Friday, July 30, 2010

A new title

Now, since nobody but me reads this, I can change the name at will. Now we have Karpatia, a region rather than a theme for the title. This is because there are already at least two other current novels called The Salt Road, and because I'm doing pork instead of fish now, and because the books will be about Karpatia, the in-between of central and eastern europe, what has historically divided the north from the south, and in many places, east from west.

Old stories, new stories, real stories, made-up stories

This headings are valuable in thinking about my own writing, and in thinking about when I teach my course on literacy this fall, which includes doing writing workshops with K-2 students. For me, to read some of my old "fiction" and to write a new piece about my father's drinking made me think and feel deeply about my own history and the "meaning" of my life. Perhaps in some ways it is simple therapy of the self, done with words that could be private. But the stories, I think, are quite good enough to be published, which I'm assuming means that someone would be interested in reading them. The reason why I did not pursue publication is part of the story, though probably it would require some imagination to make it interesting to anyone else. But, of course, that goes for most everything I have written in these stories. One thing that comes across to me from this prose written quite a number of years ago is that I have always been able to write. That is something of a revelation.

On the other hand, I'm not that sure that this is the sort of thing I would want to read. Or the kind of thing I would like to focus now on writing. One partly unconscious reason, I think, not to pursue publication in the past was not to speak publicly of my father or my feeling towards him. But now he is gone and it would seem that I can say whatever I want. But maybe now I have little left to say, at least directly. I could write the fictional story of the man who yearned to share his writing with his father before he died, and the attempts to do so, and to not do so -- it could even be comedic -- and his eventual decision to let it go. There's a big lie there, naturally, but there's a lot to think about when it comes to the morality of lying and truth-telling. It's not always ethical and moral, let alone practical, to tell the truth. And one's own truth is not necessarily anyone else's. One reason not to tell the truth is the fear of finding out that you got it all wrong. I haven't ever written a story in which my father was the good guy, but truth would demand that story as well.

But while I appreciate the kind of writing in which I was engaged for many years, I don't read much of it anymore. Actually, I'd like to read more of it and now that I have foresworn academic reading there will be more opportunity. What does it mean to write and read fantasy, where there is so much real history and painful history? The answer is of course to obvious to state, but I better state it. Fantasy is the working out of conflicts and desire in relative safety. It is the dream-world, the world of magic, the world of childhood. All the best fantasies are brimful of pain, discomfort, tragedy and death, but in most cases the ending is hopeful. And that is what I would like to read and write, made-up stories that repair the world and save the self. One could return to Adorno's reflections on art after the Holocaust, and his pessimism about its possibilities. History has demonstrated that he was not entirely correct: art has flourished and not just as forgetfulness. What I will teach my students is that there is not so much difference between "real" stories and "made-up" stories, that each includes the other.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Old stories

For the past couple days I've been organizing, reading and editing old stories, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s. I'm amazed at how many there are and how good they are. What was I thinking not to seriously pursue getting published. Because my attempts were sporadic and uninformed, and unsuccessful too. But I think now that I will re-submit these stories and see whether I can get some publications. Many of my stories were at least partly autobiographical and so I've been reminded of things that happened that I've haven't thought about for a long time. I've been reminded of the anger I felt and probably still feel toward my father, as he is a frequent character. It's kind of a bleak back side to the "shit my dad says" book and show. Like, it wasn't nice and it wasn't funny either, the things he said, and the things he did. I could write a flash fiction about all the stupid shit he did, right down to his last opiated days. But there are other things that I wrote that are funny. And there was a persona I created, a consistent character, not a real attractive character either. My self-image.

"When my father was thirty three he almost cut his finger off with a table saw. And then he hurt his back digging a hole. In both cases, he chose bourbon as a pain-killer. It's the first I remember of his drinking, except for the beer everyone drank when my parents went water skiing."

"In the last year of his life my father gave up drinking because he was taking enormous doses of codeine and later morphine for the cancer in his bones. He said he hardly noticed not drinking."

"My father's marriage to Leona was founded in desperation and ended the same way. She was a spiteful little woman, long-divorced and caring for her father who was nearly 100 years old, clutching as straws. My father was mourning my mother's death by replacing her with women he hated for not being her. One night they both got drunk and beat each other up. She got the house and he got a night in jail and anger-management and substance abuse classes. He always claimed that he looked worse after the fight than she did. For a while he didn't drink because the judge forbade him, but eventually he got over his fear."

"My father's marriage to Mary Jane was founded in false hope and ended in desperation, and then he died. She about bankrupted him with her crazy business and delusions of grandeur. Once they were at her daughter's home in California, on their way to Arizona for the winter, and my father got into some sort of drunken altercation with Mary Janes' son-in-law, and after that they were not welcome at their house."

"When I was home from college one summer, my mother and father went to a party at one of my mother's colleagues homes. There was lot of drinking. Someone said something to my mother that my father found offensive and he about threw the person in the pool. When they came home he came into my room with just a t-shirt on, his penis hanging down below, and told me the whole story. Then he went and pissed off the deck into the back yard."

There are a quite a few more to tell.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The skate park

This morning I began to write, as opposed to planning and plotting and muttering to myself in print. I was afraid that the words would not come, that I would be held captive in the planning phase forever, like the old man with his travel brochures, looking at all the places he was going to go and still not realizing that the future was now the past, and he was just remembering what he'd never done, not dreaming about what he might someday do. I started by thinking that this would be a free-standing story, and maybe it will still pass that test -- as every chapter of a book ought to -- but now I see it as the beginning of the big story, where the table gets set. I need another first chapter for the second volume, which I may write simultaneously with the first. Here's what I've done so far: (501 words)

My first night in the garage I was awakened by a gravely whine of wheels on concrete, first a rumor, then a roar, as the skater flashed by in a jacket of her own light. Like a firefly, and then darkness and silence returned. When I was little, I might have taken it for a dream and gone back to sleep, but I had seen already too much of the real to misrecognize flesh and blood for what the mind makes. I opened the door of the old Škoda where I slept, my feet under the steering wheel and my head in the trunk, and tiptoed across the oil-stained ramp where the skater has passed. The sound of the wheels was gone, but now I could almost hear the sound of feet slapping the up-stairs. Should I go wait for her, see what kind of thing she was up close? I didn't even know how I knew it was a girl, the skater had gone by so quickly, just as I opened my eyes. It could have been anyone. But still I knew it was a girl, the way you know when you're getting sick and not just coughing dust. The door to the stairwell was maybe fifty feet down the ramp where I stood, rusted white shining against the gloom. The sound of her feet grew louder; she would be only one level down. The patter of her feet grew louder, and now I could hear her breathe, in and out, an even measuring of the stairs. I stared hard at that door and maybe her breath caught for an instant as she passed on the other side, feeling without feeling the force of my gaze. Then the sound of her began to diminish. Before they faded out of my hearing, I reached out to her with my mind, the way my ma had taught me before she went away, and made the girl stop short, mid-step, the sole of her foot an inch from the riser. She exhaled and inhaled but her feet, for two seconds, did not move. She felt like she must fall down, but then I let her go, and one foot followed the other as nature intended. That would be something for her to think about when she reached the top.

My ma called me Havel after someone who died in time out of memory. She had a painting of him she took from a museum when she was out scavenging that she made into a shutter for the little house with no windows where I was born. Or so she told me because I only remember the smell of that house, like something had half-died there but never finished the job. I'm the only Havel I know, and sometimes I imagine that I'm the only Havel there is, or was. Except for whoever it was that half-died in our house, I call him Havel too, in what passes for my memory.

Later I will write more, hoping to top 1000 words for this first day of real writing. But I almost must work on my snowflake.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How do books work?

