Friday, December 31, 2010

2007-2010 books read

Books read in 2010
Vonnegut, Kurt. Look at the Birdie. Delacorte Press: New York, 2009.
Eugenides, Jeffery. The Virgin Suicides. Picador: New York, 1993.
Beattie, Ann. Where You'll Find Me. Collier: New York, 1987.
McEwan, Ian. Atonement. Anchor Books: New York, 2001.
Brin, David. The Postman. Bantam Spectra: New York, 1985.
Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. Magnum: New York, 1967.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Trans. A.W. Wheen. Ballatine Books: New York, 1982.
Trumbo, Dalton. Johnny Got His Gun.
Leigh, Julia. Disquiet.
Brunel, Luis. My Last Breath.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go.
Kotzwinkle, William. The Midnight Examiner. 1989.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird.
Murakami, Haruki. After Dark. Vintage: New York, 2007.
Saterstrom, Selah. The Pink Institution. Coffeehouse Press. Minneapolis, 2004.
Kafka, Franz. Collection. Schochen: New York, 1995.
Baldick, Chris: editor. The Oxford Collection of Gothic Stories. Oxford: New York, 2009.
Gogal, Nikolay. Dead Souls. Robert A Maguire, trans. Penguin Classics: London, 2004.
McManus, John. Bittermilk. Picador: New York, 2005.

 Books read in 2009
Krusoe, Jim. Girl Factory. Tin House Books: Portland, Oregon, 2008.
50 Great Short Stories. Milton Crane, editor. Bantam: New York, 1971.
Keret, Etgar. The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God. Toby Press: Milford, CT, 2004.
Bradbury, Ray. Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bantam Books: New York, 1983.
Dahl, Roald. James and the Giant Peach. Puffin Books: New York, 1995.
Carver, Raymond. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Vintage Contemporaries: New York, 1989.
Peck, Dale. Martin and John. HarperCollins: New York, 1994.
Kotzwinkle, William. Christmas at Fontaines. Abacus: London, 1982.
O'Conner, Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard to Find. A Harvest Book: Orlando, Fl, 1982.
Highsmith, Patricia. Strangers on a Train. Norton: New York, 2001.
Mishima, Yukio. The Sound of Waves. Vintage International: New York, 1994.
Proulx, Annie. Brokeback Mountain. Scribner: New York, 2005.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Oxford World's Classics: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Book of Jonah. The New English Bible. Oxford University Press, 1971.
Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace. Penguin: New York, 1999.
Gaitskill, Mary. Bad Behavior. Vintage Contemporaries: New York, 1988.
Bradbury, Ray. Somewhere a Band is Playing & Now and Forever. HarperCollins: New York, 2007.
Benchley, Peter. Jaws. Fawcett: New York, 1974.
Mowat, Farely. The Snow Walker. Stackpole Books: Mechanicsburg, PA, 2005.
Clarke, Brock. An Arsonists Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: New York, 2007.
Hammett, Dashiell. Woman in the Dark. Knopf: New York, 1988.
Bradbury, Ray. “All Summer in a Day”
Bataille, George. The Story of the Eye. City Lights: San Francisco, 1987.
Cooper, Dona. Writing Great Screenplays for Film and TV. Arco: New York, 1997.
Levin, Ira. Rosemary's Baby. Signet: New York, 1967.
Bowles, Paul. That Sheltering Sky. Ecco: New Jersey, 1977.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Vintage: New York, 2006.
Gilmour, David. The Film Club. 12Books: New York, 2008.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Armageddon in Retrospect. Berkley: New York, 2008.


  1. Dickey, James. Deliverance. New York: Dell Publishing, 1970.
  2. Johnson, Charles. Middle Passage. New York: Plume, 1990.
  3. Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York. Penguin Books, 1986.
  4. Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception. New York: Perennial Library, 1970.
  5. Ecclesaistes. The New English Bible. The Delegates of the Oxford University Press, and The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1970.
  6. Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
  7. Steinbeck, John. "The Chrysanthemums." 50 Great Short Stories. Ed. Milton Crane. New York: Bantam Books, 1952. 282-291.
  8. Faulkner, William. "That Evening Sun." 50 Great Short Stories. Ed. Milton Crane. New York: Bantam Books, 1952. 352-367.
  9. Carver, Raymond. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Stories. New York: Vintage Books, 1982.
  10. Johnson, Denis. Jesus' Son. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
  11. Kotzwinkle, William. Elephant Bangs Train. Clinton, Massachusetts: The Colonial Press, 1971.
  12. Miller, Henry. Quiet Days in Clichy. New York: Grove Press, INC, 1965.
  13. Cain, James M. The Postman Always Rings Twice. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992.
  14. Quiroga, Horacio. "The Dead Man." Trans. Margaret Sayers Pede. A Hammock beneath the mangoes: Stories from Latin America. Ed. Thomas Colchie. New York: Plume, 1992. 4-9.
  15. Conroy, Frank. Stop-Time. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.
  16. Ruth. The New English Bible. The Delegates of the Oxford University Press, and The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1970.
  17. Kosinski, Jerzy. The Painted Bird. New York: Grove Press, 1995.
  18. Highsmith, Patricia. The Talented Mr. Ripley. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992.
  19. Kotzwinkle, William. The Exile. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1987.
  20. Colette. "The Other Wife." Trans. Matthew Ward. Sudden Fiction International. Ed. Robert Shapard and James Thomas. New York: WW Norton, 1989. 67-70.
  21. Bowles, Paul. The Stories of Paul Bowles. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, INC, 2001.
  22. Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
  23. Mrożek, Slawomir. "The Elephant." Trans. Konrad Syrop. Sudden Fiction International. Ed. Robert Shapard and James Thomas. New York: WW Norton, 1989. 98-101.
  24. Mamet, David. American Buffalo. New York: Grove Press, 1976.
  25. Corriveau, Art. Housewrights. London: Penguin Group, 2002.
  26. Bellow, Saul. Seize the Day. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1966.
  27. Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. New York: Grove Press, 1961.
  28. Welty, Eudora. The Optimist's Daughter. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
  29. Maugham, W Somerset. The Razor's Edge. New York: Vintage International, 2003.
  30. Cortazar, Julio. Cronopios and Famas. Trans. Paul Blackburn. New York: New Direction Classics, 1999.
  31. Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories. New York: Schocken Books, 1995.
  32. Alameddine, Rabih. I, the Divine. New York: WW Norton, 2001.
  33. Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
  34. O'Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories. New York: Harvest Books, 1981.
  35. McCullers, Carson. The Ballard of a Sad Café. New York: Bantam Books, 1958.
  36. Brautigan, Richard. The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966. New York: Touchstone Books, 1970.
  37. Vonnegut, Kurt. "Welcome to the Monkey House." The Treasury of American Short Stories. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. New York: Doubleday, 1981.
  38. Shtyengart, Gary. Absurdistan. New York: Random House, 2006.
  39. Gass, William. "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country." The Granta Book of the American Short Story. Richard Ford, ed. London: Penguin, 1992.
  40. Keret, Etgar. “Kneller's Happy Campers.” Trans. Miriam Shlesinger. The Bus Driver who Wanted to Be God. London: The Toby Press, 2004.
  41. Schulz, Bruno. The Street of Crocodiles. New York: Viking Penguin, 1977.
  42. Frankl, Viktor. Man's Search for Meaning. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2006.
  43. Babel, Isaac. “Crossing into Poland.” Trans. D. McDuff. Collected Stories. London: Peguin, 1994. 199-206
  44. Basho, Matsuo. “The Mountain Temple,” “Narrow Road to the Interior.” Trans. Sam Hamill. Narrow Road to the Interior. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Classics, 1998. 1-4, 38-41
  45. Forche, Carolyn. “The Colonel.” The Country Between Us. New York: HarperRow, 1981. 16
  46. Kerouac, John. “Desolation in Solitude.” Desolation Angels. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1995. 4-6
  47. Rosetti, Christina. “The Goblin Market.” Goblin Market and Other Poems, 1862. New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1994. 1-16
  48. Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. “In Golden Gate Park that Day.” San Fransisco Poems. San Fransisco: City Lights Books, 1998.
  49. Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. New York: Bantam,1974.
  50. Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: Bantam, 1972.
  51. Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row. Viking: New York, 1945.
  52. Brown, H. Douglas. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. New York: Pearson Education, 2000.
  53. Nunan, David. Ed. Practical English Language Teaching. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003.
  54. Louis, T.A. Things that Hang from Trees. New York: Alto, 2002.
  55. Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. New York: Vintage, 2003.
  56. McCullers, Carson. The Member of the Wedding. New York: Bantam, 1973.
  57. Faulkner, William. The Bear. New York: Vintage, 1966.
  58. Lawrence, D.H. The Fox. New York: Bantam, 1968.
  59. Yates, Richard. The Easter Parade. New York: Picador, 1976.
  60. Ondaatje, Michael. Coming Through Slaughter. Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1976.
  61. Connell, Evan S. Mrs. Bridge. Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005.
  62. O'Conner, Patricia. Woe Is I. New York: Riverhead Books, 2003.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Winter Reading List

His name was Kenny. He was no friend of mine, and I was certainly no friend of his. We had the random occasion for a random conversation, the kind of conversation that two men who don't particularly like or respect the other would have. One afternoon he asked: “Hey Anthony, have you ever seen a whale in the wild?” It was a hell of a question. “Yeah I have,” I said. “Why do you ask?” He opened the newspaper in front of him. “I never have,” he said and that was the end of it. Strange, right? Those were my conversations with him. Sometimes we'd have a laugh, but generally not. I bring it up today only because I'm thinking about whales.

