Back to the scene of the crime – or should I say wound?

This time of the year typically involves reflecting on the past. Part of it stems, of course, from facing a New Year and looking ahead, as well as the news from distant friends in their Christmas and Chanukah cards. Part of it also arises as we hunker down in the long nights around the solstice. It’s more than just looking back over the previous 12 months to get a sense of what we what or need to do next. Sometimes, it reaches back much farther. Or what we’ve lost.

Back on November 4, I blogged on “Returning to high school and its misery” and so much emotional baggage I thought I’d left behind 57 years ago. That post was the first time I could honestly admit that the period was essentially miserable for me – until now, I had maintained walls of denial. My elder daughter, hearing of this, was incredulous. Seems everybody her age and younger knows those years are supposed to be miserable. Eradicate any indoctrination of they’re being “the best years of your life,” unless you’ve truly been stunted.

As that post related, a recently renewed connection has led to some much deeper conversation and awareness than we ever had back then. In addition, it’s opened paths to others and glimpses into how their lives have unfolded over the decades.

Some manifest the life I’d expected to follow – should I say fulfill? – after graduation from college and returning to my hometown. Instead, my career took me in a much different and likely rockier direction. One path would have deepened friendships over the years. The other kept leaving new friendships behind in the sunset, rarely by conscious decision but rather by the practical demands of resettling in a new location.

I’ve been counseled that emotions are real and don’t die or just go away. When they’re buried, they operate out of sight, insidiously, sometimes undermining what’s happening on the surface. As I discussed some of what I’ve been experiencing in revisiting the past, my wife observed that it sounded like these are happening now, rather than back-then. She had never heard my desire to return to my hometown, almost as a mission, but rather insisted that I could wait to break loose and run away. Acknowledging that the doors to any return had closed behind me was difficult, but that’s what’s occurring as the feelings come to full light. This time, there’s no denial of being hurt or feeling reject, no suppression of the sense of failure or hurt or that as they open, however belatedly, even slow me at the moment. What’s important is just sitting with them and being honest as another step in psychological health and wisdom. There’s energy in them, once I claim them. Let me say it’s something like having bass and alto harmonies running in music. Or solving a cold-case murder or heist and seeking justice.

One photo I chanced across cut hard. The caption named someone who looked nothing like she did back then, and it hinted at difficulties. I followed it to another, of the beauty I remembered in her youth. Quite simply, I’d had a big crush on her, though she was older and, in many ways, out of my league but sometimes in a big sister sort of way. Still, the last time we had been together ended badly, or maybe off-key, from my side, at least. At the minimum, I should have phoned her afterward, no matter if it was a very difficult summer for me.

What I’m discovering now is that our lives wound up in surprisingly parallel directions, though I’m also acknowledging that no one could have accompanied me on all of the relocations I’ve made, many of them shaped by closed doors as well as openings, most of them through my years in lower-level newspaper management. What I keep finding is that the deeper thread of that zig-zag journey, with addresses in nine states, has been spiritual growth. Yes, there I was, trying to move up in a shrinking business field. Ultimately, by stepping down and earning a union card, I made it to retirement.

For now, I’m hoping she replies to my overtures, but there’s no telling whether she’s even looking at her email or Facebook these days, much less responding. There are so many questions I want to ask and details and perspectives I want to hear. And parts I want to apologize for, as well as others I wish to celebrate.

~*~

My previous post included memes from the Disillusioned Bell-Ette, an outrageously funny FB page that also blew open some of the cover I’ve been working through.

Here are a few more.

I love mountains and have, after all, lived close to the Cascade Range in Washington state and the White Mountains of New Hampshire as well as in the Poconos in Pennsylvania and the Allegany foothills of Upstate New York. Much of Downeast Maine even fits the terrain. What makes this one so funny is that the three Bell-Ettes have ventured so far from the generally flat landscape of our high school, which sat very close to the highest point in the city. Nothing like this, though. So much for the first inside joke. Add to that the directions for pizza and chocolate candy. Clifton Gorge had been a largely unknown canyon with the Little Miami River running over a waterfall that was out of reach and nearly out of sight. Now it’s better known as part of a public park, and what had been a big cliff for me is now dwarfed by the bluffs along the Atlantic around here. As for being headed in the right direction? Mine was always away.

One streak of the Disillusioned Bell-Ette postings had them going abroad in search of Enlightenment. That is, far from our high school and hometown. And here I thought I’d been the only Bison to wind up in an ashram? Not all of their encounters had them meeting gurus or holy men.

