How I finally wrapped up some lively loose ends

The paperback cover …

Once I had gone back to better unify the stories of Cassia, the basis of What’s Left, and her father, I then saw a possibility of pulling two existing and somewhat problematic novellas into an overall more unified volume. (Yes, I’ll argue that what I have is something other than a conventional series, even when some of the characters appear in multiple novels.) And, I should emphasize, Cassia is far from the scene in the pieces I’m addressing, the ones that now involve Jaya, the center of Nearly Canaan, in a capstone work.

By weaving Jaya into the two novellas, I could pull them together. And since “Nearly Canaan” was set in three distinct parts of the country – Great Plains, the South, and Pacific Northwest – reflecting places where she had lived with Schuwa, a third section was required, one reflecting their interlude in the Ozarks.

Here, my imagination took over, along with some elaboration of earlier research. I might add that the Hodgson Mill cornmeal found on many supermarket and kitchen shelves has a personal connection – its founders were distant kin from North Carolina who spelled their name like mine at one stage in their migration to Missouri. I have to admit that “Miller at the Springs” is especially satisfying for me.

Together, the three form The Secret Side of Jaya, plus a little more.

… and the back cover.

I must admit the collection is deeply personal for me and leave it at that. I offer it to you, all the same.

While we’re at it and geography’s on my mind, I should also confess that in “What’s Left” and Daffodil Uprising, when I recast the town of Daffodil by moving it to the Ohio River and throwing in a touch of Dubuque, Iowa, from the Upper Mississippi, I was acknowledging a sense that southern Indiana gravitates toward the big river along its southern border, even though no place along the waterway is only an hour from Indianapolis. Poetic license, then. The Hoosier state was settled largely from the south – in 1850, nearly half of the households had roots in North Carolina, where many Quakers had fled because of the slaveholding culture. And then recasting that Indiana into the Ozarks, I turned heavily toward the use of photos and related documents, somewhat the same way I did in another series about what you don’t know when I tackled my Mediterranean poems.

And I’m somehow surprised that Baltimore, as beloved as it was in my residence later, has never come up in my fiction. And it won’t. The personal drama was mostly banal or I just never got to know the place well enough to go more than skin-deep.

One coot to another

As a preamble to a friend’s retirement, “Congratulations” doesn’t seem quite in order, other than, “Wow, you’ve survived!” Or “Hallelujah,” in a minor key full of wonder. Like making it to the end of a gauntlet.

Chronology doesn’t matter in these matters, older as I am but less mature, the eternal 17-year-old emotionally.

I still have no idea of how it feels to “be retired,” other than there seems to be a bit more space to savor what we’re doing or eating, if we want or can remember to do so. Golf? Tennis? Who has time? And yes, after all those years in the newsroom, I’m still “on the clock,” even when sleeping. Tick-tick-tick, only now there’s more of an urgency of mortality. Well, at least so much of my literary writing doesn’t feel like acts of graffiti.

Continue reading “One coot to another”

And you wonder how I work?

When I was employed full-time at the newspaper, I read interviews with successful authors who boasted they actively wrote two hours a day. Yes, boasted! As if two hours was such incredible labor! My reaction was, “What shirkers! What slackers!” And then, during my sabbatical, I typically spent eight to ten hours a day composing, though admittedly I did have a backlog of raw material to work down. And toward the end, I realized I was going at an unsustainable pace.

Besides, my two years on the road calling on newspaper editors for the media syndicate had convinced me that in a typical workday two hours of actually productive time was the optimum you could count on. In my case, it was the time spent in front of editors pitching our new goods and defending the ones they were already buying. The rest of my daily hours were preparation and cleaning up afterward and a host of other things I label as “infrastructure.”

You follow that? You still have to talk to the boss, do your research, keep in touch with colleagues, that sort of thing. And then there are doctor’s appointments and oil changes for the car. Welcome to the real world. It’s not an assembly line. Or maybe what lawyers would call billable time.

