"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A brooding sky this morning. When I arrived home late last night from Mexico the cold and damp lanced into me and I had to laugh at myself. For the whole time I was visiting down there everyone rhapsodized about the sublime weather and blue skies and I kept protesting how I loved four seasons and adored winter but now that I’m back I’m missing the blue, the warm, the lake, the hillsides and bougainvillea tumbling down beautiful old walls. I fell in love with the walls-(Now the so-called cobblestone streets were another things altogether since they are barely passable they are so uneven and treacherous). I had been teaching at the Lake Chapala Writer’s Conference in Ajijic, Mexico along with the talented freelance journalist Vince Beiser. Besides the fact that I had a hard time acclimating to the altitude, the whole experience was amazing, I met delightful people, was given a breathless tour around the lake that included passing an agave field, a colorful graveyard as festive as a children’s birthday party and people busy decorating graves on a Friday afternoon, and burros loaded with piles of firewood. I’d still be down there except I’ve got a book deadline. If you want to visit a part of Mexico that is magical and sweet and far from the glitz of Puerto Vallarta, this is the place to go…..I’m planning on returning.

While on the plane I read Ursula Le Guin’s intriguing essay in the February issue of Harpers, “Staying Awake: Notes on the Alleged Decline of Reading." A while ago the NEA issued their latest dire report about the decline of reading claiming that 43% of Americans hadn’t read a book in the previous year. Now, on first glance the report is troubling indeed. In this report one of these non-reading Americans was quoted as saying, "I just get sleepy when I read."

But if you look deeper into the report you’ll discover that creative nonfiction isn’t classified as literature, that on-line reading doesn’t count, nor do graphic novels. This has puzzled me enormously, because spring, summer, winter and fall when I step into a bookstore or library here in Portland, they’re throbbing with life and with, well, this apparently endangered species, readers. I meet readers everywhere I go. In her essay Le Guin simply insists that books are here to stay: "It's just that not all that many people ever did read them."

Le Guin's sharpest barbs are aimed at publishing executives who "think they can sell books as commodities" and are disappointed if their holdings don't increase "yearly, daily, hourly." She then goes on to compare selling books to selling corn.

Until the corporate takeover of independent publishing houses, she points out, publishers didn't expect expansion: "They were quite happy if their supply and demand ran parallel, if their books sold steadily, flatly."

It’s also a beautiful rhapsody to reading and Le Guin writes: “Besides, readers aren’t viewer; they recognize their pleasure as different from that of being entertained. Once you’ve pressed the ON button, TV goes on, and on, and on, and all you have to do is sit and stare. But reading is active, an act of attention, of absorbed aloneness—not all that different from hunting, in fact, or from gathering. In its silence, a book is a challenge; it can’t lull you with surging music or deafen you with screeching laugh tracks or fire gunshots in your living room; you have to listen to it in your head. A book won’t move your eyes for you images on a screen do. It won’t move your mind unless you give your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart in it…”

In the closing sentences she writes: “Since kids coming up through the schools are seldom taught to read for pleaser and anyhow are distracted by electrons, the relative number of book readers is unlikely to see any kind of increase and many well shrink further. What's in this dismal scene for you, Mr. Corporate Executive? Why don't you just get out of it, dump the ungrateful little pikers, and get on with the real business of business, ruling the world?"

A number of Le Guin's science fiction works, including her award-winning novels The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, are set in a future. Over nearly 50 years she's published novels, children's books, more than 100 short stories, essays, poetry, two volumes of translation and screenplays of her works. She's received the National Book Award, five Hugos, five Nebulas, the Kafka Award, a Pushcart Prize and several "lifetime achievement" awards among dozens of other honors. She’s crosses genres and in her sci fi she examines contemporary problems by placing them in her imagined worlds--for example, an anarchic society in The Dispossessed, (1974) and life in an androgynous world, in The Left Hand of Darkness, (1969). LeGuin is also the author of a fantasy series for children, the Earthsea trilogy, and has received many awards, including the Boston Globe-Hornbook Award for juvenile fiction (1968) and the National Book Award (1973) for the children's book The Farthest Shore.

Le Guin once said, "The writer cannot do it alone. The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Well the sky is sooty but no rain today. I’ve still been sick lately with various ailments, so am trying to get some work done, but not overdo. I’m working on the final chapter of my Bad Guys books so I’m trying to find books that fall into various children’s book categories. While browsing around the powells.com site I read a recent interview with Sue Grafton author of the Kinsey Milhone series about her body of work and her latest book, T is for Tresspass.

Last week while trying to get over the flu I read it and Greg Iles’ Third Degree. Isle’s latest book is a thriller and while it’s a page turner, I found myself wanting a bit more realism. As for Grafton, I found myself skipping or skimming over parts of the story—the whole just didn’t have enough tension for me. However, she’s a skilled and interesting writer and also I think any writer would be smart to pay attention to her writing process and how she works with her right brain. In the interview she mentions that she has posted the journals that she writes during her book writing process at the website http://www.suegrafton.com

The interview is at http://www.powells.com/interviews/suegrafton.html Here is an excerpt:

Dave: In the last twenty-five years, what is the longest you've gone without thinking of Kinsey?