With its broad streets, Kyoto could have been the downtown of our modernized home city, except for the lettering and the mountain at the end of the street. And we never would have imagined sushi. Some of us have come far over the years.

Underground public transit was another of those things that were far from us. Cincinnati, the metropolis to our south, almost had a subway, and that’s a fascinating story all its own. But considering the extent to which I fell in love with subways (yes, love does seem a strange word in this context) and even wrote a novel about the wonders, real and imagined, I was delighted to see the Bell-Ettes following up in, err, my tracks.

Manhattan, 57 Street station. I’ve been there.
Many Russian subway stations resemble palaces. My international travel has been restricted to Canada.

More to the point, I’m more fully realizing the downsides and hidden costs of what’s been an incredible life, even with its many near misses when it came to making the big time. Or maybe because I hadn’t been sucked upward in those opportunities.

Well, some of us were really green.

 

 

Returning to high school and its misery

I thought I’d left all this behind me.

After high school commencement, most of my buddies headed off to campuses elsewhere, while I was stuck living at home and attending a local commuter school while working part-time. I didn’t even have a car of my own, unlike the assumption of so many kids these days. Well, after I graduated there was a hot round of romance with someone a year behind me, but then she, too, headed off before I finally made my own escape. I’ve always missed her, though my biggest regret was in not responding to her desire for me earlier. Yes, too late, as it turns out. Always turns out?

Eventually, my zig-zag career across the continent put all of that far behind me. So I thought.

Even so, I did ponder attending the 50th anniversary reunion, maybe just to brag, but complications came up. It would have involved a long drive or costly flight, and then a bunch of embarrassing pictures with old people who were nothing like me. As well as a high probability of a fatal heart attack, as I learned later. End of the book, right?

Except that in the past year I heard from someone I’d emailed a dozen or more years ago but never heard back. Maybe a good thing, considering how gushy it likely was.

And now? It’s opened an emotional can of worms, as well as some conversations we should have had then but didn’t. Or should I say couldn’t? We were so uptight. Period.

Ours was a largely middle- and working-class, all-white, high school, and in retrospect I’ve realized how whitewashed our indoctrination was. In my innocence or ignorance, I had no sense of how many pregnancies happened, even in our college-prep circles, just for starters. Not that I had any clue how to interact with a girl or any life in the other levels of our classmates, even in our homeroom, which was never exactly homey.

The new communications have sent me back to the yearbooks, where I see half of our classmates already probably never had a chance. Let’s be honest, breeding starts to show, or maybe the dull look in front of the camera, in contrast to the good-lookin’ ones, who also have all kinds of activities behind their names. I suspect I was walking a fine line between the two camps, not really belonging to either. As for the in-crowd, we never would have gone into the secrets of their home lives, although all of that becomes more suspect today.

Naturally, you know who I avoided or maybe never, ever, really saw or considered. It was a fine line we never explored. Besides, I was being told I belonged in the big city, far from where I was growing up. Now I see that as another way of saying I didn’t fit in, not fully. Still, I tried. Oh, my, did I.

This was the main entrance to our high school. I’ll explain the rest of this in a minute. If it had happened in real life, I’m sure they would have been in detention or maybe even suspended. Oh, I wish there were another term for being kicked out of school for a short while. By the way, skateboards were still way off in the future. We didn’t even have rollerblades quite yet.

That seemingly out-of-the-blue phone call and then emails led to Facebook, a platform I usually avoid, though this time with a raft of new contacts. A blast from the past, as we would have said back then.

So this is where they are now? But where are how many others? WTF have we done with our lives? All of that, and more.

The biggest kick in the gut came from an FB public figure page called the Disillusioned Bell-Ette, outrageously funny and caustically humorous. It quickly spun me into a depression.

You have to understand that the Bell-Ettes were our high school’s elite girls, a marching corps perhaps modeled on the Rockettes in Manhattan and sexier in general than our wholesome cheerleaders, not that I would have discounted any of them. For full disclosure, I even took one to the prom.

The anonymous Disillusioned Bell-Ette displays a prodigious talent in montaging images of the corps’ members and our school mascot, a bison – here I had been wondering if it even had a nickname, though she insists it was Bucky, uh-huh. Not so sure on this end, which makes it even funnier. Especially when she has a special, uh, affinity for him. I’m impressed by the sheer labor in putting these together, as if anyone’s actually watching. Or is she venting?