I woke up this morning before the sun wondering how to get from point a to point b, and trying to remember how others do it. The point a I'm thinking about is sometimes called "part 1" and point b is "part 2," or in series of novels telling one story, volumes one and two.  Having decided that I wanted each part to feature first person narration, but with two different narrators. I read somewhere the first person narration was forbidden in fantasy fiction, but also that it was normative in young adult fiction. But putting aside genre for now (and perhaps forever), the rationale for a first person narration in a novel with young adult protagonists is to convey their perspective (and only their perspective). My thought was that the narrator of the first part would be a secondary but important character in the second part. The third part would be in the third person, so that I could have both main characters (and others). Do I know of any other works that employ this structure? Not off hand, but I'll take that to be a good thing, not a bad thing.

In the movies, there must be a great car chase, a bad guy must get what's coming to him (or maybe her or it), the protagonist must survive (though there could be doubt about this), but the job cannot be done. Jason Bourne survived the first movie, got the girl, killed the bad guy, and then went off to live in anonymity and obscurity in Goa. But for some inexplicable reason, other bad guys saw the need to come all the way out there and kill his girl friend, so now there's a motivation for the next installment ... At the end of every Harry Potter volume, the kids win the game (while nearly perishing), and go home for the summer, to do it all again next year. The pattern is a little more troubled toward the end of the series. In LOTR, there is only one continuous story, broken every five hundred pages, or three hours, at a convenient turn in the story. But nothing with respect to the main quests (those of Frodo and Aragorn) is resolved at the end of volumes one or two: that can't happen until the end of the last volume. Similarly, in His Dark Materials, the endings of volumes one and two are provisional, and not very hopeful. In many ways, things keep getting worse and worse. New characters are introduced along the way and carry the story forward, while sometimes the previous main characters disappear (always to re-appear): Lyra and Will must be there at the end, just as Frodo and Aragorn must be there at the end. Maybe JKR could have actually killed off Harry (or one of this chums) at the end, but we all knew that he would prevail against Voldemort. The ending of Harry Potter is somewhat unsatisfying because here are all these main characters, all grown up and ready to do an adult's work in the world, and there's nothing left to do. We see them middle-aged, living in the suburbs, sending their kids off to a safer Hogwarts. LOTR has the right side winning at the end, but in true epic saga fashion, the main characters pay a price for their ordeals. Aragorn faces mortality and Frodo goes into "exile," sailing into the West. Pullman has the darkest and most provocative vision -- no wonder so many hate him: in the end, the kids have sex, God dies, and Authority falls from the sky. It's the ultimate "adolescent" happy ending.

My hesitation has nothing to do with not knowing how books work. I've read enough good ones and bad ones to know what works and what doesn't, and to know that anything can be made to work with the right combination of imagination and skill. Also, it is clear that good writing is motivated by deep and long thinking about everything, which then finds its way into a story. In this sense, all these stories are parables or fables. I'm sure what I eventually come up with will be no less a reflection of what matters to me -- even if I'm not sure what that is -- and what I know and what kinds of tricks I can perform. Sit up, shake hands, roll over.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The glories of salt

When I was in Slovakia this past winter I became fascinated by food preserved with salt: a plethora of sausage (klobasa), fish (rybi), kapušta (cabbage), beets (repa), cheese (syr), and I'm sure other things. I ate them all the time, despite the risks to my blood pressure. What's prescription medicine for but making it possible to fully live? The use of salt is the historical residue of a pre-refrigeration culture. And of course, salt makes everything taste better. Bread (also salted) is baked every day, vegetables and meat and fish are preserved for winter and for summer too. Another preservative is alcohol: grain is made into beer, fruits is make into liquor. In the spring, everyone has a garden, many of which are quite large: it is a nation of domestic horticulturists, brewers and distillers. In times past, when this was an "occupied" part of Hungary, salt came down from Poland, or what is now eastern Slovakia. In exchange, goods that came up the Danube and from Venice, were transported further inland.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


My wife said the other night that she thought that my metier for writing would be more historical than fantasy, probably because I like to tell everyone in great detail about obscure historical events. For instance, the "years without summer" (535-536) and the Plague of Justinian a few years later. I don't know much about these things, but just the ideas fascinate me and make me want to know more about the Vandals and the decimation of Byzantium. This was part of what prompted me to look again at The Salt Road, one of the ancient and rustic roads from north to south: you can still walk down them. I discovered that there was one from near Warsaw to Budapest, which accounts for the Saint Kinga from Esztergom in Hungary. In fact, not that I think about it, making Esztergom, or even Budapest one of the focal points of the story. Naturally, I would have to make this a Slavic Budapest ...

But returning to historical roots for a novel of the future, with fantasy elements, is helping me simplify the premises and structure of the story. Suddenly I had the structure for a full three self-sufficent parts -- each targeted at around 100,000 (or more) words -- with two primary protagonists, one male and one female, whose individual development and relationship can be sustained for the length of the trilogy. Also, the structure resonates with a variety of religious and traditional stories: quests, Purgatory to Paradise, for example. It's important in this genre to be able to address large issues. But anyway, my lesson for today is paring the story down to its essential elements and then maybe building up some interesting, supporting detail around that elemental structure. The current literature about post-petroleum is mostly pessimistic, framed as The Fall: I'm much more interested in a story that could be about The Rise, which could be read as a history of the future, but also as an alternate history of the past or the present. If my focal question is what it means to build a road from point a to point b? with the question of when it might be best to leave the journey unfinished, which is to say, to leave the interior uncharted, uncrossed, then I am asking a very BIG question which can be addressed in a narrative about whether a boy builds the next relay station or not, whether he tells what he finds in-between, or keeps the secret, as well as in some abstract philosophical way.

The point of writing a novel is not to escape the questions that concern philosophers, but (at some level) to escape the professional philosophers and their methods of asking and answering the questions.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

an epigraph

I've started reading John Michael Greer's Druid blog, from the beginning, partly because I decided I was too cheap to buy one of his books. On May 24, 2006 he wrote:

Knowing many stories is wisdom.
Knowing no stories is ignorance.
Knowing only one story is death.

I like these lines, though I'm not sure why. Perhaps I don't like them so much as I want to use them for my own purposes, like using someone's favorite six iron as a hoe. Also noted on May 24, 2006, by the LA Times:

A driver ran over three children and two women in the parking lot of a McDonald's restaurant in Covington (GA), police said. One witness described the man as having a smile on his face. A 2-year-old girl was in critical condition; two other children and a pair of adult sisters were in stable condition, authorities said.

That's a pretty compelling story. Probably this makes for a good writing exercise: find synopses such as these and write an accompanying of two pages, double-spaced. The driver of the car (a green Honda Accord) was 46-year old Lanny Barnes (not to be confused with the female American winter biathlete), described by family members as having "mental problems," namely depression. The restaurant was closed for the remainder of the day and counseling was provided. The little girl succumbed from her injuries the next day. I learned from a conservative blogger who was outraged by this incident that Lanny Barnes was black and that his victims were white. His outrage, by the way, was in reaction to the fact that Mr. Barnes's mothers initial reported response was "he's been suffering from depression" rather than an expression of sympathy for the victims. Of course, we don't know what Mrs. Barnes was responding to, but probably a question like, "why would he do such a thing?" The author of the blog does not provide his name (though he calls himself Shamalama) but he does tell his readers that he hails from Conyers Corners, GA and is of Irish descent.

I learned from another blogger (StinkyNigs) that Lanny Barnes died of leukemia in October of 2008 while serving a life sentence at Valdosta State Prison. StinkyNigs concluded his obituary (entitled "A nigger who deserved worse") with the following: "His funeral was the one that wasted my time as it went by, but at least the Sheriff's department didn't waste any more money renting a hearse for that piece of shit nigger. Rot in hell with your nigger kin, Lanny, you fucking shining example of all things nigger. You more than deserve it. Only it should have been at the end of a rope."