Grafton: Seven minutes, maybe. I think about her a lot.

The way I look at the world is filtered through her. Every time I read the paper, I'm thinking about Kinsey, though I don't often draw from real cases because I don't want to get my butt sued. Everybody's suing everybody these days. Besides which, a lot of true crime, the stuff you read in the paper, is so absurd. There's no art, there's no intellect, there's no cleverness to it. People get drunk and they whack each other. Where is the joy in that? The beauty of detective fiction is that you come to believe somebody is thinking about crime, thinking and doing something devious. It isn't just alcohol-fueled, impulsive nonsense. If somebody gets killed in a mystery novel, there's a reason. It isn't for their tennis shoes.

Grafton: The mystery novels I love — Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard — I love those guys who've been around forever, and they're just workhorses. Old school. I love watching writers of any gender do a beautiful job at anything. That's exciting. When you see someone who has a voice, a tone, a point of view, and they do their job well, that's fun.

You also might want to check out today’s Writer’s Almanac from American Public Media. It’s called "A Color of the Sky" by Tony Hoagland, from What Narcissism Means To Me. © Graywolf Press, 2003.
Here is the first stanza:
A Color of the Sky
Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,
driving over the hills from work.
There are the dark parts on the road
when you pass through clumps of wood
and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,
but that doesn't make the road an allegory.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A pewter-colored sky with constant rain and snow piling up in the mountains as avalanche dangers increase daily. Like most people I’ve been following the presidential primaries, wondering how New Hampshire is going to vote. I wanted to weigh in on something that happened yesterday when Hillary became emotional and teary-eyed while talking with her supporters in a diner.

Now, I’m not a big Hillary fan because I’ve been dismayed by many of her Senate votes and how she has seemed to be Bush’s enabler. For me, the Iraq occupation is the most important issue of our time and Hillary gets a big red F on that score. I also just don’t believe in political dynasties and believe the Clintons had their chance. I worry about good ol’Jeb B. waiting in the wings for his chance at plundering the national treasury because he apparently didn’t have enough chances to steal while governor of Florida. And it seems to me that if the Clintons had behaved better in office and if Hillary hadn’t sucked up so much oxygen with her senatorial race in 2000, Gore would be our president. Of course Gore game off as a prissy-pants and bore, he distanced himself too far from his own record, and the media treated him badly while giving Shrub a free ride, and then the Supreme Court stopped the vote….so lots of things have added up to the current horror we’re living in, but for me, I just cannot help it, the Clintons are tangled in this mess.

But while I’m not a Hillary fan, I don’t hate her because she is a woman, like the Neanderthals that were chanting “iron my shirt” at her rally yesterday. Which makes me think about women in power. Yesterday I turned in another chapter to my editor about dangerous women in fiction and drama. And throughout history women who step outside from traditional roles of hearth and home have been seen as a threat and if she stepped out of line, by say, heaven forbid, having sex with someone other than her husband, she needed to be punished. And if they weren’t punished, they usually had the good sense to off themselves, ala Lady Macbeth and Madame Bovary.

Hillary seems to be one of those dangerous women—hated by women because she’s powerful and by men because she’s controlling and tough. Or because she’s the wife of Bill. Or because she wears pants. Who knows? But it’s always been socially acceptable to hate women.

Hillary’s friends say she’s real and kind and funny. I hope all that is true. But what I know is that she’s allowed to get teary-eyed without the media glomming onto the story as if the sky has fallen. The story was the lead on all three network news cast last night. And of course the question was is she authentic, is she a fake, is she weak? Frankly I’d like to see her cry over all the dead and mutilated from the Iraq debacle and the mistakes she’s made in the Senate. Now, those tears would impress me. Last month Mitt Romney cried three times, but no comment was made, even when he practically sobbed on Meet the Press. And when asked about her tears, Giuliani the terror-warrior replied “9-11” because everything is about 9-11 according to that ass. So it seems to me that this campaign will be a great chance to watch the double standards of our society.

If you have not had a chance to see Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, you’re missing some of the best interviews and documentary-style reporting around. He especially focuses on the role of the media in politics {www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/archives} Lately, he’s been having Kathleen Hall Jamieson on the show commenting on the political race and in a previous show commented on the hate rhetoric aimed at Clinton based on sexism. She is the Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Walter and Leonore Annenberg Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. I cannot recommend her analysis enough—she’s just so astute.