I have seen whales in the wild. It's quite a sight to see. I've never heard them sing in the wild, nor do I think you can. But I have heard their songs on a record. That's right, a record. Considering people began to record whale songs in the late 1960s, and I was born in the early 1970s, I've never know life without whale songs. I make the comment because I do hope that Kenny gets to see a whale in the wild, I hope everyone does. Also, I hope everyone has had an opportunity to hear their songs. Both of these things are still a possibility. These things would, and should make people feel differently.

Now, imagine how different Herman Melville would have been had he heard a whale sing. Do you think the entire course of Moby Dick would have been different? Perhaps the book would not have been written at all, or perhaps he would have written a book to make him rich. For those of you who don't know, Melville was a popular writer and wrote commercially successful stories and novels until Moby Dick. We remember Moby Dick today over everything else, but that book killed his commercial success and his career.

So? Well, I'm in Oregon now and the ocean borders our state. The last time I saw a whale was here, maybe about ten years ago. It was on a rather gray but rainless day in winter, I think. Perhaps an excursion is in order again this winter.

This is winter. Stillness is what winter is here. Rain. Short days. A good season for reading.

My approach for the winter reading list is not nearly as elegant nor as premeditated as the autumn reading list. This reading list is still inspired by Mark Dragotta like the last one was. He and I discussed the parameters of a good seasonal reading list last August, as you may know.

Mark once told me about the year he spent writing and developing his vast computer skill set and his web design business. He'd left full time work. He wrote a few articles a week for rent money. He didn't have much money left over. He, like me and most writers I know, had dozen of books on his bookshelf that he was yet to read. He said he read those books because he couldn't afford to buy new books. Makes sense to me. Are we writers and we readers destined to buy more books than we can ever read for fear of an underemployed year when we can't afford to buy books? I don't know. The way Mark describes the year is with a mixture of amazement and gratitude.

The second consideration of the autumn reading list was that awful day when Janice and I gave all of our books away. Many of them I had read, but many of them I hadn't. That's the past. Now, we're here, Portland and during her short days of winter. And I have my reading list. But before I tell you the list, let me tell you about the parameters:
a)like Mark and his year of personal development-I will not buy any new books. It's partly the money and my lack of it, and it's mostly because Janice and I have at least one more move in the coming weeks and books are heavy.
b)it's a strange prospect to have read every book on the shelf. I've never been that way, but at the end of this reading list I will have read every book I own. The next step, of course, is to unpack all these boxes and shelf the books. And:
c)this list is rather small and I doubt I'll stray from it.

1)Moby Dick: Herman Melville
2)Dance Dance Dance: Haruki Murakami
3)Wind Up Bird Chronicle: Haruki Murakami
4)Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: Haruki Murakami
5)The Meat and Spirit Plan: Selah Saterstrom
6)Born on a Train: John McManus
7)The Savage Detectives: Roberto Bolano

These are all the books in my collection I'm yet to read. The Murakami books ought to be interesting since I was introduced to his work by way of The Elephant Vanishes here in Portland about ten years ago. I'm of course very excited about John's book and Selah's book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the other books by both of these writers. They are both colleagues, friends and in the case of John, a former instructor. They are both mentors. And Moby Dick? It shall be a great wintertime read. I hope after all these years I can finish it.

A haphazard reading list for winter?

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Autumn Reading list: The Wrap-up

It's a sunny day. Yes, strange, I know. There's not a cloud in the sky, and this is rare for Portland in December. I feel like there should be at least one cloud. Mount Hood rises into the thinning atmosphere to the east of here. It's stunning. It's brilliant white against a brilliant blue sky. To the north St. Helen's, which once resembled Mount Hood, looms in much the same way, she's white against blue, but she's not as tall as she used to be, nor as pointy. They both look like wintertime to me. It's like seeing winter from a distance, like seeing it on a postcard. It's not officially wintertime yet, that happens tomorrow. Today it the last day of autumn. What a crazy autumn this one has been.

It's been marked with loss and gain, change of space and change of pace and change of place. We went from downtown Denver to the bright open space of Jefferson County to the wet primeval forests of Wood Village, Oregon on the banks of the mighty Colombia River. We shed the past, old jobs, old material items, old clothes and old thoughts. Here now, at the end of autumn, I finally understand why people claim it is the season for change. Change it is.

The value of a good book suddenly becomes a striking and lovely thing to me. After all this change, the relationship with a good book did do much for me this fall. Even when one of these books lasted a day or two, they took me away from myself. I went to Tennessee in Bitter milk, and New York City in The Midnight Examiner, and Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird. In a way, I went more places rather than those places where I slept during the great fall relocation of 2010.

As I look over the Autumn reading list, I did not follow it much at all. The lists:
What I said I would read this fall:
Beyond the Wall: Edward Abbey
The Sound and the Fury: William Faulkner
In the Penal Colony: Franz Kafka
Pinball: Jerzy Kosinski
The Joke: Milan Kundera
Love in the Time of Cholera: Garbriel Garcia Marquez
After Dark: Haruki Murakami
In the Lake of the Woods: Tim O'Brien
Johnny Got His Gun: Dalton Trumbo
Around the World in Eighty Days: Jules Verne
The Waves: Virgina Woolf

And there's the list of What I actually read:
Johnny Got His Gun: Dalton Trumbo
Disquiet: Julia Leigh
My Last Breath: Luis Brunel (Autobiography)
Never Let Me Go: Kazuo Ishiguro
The Midnight Examiner: William Kotzwinkle
To Kill a Mockingbird: Harper Lee
After Dark: Haruki Murakami
The Pink Institution: Selah Saterstrom
The 1995 Schocken Collection of Franz Kafka with foreword by Anne Rice
Dead Soul: Nikolay Gogol
Bitter Milk: John McManus

We've talked about reading in this blog, we've discussed the importance of reading as writers. Taking a critical view of what we read and put in motion our ideas of writing and then challenging them as we read and work is the best thing we can do.

I keep a “literary” journal. I've kept one for years. As I read, I keep track of each book, I write down passages, or quotes that mean something to me. I also write a very informal criticism of each book. In graduate school we called them annotations. I'm not really annotating these books, as I've said it's more of an informal criticism. This act helps me to remember what I read, it helps me to think about the reader-writer relationship and it helps me to keep up on critical writing skills. Critical writing skills, funny thing for a writer of fiction, right? It's a good exercise. I think everyone should read, and I think everyone should write.

If you keep a literary journal, keep it up. If you do not, perhaps you should start.

Hopefully, as you wrap up your autumn reading season, your reflections will help your thought, and help your writing.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Short Story for the Editor, Part Three: the Plot

At times it was the smart of a whip, and at other times it was the blunt trauma of being struck with a club. It's been beaten into me. And now, I can feel how great it is, and now that I'm with it, I think everyone else should be too. I'm a believer, and perhaps I should stand on a hilltop and shout it out. “I believe in plot. I believe plot will save us all.”


Otherwise, what's the point?

I wanted to be a botanist. It's true. I spent my youth in plant filled places and I liked that. After the war, I moved to Germany and in my rural town, everyone had beautiful gardens. I admired these gardens with a level of envy I'd care not to explain. One day, while on a run by a long line of gardens, I saw a woman, a naked woman, tending her grapes. When I saw her, that was it, all I wanted was a grape arbor and a naked woman to tend to it.

When I returned to the states a year or so later, I still maintained this dream of botany. I had this other compulsion that I never told anyone about, a funny habit of writing strange things that I called stories. Occasionally, I became engaged in the writing of bad poetry. It was mostly to gain perspective on my life, the war, and my loneliness and alienation, but what I was writing was not journal nor memoir. It was just strange.

What does this have to do with plot? What does it have to do with the smarts and the blunts?