At the paper, I might now consider those two hours as actual keyboarding time. The rest would have included phone calls to interview subjects, plus background reading of the clips and even pondering what questions needed to be asked.

When I was employed, my literary world occurred in my off-the-clock hours. Much of it happened like graffiti, even notes jotted down while driving to the office or after. Flashes I might expand later in something that felt like jazz improv.

Two back-to-back Paris Review interviews in the late ’60s added perspective. The first was Jack Kerouac, with his two-week bursts of hammering away uncorrected on long rolls of teletype paper (like the ends I later used from the newsrooms where I worked – it’s the experience we now have on computers, where we don’t have to pause to insert a new sheet of paper page after page). Voila! He had a novel! Let the editors fix it, if they dare. The other was with Nabokov, the Russian émigré, who polished each sentence in English on a large index card his wife would later copy into a typescript.

I suspect no two writers work quite the same. Unlike one friend, who requires a new chair for each new work he tackles, I’ve been in the same one for 25 years or so now. I can’t imagine keyboarding in an aluminum fold-up lawn seat as he once did. Ahem.

Nor am I a Mozart, able to compose effortlessly on a stagecoach or in the middle of a loud party. I need my own Fortress of Solitude, currently in a corner of our attic though a treehouse might also be tempting.

When it comes to writing, my real work comes in the revisions, with all of the reflections and corrections and distillations and insertions. Initially, I found this oppressive. Something like our warmup exercises in choir, actually, though I really miss them when they don’t happen.

As a journalist, my dream was to have been like Hub Meeker at the Dayton Journal Herald with his State of the Arts column, though my own Corinthian Column at the Indiana Daily Student during my senior year of college at the height of the hippie upheaval did come close, only taking the larger counterculture as its vague subject. By the way, whatever happened to the Washington Post’s Nicolas von Hoffman, from that same frothy upheaval? A column, bang it out and you’re done. On to the next.

Poems and novels rarely happen like that. Still, they require daily “butt time,” in Bukowski’s term. That I finally understand and embrace.

As I’ve revised what I considered “experimental” novels, my emphasis has shifted from the events to the characters. Sometimes even the genders have shifted, adding new nuances. Yes, there are scenes that never happened to me personally, not that I would have resisted. They happened to somebody.

More recently, my now-wife has shown me instances in cooking where I bring in a big batch of something from the garden, say a basket of kale or tomatoes, and watch it cook down to almost nothing. A very, very tasty essence.

So you wonder about what writing’s like? Please pass me the pepper grinder, a lemon, and a stick of butter.

Funny, how that points me toward Cassia and her family in What’s Left.

Wrestling with Czeslaw Milosz, fellow poet

In one poem, which I’ve crunched here from my own journal entry, he replies: “You ask me how to pray to someone who is not. All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge and walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard, above landscapes the color of ripe gold transformed by a magic stopping of the sun. That bridge leads to the shore of reversal where everything is just the opposite and the word is unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned. Notice: I say we there, everyone, separately, feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh and knows that if there were no other shore they will walk that aerial bridge all the same.”

Elsewhere he wrote: “’I could not have had a better life than the one I had,’ she writes to me in February 1983 from Warsaw, Irena who has lived through the occupation of her country by two enemy armies, had to live in hiding trailed by the Gestapo, then adapt herself to Communist rule, witness the terror and the workers’ responses in 1956, 1970, 1976, 1980, and the martial law proclaimed in December 1981.”

I’m not sure I agree fully with his theology, but I completely appreciate the richness of his grappling with 20th century unbelief and its practice with his discovery that there is, indeed, something larger than what we admit – something few other artists in our time have been able to pull off convincingly enough to be considered sound artistically. (Milosz won the Nobel Prize, 1980.)

He also wrote: “To find my home in one sentence, concise, as if hammered in metal. Not to enchant anybody. Not to earn a lasting name in posterity. An unnamed need for order, for rhythm, for form, which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness.”