The story just gets better and better, and worse and worse. In April of this year, a man was run over in another MacDonald's parking lot, though this time the deceased was a man and the driver a woman, who did not intend to hit him, or run him over. This was in Seattle and the restaurant was not closed for the day. The respective races of driver and victim were not provided. Bloggers first speculated that the victim (67-year old George Ketah) was lying drunk in the parking lot, which was why the 37-year old woman ran him over. But it looks like he was walking, was knocked down by the car, and then run over. I learned this from a personal injury lawyer blog looking for business: in this case, the family of unfortunate victims like Mr. Ketah.

As they say, "you couldn't make this stuff up."

Friday, July 23, 2010


At different times in my life I have written for very different reasons. Now I write all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons, with many levels and types of motivation. I need to ask myself why I would put my time and energy into writing a novel. Because while I have packaged this choice for myself and perhaps others as trading in scholarship for imagination, the fact is that I could just stop doing scholarship and not replace it with any kind of writing. My decision to give up scholarly writing went into effect (a) roughly after I was promoted, and (b) specifically after my last prior commitment was satisfied, in Istanbul. This would lead me to believe that the main reason for engaging in this activity was to achieve the promotion, putting aside what that might mean to me. (Although probably I ought to take up that question ...)

The desire to be involved in creative writing comes from a sense that it sustains my life: years of scholarly pursuits had left me feeling dishonest, inept, and pointless. To write and think imaginatively is simply necessary for me to regain a fuller experience of life, and avoid alcoholism or dissipation. Or so it seems to me sometimes. I began to feel this last spring when I was teaching poetry and fiction to my Slovak students: which could be a clue as to how to sustain greater interest in teaching.

My ambition is to write something really good and to be recognized for having done so.  My ambition is to publish a work that people will want to read, and that they will pay money to read, to have a book with my name on it on the shelf. My ambition, in the end, is to make a little money out of writing so I can retire from my "day job" at around 62. I am not a youngster, which means that I'm not just starting out as a writer, and that I don't have forever to develop my talent. The time is now -- relatively speaking --- to express what talent and experience I have. Part of my experience and wisdom ought to consist in patience and taking the necessary time to do something well. There are practical reasons for this also: bring something good to market the first time and the prospects for success are better. Being more practical yet, if I were planning to write a trilogy, for instance, plan the whole thing thoroughly, create the world thoroughly, do the research, up front. That doesn't mean waiting a year before writing a single word, but it means having a fully conceived notion before getting in too deep. This was how LOTR, Harry Potter, and HDM (Pullman) were written, as I expect is true of many other very long books divided into three or more or fewer parts. 2666 presents as five separate, semi-free-standing novels, but in fact when read together they form a whole.

To commit to a whole of that scope is daunting, but as I always say, in for a dime, in for a dollar.

Returning to the salt road

Having slept well on this idea of combining story-ideas, I must now marshall all the good reasons why this is not a good plan. I walked away from the Salt Road because Slovakia and environs are a long way away and I don't read Slovak or Polish or any other relevant Slavic language beyond a rudimentary level. So a really deep historical novel would stretch my resources, as well as take a very long time to write.

What's different in switching settings from a Dazhiikewin in the norther Prairies/Wilderness to, say, the ground between Nitra and Krakow? The caveat remains that there are limits to the depth of the history I could access, though I must admit that probably sufficient material is available in English to create a credible post-petroleum (EU) world. Let's imagine, for the sake of argument, that the new site is Nitrawa, which is located on the shore of the Great Hungarian Sea (to the south), by the raging Nitra River, backed up against the mountains between Nitra and Novy Sacz (capitol of the Krakow region). Between are the Romii. There is a desire to open the old salt road between the two (a passage from commerce and communication).

Nitra (capital of Moravia) is part of the New Union (of city-states), as if Novy Sacz (capitol of Galicia). The rest of the general eco-history might remain. This is a post-petroleum world, something like 100 years in the future (though this is negotiable, depending on the status of artifacts and the level of divergence I'd like to posit. This could all happen at the end of The Age of Rain, precipitated by a combination of carbon-based warming and volcanic eruption. This would have caused famine and population decrease/mobility -- the succeeding age, without carbon pollution and with sun and adequate rain would be one characterized by the possibilities of prosperity. The necessary commerce between north and south could indeed be driven by a need for salt, to cure the fish that came from the new Sea to ship further inland. In this setting, once could still have an urban setting (Nitra) and rural settings between there and Poland, as well as along the Vah and Dunajec.

So find out that it's not just the Salt Road, but also the Amber Road ... I'm sure there's some more history here. The amber road went from the Baltic to the Adriatic, but with the mining of salt in southern Poland from the 14th century, the same road would have used the Dunajec-Poprad-Vah passage, or so it seems to me. In any case, there's sufficient historical record here for my uses.] The thing is ... I'm fascinated by salt.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Parking lot epiphany

Walking across the Shopko Plaza parking lot, an expanse of concrete more appropriate to an international airport than a smallville stripmall, the sun simmering in a hot towel of cheap corn oil, I thought: what if I set my novel in Slovakia. Then I could use my Salt Road idea -- damn, the name could be The Salt Road -- and put the cosmopolis in Nitra, castle, shopping mall, panelaki, Big Tesco, everything one might want. The Nitra River is now a torrent. Energy (which drives data) for salt, hence the Salt Road from Krakow. Towering peaks, waterfalls, wild Gypsies, real wilderness.

The best elements of two stories combined in one.

And your point was?

It's hard to manage the squirreling of the mind, to get the nut without inhibiting the necessary search.

There's also a lot happening on the street, interesting but distracting stuff, as well as the necessary thngs to keep track of, like the cars coming up and down, barreling like bullets.

It's a wonder anything but just being around gets done. Or perhaps, you must think of what you're doing as part of just being around. Perhaps it is a necessary part and perhaps it is a chance event, that depends on your theology.

In my own personal sense of how the world work and what God and gods might do, if they in fact "are," stipulating right up front that they couldn't be the same way I be, or they wouldn't be gods at all. It would just be me, impersonating a god that I had made up entirely, or with help ... And that sentence was going where? According to me, I don't do this because I must, exactly, but because I want to, but wanting in this way is part of who I am, and includes a good measure of must-ness to it. Even if I were doing something different, it would be -- if observed from an appropriate distance -- not just appear, but would in fact, be, the same thing exactly.

I think Robert Duncan said something like this, let me check Mr. WWW on that .... hmm, nothing. But there was this lovely little lyric that will do for now.

Neither our vices nor our virtues
further the poem. "They came up
and died
just like they do every year
on the rocks." The poem
feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse,
to breed itself,
a spiritual urgency at the dark ladders leaping.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I was reading yesterday about the difference between the so-called genres of young adult fiction and adult genre literature, and while it all seems pretty vague, I did find some guidelines and links at Atsitko's Chimney that were very helpful.

The first thing was that AG (fantasy, sciFi, detective) literature is quite specific while you can put anything in YA literature: in that way, it's probably less like AG literature and more what the bookstores put in literature, except that so much YA is fantasy/SciFi/Romance ... The point is not moot because when you're writing something and you're not looking for the great American novel, but a place on the bookshelf, then you have to identify your audience and your "place." I conclude that if you write YA literature (more below), then you can mix and match "genres" and just write literature. Clearly a lot of adults (like me) read YA literature and some young adults read adult literature. For my purposes, the goal would not to get too entangled in the literature v. genre trap, since I really like all the genre literature, and I like things that are literary, as in, well-written. A statement I like to this effect is from Carrie Ryan who is writing post-apocalyptic zombie romances. 

