COMING OUT OF SEMI-SECLUSION AFTER BEING IMMERSED IN REVISIONS

Writers work in many different ways.

Some sit down and write two hours a day. When I read that in interviews, I used to think, “What slackers!” Only later, when I realized how much other work needs to be done to sustain that, did I revise my opinion. Research, reading, and correspondence are also crucial parts of the job. For many professional writers, you can add teaching to the list – it can be what really pays the bills.

Others charge up and then lock themselves away for an orgy of keyboarding. Say, two weeks to two months of doing nothing else. There are tales of some writers in the old days who would rent a hotel room for a week or so to do that – they must have had a very nice advance and known exactly what they were setting out to do, it seems too short a time for me these days.

When I was working full-time, my method was rather piecemeal. I’d plunge into writing heavily one day a week – it helped when my four-day workweek allowed me three days off in a row, though I paid for it with that double-shift each Saturday. The rest of the week I put in a couple of hours each day for keyboarding and the supporting labor.

That schedule, in fact, led me to concentrate on poetry much more than fiction, though the budding novels typically got their attention on my vacations and holidays. Looking back, it was a rather schizoid existence.

Since retiring, a major shift has happened, and I’m just now seeing its impact. I’ve been able to immerse myself in drafting and deeply revising a work, to live with it more thoroughly.

I’m going to blame Cassia, the voice of What’s Left. Working with her was unlike anything I’d attempted before. The focus shifted from her curiosity about her father’s past to a close examination of his photos and the family he discovered to, finally, Cassia herself and her siblings and close cousins – the Squad. The spotlight went from being on what happened to the individuals themselves. It was no longer action-driven but character-driven.

That, in turn, led to a similar reworking of my other novels, often with Cassia in effect sitting beside me. Again, unlike anything else I’d done before.

Doing this, though, has involved a lot of semi-seclusion. I’m definitely ready for a change.

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NORMAL? YOU MEAN LIKE FITTING IN?

Though she’s grown up in an extended bohemian family, Cassia’s able to cope with being different from many of her classmates – up to the point her father vanishes in an avalanche halfway around the globe. The other kids have fathers – that’s normal, or so she thinks. And then, in a flash, she and her home aren’t normal.

To see just how atypical they are, check out my new novel, What’s Left.

~*~

I just couldn’t pour this down the drain. It needed to simmer much more:

Her father was also a dreamer – or at least an idealist – a dimension that often inhibited him from asking hard questions or anticipating a full range of obstacles in a course of action. And he had an innate aversion to conflict.

What Thea Nita has confirmed is that Baba carried a sense of not quite belonging in the consumer culture of America. He had rightly concluded the ultimate flatness of his birthplace had nothing to do with its landscape and everything to do with a wider loss of stimulation, imagination, and inventive discovery – all further inhibited by social conformity rather than any acceptance of eccentricity. He recognized the potential for more, much more – something he encountered first in science and the fine arts and later in direct spiritual experience.

~*~

And then there’s her mother’s side, where they live – where he, too, has chosen to place his life.

Reflecting on the emotional cost of an upbringing like that in my own life has me realizing just how debilitating it has been. Like him, I found ways to escape and still somehow “fit in.”

Let’s get back to the basics. Would you say you’re “normal”? What would you like to change about yourself or your situation?

~*~

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers. (Manchester, New Hampshire.)

TEN MINUSES FROM A SHORT SUMMER

Anyone else felt pretty AWOL all summer?