Kalleen Zubick was the first to do it. She asked: “What do you think fiction is?” It was a good question to ask. She was adjunct faculty tending a freshmen composition class and I was her student. “What do I think fiction is? I don't know, it's like a scene you see when you look into a window,” I said. “Okay,” she said. “Remember, in fiction, something has to happen.”

Something has to happen? It's taken years for that to make sense. Let's consider her words as the smarting of the whip.

During my graduate studies at Goddard College, Kyle Bass was not so subtle when our conversation of plot came up. He pointed out that my manuscript lacked plot. It lacked plot. That means, that of all the pages I'd written nothing was happening. What I admire the most in Kyle Bass is his ability to think on his feet. In this discussion of plot he pulled out several examples and then changed my study plan accordingly. He was a wonderful mentor, as I've said before. Let's consider that the blunt trauma. He made me read and annotate John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, with an emphasis on “Chapter Seven: Plotting.” Kyle introduced me to Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Then came Jerzy Kosinski, and Frank Conroy. These were all writers on my reading list. These were the writers Kyle thought would solve my plot problems.

To a small degree my understanding of plot has increased, at least as a writer. As a reader, I'm unstoppable. And as an editor, plot, especially in the short story is something I look for, and if I can't find it? I discount the piece. Very often in this blog I talk about the beginning, the middle and the end. This is my way of saying plot.

As this lesson in plot revolves around the short story, let's use short stories as examples. Remember, if you have a problem understanding plot, you should see John Gardner and read his examples in Chapter Seven, or try out some of examples given to me by Kyle Bass.

“Guns Before Butter,” in Kurt Vonnegut's 2008 Armageddon in Retrospect tops my list today. All of the short stories in this collection are undated and unpublished. “Guns Before Butter,” a story of American GIs as POWs in Dresden 1945, is a very Vonnegut themed story. This piece is a great case study for both the character and conflict points we talked about in the last two lessons. But when, as an editor I say the beginning, the middle and the end, “Guns Before Butter” is just that. Here we have soldiers, both American and German and they're talking about what soldiers talk about, food. As with most of Kurt Vonnegut's work, word choice and construction are all his, but his plot? Straight forward and clear.

Another short story plot which is straight forward and clear with the whole beginning, middle and end is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even if we remember Fitzgerald for The Great Gatsby or This Side of Paradise, or even the way Hemingway portrays him in Moveable Feast, all short story writers need to put Fitzgerald at the top of their reading lists. He wrote and published something of the tune of 180 stories in his lifetime.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is funny. It's a dig on Harvard and Yale. It questions age, experience, marriage and society. And more importantly it has plot. The beginning of the story is the old man and the end of the story is the infant.

The last example is another one of my favorites. Plot in mind, let's look at Aimee Bender's “Ring” in her The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. I bring this one up because like many of Aimee Bender's stories the very first sentence of “Ring” pulls us in the middle of the plot, or the middle of the story:

I fell in love with a robber and he took me on his rounds.

The whole story takes a turn for the surreal, this is true. The whole thing happens in threes, not unlike a joke or an old story. Three rings: a diamond, a ruby and an emerald. The couple moves and then takes a vacation. What's the plot here? We travel over time and space and events, we get consumed in conflict and we get to know the characters, their sensibilities and their desires. It's really a wonderful story.

Rather than taking the academic view of plot, like John Gardner, or Kyle Bass, or even Kalleen Zubick, let's do it our way.
1)remember the beginning, the middle and the end as a map of a story. You don't always start at the beginning, or finish at the end, think about the Fitzgerald example. But if you begin a story, please follow through.
2)if you spend time with your characters and construct them in the proper way. Giving them desire, dimension and a task, they will probably carry out your plot for you. All you'll really have to do is put a shine on it.
3)read, read, read. Read the short stories written by the masters. Remember many magazine editors or curators of short stories would probably pass on “the classics” for their publications today. Read magazines and see how they're constructed, if any given piece got published, it probably has a plot you can decipher, define and study.
4)a formal approach works too. You can study the Fictean Curve John Gardner preaches. You can use the story arch we learned about in school. You can storyboard your piece like a movie. You can follow one of Aristotle's plot lines. These are all good approaches.

As we conclude today, remember that good plot must be piloted by good writing. Don't sacrifice one for the other. To make a plot fluid it cannot seem contrived. Our magazine editor is also a reader and we cannot forget that either.

In our current short story project, which is now in the third week, let's consider plot. Can it be understood? Is it working in the confines of the story? Does it need work? How do you feel about it? If you feel like you need remedial studies, do it now. Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Short Story for the Editor, Part Two: the Conflict

I suppose this first week in December ought to bring stories of wintertime or Christmas, forgiveness or even tales of the solstice. I regret that I have not read such stories at this time of the year, because I have never read them. Rather, I've taken the turn for the macabre. Before we get too involved in examples, let's just make a few points about conflict as we continue our short story for the magazine editor series. We must examine conflict, and I think it's especially pertinent after our discussion of character.

In last week's discussion, we supposed our characters needed something more than just description, vernacular and actions. We decided to give our characters desire, dimension and a task to complete. Hopefully, we were all thinking of our characters and in relation to a (or many) short story (ies). Today, we're going to add conflict.

Listed here are a few generic types conflict and a brief example:

1)Man vs God: Old Greek stuff, remember Odysseus vs Circe, and Odysseus vs cyclops. The old books of the bible have this conflict pretty often too: the ancient Hebrews vs God. Seems like a pretty fool hearty endeavor, doesn't it?
2)Man vs Nature: Most adventure stories start here. Jack London's “To Build a fire.” Farley Mowat's “Walk Well, My Brother.” The whole man vs nature theme is prevalent, yes, but each of these writers include more conflict, or at least different types.
3)Man vs Establishment: Franz Kafka's “In the Penal Colony.”
4)Man vs Supernatural: Bierce's “A Vine on a House”
5)Man vs Man: may the best man win. War stories are like this although they become ideology vs ideology.
6)Man vs Himself: Lovecraft's “The outsider,” this is a fun one.

I think you get the point.

When we think about this business of the short story, we have limited space and in that limited space we cannot hesitate to make it happen. Conflict cannot be confused with plot. Conflict certainly enhances the plot, but it is not plot itself.

Earlier when I said I'd taken a turn for the macabre, I have picked a few conflicts to illustrate our point.
For example, I've been meaning to read H.P. Lovecraft for years. His work had never come to me before. In reading “The Outsider” I have a few general impressions. For being written, or published in 1925, it had very archaic language. And second, this story of a walking corpse has some great conflict. Narrator vs nature: the trials of climbing out of the castle. Narrator vs himself: the struggle with memory. Narrator vs man: the sight of him and everyone leaves the party. Narrator vs the establishment: life and death, or the dead existing among the living. Fun stuff.

Now for Lovecraft's conflict highlights “...and at last I resolved to scale that tower, fall though I might; since it were better to glimpse the sky and perish than to live without ever beholding day,” (317) Here we've met the physical conflict: he will scale the wall in order to see daylight, man vs nature. Even at the end of the story the conflict is not so much resolved as the narrator simply accepts his fate. “...yet in my new wildness and freedom, I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage,” (321). Man vs himself. I'm grateful, in a way, that H.P. Lovecraft came to me during the research of conflict over any other time. Gothic stories, although fun, have never really been my thing.

Anne Rice's introduction to Schocken's 1995 edition of Franz Kafka's collection is striking. She claims Kafka showed her the way. She was not able to think of her work and her writing as being part of the Realism movement. Conversely, I love to think in terms of Realism, it makes the characters, their conflicts, more sorrowful, or great or pathetic when they're closer to life. I suppose I like the mundane, and even when I read a fantastic story, or a piece of horror or sci fi, I still see the human in it, or the what is at stake for the characters. Yet, I just put at least 99 praises to Lovecraft and his walking corpse. Why? Because climbing a tower to see daylight is a real conflict. A character who doesn't know who he is, or in the case of “The Outsider,” what he is—wow, that's conflict at work.

In this same volume, I came across an Ambrose Bierce story. He was a great writer of the short story: “Occurrence at Owl Creak Bridge,” or “Devil's Dictionary,” come to mind instantly. But Chris Baldick, Professor at Goldsmith's University and editor of The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales included “A Vine on a House.” When we talk about conflict, how often do we think of the supernatural as a formidable opponent? Furthermore, in Bierce's story, the townspeople take this conflict with the supernatural in a very real way, disbelief. The abandoned Harding house of Norton, Missouri had been “haunted” since the family with the one footed wife left years before. When the townspeople get to the house, the vines wave despite no wind. Conflict: they all want to believe it's a ghost, but they don't. Final verdict: dig up the vine. Almost a Druid thing? Well, you see what happens. Man vs supernatural. What are the outcomes of such a conflict? The ghost or devil or whatever being wins = supernatural over man. If man triumphs? Well it's science or faith or reason or whatever makes us feel better in the dark which dispels the unknown. Unlike the Lovecraft piece, “A Vine on a House” is just one conflict.