I found this helpful list of characteristics of YA literature on the Suite100 site:
  • a teenage protagonist
  • adults characters as marginal and barely visible characters
  • a brief time span (the story spans a few weeks, yes, a summer, maybe, a year, no)
  • a limited number of characters
  • a universal and familiar setting
  • current teenage language, expressions, and slang
  • detailed descriptions of other teenagers' appearances, mannerisms, and dress
  • a positive resolution to the crisis at hand (though it may be subtle and never in-your-face moralistic)
  • few, if any, subplots
  • about 125-250 pages in length (although many of the newer YA books are much longer)
  • a focus on the experiences and growth of just one main character
  • a main character whose choices and actions and concerns drive the story (as opposed to outside forces)
  • problems specific to adolescents and their crossing the threshold between childhood and adulthood
I think this is pretty much geared to the realistic side of YA fiction, the kind that Yuma likes. I disagree with point 2 about adults because there are lots of parents, teachers et al. in YA fiction of all sorts. I also disagree that they are single-character focused: there are all sorts of dyadic/triadic relationships, multiple narrators, ensemble structures. If you include the fantasy/sciFi YA fiction, you could make these corrections/amendments: a "universal" but not familiar setting, a good deal of made-up language and idiom, more subplots often leading to other volumes, resolution to crisis (though with the proliferation of series, the resolution is partial), and non-realistic YA works can be much longer. Also, there is a moralistic element to almost all this in perhaps the best notion of the novel as moral art. This is especially true in sci-fi/alternative history novels which have commentary about social values etc.

Of the 2010 Alex Award winners for YA literature (none of which I have read), there is 1 biography, 2 "true-story" novels, 2 memoirs of awful childhood, one realistic romance, and five novels with SFF angles, including vampires and impending comet strikes. The Morris award seems to highlight realistic teen relationship novels. The Michael J. Prince awards feature 2 of 5 SFF titles in their winners and nominess, though all of them seem more Middle School than high school. The ALA list seems to consciously to take a Chinese menu approach. Interestingly, the Amazon Top 10 consumer's list features more than half SFF (series), with some romance on the side. The editor's much prefer the realistic, serious mode: there is only one cross-over: Suzanne Collins's Fire, the sequel to Hunger Games. All the SFF title suggested by both are part of series, and none of these it the first installment. If you look at the adult fiction/literature section, you find nothing that is not realistic or historical. If you look at just the bestsellers list at BandN, there's a lot of SFF, a lot of crime fiction, a lot of current non-fiction, a good deal of romance, and not much "literature." So if you wanted to make money, or get a publisher, you would want to write something that someone might buy, and read.

But what I wanted to say was that what I was thinking of writing - Dazkiikewin -- seems clearly in YA category.: teenage protagonists, coming-of-age themes, story direction driven by character choices, moral viewpoint, current relevance, potentially "happy" ending (in which the protagonists save the world). It is in an alternate world so it would be longer probably, there will be more than one character (but that's an invalid criterion), etc. I can write it like adult SFF or even adult literature, but because of it's YA qualities, it must be accessible to that audience. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What happens?

Thinking through what will happen has always been my weak point in thinking about stories. Perhaps I read too many novels when I was young in which nothing much happened and the point of it all was "character development" or just writing for writing's sake. It's really incomprehensible though, because I also read a lot of detective novels and watch police shows where the main point is (a) something bad happens, (b) which is mysterious at some level, and (c) we get to figure out how it happened.

Let's take for instance a story in today's NY Times from the (Iraq) Samarra Journal written by Tim Arango in the July 20, 2010 online edition. The title of the story is "Iraq’s Conflict, Reflected in a Family Tragedy" but that's for the purpose of the Times. The unwritten subtitle could be: "How Mr. Haleem's life turned to shit and he did a very bad thing." There is a wonderful picture (from the article) of Abdul Haleem (from the point of view of a reader, not probably of Mr. Haleem) in which he looks completely downtrodden.

I'm sure somewhere there are other more flattering photos of Mr. Haleem, and perhaps the story basically describes how he got from point a to point b. Here's what happened: there was an Iraqi guy named Hamid Ahmad who had been in the air force and then in prison, under Saddam Hussein. He was happy to see the Americans came, spoke English, and worked for them. Even an 18-month stint in a detention center on false suspicion of spying did not curb his enthusiasm for the Americans. He dreamed of moving to American and about a better life for his family, who lived cramped together in a concrete house on the edge of Samarra, a city of great historical and religious significance. His sons, particularly Mr. Hameed, who the rest of the family describe now as mentally ill, came under the influence of Sunni Al-Queda groups, who targeted Mr. Ahmad for his American sympathies. Finally, the order came down for his execution, and his son Mr Haleem was chosen for the job, with the aid of his more-connected cousin. Mr. Haleem was to be paid for killing his father, which he described as the act of a hero. Reportedly, his cousin took the money. He is in jail in Samarra now: you can see the bruises on his face caused by the pain of his confession to this murder.

It's a compelling story, no matter whether you take the present as the beginning or the end. This is what my stories don't have yet. But perhaps to think of an end that could be a beginning is a good way to begin, for practical and aesthetic reasons. I'll work on that.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Utopias and dystopias

I was watching the news last night about the oil spill in the Gulf, and one of the stories was about long-term social and psychological consequences of ecological disaster on those who live and work where the disaster occurs. At the macro level, perhaps nothing much changes, the powers renege on their promises, people here forget what bad things happened to people there, the news cycle grinds on. But those who are left behind when the news goes can never get their lives back, even if their lives were less than wonderful. This starts from the very long-term sequelae of major ecological disaster: the herring don't return to pre-disaster levels in the lifetime of a fisherman, there is oil under every rock for 100 years, the jobs youth were expected to get no longer exist, or there are fewer of them and they don't pay a living wage. What sets in among the "working class" is frustration, depression, resignation, conservatism, that is, nostalgia. Great realistic novels have been written about those who are left behind. Even their pain and distress is left behind, and is covered up as ignorance.

I was also thinking about the "little ice age" that lasted in Europe from perhaps the 14th to the 19th centuries, documented in many ways, such as the freezing of the Bosphorus or the Thames, things that would be hard to imagine now. This period was accompanied by famine, war, various other hardships, and of course, progress.

My future world is not post-apocalyptic, or even dystopic, in the normal sense of novels like The Road. What I imagine is a slow, then rapidly accelerated, movement aways from petroleum, with serious economic and social consequences. But along with this, I imagine either man-made or a natural antidote, or outcome, to the warming caused by CO2 emissions, even after the emissions have more or less ceased. One man-made scenario would be the setting off of small scale nuclear weapons in uninhabited regions to produce short nuclear winters, to cool the planet. Or, more prosaically, either large volcanoes or meteor strikes causing another little ice age. In my new world, everything "we" wished for has come to pass: nearly all food is grown locally, alternate energy is the rule of the day, long-distance transportation of people and goods is either very expensive or very slow, digital global technologies continue to thrive and develop, government is both global and local, with the return of some version of the city-state, where concentrations of population are separated by large tracts of virtual wilderness, or "nature." Government and civil society operate on a more rational basis, drawing from Rawl's notion of justice as fairness, and on the importance of tolerance and mutual acceptance. Entrepreneurship and capitalism are encouraged with limits, but poverty and income differentiation persists, and is often claimed to be the choice of those who "do without." The great civil projects are manned/womanned by Servants, young people cooperatively engaged in mostly manual labor after having been assigned alternate ethnic and sexual identities, with their personal memories suppressed until graduation.

