Timms, as he stroked his shaved head, “I kept my imagination very supple by the use of daydreaming — one shilling the box. Allow me to sell you some.”

“You are old,” said the young writer, “and your jaws are too weak for saying the same thing to yourself over and over. Still, you’re close to finishing your book now, which has promise and a beak. Pray, how did you manage to do it?”

“In my youth,” said Mister Timms, “I took to literature from a young age and argued with every single writer I loved. And the muscular strength which it gave to me has lasted the rest of my life.”

“You are old,” said the young writer, “one would hardly suppose you could even carry on a steady Twitter, Facebook page, or blog. Yet you have balanced a whole book on the end of your nose. What made you so awfully cheerful?”

“I have answered these questions and that is enough!” said Mister Timms. “Don’t give yourself airs. Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff? Be off, or I’ll kick you down the stairs!”

Allister’s Adventures in Wonderland

This is the commencement speech I gave at my graduation ceremony earlier this January when I received my MFA in creative writing from Stonecoast, the University of Southern Maine’s low residency graduate program.

Before I begin, I’d like to add a quick author’s note: This is not a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are not the product of the author’s imagination but a part of his experience at Stonecoast. Any resemblance to actual Stonecoast persons, living or dead, is entirely true and entirely intentional.

A lot of you will may well recognize this tale. That’s okay. In the words of the writer Jeanette Winterson, “Trust me, I’m telling you stories.”

Allister, like many young writers, was beginning to get very tired of sitting by himself in front of his computer and having nothing to do. Once or twice, he had peeped into other writers’ lives and discovered that they had decided that while making daisy chains did have its pleasures, sometimes having an MFA in creative writing was worth the trouble of getting one’s backside out of one’s writing chair.

When suddenly, a white envelope with a pink stamp arrived in his mailbox. There was nothing so remarkable in that: he received mail most days. And neither was it very much out of the way to see it was addressed to him (when he thought it over later, though, it occurred to him that there was something very unnatural about the bulk of the letter).

At this point, to cut a long story short, the envelope contained his acceptance letter to Stonecoast. “Oh, dear, oh dear,” said Allister (In the original text, the white rabbit says this, but Allister doesn’t own a rabbit), “I never expected this!”

And what surprised him even more was that he had to decide whether to drink the old fantasy potion labeled Popular Fiction or eat the mushroom stamped with the serious words Literary Fiction. He wanted to nibble both, but were such things allowed? Surely it was like falling down a rabbit hole after a white rabbit in a waistcoat. And he knew literary fiction wouldn’t stand for that. So it had to be pop fic. And running across his living room floor to plop down on his sofa, he tripped over a couple of months and before he knew what was happening, he was driving down, down, down to his first residency. Since he had plenty of time to think on his drive, he wondered if perhaps one day his own book he was writing would be found on someone’s bookshelf or if there was a chance of getting orange marmalade at the Harrasseeket, the pleasure-dome to which he was going to stay for the next 10 days.

“The family will miss me tonight,” he thought, trying to find the room his golden key fit, even though the number was on it. But he was too nervous and distracted to think straight. “God, I hope they’ll set out a saucer of milk for me in my absence. Oh, Dinah,” he said, which was neither the name of his wife or his two daughters, but he was in a dreamy sort of way and he could have sworn he overheard another student say he was writing a killer fantasy about a white rabbit that eats little girls.

“Oh, my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting,” he said, stealing lines from the rabbit again, and he tried to slip into his room before a queer looking party, whose nametags spelled Zach Mouse, Adam Dodo, Julie Duck, Adam Lory, and Ian Eaglet, appeared, all dripping wet and cross and uncomfortable, having just come back from a swim in the pool.

“I beg your pardon,” said Zach Mouse, frowning, but very politely. “Did you speak, dude?”

“Not I!’ said Adam Lory and Adam Dodo together.

“I thought you did,” said Zack Mouse. “Don’t do it again while I proceed: and who’s got Holder and Kimball this residency, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria? Even the Workshop Doctor, the patriotic archbishop of Canterbury, found it advisable.”

