Writing in the Ocean: Write, Read, Write

We learn something, good or bad, from every book we read—maybe what not to do.  More often, there’s something to gain.  My reading includes German comic books about  Max and Brett, German folk tales—a dual language reader, because my German isn’t strong enough to read without help–some Spanish language novels, a slow go, too, though Spanish is more familiar to me, my having lived in Tucson.  I also read about home remedies, poisons, superstitions, Biblical sources (e.g.,Harold Bloom’s the Book of J), the history of witchcraft, angels,  animals, great tragedies, heroism.  If I’m interested in a subject, I read about it. Toads. Salamanders.

But my consistent reading for pleasure and for learning is literature, stories and novels and essays by the best prose writers—not only the critically acclaimed but also those I stumble upon.  Thus, it’s difficult for me to say at any given moment who is the best writer, who has influenced my writing. That depends on the genre, era, and my mood. I couldn’t complete a list if I had to begin with the most ancient text and come forward.  Always among relatively recent favorites are  Chekhov, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Wolfe, Katherine Porter,  Carson McCullers, Raymond Carver, and on and on. Right now I’m tense because of the hundreds of names I’m skipping. Per Petersen.

Because there are so many writers whose skills are greater than mine can ever be and because my experience personally is so limited—raised in a small town, low income,  no travel until recent years—I am in awe of the field I work in—writing, in awe of what’s gone before and what’s current. That awareness can sometimes stop me.  I sometimes put my writing away, or criticize it to the trash bin, or submit it without adequate introduction—a nice letter from a writer who loves words. My words and my confidence become heavy, I move with stones.

It’s possible that my writing, anyone’s writing, has a purpose, meets a need, whether or not the writing contributes to the grand art itself.  Some people truly do write only for themselves, to satisfy a need for expression, to discover thoughts and patterns—many possible, good reasons.  Sometimes we find journals and diaries that reveal a character and time and maybe a talent that we wish had been recognized earlier. Those are precious finds.  They point to a truth about writing—you can’t be sure what effect your writing will have on the world.  If you want to ensure that it’s never read, and serves only your own needs, then possibly you should burn whatever you’ve written.  Heirs may print and distribute it or give it to a local historical society for posterity.

I’ve written earlier posts about how certain texts have changed my life.  One has some bearing on how I feel about being so small in the ocean of writers.  It was Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer. The novel is about a man wrongly imprisoned and tortured for years. I was moved by how fiercely the character defended his self-identify which was in effect his freedom.  As long as he didn’t capitulate and confess to what was not true about him, he was free.  A friend advised me that that concept had been presented many times, in greater works and stronger ways. Probably true. There’s always something better depending on what pool of knowledge surrounds you. But Malamud’s particular example of freedom came at the right time for me to appreciate it, maybe because it was the strongest element of the work, maybe because the nature of the torture was more horrific to me, or because of a myriad other reasons.  A book can affect a reader in powerful ways because the reader is ready for the message.  None of us can be certain of the effect our manuscripts may have on others.  We can hope and strive toward a worthy goal—to have a good message, to offer understanding of the human situation, or hope in times of despair, or just a moment of pleasure, an instant of beauty. We might even dream, maybe subconsciously, of producing a masterpiece someday.  Regardless our work will have some effect, possibly an important one, even if only to a small audience, maybe a single person.  

Most recently I have been caught and stilled by the work of Annie Proulx, specifically Barkskins. The breadth and depth and beauty of the novel astonishes me. With historical accuracy and fictional power she’s covering the settling of Canada over generations, the great wealth offered by the country and native people and the gradual diminishing of both.  She unfolds a panorama, vivid characters and scenes, cultures, customs, biases, wars, flora, fauna, illnesses, medicines, and in beautiful, clear, immediate prose. One needn’t grieve at the loss of a character, because he will surface again in the story of his sons or his sister or his enemy.  Great achievements and great losses. Great writing.  I love her and her talent.

And so it goes.  I read, I write. I immerse myself in prose and ideas that enrich my world.  Maybe I get stronger from resting a while and then I plunge on.

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Spring Flight Poets

The writers and editors are aware that their art is not yet burnished to its ultimate perfection; they admit the presence of flaws in some facets of their handiwork; but they have had pleasure in writing and editing the poems, and they hope their friends will find pleasure in reading them.

This statement ends the preface to the first issue of Spring Flight, creative writing by members of the English Club of Central Missouri State Teachers College (now UCM), Warrensburg, Missouri in 1939. The contents page appears below. Copies of the first issue are probably scarce, but my copy is still in good shape. I’ll tag some or all of the names so relatives have a chance of finding them. I didn’t know any of the people though I recognize a name or two, from local buildings. The publication later became Cemost, then Pleiades.