Yes, we were the mighty. mighty bison. Bucky defies the image.

Beyond that, there’s the candor of being disillusioned after being at the top of the social pyramid, the destructively adolescent structure.

More to the point, what about the innuendoes regarding a faculty member’s sexual proclivities?

How provocative!

And I had already been wondering about that. Coincidence?

And I had also already been wondering about one Bell-Ette, two years older than me and the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper as well as a member of our church, who was engaged to be married after she graduated. Was she the disillusioned but very talented host of the site? For now, I’m inclined to say not. But don’t rule it out altogether.

Missing is the wonder of how we ever came to have a buffalo as a mascot in the first place or how our drill marching team came to be widely known as cowgirls. We were in an industrial city so far from the Wild West. How weird!

Our school was all about athletics and not much else. Even so, some of us managed to survive, albeit not entirely unscathed.

All of this had me recalling some dreams – literally, visions in the night – where upon awakening I imagined how I would have redone the Hilltopper, the school newspaper, to include everyone. I would have condensed the club stuff to an Eye or Ear on the Hill column, with snarky comments. And then had a focus for each edition: Food, Transportation, Personal Style, Jobs/Working, Free Time, Survival (advice to the underlings and to the future), Favorite Teachers (a sly way of suggesting who to avoid, if you could), Engaging the Arts & Entertainment, Electives, Dating & Relationships, Personal Style, Living with Siblings, Prepping for Summer, Graduation and Moving Up. That sort of thing, inviting entries for the next issue, too, open to all. The focus would have been on the whole possibility of having fun rather than trying to meet the standards imposed from elsewhere, including in the paper’s case, a remote scholastic press association and its judges, who misplaced our entries for a whole year, anyway, thus failing to give us any useful guidance or feedback along the way. So much for my failings as ed-in-chief, not that I would have had any backing in attempting such a revolution.

Oh, well, a few more missed opportunities in my life. And a few more letdowns from those who were supposed to support us.

He was obviously as clueless as I was.

More about ‘What’s Left’

No book was more of a struggle for me – or ultimately more transformative. Not that any of them came easily or quickly.

Each of them would have been much simpler if I had only hewed to a specific genre and with a particular reader in mind, but my goal was to explore a theme and see where it led rather than fill in a blueprint and hope that others would be fascinated by the discoveries. That put me in the “pantsers” end of writers, meaning seat-of-the-pants, rather than the “outliner” side, which can be paint-by-numbers rather than “painterly,” layer upon layer added or scraped away for intrigue, depth, and motion.

My earlier novels were grounded in people, places, and events I had experienced directly, which I then abstracted, of course, for a more inclusive understanding. When needed, I could turn to my journals for details and to my correspondence for dialogue or even make a few phone calls.

The paperback cover …

What’s Left, though, took me far beyond that. Yes, I was starting from the finale of my first published novel and trying to advance the scene by as much as a half-century, but I had no experience in a family-owned business. (I had skirted marrying into one, but I didn’t know how it would feel growing up in that situation – this was totally unlike my grandpa’s plumbing outfit, anyway.) Nor had I really worked in a restaurant. As for being part of a tight-knit extended family? Much less Greek-American? The adage, “Write about what you know,” now became, “Write about what you want to know.” More pointedly, that led me more and more into my daughters’ generation and its struggle for survival. As if anyone has answers to the big questions.

I set out thinking the story would take up the ongoing issues of the counterculture movement one by one – peace and non-violence, sexual and racial equality, the environment and ecology, natural foods and fitness, alternative education, spirituality, boho lifestyles, and so on. I had plenty of extended outtakes from the earlier books plus a set of essays that could be woven into the narrative.

But my upbeat, idealistic outlook started ringing hollow. Yes, the issues remain, even thrive, in spite of the entrenched opposition, and they need to be taken up by a younger generation. What hit me was the debris of broken dreams and promises, much of it caused by our own petite shortcomings. Yes, some of them mine as well. Broken families, too – just what is a family, anyway, especially when you examine the evidence closely, as the novel does? Where was the tight community we envisioned, much less that sense of tribe? As I looked around, I saw those who most continued in the hippie image were either bikers or what my kids would call losers. I have to say substance use or abuse has taken a heavy toll.

… and the back cover.

It’s too much to pack into a single novel, though one can touch on them. My focus slowly shifted on trying to pick up from the wreckage. That is, the place where Cassia found herself.

