All under Cassia’s spell

I keep thinking of What’s Left as “my latest novel” or “my newest,” even though other works are appearing after its publication.

I don’t mean to be creating confusion, but here’s my take.

One way or another, my earlier novels addressed the hippie era, which I still believe remains misunderstood and misrepresented. It’s too important for that. And, yes, it’s still hard to define.

What’s Left started out to put those stories in a broader perspective but, revision by revision, the book moved in a much different direction. Quite simply, Cassia and her generation took over.

It became the most difficult writing project I’ve ever undertaken and forced me to completely rethink my approach to fiction. Remember, my career was in “just the facts, ma’am,” journalism topped by Beat-era literature.

Unlike the earlier works, in drafting this one, I had a structural model I wanted to pursue – one that remained intact.

What I hadn’t anticipated was how much the focus would shift.

Many of my favorite parts were created in the final revisions, especially as other members of her generation became fully fleshed out characters, as did the Goth side of her mourning through her adolescent years.

That also meant ripping out a lot of other material, which either became background for my own understanding or was vastly condensed by the final version. The Red Barn’s been quoting heavily from those discards, just to add to your own understanding of the project’s scope.

Whew!

Unanticipated? The paranormal fourteenth chapter is one of my favorites, even though I’d never done a ghost story before. By they way, they wrote it, not me. I simply recorded the dialogue.

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A case of real life intersecting fiction

One of the many things I like about using the DuckDuckGo search engine as an alternative to Google is that its home page includes Pocket, an informative selection of intelligent, substantive articles, many drawn from magazine archives, rather than fluff about celebrities and sports.

This morning’s Pocket, for example, included a 2015 Narratively article by Lilly Dancyger, “Planning My Father-Daughter Dance Without My Dad.”

What especially caught my attention was the ways Lilly’s experience intersected with my novel, What’s Left.

Like Cassia in the book, Lilly lost her father to death when she was 11, and like Cassia, she dressed largely in black for years afterward. (Whew! Confirmation I had that part right.)

Unlike my novel’s character, though, Lilly dropped out of high school, sought relief in alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, and embraced a dim future. The homeless were some of her favorite companions.

In contrast, Cassia had a large extended family that stayed with her, even when she kept pushing them away. Yes, she had struggles with her mother much like Lilly’s, and she skirted some of the self-destructive behavior, but each of the three aunts on her mother’s side of the family found ways during her difficult teen years to break through to her, as did several of her first-cousins. In today’s world, few are so fortunate, not with our fractured nuclear households.

Moreover, through her aunt Nita, Cassia also had her father’s trove of his professional photography to sift through, each shot reflecting his thoughts and feelings.

What Lilly presents – and I didn’t – is the workings of guilt within a survivor. As she declares, it merely “isn’t just about feeling unjustly lucky to have lived while someone else died; it’s guilt for going on without them, guilt for changing and growing and becoming a person they never knew. Any milestone is tinged with their absence, any joy feels like a betrayal, like you’ve forgotten them, if only for long enough to laugh at a good joke or enjoy a good meal. But as long as you’re in mourning, your life is still about them, and in that way, they’re still there.”

Lilly’s experience came to a head in planning for her wedding and trying to decide who would walk her down the aisle, if anyone, and who would share that first dance with her at the reception.

That wasn’t the case with Cassia, who instead chose to remain single. But Lilly’s words burn, all the same, as they point to another dimension my novel might have developed.

I still don’t feel ‘retired’

Yes, it sounds whiny, even insensitive, but it’s true. Since taking the buyout nearly eight years ago and leaving the newsroom altogether a year later, I still have no idea of what kicking back full-time means. You know, like playing golf or sunbathing or heading for the mountains.

What it has allowed is more time to tackle projects I’ve felt are important – and more sustained focus. The fiction, especially, has gained depth in the process. Remember, in the past two years, I’ve thoroughly revised nearly all of my novels and pulled related volumes from public view.

Curiously, poetry has taken a backseat. I’m not attending readings or society meetings – the latter conflict with other obligations. Meanwhile, submissions to small-press journals and presses have ceased altogether, replaced by my blogging presentations, which I feel are far more effective in relation to the time involved. What I sometimes refer to as collecting rejection slips.

I hate to admit that despite early warnings, blogging takes up more time than I expected – and even then, I’m not reading as widely as I hoped. The WordPress Reader has tons of fine postings to always check out.

Related to blogging is the photography. I’ve always had a strong visual awareness, abetted by four years of strict art training in high school. When I launched the Red Barn at the end of 2011, I expected it to be fully text-driven, but you can see how far we’ve moved away from that. I’m still at a point-and-shoot rather than technically precise attitude – last thing I need is another obsession – but I am proud of much of what I’ve collected and shared.

Quaker picked up with service on the New England Yearly Meeting’s Ministry and Counsel committee and its deliberations throughout the year, but my anticipated daily early morning meditation and yoga haven’t materialized. Frankly, Quaker could become a full-time but unpaid job all its own.

Instead, the daily swimming at the indoor pool has been giving me a cardio workout and a half-hour for clearing my head, and my early-morning Spanish drills just may come in useful if I ever travel to fellow members of the Iglesia de los Amigos in Cuba. The language itself is harder than I remember it being in high school.

Well, I wasn’t planning on being a member of a solid choir, either, or of finally self-publishing as I have at Smashwords. In today’s literary scene, getting a book out is only the beginning of the labor – promotion and marketing, for all but the best-selling authors, is a task left to the creator. It’s a common lament.

Should I mention falling way behind in household chores, gardening tasks, and general maintenance?