“Found what?” said Julie Duck.

“Found pop fic,” said Zach Mouse rather crossly. “Of course you know what pop fic means?”

“I know what pop fic means well enough, when I find a story,” said Julie Duck, “it’s generally with a giant frog that eats virgins. The question is, what did the archbishop find?”

“Speak horror!” said Ian Eaglet. “I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!”

“Curioser and curioser,” said Allister as he fell flat onto his bed. He sprang up when he saw someone sitting in the room’s chair, fingers folded beneath his chin, sucking on a hookah. “Who are you?” said David Anthony Durham.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Allister replied, rather shyly, “I, I hardly know, mentor, just at present — at least I know what kind of writer I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed genres several times since then.”

“What do you mean by that?” said David. “Explain yourself.”

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, mentor” said Allister, “because the self is a fiction, you see.”

“I don’t see,” said David.

Allister quickly excused himself in his own room to get some last minute critiquing done before his first workshop.

“Come back!” David called after Allister. “I’ve something important to say.”

This sounded promising, certainly: Allister turned and came back again.

“Be prepared to play loup garoux,” said David.

“Is that all?” asked Allister.

“No,” said David. “There may be some arm-wrestling required.”

Allister now hid behind the room’s curtain. “Oh, god, genre does matter,” he thought, when only moments before he was not particular to any.

Stepping out from behind the curtain, Allister was a little startled to see the writer Elizabeth Hand sitting on a bough of a tree. And in his room.

Liz Hand only grinned when she saw Allister. The mentor looked good-natured, he thought: still, Liz had very long credentials (Three World Fantasy Awards, two Nebula Awards, the James M. Tiptree Jr., two International Horror Guild Awards, and the Shirley Jackson Award), so he felt that Liz ought to be treated with respect.

“Would you tell me, please, which genre I ought to pick?” he asked.

“That depends a good deal on what you want to write,” said Liz.

“I don’t much care, as long as what I write is good,” said Allister.

“Well, in that case,” said Liz, waving her new published thriller in one direction, “you’ll want to take a workshop with Jim Kelly” and waving her other recently published Young Adult book in the other direction, “or take a workshop with Scott Wolven. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Allister remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said Liz. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know, I’m mad?” said Allister

“You must be,” said Liz, “you’re a writer.”

And then Liz Hand vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of her tail, and ending with her grin, which remained some time after the rest of Liz had gone.

Allister fell asleep and dreamed a bestseller.

The next morning was his first workshop. There was a table set out under a tree in front of the Stonehouse, and Scott Wolven and Jim Kelly were having a deep conversation about whether a writer should think like a dinosaur. A student was sitting between them, fast asleep, and Wolven and Kelly were using the student as a cushion, resting their elbows on him, and talking way over his head.

“Have some whiskey,” said Wolven in an encouraging tone.

Allister looked all around the table, but there was nothing on it but marked-up students manuscripts.

“Your story wants cutting,” said Kelly. He had been looking at Allister for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

“And you should say what you mean,” added Wolven.

“I do,” Allister hastily replied. “At least, I mean what I write.
That’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said Kelly. “You might just as well say that ‘I write slipstream fiction’ is the same thing as ‘I slipped in a stream.’ ”

“Suppose we change the subject,” said Wolven. “I vote the young writer reads from his story.”

Allister did, about the Erlking who steals young children, a werewolf, a cast of other characters, and the setting of the twilight of the Third Reich.

“You need more plot and your pov is all over the place,” said Kelly.

“Attend some cons,” said the student, very earnestly.

Allister was silent. Until it was time for him to speak.

“Kill your darlings!” someone shouted. It was the Queen of Hearts, the only fictional character in this story. She stomped from workshop to workshop shouting this refrain over and over.

That night, after his first day of workshops, Allister slept like a baby that had been turned into a pig, snoring happily in the knowledge that he was at home with his fellow writers.

“Wake up, Allister dear!’ said his wife, “Why two long years have gone by and you’re about to graduate.”