Now to speak of a masterful combination of conflicts rounding out our discussion let's meet the Officer, the Commandant, the Explorer, the Soldier and the condemned man of Kafka's “In the Penal Colony.” Anyway, the Penal Colony is ripe for conflict. Man vs man is the Officer who holds on to the capital punishment machine (the past) vs the new Commandant who does not (the future). The explorer does not believe in the method of justice or the method of punishment: man vs the establishment. The Explorer and the Officer who have a sort of chance meeting can also be a man vs man story. Their conflict becomes ideology vs ideology. The conflict is on every page, it's part of every conversation. As a reader I felt conflicted too. My cultural lens of course, tells me there should not be torture as part of punishment, unless at military prisons, right? And I am against capital punishment, except in Florida or Texas. The point is, I felt much like the Explorer, I was horrified at the very description of the apparatus. Now, if a reader feels so inclined to choose a side, that's potent. If a reader can see both sides of the conflict, well that's great.

So? Where does that lead us as writers? I said it last week, and the week before that, to write short stories, one must read short stories. At this stage of the game, we've talked about characters and we've talked about conflict, this ought to be enough to think about as we read short stories. We should be able to do that much, at least. Let's consider ourselves trained.

In the week to come, think about the conflict in two ways. First as a way to enhance your characters. Second as a way to progress the plot. Next, to keep up with the theme of writing with your magazine editor in mind, try to add in more than two conflicts in your story.

As always, happy writing, and good luck.

Baldick, Chris, Editor. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Oxford University Press:New York, 2009.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Very Public Library

A Very Public Library
The world could be a very different place. We could be waiting for Halloween daily, the goings on of children and candy only to interrupt the goings on of ghouls and ghosts in the bedroom above. In the bed, complete in every way down to the messy hair, we wait for Halloween. My ghoul is pretty, not a ghoul in any sort of traditional way, but we're talking about a very different world. So, as I said, my ghoul is pretty. She wears glasses. She's smart as hell too.
And in this very different world, I'm not me. No, I'm something else entirely. I'm a strange mix of who I am, could be, have been or want to be. In this very different world I'm no more handsome and no more intelligent. I'm just an average fellow and I'm in a motel room, the kind where people live on the outskirts of the world above trick or treaters and fishing streams. We're waiting, me and my ghoul for the doorbell to ring. We're high on Spanish brandy. We're high on poetry. We're discovering it for the first time, we're discovering it together, my ghoul and me the ghost of possibility.
Bees enter the room and buzz a theme or two, their songs are from our youth, or someone else's youth. We're laughing at the whole thing: the impossibility of it, the way it feels, the way it sounds, this whole poetry thing.
We consider 3,859 Rolls Royces. We're thinking of mayonnaise. We're dreaming of Babylon. We're here. It's Halloween and when we start to do what we do this Halloween and the age of Aquarius, we're sure to be quiet when the goblins ring, suddenly we're waiting to cross a street in Denver.

We were separated by ten years and the associated sensibilities. We knew one another when he was the age I am now, and I was ten years younger. He knew Richard Brautigan. Well, not by face, and not personally; Brautigan had died a DIY back in the early 1980s. No, he knew Brautigan by Trout Fishing in America. I remember looking at the old book and admiring it in some sort of tactile way. I admired its age and the mildew smell of it. I wasn't due to read it for a few more months when met it, Trout Fishing in America, again. This time it was someone else to introduce it to me. She read “Sea, Sea Rider.” We laughed. We were all three bartenders, the two who introduced me to Brautigan and myself. We all three had the kind of time that is conducive to reading books. Not to mention in those days we all had money, and the kind of money to hunt up old and out of print books. It was on.
I think Richard Brautigan is best known for Trout Fishing in America, maybe In Watermelon Sugar. Perhaps he's remembered from his poetry. Who knows? I suspect with the vast majority of people, he's not remembered at all.
From my second introduction to his work in early 2002, I read all his novels, his book of short stories, Revenge of the Lawn, and as many volumes of his poetry I could find.
The real turning point, for me, was when I decided to deconstruct The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 when I was in graduate school. I found an academic approach to Brautigan killed everything I found wonderful in his words. I won't bore you with this anymore. But, I will say, I got to know this book backwards and forwards.
What I love about The Abortion is the library. A very public library. Brautigan has conceived of the most democratic of libraries, a library where no one checks books out, but rather they come to deposit them. The very notion that such a library could exist, and that there would be a librarian available 24 hours a day to receive a book is amazing. It's amazing that the library is encouraged to do nothing more than receive entries and the librarian encouraged to spend their time reading them. It's a great idea, it's the freest of free speech.
The Clark County Historical Museum at 1511 Main Street Vancouver, Washington has brought home their prodigal son. Brautigan, from Tacoma, Washington then Eugene, Oregon and then San Francisco, California has left us his legacy in his work. Others have assembled new facets for us to see. The photographs curated in the museum are wonderful to see, courtesy of Erik Weber, photographer, and friend of the late Richard Brautigan. Many of Weber's photos made the covers of Brautigan's books, The Abortion and Trout Fishing in America, namely.
The small museum is a great primer for budding Brautigan fans. And the 200+ collection in “The Brautigan Library” by way of Burlington, Vermont brought tears to my eyes. Yes, there are 200 some books that were brought to a very public library which was the direct translation of Brautigan's library in The Abortion. It was a treat to sit in The Clark County Historical Museum on a trying-to-be-sunny December day in 2010 and open a volume or two written by people who came to the library to deposit their books, deposit their stories.

Items 1-4
Rainbows at night, the circles swimming around avocados and then the cork broke and we decided to drink the remnants of the brandy. Two slugs for each poem. We'd go our way through bowling trophies, wind blowing it all away, and Confederate Generals shoveling mercury with a pitchfork. Our time was our own at iDEATH, iWHISKEY or at the banks of a trout stream. We were sliding down a slope, a slope above a bookstore and that terrible year of 1959.
We were there, all we needed, my ghoul and me, was a record of it written down and bound and cataloged and proud its purpose posterity.

At any rate, as cool as this library is, it's really the coming to life of Richard Brautigan's work. And the rest of the exhibit is well worth the four dollars at the door. There it is for you to see: San Francisco, poetry broadsheets and wonderful photographs. When you're in the area please visit:

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Short Story for the Editor, Part One: the Characters.

Let's gain for a moment the importance of the story at hand. If this story is merely a recount of old times, then it's not a story as much as it's an anecdote, and it isn't fiction at all. In any story, we readers still want description both of scene and character. We want to feel the sunny day on our faces, and we want to know what the library smells like. But when it comes to the memorability of the story it's the characters and their journey that we remember.

During my days at summer camp, during the latter half of the 1990s the Sunday night campfire skit I loved the most was modeled after a joke:
First Person: What're you reading?
Second Person: White Pages.
First Person: The White Pages? How's that?
Second Person: Great list of characters but not a lot of plot.
Yet it's true, the White Pages (Do they still print them? I know the Yellow Pages turn up at an alarming rate) are a great list of characters. And every one of them has a story. And each story had the essentials of good fiction: they all have back stories, desires, dimension, and obstacles. But as just a name in the middle of a long list of names, they are essentially meaningless.

Your characters too, if left flat, two dimensional, are just a name like those in the White Pages.

When we talk about a short story, or even fiction in general, I think of a character driven plot. Characters drive the story from beginning through the middle to the end. Without a character, or some entity, we readers cannot relate, and then a short story it is not. It doesn't matter if the characters writers chose are woman, man, beast or bug, a character we relate to makes the experience of the read worthwhile.

As this study of characters begins, let's look at some we may already know.

Gregor Samsa of Franz Kafka's “The Metamorphosis” comes to mind instantly. As I read the trials and events of this story, I feel like I can relate to all the characters: the father and mother, the cook, sister and the chief clerk, and this is not as much as Gregor Samsa himself. Some people may think the reason why “The Metamorphosis” has endured, or why it's successful as a story is because of the outlandish event, a man turning into a giant insect. Whereas that may be true, it's poor Gregor Samsa which I find so compelling. Here's a man, a traveler who has been in charge of family finances as well as paying off the debts of his bankrupt father and now he's turned into a bug. The point is, we know Gregor Samsa by name and we have a relationship with him. Without Gregor Samsa's back story, these family relations, and his past and current situations, we're bound to lose interest in a mere insect story.

Here are some names you may or may not know:

Muriel, Sybil and Seymour Glass in Salinger's “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Fuzz Littler in Vonnegut's “Fubar” from the 2009 collection Look at the Birdie. Debby from Mary Gaitskill's “Secretary.”

