What cans’t thou say, in the midst of a popular concerto for the umpteenth time

The probing question by seminal Quaker George Fox, in a setting totally foreign to his comprehension, leads to the mystery of what makes something constantly new after any so many encounters.

Say a route you retrace daily. What do you discover for the first time today?

A spouse or a child, even more so.

And yes, a passage of Scripture or music.

Or whatever else is on your plate.

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?

 

In the flow of the inland waters

While my Quaker lines eschewed all forms of ritual, their movement nevertheless also expressed an awareness of the mystery of water as they moved inland, as the naming of some of their Friends Meetings conveys: Black Creek, Pagan Creek, Goose Creek, Cedar Creek, Herring Run, Gunpowder (for Gunpowder Falls, with its series of rapids), Indian Spring, Sandy Spring, Patapsco, Little Falls, West River, South River, Bush River, Deer Creek, Pipe Creek, Monocacy, Dunnings Creek, West Branch, Crooked Run, Cane Creek, Deep River, Back Springs, Short Creek, Stillwater, Miami, Caesars Creek, Whitewater, Clear Creek, Blue River – the litany goes on, and with it, an image of water (Living Water, in New Testament terms) expressing the motion and working of Holy Spirit.

One may turn, too, to the angel in Revelation 22:1-2, as well: “And he showed me a pure river … On either side of the river, was there the tree of life.”

And, as the chorus of Robert Lowry’s 1864 hymn rings, drawing on that text, “Gather with the saints at the river, That flows by the throne of God.”

That’s why I named one collection of essays Stillwater.

 

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.

An ongoing internal tension

Trying to strike a satisfying balance:

Between my local Meeting and serving the wider world of Friends.

With my writing, finding a wider audience for my existing work.

With the rest of my life – householding, exercise, reading, etc.

It just never seems to come together neatly!

So just what, exactly, holds it all together?

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.