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Kingsolver’s Ruse

This is the nest of a tower spider, or a turret spider, a species of Tarantula.  You can see the spider herself lurking below the surface. While the turret spiders I’ve managed to find in a brief research are specific to California, a few turret spiders appear as tiny characters—part of setting, symbol, theme—in Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, set in Vineland, New Jersey. Since Kingsolver is a biologist, one of the great pleasures her works offer is a rich, detailed environment—the natural world of humans, plants, and animals.  This one creature drew my attention because it was totally new to me, captivating both in reality and in the way it plays in Unsheltered. This is not an analysis of the work—I’m interested in the spider itself and in the various directions its presence leads—the promising literary territory.

The turret spiders in Unsheltered have been collected by Mary Treat, a self-trained naturalist, and correspondent with Darwin (based on the real Mary Treat).  She has collected ten or more, carefully digging up each nest as she finds it in her garden and relocating it in a glass candy jar.  Her neighbor, Thatcher, discovers the little habitats in her parlor, distributed on tables and her desk, amid potted plants: “Each jar was half filled with soil and planted with a miniature garden of mosses, wildflowers, and ferns. The breath of these small green worlds moistened the inner curve of the jars’ glass shoulders.” Mary explains that the “ferns and flowers in those candy jars are a ruse . . . so nervous lady friends can admire the little gardens without being shocked.”  She says the spiders are better pets than dogs, and she has one that will eat out of her hand.  She admires them greatly, is fond of them. 

So, now, am I.

A turret spider spends most of its life atop its tower or lurking just beneath the rim, springing attacks on edible passersby for survival.  The female may live for sixteen years. The males live eight or nine, at the end of which span they feel the call to mate, and look for a female.  They don’t live past that, so perhaps the female kills them.  Mary Treat tells Thatcher that if she “offer[s] them husbands, it doesn’t end well.”  Spiderlings build nests close by, so little turrets abound.

Mary Treat’s parlor is a world within a world.  The glass jars are throughout the room, on tables, among plants and among book, mingling research and social life, study of habitats within a habitat. That’s how Mary lives her life.  They’re disguised for the comfort of her lady friends, and she herself is disguised for them—in the parlor.  She is an “investigator,” a woman Thatcher first sees lying prone on the ground spying on “ants and spiders.” She stays in her tower, with her books, yet the world comes to her.  Thatcher does, himself a botanist, and a Darwinian, though he’s not allowed to teach Darwin.  The household pets from next door, Scylla and Charybdis, spend time at Mary Treat’s, under her desk, because she feeds them.  Mary is married, but her husband is not there.  He may have taken off with a different kind of woman, speculation has it, but he may just be more comfortable away from home, and Mary is apparently, at home with him gone. Mary is much like the female turret spider, ensconced in a tower, her sustenance research.

It’s always a pleasure to read a book by an author who knows a subject deeply  and weaves that knowledge  into the story so that while following plot, and character, and perhaps loving the language itself, you’re acquiring wonderful, unbefore known information.  The Barbara Kingsolver books I’ve read have been like that.  In addition to discovering Mary Treat and turret spiders, Unsheltered led me through the losing of a home—a house, an area—in different eras, in different generations, and from different points of view, among them a husband not quite loved enough and a woman who loves the home she inherited. It’s a complex work, wonderfully intricate, and ultimately about loss of habitat in our larger natural world. When the story has been absorbed, one has experienced the alteration of a site in one place and in different hearts.  I read Unsheltered over a year ago and am still thinking about it. The impact of fiction ever astounds me.

Source: Kingsolver, Barbara. Unsheltered. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

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Thoughts on Reading: Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang’s work is so unlike any fiction I read, or at least have read in recent years, that I feel I’m out of my league, and yet totally involved–the science is made understandable, believable, and positive.  I feel hopeful about the human condition.  It is reading simultaneously philosophy and science and fiction.  In Exhalation a robot dismantles itself to peer at its brain. It seems less a robot than a sentient being of another type, one with desires and fears and curiosity like my own, or as I hope mine is.  He peers at his brain to understand, among other functions, how memory works, and discovers how the universe contributes to him and how he and all others contribute back.  And he writes of this by dismantling himself—a true risking of his own being. In The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, a man designs a time travel mechanism, a standing hoop that contains within its depth a time period of seconds or years or centuries. It’s a delay, so a travelers can visit themselves in the past or the future and carry on conversations, and even act in concert toward a goal. The characters are engaging, with bodies, and hopes and dreams, like in any fiction.  At the end of each story I am again hopeful about our nature and the nature of the world, even the afterworld, if there is one. His work deals with my loftiest wonderings, free will, memory, time, reality,  and explains a possibility that is good. What the characters learn is beneficial to self and to others.  The work of a mind and heart like Ted Chiang’s is one to attend to.