What do these four stories have in common other than being four of my favorite short stories? They all are driven by their characters.

For the writers of fiction and the construction of fictional short stories, I recommend reading as many as possible. Those who work in genre fiction: sci fi, fantasy; romance, westerns; crime, etc. I think the rules are the same. Read short stories. Make your characters real.

Breathing instant life into your characters:
1.Give them back story:
Gregor Samsa has taken over family finances, has worked as clerk, thought about sending sister to school. He has saved money, doesn't go out and wants then and now to be free.
2.Make them multi-dimensional:
Seymour Glass means something different to all three female characters in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” He is admired by Sybil, the lover to Muriel and the object of scorn of Muriel's mother. We learn and form opinions about this character because of the way others see him.
3.Give the character a tremendous obstacle to overcome:
Gaitskill's Debby has to overcome paralyzing psychological shortcomings and lack of work experience in “Secretary.” Later she must overtake rejection in the name of love.
4.Next give your characters desire, hopefully desire that can be fulfilled:
Fuzz Littler is such a pathetic man, a below average worker, and all around boring guy. But when he gets the attention of a pretty girl, we want him to win, to gain confidence, get the girl, get some. Vonnegut doesn't let Fuzz down in “Fubar” even if he doesn't let the poor lout exactly win.

As you begin your short stories, the ones written with your magazine editor in mind first begin enhancing your characters: back story, dimension, obstacles and desire (fulfillment). With these thoughts in mind, your characters will have more facets. Your use of this along with the dialogue, action and description is the next step in character design. Good luck and happy writing.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Small Press Part Three: Notes from the fiction editor

(Preamble to the Short Story Series)

They come in all forms. They come in looking like something Hemingway could have written. They come in looking like something you wrote for your creative finger-painting project in Kindergarten. They come in complete. They come in as sovereign pieces. They come in with competence. They come in with a level of ineptitude which defies all logic. As I said, they come in all forms. They come in as the huddle masses looking for safety at Ellis Island. Sometimes, when I've punched the ol' time card at Umbrella Factory Magazine, I feel like I'm processing the refugees from far away and strange lands. Other times, however, I feel like I'm reading the next great writer of our day and I can't wait to bring light to this author's work. I wish the latter came more often on my shifts at the factory.

I can put another perspective on the whole business of being the fiction editor. On average, at Umbrella Factory Magazine we will publish three pieces of fiction in each issue. We publish quarterly. It breaks down to this: we publish well under one percent of what we read. It's not that we're exclusive, it's not like our guidelines are impossible to meet. I'm certainly not a difficult editor to please, our jury isn't tough to pass, and I don't think we're that particular. I believe that one percent of writing today is publishable. That's one hell of a thought, isn't it?

A few thoughts have come to me during these rainy November days. I'm quietly whiling away the late fall in a peaceful Northwest place reflecting on my life, my work, and the work of others. During this reading period for the December issue of Umbrella Factory Magazine, I've spent as much time contemplating the process of writing as well as the process of editing. It's such a strange relationship. In fact the whole process from the initial thought through the publication date is strange. We will get into the process more deeply as these weeks go on.

If you have it in you, let's start this series of workshops with one thing in mind: we're going to develop a short story with our editor in mind. Often times when an instructor of writing talks about the short story there is no real goal outside of writing a good short story. What makes a short story, and what makes a good audience and is this the goal? So many writers have this idea of publishing as being the end of the process, and in many ways, that might be true. Other writers want nothing more than to be published, and yet they do not submit work. Aside from being an editor, I too am a writer, and I too want publication. I look at publication as a reward for the hard work involved in writing, rewriting, doing research and developing relationships with editors, and in my case, filmmakers too.

A few things to think about as we start the next ten weeks. First, the condition of our stories will have to be of the highest quality. This is the bulk of our work. We'll take our time working on fiction so that when it leaves our desk, the old world, and hits our editor's desk, Ellis Island, it won't seem so devastated. This is something we can work on together, and this part of the process will be all our own.

Next, we'll do our homework when searching for places, or markets, to send our stories. There are tricks to it. For instance, at Umbrella Factory Magazine, there is a specific word count. When we publish only three pieces an issue, I want good work. Often, I get these strange flash fiction pieces and the author has less than 500 words. Believe or not, there are dozens, if not hundreds of magazines who love flash fiction, Umbrella Factory Magazine is not one of them. So to eliminate rejects, or at least to minimize them, we'll study submission guidelines and read, actually read, some magazines.

Next well look at the cover letter. Believe or not, I've rejected writers because I just couldn't get past the writing in their cover letter.

So, as these process goes along, let's get writing and let's get published.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Deadlines, Timeclocks and Paychecks

I wish I could be the kind of writer who waits around for divine inspiration. I wish I could idly wait for my muse, or hell, any number of muses to waltz by and kiss me. I wish I could be the leisurely kind of writer. If that were the case, it would be great to pass one afternoon, like Ray Bradbuy's “All Summer in a Day,” as a writer working on whatever it is a once in seven years writer works on.

I love to talk about writing. I'll talk to anyone about it. I'll listen to anyone too. It's a good discussion, and for me at least, it's not the normal mind-numbing stuff: reality TV or the highly organized things I find so disdainful. It's a conversation about writing. And I suppose at the base of it, it is a conversation about work.

Work. For years I agreed with Stephen Morrisey, while still with the pop band The Smiths, “work is a four letter word.” I don't know why I'd feel differently now. I just do. I love work and I love to be buried in it. Some people would claim it's because I finally found my life's calling, or that I found something to do in which I love. Neither are true. My life's calling, I think is something much more idle than this. And as far as loving it, I love aspects of it and I love those aspects only at certain times. Enough about that.

Even though it's work, there are still some tangible questions we need to address. I was visiting my mom last week. The subject of my work came up. She asked: “When are you going to get paid?” I kept cool. Even Janice said she thought I was cool. The appropriate response? Who cares? It's not about that. Will I be able to pay my bills with writing? Not today. What did I say to my mom? “It's going to pay, I got three projects going.” Then I tried my best to explain to her what the time clock looks like.

It's a big thing with hamsters in wheels inside of it. It chirps like a cricket. You just stand in front of it, wear fire resistant pants if you have them. Then you pull the handle down. The hamsters run faster and then a lemon falls, then a cherry, then a plum, you don't win today. The date and time gets stamped across the heavy cardstock which has your name written across the top. Then you go to work. Eventually a whistle blows and you can go home. If you're not already home, maybe you can go somewhere else.

Like I said, who cares?

As a writer it's about getting it gone. It's about doing it. It's about finally finishing that sentence or even finishing that novel. Just to have work, well, that's great. I've talked to people who want to be writers. I don't really understand that, but okay, I do like to talk about writing. They ask me, me of all people, how to be good writers. You can't be a good writer, no one can. You put the pen to the paper or the fingers to the keys and go. You do. You write and then write some more and eventually something good will come out of it. It gets easier, and it becomes that institution you get chained to. It's better than the church or the government or the death industry or just about anything else. If you have to be chained to an institution, shouldn't it be of your own creation?

So how is it done? Well, commit to it. Make unrealistic goals and stressful deadlines. It seems to work for me. Drink plenty of coffee. Get into a routine. Go. Go. Go. If you put your mind to it, you can do anything. And eventually, if you can meet all of your deadlines, then you'll hopefully collect a paycheck. If your mom is anything like mine, add a zero to the end of it.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

From Life to Fiction Part IV: Dreams

I have never found anything worthwhile in a dream. I know it's good to have them, and I've even heard that it is an important function of sleep. But when it comes right down to the act of writing, the idea of a dream is exactly what it is, a dream.