On reflection, I still don’t know how I managed all I did while I was still duly employed.

So here we are, beginning year No. 8 at the Red Barn. Let’s see what really happens ahead.

And now, for a peek ahead

Hard to believe I’m starting my eighth year of blogging here already. A lot has happened in my own life in that time, of course – much of it reflected in the postings and in the evolution of the blog itself.

Each year, there’s a slightly new tack at the Red Barn and its related blogs. The merry-go-round has lost some of its categories, for one thing. Gone are fresh entries reflecting Newspaper Traditions – I’ve been out of the trade too long and am viewing the current, sorry business woes from the outside these days. Likewise, my Poetry and Poetry Footnotes have moved over to free weekly releases at my Thistle Finch imprint. The Quaker Practice postings have their own blog at As Light Is Sown and, to a lesser extent, at Chicken Farmer I Still Love You, which is presenting personal finance exercises and insights. Even the Home & Garden and American Affairs entries have slowed down.

In their place has come an increased reliance on the topics stirred up by my eight novels, which are available as ebooks from Smashwords and its allied digital retailers. That will continue this year.

~*~

Here at the Red Barn, you’ll be seeing two new features.

Each Monday, the Trail Markers category will hit the road to present a vanity license plate found in our corner of the world. Some of them are quite amusing or imaginative.

And Home & Garden will let our two rabbits, Salty and Pepper, stick their noses in on alternate Wednesdays. What is it about pets, anyway?

The weekly Tendrils will be looking mostly at topics related to the novels, a trend that picked up speed last year. Building these fact sheets has been fun for me, and I hope you, too.

Cassia’s World will continue to draw on passages discarded from the final revisions of What’s Left. I’m sure glad the tone and pace of the published book veered away from these clippings, but they do help shape the evolving thinking about the characters and plot. In addition, I’ll also add some insights from the two upcoming novels about Jaya after she leaves the ashram.

The Postcards, meanwhile, will have more entries from people other than me – and a few will actually include me as the subject rather than the shooter. We’ll be looking closely at the new construction in downtown Dover as well as our explorations of Downeast Maine.

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Take a peek, too, at the four related blogs.

As Light Is Sown is launching a weekly recap of my experience of reading the Bible straight-through. As you might imagine, I take an unconventional stance in tackling this collection of seminal and often puzzling writings.

Chicken Farmer I Still Love You continues its Talking Money exercises and insights. It’s well worth the reading.

The Orphan George Chronicles will turn to a miniseries drawn from the memories of a Hodgson line in the Pacific Northwest, one far rowdier than many of its Quaker relations back east. It’s a remarkable document.

And Thistle Finch will continue with 24 free poetry chapbooks plus photo albums, broadsides, and four Quaker posters ahead.

As always, there’s room for the unexpected.

Here’s hoping you’ll be a frequent visitor and commentator!

What would you most want to see?

Joyously, then

From a wonderful book by Czeslaw Milosz, poet: “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 quotes 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.” Quoting from 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.”

What a right adjective will do

As the vocalist in a  lovely jazz trio at a party the other night led us in “Silver Bells,” with its echo in “It’s Christmastime in the city,” I was struck but the beauty of the lyric’s repeated sibilants. They simply sparkle and produce a visual impression of tiny white lights on an icy night.

The song returned to my mind while shoveling snow a few days later, and this time I was captivated by the appropriateness of the adjective “silver.” Not “gold” or “brass” but silver. Again, there’s a visual impression, but this time, also a suggestion of bright clear sound. Gold, in contrast, would somehow make me expect something more velvety or reserved or distant, while brass would point toward a louder, stronger, more industrial tone.

Yes, the poet in me is still wowed at that choice of “silver.”

Would any other word do the trick?

A different paradigm of family

My novel What’s Left was precipitated by the structure of a book I’d just read – four sections of four chapters each. Somehow, I just knew this was what I needed for the material already floating around in my head, even though at this point I hadn’t been thinking of writing another novel. But this triggered it.

I’d been reflecting on the ending of my newly recast Freakin’ Free Spirits narrative, where the protagonist lands in a circle of bohemian siblings who have inherited a restaurant. At the time, with only a general acquaintance of a few individuals in the tradition, I intuitively identified them as Greek-American, in part, I recall, as an attempt to suggest a bridging of two ancient wisdoms – the Buddhism from the East and ancient Greek teaching in the West – and in part as a vague awareness of the prevalence of this ethnic group’s ownership of restaurants across the country, possibly including the one that provided a foundation for the one in my story.

In revisiting that ending, though, I felt a need for an understanding of how the siblings turned to Tibetan Buddhism in the first place and why they were now actively hippie, which in turn needed a clearer presentation. Viz, as I’ve been arguing, hippies came (and still come) in many varieties, and no one probably ever fit in the mass-media stereotype.

What became clear to me as I considered the issues was that I needed a backstory, one that winds up going back two generations rather than one. This, in turn, presents another challenge: how many named characters can a reader follow? Since my new novel is told by the daughter of the earlier protagonist, this could get very messy. Remember, the restaurant was inherited by a circle of siblings.

I do employ several turns in the plot to keep maintain a focus, but in doing so, I’m reminded of an insight I had my genealogy research when I noted four Hodgin brothers marrying four Ozbun sisters (or some such, it’s the concept that counts here). What I saw here somehow goes beyond our modern isolated, small nuclear family household in which a husband is expected to fulfill all of a set of expectations and the wife, another. Instead, I’ve wondered how much of those expectations could be spread across the siblings. Not that I go quite that far in my newest novel or at least that blatantly. But the daughter is quite aware of how different her extended family is from those of her classmates.