And, he quoted from Renee le Senne: “For me the principal proof of the existence of God is the joy I experience any time I think that God is.”

Again, Milosz: “To wait for faith in order to pray is to put the cart before the horse. Our way leads from the physical to the spiritual.” And himself: “My friend Father J.S. did not believe in God. But he believed God, the revelation of God, and he always stressed the difference.”

How existential!

Other panoramas opened

Thinking of my own time living in the foothills of upstate New York as well as Kenzie’s situation in my novel Pit-a-Pat High Jinks, there’s a big question:

If we loved mountains so much, why didn’t we go climbing? The Adirondacks weren’t that far away, and the Catskills were closer.

For me, anyway, there were so many other fronts to explore, which I did, leading on to the ashram at the edge of forest in the Poconos.

No regrets, then. Besides, what emerged is a better story.

 

A prolific writing life

Many days when I enter the Red Barn, I find myself amazed at the amount of work I’ve created. I can get dizzy just touching on the places I’ve lived and loved, or the friendships that have blessed me in those many moves. Or all of the painful losses as well.

Even though I was employed full-time in other pursuits, I set aside time for writing, revising, and submission to literary journals and publishers. These days I keep asking, How did I do it? Or more accurately, just what else did I fail to do?

Still, for perspective, a new poem a week for 50 years comes out to 2,500 pieces. And some poets consider themselves satisfied with a lifetime collection of 400 to 500 poems. Perhaps they’ve lived a more fruitful and balanced life than I have. You’d have to ask the people around them, though, for their perspective.

~*~

On a related note, I’m wondering if those who invaded my journals and expressed disappointment were expecting juicy gossip. In all of the upheaval and daily scheduling, I was usually pressed simply trying to record a trail of where I’d been and what had been happening. Without that, forget the emotions or gossip. Those just might fall into place later, perhaps prompted by the notation that the event had even happened.

My, it’s been a long trail!

~*~

So here we are. My novels are available at the Apple Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Scribd, Smashwords, Sony’s Kobo, and other fine ebook distributors and at Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. Let me suggest starting with Cassia.

The paperback cover …

 

Having at least a critical mass in hand, if not a workable draft, is still progress 

I got out before I was axed, but the next three interludes weren’t so fortunate. All ended with my head and heart served up to me on a plate, in terms of my career, yet somehow I always landed back on my feet.

The least time was when I allowed myself a self-imposed sabbatical in Baltimore in the mid ’80s, one of the smarter moves in my life. Putting those savings into a solid investment would have made much better sense than using them for a year of poverty existence writing, but I hoped if I could get published, my shift over to being an author full-time would be assured. I knew too many others who had put off their big dream till retirement but never been able to manifest it.

The paperback cover …

So I hunkered down over my keyboard, kept to a strict schedule, and amassed the bulk of two major fiction projects that now stand as Daffodil Uprising, Pit-a-Pat High Jinks, Yoga Bootcamp, Nearly Canaan and parts of The Secret Side of Jaya. There were also a few other blueprints that remain undeveloped. (As novels, the two boxes of manuscripts were truly too unwieldy, no matter how vibrant their contents.) “Subway Hitchhikers,” now embedded into Subway Visions, was already in place.

That year wasn’t all work, rest assured. I underwent some crucial personal growth and recovery. There were close friendships and time for reading. Mennonites and Brethren added to my Quaker practice. A writers’ group hosted upcoming Tom Clancy one evening, with his first book then being turned into a movie. I was learning to part-sing a cappella. We walked to Orioles games from one couple’s third-floor quarters.

Alas, my money started running out before I could land an agent or see a volume lined up for publication, and so it was time for me to move on. At least I had those precious drafts in hand – or more accurately, on computer diskettes. Even as raw material, they were full of details I’d never be able to recollect a decade or two later, much less in the distance of retirement. And with that, I was off for New Hampshire and a new life.