  1. My daily schedule’s been way out of whack: I’ve been awaking around 3 a.m. most days, doing a half-hour of Spanish study online, and launching into some compulsive writing and revision. That’s led to a deep afternoon nap, which makes sense on very hot days, but even so, my evenings are rarely in alignments with others’. It’s like I’ve become a hermit.
  2. I missed a whole week of July: Yes, when I sat down to write some checks and realized the next day I was a whole week behind, I was shocked. How’d that happen?
  3. I skipped a whole month in my journaling: That was the real shocker. Opening my journal in early August to catch up, I had to look twice to confirm that my last previous entry had been in mid-June. It’s not like nothing was happening in my life, either.
  4. Didn’t get to the marketing drive: From a practical point of view, the thing I should have been doing for the past nine months is pushing my new novel into readers’ awareness. Instead, I was compulsively revising and drafting new material while the inspiration was still percolating madly. (What would you do?)
  5. Block party nearly didn’t happen for the first time in 18 years: The neighbors behind us always have a boffo block party, and we’re included. This year, however, it almost never happened. First, the event got postponed from the usual time in late June or early July. Good reasons, I’d say – one family was off in Mexico, the grandparents’ of another family weren’t coming as usual, all but one of the kids who had grown up with the party were now off in college and the exception had a full slate of alternatives – that sort of thing. And then August got just as crazy. Somehow, on short notice, it happened on the penultimate Saturday of the month. Was there even a collector’s poster by the resident graphic designer? I was beginning to wonder if we’d be trying to catch up with it with their annual Soupa in November.
  6. No hiking in the mountains or swimming in the ocean: I mean, we’re so close, but now that I have the yearlong pass to the Dover indoor pool, I have less motivation to drive an hour or so away to hit the water or trails. Not if I’m engaged in other stuff, especially.
  7. We didn’t do much grilling: Summer typically means dining in what I’ve called our Smoking Garden, but I didn’t even get the strings of lights up overhead till early July rather than the beginning of May. When we have grilled, the food’s come indoors for the meal more often than stayed on the table outside. We’re not blaming all of it on the bugs, either.
  8. So much for getting together: Had hoped to spend some time with three guys, especially. It just didn’t happen. Mea culpa. They’re all fascinating. Part of it was that out-of-whack schedule.
  9. Too many weeds proliferated: Anyone else garden? Were they worse than usual this year?
  10. Lost some of my favorite lifeguards: Look, there’s no escaping the reality that America’s graying. Some days it seems like there’s no one under 40 about in the nation. One of my principal connections with living, breathing youth has been at the indoor pool, where I’m trusting my life to their abilities. Keeping them from getting bored on the job’s been a pleasant challenge, but now the majority of them have graduated from high school and are off to college. Premed or the like for most. Did I mention they’re smart, even when they try to pretend otherwise? Seems like we should have had a party, but I don’t think they even had one for themselves. Best wishes, all the same.

SUGGESTING A CREATIVE TENSION BETWEEN INSPIRATION AND TECHNIQUE

In another of the grandiose outbursts I surgically excised from the final version of my new novel, What’s Left, her uncle Dimitri and her father-to-be are engaged in a heated late-night debate.

While their dialogue springs out of a consideration of photography as a fine art, it could extended much broader – perhaps even onto the plates served in the family restaurant.

Here’s how it stood:
Any fine art of the future cannot be an end in itself. It must reflect a much more comprehensive spiritual current. It must instill an awareness of a community. You, of all people must have noticed the only thing the university can teach is technique. The profs can’t instill the leap of psychic thunder. They may encourage a few people to take up vital self-discipline and daily practice.

~*~

Surgically excised? Looks like I actually used one of Barney’s super-sharp chef knives!

The dynamic of formal teaching and learning ultimately fell outside the parameters of my new novel anyway. The important thing is that Cassia’s Baba finds a true home.

I’d say her uncle Barney, the chef, practices a fine art, in his own way, and he’s never attended college. He just has an active curiosity and a place to engage it. Maybe that’s why he and her Baba get along so easily.

Do you practice an art or a craft? Have you ever tried to define your “mission”? How do you explain your motivation or activity? Who gives you the most positive feedback?

~*~

This Victorian house, with its witch-hat tower and roof, was erected in Allentown, Pa., around 1891. It is shown here in 1926 during construction of the New Pergola Theater next door. The house was torn down in 1960, replaced by Van’s Diner, a glass and aluminum structure. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

In my novel, the family home could have looked like this.