“Oh, but it’s been such a wonderful dream!’ said Allister, and he told his wife, as well as he could remember after all the late-night parties at Townhouse 4 and the games and the hot tubs and the open mics and the Stonecoast follies, all these strange adventures of his that you have just been hearing about; and when he finished, his wife kissed him and said, “It was a curios time, dear, but now it’s time to finish your book and makes us some money.”

So Allister sat, with his eyes half-closed before his keyboard, half believing he had graduated, half believing he was still in Wonderland, though he knew, like every writer knows, that all would now change to the everyday reality once again, with only glimpses of his adventure seen in the Facebook posts that spoke about another great residency, another fantastic workshop, another presentation on the dangers of making fires in the Stone House.

Lastly, he pictured himself as an old man, many years from now, a published author, relaxing in his writing shed. And feeling the luck of ages, he gazed with eyes bright and clear and wondered how many strange tales he would have written if he hadn’t gone to Wonderland all those long, long years ago.

The End

Working Man’s Monologue

I was at the Laundromat today, watching the washing machine turn on its cleaning cycle of water and detergent when I overhead this conversation I kept having with my self:

“I don’t read difficult books. You know, the kind written by whats-his-name? that French writer, M John Harrison, or else that Chinese writer who like stole his name from the guy who wrote Moby. You know what I’m saying, right?”

The rinse cycle starts.

“Sure, I don’t read that stuff because it’s just style and no substance. Forget what Goethe said about having not one style but many styles, you know.”

The bleach enters its chosen hole.

“I know, cause I read to be entertained, to pass the time, or else to be instructed.”

“Wait. I’m not being entirely straight with you here.”

“What do you mean? You’re not like a closet artist type are you?”

“I don’t know. I mean what is genre? It’s like that Russian dog that went into space on board the Sputnik 2 to determine if a living animal could survive being launched into space.”

“Shit, you lost me there. Are we still talking about books or Russian dogs?”

“I don’t know. I’m just feeling ecstatic and feeling like I’m being lifted out of myself, which is why I read.”

The spin cycle begins.

“So you’re saying you do like difficult books?”

“Yes. I mean, why not? We’ve all faced failure and we’ve all been on the edge of destruction time after time through wars, disease, famine, natural catastrophes, political and religious pestilence. So why should a difficult, challenging, confusing book threaten us? Where is the danger? Is it because we fear we might lose our fabricated self for a more fictional self that makes more sense?”

“You bastard! You do like difficult books. Why didn’t you ever tell me? Why?”

“Cause I never really thought of them as difficult books. I just don’t have time to read the low mimetic. I just don’t have an interest in naturalistic fiction unless it’s a fruit or a veg. I want to eat, not sample. I want to drink, not sip. I don’t want to read books that get on the track, run the race, and cross the finish line. I want books to turn the world upside down, inside out, back to front, anything but the status quo. I want an interruption to repetitive thinking and predictable plots, a suspension of disbelief, a disruption to everything that is conventional and linear. I want a jolt to my DNA. I want a language show, dammit, with stage lights and shadows banjaxing reality. Why read fiction where reality and characters and plot are all neatly laid out? There needs to be room for the absolute insanity of our present-day life, the worthlessness of all our values, the beauty, the utter strangeness and complexity and incomprehension of the life around us that cannot be captured unless through a fiction that wants to. And you know, difficult books don’t even ask us to be understood or accepted. They just want to be tolerated, that is enough.”

“Shit, now you’ve made me spill my ice cream on my shirt. That’s one more thing to toss into the load.”

I drop my quarters into the tumble dryer and sit back in the bucket seat, prepared to wait for everything to come out dry and static-free.

Snarls

The setting is a harbor in Maine. There are working lobster boats and those fey and insouciant yachts at anchor or else sailing away like a poor man’s dream.

This struggling writer is eating his lunch, watching an old guy and his grandson pluck mackerel from the sea. Adolescents leap from the pier into the brine or else caper on the docks vying for attention, desperately needing to be seen. But nobody pays them much attention — as it should be.