Some of the civil projects include re-constituting the interstate highway system for more accessible mass-transit between metropolitan centers, the maintenance and expansion of food and energy farms, the cleaning and ordering of the city-space, the overseeing of youth leisure and recreational activities, and the pacification of the wilderness insofar as it infringes in various ways on the above.

the "pacification" of the wilderness

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Make a choice

The choice between these two options: the futuristic/alternative urban utopia/dystopia with a youth, coming-of-age emphasis versus the fantastic past mystery of where is Bruegel, what happened there, who was responsible, and what can be done to un-happen it.

Genre-wise, these sound like (a) a young adult/coming-of-age science fiction adventure, and (b) a fantasy history detective story with some focus on children (the massacre of the innocents). Which am I most interested in writing, which am I most capable of doing, and which would appeal most to readers, assuming that I could pull them off.

What are the research demands of these two projects? The demands of Bruegel seem larger, though that could be an illusion.

To answer question 3, the first project has potentially more readership appeal because of the relevance of some of the underlying themes, and the possibilities of the characters. Also there are possibilities for multiple volumes, since all is not likely to be resolved in one.

I think the Danikiiwin story has more appeal to me as a writer, and probably as a reader. I think it would be easier for me to write because I would understand the genre and the potential readership better than in the other, which I think would require more skill and practice to deal with the complexity. This first one is more simple.

The decision (provisional) is for Danikiwiin.

What's in the basket?

I've been writing about the process of (a) generating ideas and (b) making choices between them to commit to. All of this goes under the heading, how to get started. I've done a little of the real work, which is actually sitting down and writing words that might be called a story or a poem, the first draft. But I've allowed distractions, courted distractions. Probably I should disconnect my computer from the Internet, because the availability of endless bits of information that might inform what I'm going to write is infinitely distracting. This blog, just writing to myself, is infinitely distracting. However, both the "research" and the free-writing about what I'm doing are necessary, it seems. But they can't be the whole pie: where's the fruit and what kind of fruit? Well, it depends on where the picking happens and by whom, right?

The decision I just made was to take one of our bedrooms -- which the kids used to use as their "chill room" -- as my office so that I get some some privacy, from others and my own distractibility. What could be better for the distractible writer who only half believes in his "quest" that the opportunity to discuss with this spouse the placement of furniture or the management of the budget, or to discuss with his children the sensitive balance between what I'm going to do for them and what they're going to do for me? And the view up there is better too. And, for chrissakes, I've been working for thirty years to pay for my own house etc., and here I am in closet, literally, a closet that was once a powder room. Now I just have to do it.

But back to the choosing from the hat, similar to the Hogwart's ritual, where the hat decides who you are and who you will be. Let me keep in mind also that one goal is to make half a living off this writing: a goal which deters any interest in writing a "literary" novel that nobody is likely to read or buy, if even publish, which is connected to my evolving personal taste. I read all of Roberto Bolano's 2666 last month and it was kind of literary, but mostly it was a mystery. I loved that book, it was just so full of interesting stuff and interesting events and people, and a good part of the mystery was, what in the world do they all have to do with one another? Had it just been literary, I would have stopped after about 100 pages, which is what happened when I tried to read Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence. It was lovely, but god it just went on and on and I didn't give a rat's ass about what happened to any of the characters.

Yesterday I finished reading Veniss Underground by Jeff Vandermeer which was literary in many ways, but pretty interesting, though the less "real" it became toward the climax, the less engaged I was. It seemed inevitable that Shadrach would actually find Quin and kill him, and sort of Star Trek cliche that Quin would have reduced himself to a de-anthropomorphic blob, even though it made sense in the story. Another brain in a vat figure. I think I would have liked him to be Rudolph Valentino in the flesh, it would have been easier to kill him then. But all said, it was in its imperfection, a highly entertaining and stimulating read, and I'm looking forward to the next one. I don't think I'm capable of the sort of all-encompassing dystopia of Ambergris, and tend more toward the dystopic false Utopia or Brave New World of something like that -- God, does that mean I'll have to read Brave New World again. Clearly, as Hegel wrote, there's nothing new under the sun, or anywhere else either. That's comforting and frightening at the same time.

My futuristic dystopian utopia or utopian dytopia is provisionally called Danikiiwin, which is Ojibwe for community, or village, or town. Given such a setting, the genre is roughly urban fantasy or science fiction or fantasy, but I like to think of it more as an imaginary or alternate history. My Danikiiwin is an urban/rural location in the northern prairies (where I live now) some time after or next to the present. It is a post-petroleum world with a sort of communitarian/liberal government (of geographically separated city-states) grounded in the theory of John Rawls, "justice as fairness," and a policy of Service wherein young people at the age of 18 are assigned randomly an alternate physical existence with blocked memories of personal past and sent out to do service for some number of years, after which they are restored to their previous being. This experience is meant to inculcate Tolerance and Appreciation, for others and for other work. So, that while not subscribing to communism, but rather to an enlightened entrepreneurial liberalism, Service is supposed to dispose the Citizens to more enlightened and less rapacious individualistic behavior. My original plot, derived from a conversation over beer in Istanbul with Michael Merry and Alyce Kuenzli, had to do with what happens to a group of service workers, confronting the "realities" of Changing Back, of Corruption, of Identity, or the Outside. It sounds a bit like one of Lois Lowry's parables, which I've never particularly liked, but maybe this could be better, or less dated, or something, and a less moralistic. I don't really have an ideological axe to grind, or a political or ethical moral I'm dying to get across, or a desire to persuade anyone of anything. So, in this case, the structure could be more like Bolano. Anyway ...

But I could also, in the alternate history rather futuristic vein, do something with Breugel's Massacre of the Innocents, which is itself an historical imaginary, since it depicts the imagined despoiling of a contemporary (1560) Dutch village by the Spanish, under the guise of the biblical parable from Matthew 2:16-18: "When Herod saw how the astologers [three Wise Men] had tricked him [by not reporting back to him the child's location] he fell into a passion, and gave orders for the massacre of all children in Bethlehem and its neighborhood, of the age of two years and younger, which was the time he had been given by the astrologers [for the birth of the child who was to become king of the Jews.] So the words spoken through the prophet Jeremiah were fulfilled: 'A voice was heard in Rama, wailing and loudly lamenting; it was Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing all consolation, because they were no more.'" 

Bruegel was born in the town called Bruegel in Holland, which could very well be the town where the children were massacred. It's between Utrecht and Liege, one of which is Belgium, and maybe Breugel was Belgian. Didn't he speak Flemish? What is this were a real even if magical event -- corresponding neither to the painting or the biblical verse -- and there was one surviver, Bruegel himself. Though of course every repetition is equally true (viz. Benjamin's theory of mechanical reproduction). So there's a mystery, there's a world or two of three to be made, there's some history.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A collection of notions

I am not going to put myself off by the continuing production of ideas, because it is not until I have filled my basket that I will be able to make a decision to commit, knowing that the writing of a first novel, or a series of novels, is a long-term project. Having gone of half-cocked -- a term derived from the faulty safety mechanisms of flintlock and other rifles that made them prone to "going off" before they were meant to go off -- has not yielded me much as a scholar except a large store of unfinished manuscripts and large library of books on many different subjects. I have to decide between old ideas that haven't died, and young ideas that haven't gone stale. And I have to take what's useful from one idea and graft it on to other ideas. For example, writing an historical (fantasy) novel about Poland and Slovakia is probably not very practical, given the distance from Beloit to the Dunajec River, and my inability to read Polish or Slovak. So doing that would require a much larger commitment than, say, writing an historical (fantasy) novel based in the Great Lakes, which are seventy miles away. The conveying of a good, like salt, from place to place happens everywhere all the time. It's a great trope, appealing to me, but we have the Ice Age Trail running through town. No need to get on an airplane or learn another language. Just a little imagination is called for, whether it's history or fantasy or whatever.