BE AMONG THE FIRST TO GET MY NEWEST NOVEL

Join with me in celebrating the publication today of my newest novel, Daffodil Uprising, at Smashwords.com.

A thorough reworking of my 2013 release, Daffodil Sunrise, it’s a tale of radical awakening in the 1960s now told from his daughter Cassia’s perspective a generation later. Her voice is snarkier than his, for starters, and she’s more willing to view the events with more grit than he had in the previous version. Oh, yes, the characters are definitely more colorful, vivid, and varied. Besides, there are now strands of Goth and the paranormal. What else?

You’ll have to see for yourself.

Daffodil Uprising

The ebook is available in the digital format of your choice at Smashwords and other independent digital retailers.

THE LONGEST GRASS AND THE SEARCH FOR A WORKABLE ITINERARY

Back in my college days I came across a column by a magazine writer who was retiring. He mentioned something he had recognized early in his career, that if you want to be a writer or a serious reader, you need to get comfortable with having the longest grass on your street. (An editor is something of both.)

It’s been a powerful – and to me, helpful – image.

Studious reading and writing require large chunks of time and concentration. Sacrifices have to be made. Quite simply, you can’t hope to do all the things everyone else does … or seems to do.

With my wife back in the workplace (and me now retired from paid employment), she’s looking at the list of things she’d like to see done to keep this old house and our big garden in shape. As that editor was saying about the grass?

A few weeks ago, I revisited some notes I had made in looking forward to retirement. It was embarrassing. I had always anticipated this as a time I could finally devote fully to my literary and spiritual callings rather than as a time to kick back and indulge in a life of leisure. (No golf clubs or even tennis racquet on my horizon.) Still, even then, I felt challenged in trying to find a balance for all that I wanted to accomplish. Frankly, these plans looked like boot camp for a senior citizen. Rise at 5, sit down to meditate, exercise, and hit the keyboard for three hours. That sort of thing.

What my theoretical charts didn’t include was housekeeping and the like. And then when I did retire, I hadn’t anticipated taking up daily swimming in the city’s indoor pool or online Spanish lessons or weekly choir rehearsals in Boston.

As for the big household projects like painting or ongoing repairs or time in the mountains to the north or at the beach to our east? Fuhgetaboutit, as a New Yorker would say.

TEN PLUSES FROM A SHORT SUMMER

In our part of the world, it’s been a short summer. That is, it’s felt even shorter than usual.

Normally, our summer doesn’t kick in until the Fourth of July, and that was the case this year. We had an uncommonly dry June and some oppressively hot, humid days in July. OK, it’s global warming, we know that much – the climatic instability shift that’s no longer deniable to anyone who’s been paying attention to reality. That’s left August, which included a very dark, rainy week.

So here we are, in what’s officially the final three weeks – usually some of our best, if we can get outdoors to engage in them. That is, if you don’t have kids in school. (Unofficially, of course, the whole thing ends on Labor Day weekend.)

Here are 10 highlights from my Summer of 2018:

 