Years ago, Ryan Lamb and I lived together on Poet's Row in Denver's downtown neighborhood of Capital Hill. We lived in the James Russell Lowell. I didn't realized then how cool it was living in a place where all the buildings were named after poets. Anyhow, Ryan was in his last semester of college, and because of it, the economics major that he was, he had to take a psychology 101 class. We had spent years making fun of all the psychology majors mostly because we were mean and they were weird. Being an English major myself, I had spent my time reading Freud. Ryan, for his part, knew an awful lot about psychological factors in regards to economics. Before I go any further, he enjoyed that class immensely, and because of some of his projects, so did I. I became involved with Ryan's psychology class on a Sunday.
“Hey man, I need a favor,” he said from the other room.
Don't blow your nose in the shower, I thought. Wash the dishes with less soap, I thought. I was ready for him to coach me on the ways of the world, after all I had learned not to use the small toaster oven when cooking a potato because we paid for electricity, I had to use the oven which ran on the natural gas of our landlord's tab. “What?” I called back.
“Can I watch you sleep?” he said as he stood in the doorway of my bedroom.
“What? No,” I said.
“Come on, it's for a class project.”
“I don't care if it's for a class project, a life and death moment or creepy curiosity, it's weird,” I said. “What kind of project do you need to watch someone sleep?”
“Well, it's to watch someone dream.”
“Whatever pal, it's still creepy,” I said.
“Yeah,” Ryan said. He looked down at the paper in his hand. I can still see the look of disappointment on his face. Ryan was a very serious student. He wasn't one of those guys who did whatever he had to do to get the grade, no he wasn't one of those students. Ryan was the kind of student who really took the time to learn something, he really took his time with his studies so that he could be the kind of student who learned something. I really admired Ryan and I still really look up to him. “Well, I guess I don't have to watch you sleep, I just have to know when you normally get up, then I'll come in and when you go into REM sleep I'll wake you up.”
“I don't really dream,” I said. He left the room. And as I went back to whatever it was I was doing, I remember a funny feeling that came over me. I felt like I had a sudden responsibility in his grade. “Ryan,” I called. “Hey Ryan, okay, I'll do that.”
We talked about the logistics. We talked about my normal patterns of sleep. Fortunately, during those days, those long ago college days, I had classes everyday of the week at 8 am.

The dream I had on the first day of the 10 day observation was pretty strange. And each day the assignment went on, the stranger they got. But to tell you about them now, well, it isn't that great. I mean, the idea of two young men, college students, turning their apartment into a dream lab is a more interesting idea. Of all the dreams I've had, or all the ones I remember, the only ones worthwhile for an audience were the ten dreams I had during Ryan's physiology class assignment. The only time I felt it was appropriate to talk about dreams, my dreams, was then.

I guess I always felt like the charm, or the strangeness, or the horror of a dream is completely lost during the telling. For some reason the story or the plot of a dream or the detail of a dream wanes in significance when translated into words. Anytime I feel like telling someone about a dream I keep it short: I had a strange dream, and you were there, or I had a strange dream about this. And I leave it at that. If the other person wants details, I simply say that I cannot remember anything but a vague recollection of their appearance or whatever. And likewise, when someone tells me they had dreams about me or a common situation, I always want the shortest statement as possible.

I do not burden my friends and loved ones with my dreams, and I generally hope they feel the same way. When someone feels the need to tell me all about it, I start to think of the snow in the Alps.

Likewise, when a piece of writing is called dream-like or a portrait of a dreamscape, I want to run the other way. Not to say that certain things about dreams cannot be found in fiction. Alan Lightman, a physicist, wrote a beautiful little book called: Einstein's Dreams. The whole premise of the book reads like a dream, I guess, but it's so much more than that. Each dated chapter is another supposition of time, how time might work in the confines of that particular universe. The language is lovely, and so is the book especially when the chapter dates are the days and weeks leading up to release of Einstein's theory of relativity. Also, Eduardo Galeano's book: The Book of Embraces kind of reads like little dreams, or little anecdotes or little, well embraces.

But, the idea of reading page after grueling page, a list or a plot or a description of a dream seems horrible. I find a snippet of a dream here, or a precedent of a dream there less offense.

I've even been known to use an idea of a dream in a story. I say this now only because I want to illustrate a point. I can think of one novel: Undertakers of Rain and a few short stories, namely “Fluid” (see story of the week 11/04/10) and “My Hide” that were inspired from dreams. Now, had I not said anything about the dream part, a reader would have no idea that the original impetus came from a dream. For instance, I dreamed that I was a soldier (this part re-occurs) and that I was in a town of spies. I then was given maps, and had to run and hide. In the hiding place I met a woman who was guarding a stack of jewels. We agreed to hide there for the rest of war. That was the dream. In Undertakers of Rain, I have two sets of three jewel thieves. The first set knock off a few jewelery stores and then run off to fight the Nazis in WWII. The second set of thieves imitate the first. The two aforementioned short stories I used only a feeling I had in their respective dreams and then used a single image to build a set of circumstances for their stories.

Just to simply record a dream is only a record for posterity. Like so many pitfalls in the writing of fiction, a record of dream may be fun to write, but it may not be very interesting to readers.

In this endeavor of life to fiction, be careful with dreams.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Anecdote Part III: Events and Embellishments

Making connections as a writer will prove to be lucrative. Yes, there are all sorts of connections, those within a story or a conversation, and those which we must make with real life events and the fictional landing pad in our work. As elegantly as possible we can take a real life event and connect a few points and add all the fictional elements- character development and plot, back story and exposition to make a piece worth reading.
Today's exercise we will do just that. We're going to take an arbitrary day, or even an extraordinary day and use the associated anecdote to craft a short story.
This exercise came to me today from a normal conversation with a friend of mine.
As I spoke to Katy Rattelmueller today I felt a level of gratitude and humility as she commented on my blog first then compared my work to Pam Houston, a writer who she admires. Katy said: “I've never seen someone so dedicated to their creativity.” Then in the next breath she said: “You're one prolific (censored for younger audiences and parents).”
“Yeah,” I said. “I work everyday.” What else could I say? I thanked her for reading, and I thanked her for the kind words. Then I asked: “Do you write? Are you a writer?”
“Just journals,” she said.
“Yeah? I love journaling.” As many of you know, I hold journal writing in very high regard. I believe everyone should do it. If you don't, you should start, and if you do, you should keep it going. But what about the arbitrary day? The anecdote of an event on an arbitrary day? Well, if you keep a journal like I do, or like Katy does, you might pick a day from that and run with it.
So, why not craft a small piece of autobiography or a small memoir? I suppose you could, but ask yourself: if I extrapolate something from my life, will it be of interest to readers? And after all, when I talk writing, I generally mean fiction. Also, when it comes to non-fiction or memoir, remember a journal entry is just that, a journal entry. If you endeavor in either non-fiction or memoir, remember this: you may like the idea of writing a book about your life, but is it interesting to readers or is it something solely for you?
The anecdote of an ordinary day? Well, let's give it a try.
I'm choosing a day in December. Why not? I've got 31 days to choose from. As far as an event, I could choose any number of them: Pearl Harbor Day, the 7th. Interesting? Yes. Useful? I don't know. I could choose the Solstice, or Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or New Year's Eve. These days have one thing in common: they're days when something should happen and they're days which have milestone significance for many of us. Do you see where I'm going with this? I can think of at least a dozen possible conflicts for most of these days. And that begins the foundation for the process.
Ultimately, I will choose December 24th, Christmas Eve. Further that one more step and I'll give it a year: 1999. Inherently, there were many strange things going on in December 1999. It was not only the end of the decade, it was the end of the century. Many people, I recall, were absolutely terrified that the world as we knew it was going to end at midnight on New Year's 2000. Seems pretty silly now, because, after all, the world is going to end (and we all know it) in 2012. So, back in December of 1999, on my arbitrary day, perhaps a little doom and gloom for the end of days is in order. I may have to dissemble the thought of the time to make the story either funny or tragic, right? Also, I may have to use a more modern concern to make the story more pertinent to readers today. Do you see what I mean about pulling a fact here, and embellishing a point there to make a piece of writing interesting to a reader?
Already, in my model, I've got two elements which are ripe for conflict: Y2K and Christmas Eve.
So, let me tell you the points of my anecdote, the true parts, and the beginnings of the story. At that time of my life, I was 27 years old. I worked for the Boy Scouts of America. I was far away from home, working too much and I spent the holiday alone. Also, I had met a nice girl named Heidi, a happy woman who was the daughter of a dairy farmer. She taught fourth grade. We'd been fixed up about a week prior to this because our mutual friends thought it was a good idea. Interesting yet? No, it's not. But as I tell you the anecdote, you want to hear more, right? Well, I spent much of the day of the 24th with her. It was the second time we saw one another and it was also the last. There was no real reason for that. We liked one another okay. She was sunny and I was gloomy. She still lived with her family and I lived in a dingy downtown neighborhood in a sketchy apartment all alone. Still not very interesting. She was happy, I was not. But on that wet and chilly Christmas Eve it was another woman who broke my heart. Now, we're talking.
From here the process begins. I am the writer and furthermore, I am the narrator. To separate myself from the anecdote I will do a few things here: it'll be written in third person, I'll embellish most points and I'll manufacture the rest. In knowing my process, I can tell you that my main character will live the story in ways I cannot know yet. This will be a work of fiction, there will be a beginning, a middle and an end. I hope it will wise, rather than an emotional recollection of an unhappy time. Ultimately, I hope it's entertaining to read.