I was still mulling my approach when I chanced upon Jonathan Lethem’s “Dissident Garden” and was taken by its unique structure of 16 mosaic panels that could be moved about, if one wants, within its developing chronology. Lethem also had me realizing how much I needed to develop Cassia’s family’s past, with its own bohemian streams in coming to America. How many threads could I manage within this?

Voila! I had an organizing point. As poet Gary Snyder says, quoting an ancient Chinese folksong, to make a new ax handle, you use an old one as your pattern.

While I inherited the Greek-American element from an impulsive touch at the end of my first published novel, where this one picks up a generation later, I was only now piecing together how pervasive its presence in my own life without any earlier special awareness. As I’m seeing now, apart from Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex,” very little about Greek-American culture seems to exist in literature. (He nails the largely overlooked Midwest, too, by the way.) And then I started to engage it here where I live, beginning with Greek dancing and then Eastern Orthodox Christianity, so different from my own Quaker and Mennonite grounding – it’s like the difference between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, as Snyder once quipped, two ends of a long arc.

The novel itself demanded at least a dozen major revisions, pushing it ever more toward the present, especially once Cassia found her own (snarky) voice and her brothers and cousins became vital characters. My personal genealogical research techniques also came into play as I examined her ancestry, both on her mother’s side and later, to my surprise, Cassia’s father’s.

What I really wasn’t expecting was the way she prompted me to return to my earlier fiction and severely revise it as well. In most cases, adding new characters and new scenes, cutting heavily, and renaming results. The three books about her father’s past gained a unified structure and timeline as well. So, in more ways than one, through Cassia, my novels embody what’s left.

Look for the witness in the work, too

Cinema critic Roger Ebert was talking of the importance of the witness in every movie and pointing to the places where the character appeared in the film under discussion, mostly in a lower corner. The comment flashed me to the reality of how often the hardest thing to see is what should be the most obvious. It’s not just the elephant in the room, it’s things we take for granted.

One way or another, all fiction is built on the observer, who is also to some degree an outsider or misfit, too. (If there are any exceptions, I’d love to hear them.) Four of my novels, for instance, were intuitively built around a photographer, a profession that makes Cassia’s father a well-trained witness. In turn, as she investigates his archives, she, too, becomes a witness, even before she starts commenting on his earlier life.

Of course, as a reader, you also become a witness. Or even a voyeur, as Camille Paglia has contended. It’s almost like every page is a microscope slide to be interpreted.

Curiously, I now see this also at play in a long-term non-fiction project in my life. Forty 40 years ago, seemingly by accident, I became involved in trying to uncover my father’s ancestry. I thought we were simply homogenous Midwesterners who had always been in Ohio from its beginning. What I discovered, though, was that one branch was – but German-speaking and largely akin to Amish. My name-line, however, was Quaker by way of North Carolina and its slaveholding culture. Both strands were outsiders to the larger society and also pacifist. It opened my eyes to alternative histories and to a recognition that stories don’t always have to resolve nicely – three people may record their memories quite differently, and maybe all three are true, if not factually accurate.

Oh yes, the research was often collaborative, with correspondence going and coming from others working on parts of the puzzle. It wasn’t always quite as lonely as drafting fiction or poetry.

To my surprise, as my novel What’s Left was taking shape, Cassia started assembling bits about her Greek-American grandparents, who had died before her birth, and then beyond to her great-grandparents, who brought the family to the New World. Like me, she found valuable clues in the surviving snapshots and formal portraits regarding their personalities, as she also did in the letters and other documents.

None of my ancestors came by way of Ellis Island, and on Dad’s side, they were all in this country by the time of the Revolutionary War. I once pondered doing a series of novels on them, but I’m still intimidated by the technical challenges – a realistic language they can speak and we can understand being high among them.

Witness, I might add, has an extra dimension in Quaker thinking. It’s not just what one sees or hears but how one lives. The goal is integrity, as in wholeness or consistency. Is that what others see in us or our lives and work? Or even as our goal and ideal, even when we fall short reaching for it?

 

The role rides on conflicted feelings

Sitting down to compose a novel requires some bravado, an assumption or presumption, even outright arrogance, that you have something important to say and an ability to do it in an interesting way.