  1. The princess brigade: In the past year, a family from South Dakota has moved in down the street, and their two daughters have become good friends with another girl a few doors the other side of us. So all summer, they’ve been traipsing up and down our sidewalk, one house to the other. As their vacation wore on, they got inventive. One day, I heard the doorbell buzz, went to open the door, nobody was there, but a little bouquet was on the steps along with a note. Later, they were back again, saying I was the only one who responded. That was the beginning of similar exchanges, including cookies or brownies from us some days or having them pick blueberries on another. They’ve definitely brightened our summer.
  2. Our student from China: For one month, we hosted a Chinese college student who had an internship at the Children’s Museum. He could walk to work. It was a delightful experience for all. By the way, he insists my fried rice is better than the version at the Chinese restaurant downtown. We’re hoping to repeat the experience next year.
  3. Blueberry bonanza: We weren’t alone. Others reported gangbusters of blueberries. In our case, a new way of covering them with protective netting helped, too – the squirrels and birds didn’t scarf off with the harvest before we could get our share.
  4. Productive drafting: I thought I was done revising my novels, that I could move into the next stage of supporting their publication. But then I made the mistake of opening an unfinished manuscript, one based on a character who appears in one of the novels, and felt an obsessive need to delve deeper into an understanding of her motivations and experiences. Let me say simply the venture took me into shady sides of my own emotions, and while I doubt I’ll ever release this work for publication, its pages do contain what I feel is some of my finest writing. I’m still not finished, but at least I’ve come to a place where I can take a breather. When I return to the file, the labor will be in smaller, less demanding portions.
  5. Overdue framing: There’s a backlog of household projects to get to – there always is, if you live in an old home like ours – but I did finally get around to framing and hanging a number of pictures. Some, like the icons my wife brought back from Macedonia and Crete, still need a place on a suitable wall – something that’s in surprisingly short supply in our abode. But it is a break in an emotional ice jam on my part. Maybe scraping and painting the hallways will be next? Going through my surviving artwork from high school was also an illuminating experience. I did that?
  6. A dear friend’s memoir: I felt honored to be asked if I’d take a look at her document but then put it aside until I could give it full attention. It was worth it. While we’ve known each other 30 years now, we always lived at a distance – the closest being an hour away and then five-plus hours and now several thousand miles. Still, having the opportunity to reconnect this way was a deep blessing and added greatly to my perspective, especially as details of her remarkable life fell into place here.
  7. Ambience of New England Yearly Meeting: At this year’s sessions, some of us were carrying an awareness of our week together as being worship, not just in the Quaker business sessions but in our time of meals and chance conversations and even contradancing or the raucous coffee house evening as well. Instead of ending each of our business sessions with the traditional shaking of hands, our presiding clerk held back until the end of the final one, giving the action extra poignancy. If Western Christianity has nothing like the Eastern Orthodox Holy Week, where every day from Palm Sunday through Pascha (or Easter) has its intense liturgy, it is possible to realize how unique Quaker yearly meeting stands to that in its own way. In fact, our minuting of the sessions can be seen as writing the liturgy as we go rather than following an existing text – immersion liturgy, as one Friend quipped. Oh, yes, and reconnecting with special Friends was also personally renewing.
  8. Our firewood stack: The delivery came less than a week after I ordered it, rather than a month or two later. Stacking the two cords in a pile to stay up at least a year for further seasoning is always hard toil for an office-type dude like me, but it also has a puzzle-solving aspect of fitting the pieces together. It’s done now, went faster than expected, actually, and I’m proud of how it looks. Will have even more satisfaction sitting beside the flames in our Jotul on a cold winter day.
  9. Jenny Thompson outdoor pool: The indoor swimming pool always closes for annual maintenance the last two weeks of August, and those of us who have passes get to use the outdoor pool then without having to pay extra. The extra length of the lanes – 50 meters instead of 25 yards – can be a killer (my half-mile means eight laps outdoors rather than 18 indoors), but there’s something invigorating about being out in that late summer air, the wind rippling through the warning banners over each end of the pool, and the brilliant sunlight everywhere. On the backstroke, especially, counting the contrails of jetliners descending for Logan International Airport in Boston to our southwest or watching for bald eagles soaring off over the Cocheco River can add to my delight.
  10. Greek festival: Dover’s Greek Orthodox church hosts its festival every Labor Day weekend, its welcome to the entire community. Unlike many similar events elsewhere, ours does not charge an entry, so the music and dancing are essentially free. OK, you can buy raffle tickets or a full meal and drinks as a means of supporting the fundraiser. Me? The old-time Quakers wouldn’t have had music, much less dancing or games of chance, but I love the contrast. (By the way, I learned only after the fact that Portsmouth’s Greek festival had returned in July after a hiatus last year. Oh, my, speaking of contrast.)