“Home for the Holidays”
(dedicated to Katy)

(See the story of the week.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


The first time I drank gin I was in a whore house in Wells, Nevada. But the first time I was in a whore house in Wells, Nevada I drank white Russians. If you need the back story, the first time was during the great truck break down of 1999 and the last time I was on my way from Denver to San Francisco for a funeral.
Why the cat house? Well, there wasn't another place for a drink in Wells at that hour.
I was as cool as cats. I slid the twenty dollar bill across the bar and said: “I want two drinks and the rest is for you. I don't want to be bothered.”
Then I was bothered. She was a pretty girl, but given the circumstances, and the location, I felt uncomfortable talking with her. We spoke about the things two strangers in a bar speak about. Yet, I felt uncomfortable. Why? Well, she asked a number of times if I wanted to tour the place. She was persistent and I held my ground. Then she said something I'll never forget. She said: “Anthony, you can't judge a person by their profession.” True. I looked at her differently. After all, she was working the world's oldest profession. Although she didn't make a sale with me that day, I was immensely grateful for the conversation.
You can't judge a person by the profession. Even to this day I have trouble with that. I don't particularly care for metermaids. I don't care for mindless bureaucrats, I don't care for book burners. What can you do? It takes all types.
As many of you know, I've worked ten years, the last ten years, in the service industry: a coffeehouse, a bar and now a restaurant. Sometimes I feel like it's been a rewarding profession. You learn a lot about yourself when serving others in that capacity. In these ten years I worked only two places. The work afforded me several trips, exotic ones as well as wild road trips through the west. I financed a house, an antique car, a bad and very expensive marriage, and graduate school. These are commendable indeed. Yet, there is a part of me that feels like these last ten years have been a waste. I'm leaving the service industry in the exact same financial position and lifestyle and circumstances as I entered it. And the ten years? The position? I don't know. Sometimes I feel like I've avoided what other people call “real life.” Sometimes I feel like I'm above it all, especially Thoreau's “life of quiet desperation,” which I sometimes see as the life of many of my customers and diners. Sometimes I feel like the life of quiet desperation ain't so bad, after all my desperation is quite loud. I'm irritated often by the noise, because as you know, the noise level in a restaurant is high. I got into the service industry as a young man, and it is a young man's game. I did it then for the money. I stayed this long because I liked the hours, and I liked the people. All three of those things are gone for me now. I felt like the hours I got for my own work, my writing, were more important than anything else. When you're a waiter or a bartender you have the day to yourself. I have never been greedy with anything but my time. In many ways, and especially in retrospect, all I ever wanted was the time to write. I was certainly able to protect my time these last ten years. I believe all artists, whether they are musicians or painters or writers should be greedy with time. When I think about the tremendous amount of work I've done since leaving Goddard College in January of 2009, I'm absolutely baffled. It's more than Umbrella Factory Magazine, or Rockethouse Studios or even this blog. It's the novels, the short stories, the screenplays and above all, the thoughts.
I feel now, way differently about just about everything. Part of me wonders if I have done all these things to compensate for an occupational short coming. After all when someone asks me what I do, I always say writer, then editor, then I say: “I got four jobs and only one of them keeps the lights on.”
I can't doubt that Marlowe's hasn't developed so much of me. After all, the decision to apply for graduate school was made when I began to train new servers. Apparently, I was a good trainer. What I learned as I developed the restaurant's training program I later used in The Tea Room Writers Workshops. I later employed those two experiences in Umbrella Factory Magazine's Workshops.
I have nothing but wonderful things to say about the people I worked with over the years, especially those at Marlowe's. I have a very high regard for those I worked for as well. I met some of the most influential people too. I met Mark Dragotta and Jana Bloomquist at Marlowe's. Together we built Umbrella Factory. And Oren? Well, he came to us through a mutual friend named Szoke Schaeffer who also worked at Marlowe's. Szoke and I worked on a few projects together: “Speer Bridge” and two episodes of “Two Girls One Pint.” We worked as actors on both, although Szoke pulled double detail on the latter working as writer and director. She's now in New York City building her career as an actor. Although I thinks she's a good actor, I think she'll make one great director someday. I met Symphony Tidwell of Jonny Barber and the Rhythm Razors at Marlowe's. She's currently touring Europe with her band. I've watched her develop as a musician and I'm immensely proud of her accomplishments. I'm immensely proud to call these people friends. Thinking about the amount of creative talent at Marlowe's in the time I worked there is really the best part about my whole experience in the service industry. Incidentally, Gio Tonninello of Rockethouse Studios and I have been good friends since our days of working at St. Mark's and the Thinman. It's a social business, I've been told, this service industry.
So, why would I feel like it was a waste? I've done all these things with my time, and met all these people. Perhaps, for me, it's just time for a change. Yet, I can't shake the feeling that I did it all as a way to find time to write. I would rather be remembered as a novelist than a waiter. A person in modern life must think of a way to keep the lights on, right? We all must trade time for money and we all have to work. I can say this: after ten short years filled with incredibly long days I've been grateful to have had work with a decent financial compensation. I've also been grateful these last couple of years to have work to do in my creative endeavors.
So, don't judge a man by his profession. Whether a writer or a waiter, don't judge me either. And for those of you out there with jobs you may or may not like, remember, it isn't the time while on a timeclock that makes up your life. Your creative endeavors will trump all that.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Small Press II: The Blog

I cannot quote the source, and I cannot even remember where I read it. It seems it was a news article I read on the internet about a year back. This time last year I worked part-time, and I do mean part-time, as an adjunct at Community College of Denver. I'll spare you the details, but I was terrified when at least 90% of my students turned in their first college paper written in text speak. I was floored. I looked to the internet to try to understand why a group of 60 students would do such a thing. They think in text speak. Instead of trying to change the ways of our young people, this particular article praised them. The part I remember the most was a statement which went like this: "This is the greatest revolution in language and communication since the Greeks." Now, how can we compare The Iliad with the ipad?
This was happening at the same time as I was dreaming of a better world. Admittedly, I am too old to want to change the world. In fact I do think it's silly. I see the signature gathers everyday: the ACLU, Save the Children; grassroots this, grassroots that; save the seals, Greenpeace. They are all young people, young people with apparent affluent upbringings. I say: "What?" They say: "Save the environment." I say: "Forget about it." They say: "Don't you care about the future?" I say: "No, I don't believe in it." They say: "I do." I say: "Go get a job like your father told you to do, or go be an artist, I can respect that." Then, before another word can pass thier lips, they check their cellphone. They say: "Yeah, whatever." And then they start on with their call, or their text, or whatever. Both of us have lost. Then I think, as I watch them operate a texting device, they aren't any different than those students I was just telling you about.
But is it really a revolution of communication and language? Doubtful.
Going back to this time last year, I decided that I wanted to join the technological world and spread my hi fi wings. I spent a few minutes looking at internet options, and when I became discouraged I called Freesia. Some of you may know her. Some of you may know that Freesia and I have been pen pals since 1986. 1986. Thats a long time to have a correspondence with anyone. At any rate, she suggested the blog.
I had heard of this blog stuff but as always I was a little gun shy. I opened an account, picked a scheme, and typed a few things. I left it at that.
The Small Press Festival in Boulder last March gave me new ideas about the world, communication and the importance of the small press. The notion that Umbrella Factory Magazine was created in the proper way was a baffling thought. We had done the right thing and we didn't even know it. At the time of the festival, we had just launched our first issue. Then, like now, we were learning. Between the creation of my blog in October and the Small Press Festival in March, all of my energy was wrapped up in Umbrella Factory.
The AWP conference in Denver last April lead me to new thoughts. At a workshop called "Platform" we were told, almost mandated to create a blog. See, as writers in the modern world, it is absolutely necessary to have a web presence. Okay, I thought, I have a blog. As you look at my postings, I really didn't start building this blog until the AWP. I must admit, it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire career as a writer.
So, the Blog?
It helps to focus thought.
It solicits comments from others, whether they are subscribers, followers, or causal drop-bys.
It creates a presence.
It helps to focus thought. Have I said that already?
It helps with discipline. I've done my best to publish a post every week.
Furthermore, it's fun.
Is it the small press? Yes, I think so. It's the small press as well as it can be. A blogger can do just about anything they want to do. I've seen blogs that cover writing, movies, food, dogs and wow, you can learn from others. Blogs are classrooms, forums, news, ideas and in some situations, comedy shows.
The fact that anyone can create one, and everyone should, is the dangerous part of it. You see, everyone can become a reporter, a critic and an authority. Bloggers will kill the newpaper and print journalism. Perhaps that is a downside. After all, do you think the Nixon-Watergate scandal would have been so impactful on a blog? Who knows?
But as writers, yes, I think a blog is great source of exposure. It is the small press in the smallest form. It blends the technology with the ancient use of written language. We don't need to use text speak here, although I'm sure some do. Has the blog replaced the cave wall as our story telling forum? I doubt it. But it does serve a larger audience. Occasionally, I look at the stats. People are seeing me. Amazing.
I urge all of you out there to try it. Blog. Give us your verison of the small press. At the base of it, if you really think about it, all it all comes down to creation.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Autumn Reading List: Part II Books