What became painfully clear was that newspapers weren’t the only part of the publishing world in serious trouble. So was the book trade. A few hot-shot agents replied that the book I’d pitched them deserved to be published but they couldn’t take on anything new, they were utterly baffled by what was happening as the number of houses handling fiction kept shrinking. Most agents didn’t even return the self-addressed stamped envelopes. (The jerks.) Even so, I kept revising, leading to the publication of “Subway Hitchhikers” as a trade paperback in 1990, followed by the hard reality of being “backlisted” and out-of-print when sales failed to materialize.

… and the back cover.

Still, I was hooked. All along, there was a flood of poetry that found its way into circulation and a few projects that seemed commercially viable, if only I could add the right co-author, one with creds. My years since Baltimore also included book-length new writing, mostly Quaker related, but again, print proved elusive – it is a small market, and the faith as a whole is filled with active writers.

So I was caught in a limbo until the emergence of ebooks, starting with my “Ashram” in 2006 as a PDF from pioneering PulpBits in Vermont and then my Smashwords entries beginning in 2013.

What I now realize how much free time and focus fiction demands. It is, as I’ve learned the hard way, so different from journalism, and not just in the ways I’d be confronting. When I was employed, I could deal with deep revisions of my Baltimore lode during my vacations and holidays, and do the routine polishing of its prose on my free days, but generating entirely new novels was out of the question until retirement, when I turned to creating “What’s Left.”

In short, most of the books of fiction now available under my name are the result of 35 years of labor, more or less. I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to push them on to completion.

He/she/it/they

I’ve been accused of being unable to understand because I’m a man. It was tempting to respond that she couldn’t understand my need to have a God the Father to relate to as a man who needs a role model and a complete positive (for the most part) male authority figure, and she couldn’t understand because she’s a woman. We are in a bind. But that cheap shot would have accomplished nothing. I still say that Biblical language is not exclusive, if rendered correctly.

The irony here arose in the case of a woman who was being criticized by a man for using Biblical language. Who should know more whether she felt excluded by its masculine nouns? As she said, it’s his problem.

~*~

Oh, my, this was all before some of my most important fictional characters were women.

A breath of new heights

Despite growing up in the flat country of the Midwest, I’ve always been attracted to heights. The top of the tree in our backyard was mine alone. I remember taking the speedy express elevator to the top of the Carew Tower in downtown Cincinnati as a child and looking down on the ant-like people on the streets far below. And mountains have always loomed large in my imagination, later abetted by a few early visits to the Appalachians in Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. I even backpacked a week on the Appalachian Trail at age 12 as a Boy Scout with my primitive-camping troop.

By the time I returned to Indiana in the mid-’70s, I had also lived in the Allegheny foothills to the west of the Catskills in New York state as well as the Poconos in eastern Pennsylvania. I’d even ventured into New Hampshire to climb Mount Washington, the highest point in the Northeast. I thought I had a familiarity with mountains.

The paperback cover …

My next upheaval sent me west. The drive across the Great Plains and Rockies was a revelation, and the entry into the environs of my new employment came frankly as a shock. Neither my wife nor I was prepared for the arid, open desert where nearly everything, including its famed apple orchards, required irrigation. Forefront in my mind was Swami Lakshmy’s observation from her first visit to India, that every place she visited had its own unique vibration.

And yes, there were mountains, including the barren heights defining our valley as well as the eastern flank of the Cascade Range to our west and glacier-clad Mount Adams looking down on us from 50 miles away.

As I adjusted to the realities, everything was filled with wonder I came to love, as you will see in my novel Nearly Canaan, which started out being more about the distinct landscape than about fully considered characters.

My employment situation, meanwhile, provided its own fodder for what would emerge as Hometown News back in the Rust Belt. I never wanted to leave Pacific Northwest, for sure, but a new publisher at the newspaper made the situation intolerable. As I bailed out, along with the most of the rest of the management team, I entered a difficult period that added much to the newspaper tale, plus a divorce and broken engagement.

It’s always hard to come down from a mountain. A part yearns to hang there forever.