There are middle-aged mothers in bikinis with young children marching behind. The mothers are tanned, confident, soaking in the sun, eyes hidden behind shades. If they notice anyone, it’s only with a sigh. They, too, desperately want to be seen. But unlike the teenagers, these mothers want to be seen as the embodiment of youth. Those kids want to escape themselves as quickly as they can, so they continually dive with abandonment.

An osprey meanders above making sad discordant cries.

Tourists plod around, cameras at the ready, snapping up life, eager to dirty their clean, white sneakers. They comment on the postcard-perfect harbor, the light, the air, the lack of parking, the beauty all given to them as if out of a movie. They are so besotted with their vacation, with their wisdom for choosing Maine over California or Nebraska, that they huddle together for a family shot, their smiles so large, they go out to sea beyond the schooners. They’ll be there the next day, too, standing on the edge of the pier, waiting for those smiles to return.

A young couple kiss in the shade. Bodies entwined. They don’t seem to want to separate. They don’t seem to notice anyone else as they grope under the shelter of the tree. Maybe they think the shade is proof of their impulses. Maybe they innocently believe nobody is watching them. And who would in a beautiful harbor made for pleasure boats and satisfied tourists?

Maybe that’s what the arguing older couple think, too. In the face of nature’s beauty, who would fight, bicker, raise their voices, and accuse? It’s the perfect time to have a row. Nobody will be paying attention to the pettiness of man and woman when there’s nature blowing iridescent bubbles of splendor in your face.

“Why the hell did you walk by the lime kilns?”

“I thought we were going to see Andre the seal.”

“We stopped here to see the kilns. And you goddamn walk right by them.”

“I thought we agreed to see the seal and then the kilns.”

“Who the hell decided that. Not me. Why did we drive all this way just to walk by the kilns?”

“You could have said something.”

“Like what? Hey, honey, here are those damn kilns you’re walking right by.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Frank.”

“What?”

“You know what.”

“What?”

“We can walk over to the kilns if you want.”

“God!”

“What?”

“If you wouldn’t have walked by them in the first place, we wouldn’t need to walk back.”

“What’s the problem, Frank?”

“What?”

“The fucking kilns are over there, okay.”

“I know they’re fucking over there, you just walked right past them!”

“You’re hopeless, Frank,”

“Why? Because I want to see some goddamn kilns?”

“No, because you goddamn walked right by them, too.”

Life on Earth (Part 42)

Afternoon gov. How’s life on planet Earth? Not bad, not bad. Shame about the Olympics, though. Isn’t there some hint of intelligent life in the vast expanse of space who’s got bigger eggs to devil? But the Old Blighty isn’t doing bad. Got itself 24 Gold medals for the mantelpiece right next to the photos of Enid Blyton and Oswald Mosley.

But have you seen those photos of Mars from the Red Rover? Crikey. I hope we find life there. Cause then we can start downloading people. Plus, if we do find life, it will be Jaffa Cakes and bread puddin’, since it might stop us from thinking we are the Crumpets in the cosmos.

Just imagine it! Here we all are, stuck in our little teapot in our solar system, when out from the gamma rays steps the mothership like the Virgin Mary with a sentient life form suckling at her breast. And amid all the teabagging and sugar and spooning, this alien life simply scoffs, flashes us some indecipherable innuendos, flies off, and leaves us nothing but the recipe for turtle soup.

Actually, if we do find evidence of life on Mars, it might suggest that life is a hobo, travelling the galaxies, slumming from planet to planet in search of the next cheap thrill. I mean, I don’t see why life couldn’t have started billions of light years away and like a cosmic biker (think Easy Rider) slowly rode its way through galaxies, having these wonderful holidays, until the planet died and then hopping back on its bike and riding off as distant suns set behind it and new suns and planets beckoned, until, wham, bam, thank you martian, life ended up on Earth, worn-out, but trailing stardust and possibilities. Because life is very patient, isn’t it? Has to be when your only friend is evolution.