I've been thinking about books this fall. It's 2010, and whether books still mean anything to rest of the world or not, they still mean something to me. Clearly. I mean without books, what do we really have? I suppose we still have the internet and the television and all the gadgets—cellphones and ipods and the Wii. I remember in my youth, by which I mean just a short time ago, I felt like everyone, everywhere you looked at held a book. I'm a bus taker, I'm a let everyone else do the driving kind of guy. I bring it up now because I'm thinking about books. When I worked for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment back in the early 1990s, I not only read books but I took the bus to work, then to school, then home. I took five separate buses everyday. I read books. I cannot remember all the books I read, but I do recall this was in my John Steinbeck and Mark Twain phase. What's important here is that I was using my time on public transit to read. And? And I was not alone. I can tell you this: everyone, or many of my fellow passengers were doing the same thing.
Hopping ahead to the present day, I'm still riding the bus. In recent weeks I've been enjoying the literary stylings of Gogol and Trumbo.
So, the other day I picked up the #6 bus on the corner of Lincoln Ave and 9th. I only had to take this bus for about 10 blocks. Yes, I know, how lazy. In my defense, I still work at Marlowe's and I'm an aging waiter, and well, it was a hot day. What does this have to do with books? Well, I took Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo out of my bag and prepared to read. Dalton Trumbo's book is on the fall reading list, incidentally. I bought this particular copy in Dillon, Montana at Gracie's New and Used, paid fifty cents for it. I was attracted to the book because of a recent reading of All Quiet on the Western Front.
Johnny Got His Gun has proved to be a difficult read. It isn't difficult to read because of the subject matter as you may think. World War I was awful and it is awful to read about it. And much like All Quiet on the Western Front, Dalton Trumbo has penned a wonderful anti-war novel in Johnny Got His Gun. I do love the anti-war aspect of the novel. And as beautiful as it may seem to pass the warm fall afternoons reading such stuff it has been difficult because Dalton Trumbo has elected to write a very powerful novel without the benefit of a comma. So, it's difficult only due to a lack of punctuation. It ends up that I truly like punctuation. I'm enjoying the process of the read despite it being so cumbersome. Incidentally, I found The Road by Cormac McCarthy to be a compelling story of a father and son, but I was frustrated by the writing because of the lack of punctuation.
This is a point for style and has very little to do with the bus and my ride on it one beautiful afternoon in a September clad Denver day.
So, the book didn't leave my lap. I opted to daydream and at the very least check out my fellow passengers. There were a few people doing exactly what I was doing, daydreaming, and I can respect that.
There was also a lady talking to a cellphone. She was explaining some recent trouble to the other end about the law, a philandering schlep who she was breaking up with, and the ills of police interactions. Instantly I thought very bad thoughts, I was judgmental and I looked down on her; not because of what she was saying, but because of the volume of her voice. Then, I noticed the kid across from her who had a very audible volume of electronic music overflowing from the headphones. He was, no doubt, trying to drown out the cellphone lady. Then, I noted something odd. Everyone was engaged, like the two aforementioned, in some electronic gadget or other: video games, the ipod, the cellphone. I was alone with my book, and a book was alone with me. No one was reading. I felt something similar in a coffeehouse a few years back when I counted eleven people and ten laptops. For some reason, the laptops were somewhat less offensive. I'd remembered that coffeehouse from ten years prior as being a rowdy place where we were discussing important things like politics and social issues and sex. The laptop people were, in all likelihood, using the wi-fi and doing exactly what we used to do only now it gets done through a digital middleman.
Times change. I know this. But back on the bus, why was I the only one endeavoring to read a book? I mean, come on, the bus is a very literary place. The Lighthouse Writers and the Poetry Society have “Poetry in Motion” posters stuck between ads and RTD propaganda.
In ten blocks, my idea of the world changed. Have people really changed from the tactile and intellectual appeal of a book to be replaced with cheap electronic diversions from China? It's awful.
And things change.
By the time I get this post published here, this will probably be public knowledge: Janice and I are moving from sunny Denver, Colorado to green and rainy Portland, Oregon.
The move is important in the discussion of books only because we had to deal with not one, but two, tremendous collections of books. My collection alone was well over 500 and hers was even larger. In a desire to lighten our load on our own personal Oregon Trail, we elected to downsize the book collections along with everything else. Of course it goes with saying this: furniture is heavy, material things whether they are useless trinkets or emotional anchors (I just learned that phrase) can be cumbersome as well as heavy. We've been giving away things for years. We've been selling anything of even nominal value for months. We've gone from 2 mortgages to one to none from an apartment to a bedroom. We've gone from two cars, one motorcycle and two bicycles to a car and a two bus passes. Our Oregon Trail wagon is a bluish-green 1994 Saturn. With that, it comes down to fitting all that is important into the confines of that 1994 Saturn's trunk and backseat. Books? Well, yes, we're each keeping a prized few: hardbacks, first editions, out-of-prints, and for me, the ones I often reference and the ones I'm yet to read. All others? Gone.
I carried nine full boxes of books, big heavy boxes too, down eight floors. It took nine trips yesterday to do it, and today, I'm very sore. It really is a great deal of weight.
Our plan? We were going to sell as many as we could to Black and Read Books to get a few extra bucks for the move. Black and Read is one of two used bookstores in Denver who still pay cash for books rather than trade credits which are the norm nowadays. An easy plan? Sure, and anything we couldn't sell we were just going to drop off at the Goodwill thrift store. I bought many of my books there anyway.
So? Well, Black and Read no longer buys books. We were told that we, and our books I suspect, are not unique. Apparently, dozens of people have been selling books too. Perhaps they're doing it like Janice and I are doing it--we just can't carry them. Perhaps, as we consider the economic times, people are selling books for income. And then the thought occurred to me that maybe people no longer need to collect books. Maybe it is simply easier to have a collection of electronic books on the e-reader, a Kindle or Nook. Who knows? Or perhaps people no longer need books because on the bus, it's better to have the company of a voice on the other end of cellular airwaves or the tunes in the headphones.
Admittedly, I felt defeated from the lack of a sale, but we quickly moved on. There was no way we were going to carry all nine boxes back. We'd already parted with these volumes on an emotional level.
We went to the thrift store donation center. I had packed all these books neatly, taking the utmost care to keep the spines and covers intact. Even if we were emotionally separated from them, they had been loved, they had been lovers, they had been friends and they deserve that.
The awful man who received us was so curt, half-witted and non-caring that I only wish I had the presence of mind to do the right thing. Rather, I did what I was told. In the hot September sun in a suburban parking lot, I was told to remove the books from the boxes and dump them in a big plastic rolling bin. Dump them. This breaks the spines, bends the covers, compromises the pages. This is a lack of respect. This was a difficult thing for me to do. It was like smashing the heads of kittens or old grandmothers or stepping on babies. And the entire ordeal left me sick. It would have been easier to step on the heads of kittens than to dump the volumes and tomes of life into a plastic bin.
Back in the car, we both felt sick and we were both quiet. Eventually, I said: “I'm sorry.”
“It's done,” Janice said. I readily admit that Janice is smarter than me. I admit she's a better writer too (except on the days I've written a clever paragraph, then I claim to be able to match her caliber). Yet in those two words, it's done, I felt her anger, her frustration and her remorse. I also felt her process. In those two words, she became stronger than me. I was feeling like I could kick out the windows at Goodwill, scold them, and explain the importance of caring for a book. I would do it because it needed to be done. “Please take care of these books,” I'd say. “Even if no one else cares, I do.”
I apologized to Janice again.
Then she asked: “How many hours do you think were in those books?”
I instantly thought about the money. These days we think about money a great deal. We trade our time for work and work gives us money and money buys us books that we have little time for because we work. “I don't know,” I said. “A lot.”
“How many hours did we spend reading those books?”
“I don't know,” I said. What could I have said to her? We all know she's smarter than me.
“We should have...” she began. I'll spare you that. She was right. We should have...

I cannot preach to you. If you made it this far in the story, you probably get it. You probably have books too. You probably love them. You may even be digital, you may read online or electronically. You may not read at all, but rather find your solace in the headphones.
I hope you do read.
I hope you collect like I once did and like I will do again.
Once our Oregon odyssey becomes fulfilled I have every intention of continuing with the books. Books I will collect: banned books, romances; classics, books yet to be written. Where I'll read these books: the bookstore, the coffeehouse; the bus, under a tree. And when faced with the downsizing of books again? I'll gladly smash kittens' heads before dumping even a single book.
Keep reading. Read on the bus. Read on the bed. And let the proud spines of books collect on the shelves in your house.