But let me sum up for myself. I'm attracted to history, but history turns out to be more or less the same as world-building and immersion. Thanks, H-G Gadamer for that insight! Combinations work very well. I like the young adult hero/ine, but my writing style might not be well-suited to YA readers. But perhaps it could be: neither Tolkien or Pullman, for instance, write down to a less literate readership, as is the case with many others. And when I was a kid, I liked best what was written with sophistication: If I want fast action and stupid dialogue I can watch movies.

Well, that's it for now, toodle loo.

The Salt Road

In May we went for a short rafting trip on the Dunajec River in Slovakia, on the border of Poland. Our guide told us that the stone road along the river, through the gorge, was part of the salt road from Krakow to Vienna. The giant salt mine of Wieliczka is Krakow, up the Dunajec to where it joins the Visla. I've never been in the salt mine, but the rest of my family has, and there's a great description in Booker T. Washington's The Man Farthest Down. But that's all I know about his salt road. (I don't have the photos on this computer, unfortunately, so I've stolen somebody else's. It rained our whole trip down the river.)

A few weeks earlier we had been to the Slovak National Museum, an skansen in Martin, where they have put a lot of 18th and 19th century buildings from around Slovakia, and there was one building, an inn with stables that I found particularly interesting. This was where the guys moving stuff from place to place by horse-drawn wagon would stop overnight. They and their animals would get out of the cold, get something to eat and a place to sleep.

Perhaps because on both of these visits it rained and the sky was close to the ground, there was a feeling of unreality. Northern Slovakia is a place for magic anyway, with its castle ruins on every hilltop. And I could imagine quite clearly the commerce on the mountain roads that connect the East to the West, and the North to the South. And Slovak is a rough language, but a language of secrets. Finally, the Roma are everywhere, heralds of the other world, their hovels could be portals to someplace we normals can scarcely imagine. It was in Martin the home of the  Slovak National Movement and the Matica slovenská, a voluntary cultural institution which also had political significance. It was abolished by the Hungarians in 1875. Martin today is sort of post-industrial scrubsvilled with beautiful mountains all around. It was here that our computers were stolen.

After our visit to the skansen we went to a remote castle out of town, where the mountains really begin. Sklabina. I don't know anything about this castle but we had to wonder how the world must have changed for someone to have built it here, in a mountain valley far from anything of "importance." The adjoining village consists of two streets dead-ending at the trail heads for the Mala Fatra mountains and national park.

So there's a combination of settings, and an arrow toward an historical period (mid-19th century, with connections in other times) in which some sort of epic magical historial tale could be told. One premise is simply the taking of a magical object or person as part of the salt trade, from Krakow to Vienna. One would not even need to alternate history of Paul Park to make this neck of the woods and this period supernatural. The journey might take several millennia to complete, in fact,

The beginnings of the Wieliczka salt mine are connected to an apocryphal story and an enigmatic figure, St. Kinga, born in 1234 in Esztergom, Hungary, and given by her father the King of Hungary to Prince Boleslav of Poland as a bride. As a wedding present, Kinga asks for a salt mine. She throws her engagement ring in a salt mine in Hungary, and it is dug up when she commands the excavation of a salt mine in previously salt-starved Poland (near Krakow). Kinga and Boleslav ("the chaste") lived together in virginity and Kinga became mother to ALL the children, and eventually removed to a Poor Clare Monastary in Stary Sącz, on the Dunajec River near the border of what is now Slovakia. Stary Sącz was also on an important road to Hungary (and Austria). Salt itself is a sort of magical element.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Cooking for the octopi

King and queens were child's play, just toss some red meat of a soon to be extinct quadruped on the plate, lightly flamed with an Asian glaze, and they think they've died and gone to heaven, again. I've garnished with rabbit eyes wrapped with rapini and gotten goos and gahs. It's work for a monkey really, but someone has to pay to sharpen my knives.

One morning I got a message, bull pigeon flying through my window, I would have opened it had he knocked but you know how they are, in love with the sound of breaking glass. A new client desirous of a dinner party for visiting family, something to communicate subtly the successes of this former prodigal child, gone missing these many years, my client. I would very much like them to go home and
talk about this meal for a thousand turnings of the tide, the note said. Hold nothing back, what you present need not so much appeal to the senses and shock them. Surprise me. My new client, it turned out, was not some ordinary dignitary with cash to burn, but rather a denizen of the deep -- well endowed with sunken treasure I was led to understand -- a htapothi, in fact, what the silly Brits used to call octopus before we trod them underfoot and made them squawk for their suppers like gout-stricken guinea hens.

A dinner setting for eight, with sixty-four arms and hands. How many forks, how many spoons? Are knives necessary or would they prefer rustic tearing and gnashing? What limbs go under the table and which stay up top? A table, probably not a table at all. I was unfamiliar with the protocol and the physics. Leave that to the maitre de. My task was culinary not flower arrangement. For my antipasta, I decided on raw geoducks -- precious nestlings of the mollusk clan -- floating freely in their shells, bathed in a sauce of samphire mignonette, their hanging siphons tinted phosphorescent. The primo must be like a grand gate to the entree, not humble, even perhaps grand and ostentatious, but only the way through to the palace of the truest delights.

[only 364 words .... more later]

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The secret: I'm going to write a novel

For some reason, I don't say this to people, and not hardly to myself, for fear I suppose that it will come to nothing, or that I will be thought silly or something worse for not just doing my job and all the other things I am meant to do, like cleaning the kitchen. So let me say it to myself, dear reader, I am writing a novel. That I don't yet know really what it will be about will not deter my from my chosen path. That sounds like the main theme of Stephen King's Gunslinger, which like The Book of Eli, "looked cool" but was really thin when it came to whatever else a novel or film out to include.

[I just removed a gadget from my writing space. Whew, that felt good. Like washing the jars that will eventually hold and exhibit my incredible collection of beans and grains that I rarely cook. Maybe I will put a little sticker on each jar that says, "COOOOOOK ME!!"]

My problems today with being a writer are: (a) feeling that cleaning the kitchen is more important than writing and acting on that belief, (b) being persuaded by everything I see that THiS is what I should write about or how I should write it, and (c) the lack of a first word (or a fifth or twenty-third word) in the story.

Analysis. The kitchen really does need to be cleaned for a number of personal and hygienic reasons and it's almost inspirational, such as the need to display my beans and grains, there's an idea there, waiting to grasped. I just found a site called History Pin which has me thinking that I really should go back to the story of my grandfather, for which I have a great many photos from the 30s and 40s, plus a white whale of a story, the real one and the one I've made up. And I do love history, but I am very daunted by the task of writing history, and getting lost in history. More on that later. And the third one is an anxiety of an illusion, since I do of course have many words written, just not in the same direction or with the same goal. So the delusion of not having started is connected to the fear of being seen as having started, and the anxiety of not arriving, or being able to explain where I am going, except toward the big beyond. When I was young there was lots of future time to store all the things I might do, but now that I've arrived at that future the work of clearing out that space of stuff that's never going to be done, at least not be me, is sometimes overwhelming. Thus the urge to simply burn the house down. That, of course, is a good premise for a story itself.