You know, balls, swagger, mojo. Go to a writers’ group and just listen. But it’s not all sheer ego-driven. For many, at least, there’s an ongoing tension between believing in our own talents and shielding ourselves from the nagging self-doubts. Even Stephen King has them. Remember, the practice of the craft is a solitary act, not a team sport. It gets lonely, especially in the absence of feedback or fans in the stands, whether they’re cheering or jeering. Sometimes, to your surprise, harsh criticism is easier to handle than any praise.

Unless you’ve been there, you have no idea how precious a voiced reaction can be in nurturing you. Those brief reviews and star ratings are important, not just for guiding others to certain books but for guiding you as an author in your practice. An astute reader picks up important elements that have slipped right over their creator’s consciousness. Please, please, please take a few moments to weigh in when you finish a volume. We all need confirmation that we’re not wasting our time – or yours. Best of all is the epiphany when we’re left feeling that someone finally “gets it,” actually understands what we’re about. Don’t be shy.

The paperback cover …

I recall giving a friend a booklet I’d written about the Quaker metaphor of Light. (By the way, in the first two centuries of the Society of Friends, the term was always Inward Light or some variant, never the Inner Light expressed today. It’s a crucial distinction.) When he finished, he thanked me, said the text had cleared up his understanding, and then added, “You write very well.”

Even after four decades in the words-on-paper business, I was taken aback, considering that he is, by any measure, an important American literary figure and a master of the language. It was like “welcome to the club,” the exclusive one with the dark paneling and Manhattan address. It was like a cup of fresh water in a desert. Within myself, I felt freed from the “hack writer” label so often applied to journalists from Dr. Samuel Johnson on.

Later, in an aside, he told me I was more of a poet than a novelist. Knowing his fondness for poetry, I took some comfort in the perspective, as well as some umbrage about the fiction part.

On reflection, I now have to agree on his assessment, at least as my novels stood then. He certainly helped my character Cassia press her case for the reworking of all my existing novels, as I did in the aftermath of What’s Left, where she’s the star.

There’s also that frightening moment in the gap between when a book’s been accepted for publication and when it actually comes out. We’re afraid someone’s going to somehow uncover our darkest secrets or that we’ll be shamed by some indiscretion or that we’re about to make an unforgivable transgression. Again, go to a writers’ group and listen … or even ask. If you’re an author, you think you’re somehow bonkers when you feel this, not knowing how much company you actually have.

… and the back cover.

I’m of the camp that hews to Bukowski’s regime of daily “butt time” at the keyboard, day in and day out, regardless of how inspired you might be feeling. Many days it’s a dry struggle, but on others something different and amazing blossoms. From my perspective, it’s when writing becomes a kind of prayer and you find yourself in a “zone” where things come together as if by magic and characters start dictating to you, if only your fingers can keep up with what your soul is hearing. It’s a dialogue with the Other, as in Muse, and you’re the mere scribe at her service.

It’s what happened when Cassia started dictating to me.

It’s not always at the keyboard, either. Sometimes it happens while you’re in the shower or on the throne next to it or swimming laps in the pool or commuting to work.

You can’t control this. Realistically, it happens when you’re not in control.

It happened to me at the finale of “Subway Hitchhikers,” which years later became the launch pad for “What’s Left,” where I had to make sense of what I’d been given, however intuitively.

Perhaps the best, well, I just had a phone call and lost the thread of thought. Maybe it wasn’t that important.

 

A baroque twist runs through my distilled expression

Samuel Johnson and his baroque constructions gave a big push to my literary ambitions after high school. Let me just say I’ve loved the clarity of Mozart from my adolescence on, and Bach and Handel have risen in my estimation in the years since. The brash English master fell right into that, though I now see again just how irreverent he was, despite all of his professed orthodoxy.

What it means it that I’m comfortable reading and writing certain kinds of complex sentences that are foreign to modern readers. Perhaps I should apologize? At least it’s not the only way I put sentences in line. Still, there’s a richness that’s missing in Hemingway and his progeny.

And here I am, drilled in the newspaper journalism Papa Ernie claimed was his inspiration. Think again. (Ernie? Makes me think of Pyle, and his big desk at the Indiana Daily Student, where I once worked.)

My wife has noted the dichotomy between my fondness for many Old Ways and the rule-breaking, experimental edge of my writing and thinking. She can point, for instance, to my fascination with the fiery writings of early Quakers in the mid-1660s placed in contrast to wild hippie extremes.

Are they really that different, though? I feel they enrich and deepen each other.

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.

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.

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.

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.