I still have mixed feelings about genre and series

Somewhere along the way, I developed an aversion to “commercial” writing. Maybe it was the “hack” label I encountered, back when I was in college, when I read Samuel Johnson’s dismissal of most of his contemporaries, or maybe just a heightened sensitivity to the low esteem given journalists, which is where I spent my work life. (By the way, I’ll still argue that some reporters are better writers than what I find in many literary circles.)

Have to admit, what I aspired to was critical recognition. Respect. Self-worth.

That’s changed somewhat, especially when I consider so much of what I’ve encountered in that critically acclaimed list over time.

Gee, when it comes to admiration, which would you rather have – adoring readers or a circle of critics and academics?

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What prods a writer to the keyboard day after day?

A statement read long ago, that many novelists set out in their newest writing to discover the book under the one they previously finished, has long resonated with me.

I addressed it head-on in What’s Left, which picked up at the end of my first published novel and the Hippie Trails stories that followed. The nagging questions also prompted the three Jaya novels that followed Promised, which are now all compressed into Nearly Canaan.

In both cases, this effort to finally resolve the question of “what’s it about” – really about – led to my reworking the previous novels rather than writing more. In fact, it would up reducing my list.

~*~

I write to explore and discover. There’s a reason I’ve come to be defined as a Mixmaster.

If you’re a writer, let me ask. How about you? What motivates you to sit down at the keyboard? What’s your approach? How do you define yourself and your work?

~*~

Has me recalling another question. Would you rather produce one big book that delivers it all – a masterpiece? Or a bookshelf of more modest but widely read works?

~*~

Or if you’re a reader, why do you turn to the books you choose?

Reading a dear friend’s memoir

A while back, she asked if I’d read the draft of her memoir. I felt honored. Besides, this is someone who had given a close critique of one of my novels-in-progress decades ago, and I had done the same for a collection of her essays that came a hairline away from book publication.

She had pointed me to a few published volumes I still find myself quoting frequently.

That was back before we could easily exchange things like manuscripts in emails. Had to make printouts and haul off to the post office or drive five hours, things like that.

This time, the copy came as a PDF. I put it aside until I could give it full attention. It was worth it.

As a fact of life, we had largely lost touch. We had never been neighbors. The closest they had lived to me was still an hour away, and then for 19 years they lived five hours off in rural Maine. When her career picked up and I became more enmeshed in my new family and other responsibilities, we had less time to visit, even before she and her husband relocated across the continent a few years ago. We wound up keeping in touch mostly through their daughter, who’s also my goddaughter.

So the memoir was a welcome opportunity to reconnect.

Let me say it’s a remarkable document, wonderfully written, and candid to the point of painfulness. This version is not for public circulation. Parts of it should be, but others are there as evidence of personal work ahead. Well, she has filled the role of a spiritual elder for me through some difficult stretches, and I’ll always be grateful.

I knew bits of the history, but the details deepened my understanding, reconstructed the chronology, and corrected some impressions I had wrong.

I certainly know her – and her husband – much better now.

Over the years, I’ve found that with some friends, when we get together after long stretches apart, we don’t need much time before we’re feeling no gap in our rapport.

This is certainly one of them.

I’m elated to have my novels now more orderly and interconnected

I’m still surprised by how much literary writing I accomplished in my spare time during all those years I was employed elsewhere. Much of it, admittedly, was in a shotgun fashion, or as I’ve also said, along the lines of graffiti, while hoping for the big break that would give me the space for a more concentrated approach.

Still, it led to a rich stream of material. In that regard, Jack Kerouac was a huge inspiration.

Releasing Hippie Drum as an ebook at Smashwords.com in 2013 was an indispensable defining moment for me. I was no longer bashing my hopes against a brick wall of commercial publishing, which was ever more resistant to experimental fiction. Six more novels followed at Smashwords, plus the fiction available at my own Thistle Finch online imprint.

As I’ve already noted on this blog, my novel What’s Left led me to rethink and rework almost all of those earlier novels. For one thing, as I now see, it was drafted and revised entirely after my retirement from the newsroom.

I’m deeply grateful to an insight from Smashwords founder Mark Coker that one of the advantages of ebook publishing over printed paper is that revised editions are much easier to accomplish, and more economical, too. That – and my own ability now to create my own covers, rather than hire a designer – encouraged me to drastically recast those earlier volumes.

There’ no way to express the elation I feel in now having most of those novels stand in two distinct, orderly cycles – Freakin’ Free Spirits and Living Dharma – each with a continuity of events and central cast of characters.

There’s the relief, too, of having finally been faithful to this material and its inspiration. I can now move on. It belongs to the world, the way a parent feels about grown-up children.

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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.