Back then to Billy and Dodo, a "novel" I have been working on for many many years and going pretty much nowhere. The true story is compelling. Sailer goes to London at end of WWII to work in some kind of espionage, leaving wife and son in D.C. to further the war-at-home effort, experiences the blitz, becomes involved with aristocratic lady, lives several secret lives, determines to run off with aristocratic British lady, goes to Germany post-war to hunt Nazis, dies suddenly of heart attack. Meanwhile wife at home drinks, works at one or another charity, attempts to bring up baby the best she can, while the baby (a teen) drifts off into never-never land. All that would be good enough but then there's the grandson who in world of true history would be me (or my brother I guess) who is alienated from his father (the never never boy) and does not believe that his grandfather died at all, but that it was a sham, or that he is in fact his own grandfather. He sets off to prove this hypothesis. He is a bit crazy and his sister is in pursuit to keep him from falling off the edge of the world and to find out what there will be at the edge of the world. The supernatural element resides partly in everyone's belief that there is nothing supernatural going on, and that whatever doesn't fit is a function of the sailor's moral depravity or the reincarnated sailor/grandson's psychosis. But what is what he imagines turns out to be more or less true?

That's a story.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The long run

That's a song by the Eagles and not one of my favorites, and it's not even about what I'm taking it to be about, but there you go. When I was in college we played a game when we got high that consisted of making up new uses for common objects found around the room. That's what my story is about, but not what I'm saying now.

What I'm saying now is just literal, "we'll find out in the long run." What was most frustrating, and amounted to the final straw, in my career in academic writing, is the distance between an idea, even a great idea, and it's publication, it's sharing with readers. By the time it got shared, the editors had changed it into something that wouldn't look out of place in their living rooms, and I couldn't even remember what I was thinking when I started, or how I got to where they finished with me. Pouring my life down the drain really.

So I don't want to get stuck between the temporal and cognitive illusion that there's less time between now and then there has to be, like thinking you can fit into a parking space that way too small just because you want a parking space right now. And I don't want to be slave to the illusion that the longer I wait, the longer I work, the better it will be. My SAT word for the day is attenuate: "to reduce in force, value, amount, or degree; weaken." There's a thousand sayings, all of them true. Strike while the iron is hot. Stupid, but then you get the image, the burning ingot, the hard hammer and anvil, the sweat in the eyes, the work of entropy ...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Where and why is the car park

In Budapest we had a space for a few days in a very vertical car park, a term a I like better than parking garage. There was an in-door, electronically controlled on one street, and an out-door on the parallel street, plus a pedestrian door. It had a tiny elevator and a set of stairs going all the way to the top. Every floor had some windows, so it wasn't always completely dark, but it was never more than half-dusk. The ramp was quite steep and the turns were sharp: it was hard to get around the corners in our little SUV without some going forward and backing up, especially when someone had put their motorcycle in the little crannies by the curve. There were not distinct floors, just really flatter parts of the ramps, one going up and one going down, so you could look across the from 4A to 4B which was going up while you were going down. If you built a house in there is would have been a split-level, like the one I lived in in Lake Oswego, OR, in the late 1960s. There were cars at every level, but plenty of empty spaces too. The car park did not belong to any one building, it was a rental space used by pensions in the neighborhood and by residents with cars.

What happens to the car park when there's not enough fuel, or it costs too much, to operate a car. What kind of thing does a car become? My thought was that the car park might become a squat of sorts, then a village, or a neighborhood, in the larger post-car city. The demise of cars would probably produce more centralization of population, as commuting became less viable -- this gives me another story to think about with respect to the suburbs returning to "nature." Homesteading was an American tradition, sanctioned by the government as a way of civilizing the world. Squatting now is condoned insofar as it reclaims space often used for ill, and gets some number of folks off the street, where they are unsightly and a danger to themselves and others. Someone with a car that couldn't be driven would probably just live it in the park, rather than incur the expense of moving it somewhere else. So living in the abandoned cars would be a form of recycling. If one had an enlightened government, and we need to assume anarchy, then squatting in the car park could be condoned if not even supported in some way, perhaps just passively.

So the setting is a post-petroleum city, but not a post-energy city. And certainly not a post-digital city, meaning that global communication remains feasible while global travel is more difficult, though perhaps not impossible. That's the premise.

The story question is what sorts of social and personal challenges might be involved in this pioneering, and who would be involved. I'm thinking of three groups of people: the Gypsies, the art&musics, and the magic. The specific problem I was thinking of had to do with kids and their recreation, tangled up in the virtual v. real.

So the plot comes from a game that the kids create, partly from a video-game. Skating and skate-racing, all because someone has a copy of some skate game software the kids have found, and have started playing. There's even some online playing between those on the top of the park and those on the bottom. But band-width is a limited resource, so some of this playing is a violation. Then some kid scrounges a board, and others start producing, or scrounging more boards. Eventually there are kids skating from the top to the bottom, a dangerous and exciting and annoying to the adult resident thing to do. So here's two conflicts: the social conflicts about using limited resources, about unregulated and risky play, and between those who prefer the real and those who prefer the virtual. This requires four or five adolescent characters and some related adults.

Voila, the premise of a story. How does it resolve? In my first paragraphs, I said it led to a death, but I didn't say and didn't know whose or under what circumstances. Or what the consequences of the death might be to the game or to the world.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The parking garage

The first ones to move in to the parking garage on Peet were the Gypsies and they settled on the first floor, in three camps, each organized around a giant guzzler: a sky-blue Cadillac that probably hadn't seen the road in fifty years, a Mercedes with flat tires, and Dodge minivan with entertainment center and baby barf still crusted on the floor mats. Other people maybe thought about the garage as housing but they were still singing the private property hesitation blues, what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours. The Gypsies didn't bother with those old tunes, they were completely contemporary and advanced harmonic. And they took their sweet long time figuring out how to open up the cars without breaking the glass. Four of the boys ran some electrical and ether up the elevator shaft -- the car had stopped once and for all on level three B so they cut a whole through the ceiling and the floor for the wire -- and hooked up to a rehabbed solar and a dish on the roof. So they had some lights and they had one old digital to hook up to the wherever. One day a girl brought back a camera she'd grifted and they sent off some snaps to their relatives in Novy Svet. There they were, sitting on the imitation leather seats under the number 16 heating up some grub over the sterno.

The second ones to move in where some music&arts and their tagalongs, but they chose the top floor, closer to the sun and the moon they said. But a long dark walk from the Gypsy camp down on street-level. Security was easier up top too, though the Gypsies were not insecure. Either they invited you in for grub and offered a Chevy up the way for slumbering, or they thwunked you with a piston rod if you looked untrustworthy or called any of the old names. The music&arts tried for a while without electric but first they asked to share with the Gypsies -- politely declined -- and then they asked the Gypsies to hook them up -- politely accepted for payment in kind to be determined later. A chit was produced. That was the bare beginning of business that sometime later made the first floor corporate and very well-lit, with official reception and work orders. There weren't so many vehicles up on the top floor but there weren't so many musics at first and some of them liked to sleep out on the roof where the cars were showing serious weather wear and didn't make for good permanent habitation. They played songs and sang and painted the walls of the garage chalk white. There were two innovations: one man who like a little more privacy found himself a winch somewhere and pulled up new wheels from the floor below and he lived in it alone. Two women scrounged another winch and some pulleys and dropped a line down the elevator shaft to haul stuff up and down. And here was an old guy who played the harmonica who started thinking about other ways of moving water than dragging it up the line.