Salon.com has great political coverage these days. An opinion piece today by Gary Kamiya is called Obama's double magic. {http://www.salon.com/opinion/kamiya/2008/01/08/Obama} The story is about how “By allowing voters to both vent their anger and overcome it, while embodying the transcendence of America's racial wound, Barack Obama offers not just hope, but alchemy.” But I’m a sucker for a journalist who can really skewer Bush Co. as he does in this paragraph:

“In November 2004, American voters reelected the worst president in modern history. That election did more than blight the political hopes of half the people in this country, it raised serious questions about America's very identity. What kind of country could possibly reelect a president as manifestly unfit for office as George W. Bush? Why would millions of Americans again endorse an ignorant, incompetent leader who launched a disastrous and pointless war, presided over an administration based on secrets and lies, trampled the Constitution, ran up a ruinous debt, ignored the global environmental crisis, approved torture and secret prisons, and destroyed America's moral standing in the world?”

Happy Elvis’ birthday to all.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Dusk is falling and there is a slight drizzle here in the valley with snow in the mountains. A few weeks ago someone I know mentioned that if he could live the life he never dared he would have been a sports writer. He studied engineering and repairs copiers for a living now but is the kind of sports enthusiast who can quote statistics on just about any team, player, coach, or series. He imagines getting paid to follow teams around and put his sports knowledge to use. Since my brothers and father can quote stats going back 50 years, this doesn’t strike me as unnatural. But sometimes I wonder about what I would do if I wasn’t writing the books I write and teaching the writers I teach. Brain or psychological research—an endless fascination for me, or some other form of research would have required a much different course of study.

Last night I was listening to All Things Considered as I cooked a pot of chili and Matthew Sturm, a senior research scientist and snow expert with the Army's Cold Regions Research Laboratory (http://snow.usace.army.mi/l) came on and talked about snow. I never knew much about snow researchers and immediately starting wondering about this odd profession. Then after I went to their web site, I discovered that there is annual snow conference—who would have thunk? The site has beautiful photos of snow and magnified shots of snow flakes. It seems that the main purpose of their research is to track contaminants since in high altitude and polar regions where snow rarely melts, the continually depositing layers of snow serve as a historical record of contaminants.

Sturm explained that snow is a mineral and each flake has a dust mote at its center. While there are 30-40 general snowflake forms, that there are six basic forms such as prisms, plates, and dendrites most often seen on Christmas cards. You gotta wonder how someone gets involved in studying snow.

But if I didn’t go into research (and I shudder to imagine all the math courses and dry lectures involved), I’d love to be a film critic which seems one of the best jobs in the world, although there are so many dreadful movies made these days I can see the down side. Which brings me to the movie I saw most recently. It’s been years since I’ve read Cormac McCarthy although I was certainly aware of the buzz around No Country for Old Men. Then I started hearing about the buzz the movie and now understand it. If this film doesn’t win some Oscar nominations there is no justice.

In this film the Coen brothers are at the top of their game with a film that is so eerie, arresting, and fraught with tension that although my friend and I both needed to go to the bathroom half way through the movie, we were stapled to our seats until the final moment. However, if you cannot handle blood and gore, for god’s sake, stay away. It has some truly lurid scenes and there were several times when I looked away because my stomach could not handle, the uhm, medical details of the moment.

It’s also bleak, unfailingly bleak, and the themes are about mankind’s depravity and evil nature. As someone who has just rewritten my chapters on villains and sociopaths I was particularly interested in the antics of the character played by Javier Bardem as a cattle-gun-toting pitiless psycho. To say he’s an effective villain is to say the night sky holds lots of stars. He makes savagery look so easy that he’s pretty much convinced me never to set foot in Texas if I want to get out alive.

Although set in the barren plains of Texas the film is more crime thriller than Western since it involves a drug deal gone sour. But then sour is too wimpy a term. Since the fallout is horrific and everybody ends up dead, even the pit bulls. (You weren’t expecting Golden Retrievers were you?) A day or so later when the bodies have been baking and bloating in the Texas son the sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) and his deputy go out to check things out.

The dialogue in this scene and many others is terse and effective and spooky.

Deputy: “It’s a mess, ain’t it, sheriff?”

Sheriff: “If it ain’t, it’ll do ’til the mess gets here.”

The film has an astonishing amount of detail and each scene is brilliantly framed and even the most desolate landscapes are displayed with a strange beauty. The cast is well-chosen and Kelly Macdonald is great as Josh Brolin’s trailer-park wife and Brolin makes for a convincing Vietnam vet turned bad ass after stumbling onto the crime scene while hunting.

However, the wanna-be film critic in me needs to complain a bit. You see, there are two extremely crucial and climatic scenes that happen off-stage and for the life of me, I cannot imagine why. I won’t tell you what they are, but I will say that they’ve left a lingering disappointment in the midst of an amazing cinematic experience. Instead the film ends anti-climatically with Tommy Lee Jones describing a dream of his dead father. It’s an odd and tender moment with his wife played by Tess Harper with such concern for his happiness etched on her face that it almost broke my heart.

Perhaps in these days of such political corruption and a country falling apart, a story like this is apt—a terrible allegory for terrible times. I don’t know. I get up every morning hoping for some redemption, some glimmering humanity lightening my days. Apparently the Coen brothers don’t see things that way.