For a long while the back and forth between the music&arts and the Gypsies was limited, business and howdy-do on passing, but the kids started the races and that brought everyone together, for rule-making, cheering on, non-capital improvements and injury treatment. What brought them together last and for ever was the first deaths in the garage and that's what this story is about, the dying and the subsequent coming together. How they all knew is was a message like the others that they had ignored because this they couldn't ignore and the metaphors were instructive. There were eight kids and they liked skating, and the story is about them.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Problems in living

There are men and women, boys and girls, who have problems with living. For them, life is an ill-fitting suit of clothes that must be worn despite the chafing, despite the unrecognizable, unattractive figure the mirror shines back at them. They talk to themselves, they are lost in the world, to the world. Their complaints are always loud but rarely acknowledged by those whose clothes fit more comfortably. But I have been in a position to hear and see the very worst of it. They are here, locked inside my thick walls, wailing and keening like prehistoric birds in nests permanently empty. Not all the worst troubles are suffered by my patients, because misery is epidemic, and some of the helpers, who sought to hide their own pain in the gaping maw of the officially afflicted, find themselves instead the subjects of the longest, deepest hurt, deceived by the hope that feeling the pain of another is the same as taking that pain away.

I saw one young attendant -- he was fond of bow-ties, wore his hair slicked straight back with Macassar oil scented with lemon, and always had a pocket full of Turkish Delight -- fall down dead in the hallway between wards C and D just as daybreak slivered through the window, having given not a single sign of impending mortality. It was unnaturally cold that morning and the branches of the hackberry trees were cracking under their weight of ice. The sound was not unlike the laments of one old man who has lived most of his lives in my shelter. He was admitted originally in a state of catatonia, unable or unwilling to respond to the world at all except by continued breathing and heartbeat. His cure consisted of adopting the complaints of others, like stray cats he gathered them up. He, himself, the doctors concluded, was entirely lost, though I suspected that somewhere existed "the gatherer" himself, unlost. The young attendant, who had spent some of the small hours of that morning in the company of this old man, did not understand that the pain the man expressed was not his own, but was obtained second-hand. He attempted compassion, empathy, but the old man's store of misery, after so many years on the ward, was bottomless, and the attendant was swallowed up. Though the post-mortem speculated about heart failure, I wondered. Had this young man known that all the pain he was taking on was not original to the old man, not something that caused the old man himself distress, but rather was the source of his animation, would he have approached his task of caring differently? Would he have survived this encounter?

Thursday, July 08, 2010

How teenagers saved the world

When I'm not considering how to write the historical psychiatric novel, I think about creating some new teenagers and children to save the world. Because, despite Frodo, Lyra, Harry Potter and many others, the world still needs saving and the adults are clearly not up to the task. A couple days ago I watched The Road, which I had read previously, but I hadn't taken away one of the more obvious morals of the story, which was that the burden of salvation and redemption is on the child, not the father, who does his best but eventually succumbs rather unceremoniously. Mom had already checked out, of her own volition. Leaving it all to the boy.

Of course I recall being that boy (in my own mind) and I have a live boy of my own, but neither that past-I nor the present-he seem good candidates for saving even themselves, let alone the world. Though my son detests organized religion and prejudice ... perhaps a good start on redeeming the sins of the fathers. On the other hand, he sees the world in the mirror and can hardly manage to put out the trash effectively. The fantasy of the mostly male, grown-up authors of these teenage-saves-the-world is perhaps that they, we ourselves, might have been different than we were. That we might have acted out our ideals and desires instead of getting a college education and a mortgage.

As a teacher, I am continually assaulted by my desire to reward those students of mine most for not growing up, at least not growing up to be one of the unattractive, self-involved, materialistic, spirit-less philistines who surround me. Thus, the writing of these sagas of redemption is itself redemptive -- like duh. Whereas, the writing of the historical psychiatric novel would probably be more about self-discovery and disclosure. Both are versions of the "cure" -- neither have much prospect of putting coins in the coffer.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

a part-way through review: the city & the city

I've read two China Miéville books before, or at least most of two. I really like Perdido Street Station, but I never finished The Scar (the one about the floating city.) This new, shorter book reads pretty much like a police procedural, but it is set in the doppel-cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. It has interesting characters, of the detective sort, though not especially unique characters. The conceit of these two overlapping cities and their proscription of crossing over and seeing/unseeing is really interesting, but halfway through the book and I still don't quite get it. There are many descriptions of the elaborate training that tourists and newcomers must undergo in order to behave properly and understand the rules of Beszel and Ul Qoma, much of which have to do with not seeing what's in front of you, and watching that you don't go into places you're not supposed to see. Not surprisingly, there are lots of politics related to this situation, and a perfect setup for a murder, done in one place, discovered in another. So I'm enjoying the story, just as I might enjoy reading Ian Rankin, though Miéville just isn't as good with this genre as writers like Rankin and others. Though the touch of Calvino is intriguing. But still I feel like one of these tourists who doesn't quite understand where I am, and how things work. If I were critiquing this from a sci-fi point of view, I might say that the alternative world is not quite consistent in its operation, or that some aspect of its essential characteristic has not been clearly communicated. It's a little like Men in Black, I suppose, without the gizmo that cleans memories. Of course, I need to finish it and find out who done it and why.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A beginning (really) -- Sheppard Pratt

I am by nature reluctant to speak of events outside my own experience. But like all men -- and I feel justified in calling myself a man, though certainly my understanding on that matter might deviate from yours  -- I harbor curiosity about my beginnings, about my forebears, about the act through which I was conceived. Where do I come from? What kind of thing am I? Do I have a purpose beyond my mere being in the world? Even though I have been on this earth for several normal human spans, perhaps I am only just now reaching adolescence now, just now poised for independent life. Perhaps I am just a toddler wondering why the sky is blue and what my parents do when they close the door. Who can say how long history will last or what our place will be? In any case, to lay claim to an independent life, and the status of adult, must require a fuller knowledge of what one is becoming independent from, and that knowledge lays outside one's own to and fro. Consequently, when time has allowed, I have engaged in some historical research relative to my origins.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Starting to start to start to ...

Seriously now.
Really, seriously.

I begin with the desire to write, but without a clear idea
of what to write or for whom.
Was that ever a problem for James Joyce? Hard to imagine

I find myself writing about prose in verse
lyric nonsense where there ought to be
hard-edged facts, well-drawn characters
places so real you forget where you are
reading or writing or sitting.

Is it best to begin by enumerating one's strengths or one's weaknesses?
What I could write, like what hill I could actually climb,
or what I would like, imagining that I could learn
to climb better and higher with some practice,
some magic, some silly Keith Urban songs?

I'm reading now a book by China Miéville
that I think would be called urban fantasy,
but it's really a police procedural just set
in some sort of alternate city -- haven't got too far
so I don't know what to make yet of the people
who are there but not there. Undoubtedly
it will all be tied together.

So this is just the kind of book I could write,
perhaps not so well as Mr. Miéville, who has had
much more practice. But it is the kind of book
I would want to write? One of my other projects
is a detective story set in the 1960s, maybe just the same thing,
setting something in the past and setting something
in the future or some alternate present.

Why still this pretense to verse? When it's just prose
and prose not in any way special, line breaks
intrude, comma splices permitted, no need to save
paper. I have a couple other books from the library
that are novels told as connected stories
with various narrative personae and location
all of it adding up to a whole story
but bringing the ordinary reader along.

So that's something I do want, an ordinary reader,
even a teenager, not an aspiring literary critic or
college literature teacher in search of deep meaning.
However deep the meaning might be.

I can write anything I want, but I can't lose my voice
even when disguised by character and plot and setting.
Seriously now.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

How to write a novel or something like that

I had this idea of changing my life
as if it would not do that on its own
as if I was fucking Captain Nemo
and he just let me have it my way
and dream that the dream was my own
and not his offhand invention.

So back to changing my life
by becoming a writer, aw shit,
that sounds like something I would have said
longer ago than I can rightly remember
but still, still, still, I can pretend
and it seems that I live on for another day

so why not, 'drive, I sd
for christ's sake, look
out where yr going.'
It doesn't matter where you go,
just get going somewhere, looking
back only to make yr way