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Thoughts on Voice and Style

When I think of an author’s voice, I think of far more than just the style of a particular story or even of a group of writings. I think of the philosophy conveyed by that voice, maybe from one piece or maybe from a lifetime body of work. Take Faulkner, my favorite author, and the subject author of my graduate studies. The dominant voice I hear is a highly compassionate, intelligent, honest one, often laced with humor. The voice instills trust and admiration and a little caution, because honesty isn’t always easy to hear, even if it’s spoken with compassion.

William Gass once said of Faulkner that he couldn’t write of anything trivial because to him there wasn’t a “mean thing under the sun.” Everything was important. While anyone could argue that this is his philosophy or his theme (and both those are true), it is also his voice. The language, no matter how simple or how grand, elevates his subject matter. Nowhere is that more true, perhaps, that when he’s capturing the sensibilities of a person (character) whose language would not have allowed such eloquent expression. Faulkner speaks for him or her. There are critics who comment on some of Faulkner’s grandiose language as playing a joke—the pastoral grandeur, for example, of Ike Snopes story, or the dense reality of Benjy, with the mind of a three year old, or Flem Snopes, constrained by a greed so strong he can barely move. No matter how terse, mute, or vociferous the character, the indulgence, sympathy, and understanding of the author who created them is the voice that couches them.

Raymond Carver, a far cry from Faulkner in style, I’m sure most would agree, has a very similar compassionate humanity.  His style isn’t as grand, doesn’t have the breadth of range as Faulkner’s. His style is economic, direct, everyday speech, much of it disembodied dialog. Descriptions are sparse, hinted. Details from the environment are also sparse, no great historical background, no lengthy sermonizing by characters or narrator. Everyday situations, speech. But he imbues stories with the same kind of import—that man’s activities are worthy of note, they matter greatly. Pain is pain. Tragedy is tragedy. Scale may different. Carver doesn’t judge. He presents honestly. Chekhov, too. A lover of the human being, a chronicler of pride. A compassionate voice.

One’s voice, I believe, develops from one’s beliefs about the world, and hope for it. One’s style is the expression of that voice. It may take time to develop, as the voice did. A writer should aspire for the best, truest expression of belief, and be bold and diligent in trying.

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Dastard: a Word to the Wise

I’ve been rereading Faulkner’s The Hamlet, looking for a particular passage I recall that might be a false memory. It’s a scene in which Flem Snopes, a great villainous character, is given a moment of sympathy, and I want to write about it. There’s a comic element throughout the novel, and perhaps that, combined with Flem’s villainy, is why I woke this morning with a word in my mind: Dastard. I knew what it meant in general, but still consulted some sources for specifics.

In the old sense, from Middle English, “dastard” was a strong insult, meaning “dullard,” “coward,” “one who meanly shrinks from danger; a poltroon; especially one who slyly does malicious acts.” Other forms offer slight, useful variations:

    • dastardize v. to make cowardly; to intimidate; cow
    • dastardly a. marked by, or exhibiting, arrant cowardice
    • dastardy n. dastardliness.

“Dastardy,” is my favorite, more grand in scope, with a distinction in sound and tone that makes it more pejorative, an intimately diminishing term. Say aloud “anarachy,” “monarchy,” and “oligarchy,”  followed by “dastardy.”

Words gather nuances down the years, and change meanings. “Dastard” took on a comic connotation from the late 1960s Hanna Barbera series Dick Dastardly. Some people may not have heard of that series (I hadn’t). Even if they have, the comic edge could only strengthen the word’s meaning in some situations, where wickedness and cruelty are combined with clownishness or buffoonery. Our time offers plentiful opportunities.

The word is archaic, yes—most of our words are, shrew, for example, Satan. (I’m smiling.) Dastard sounds good, and the shaping of it with lips, tongue, and teeth feels good. It’s a robust word. Let’s use it.

Dastard. 1922. Webster’s New International Dictionary. Springfield, Mass: G.& C. Merriam Co.
Dick Dastardly Google side panel. https://g.co/kgs/nvyP1t
Faulkner, William. The Hamlet. New York: Vintange Books, 1959.

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Friendship with Trees


Last winter was particularly hard on this plum tree and the skeleton frame has had me worried.  But I see that she is back to her best, plums coming along everywhere.  Maybe she will leaf out and be as lovely as usual.The plush greener leaves in the background are on a neighbor’s tree (unfortunately shading an aspiring elderberry bush).

This tree has been remarkable. It has survived ice storms, fierce winds, and high temperatures, yet each summer produced hundreds of beautiful and delicious plums.  Since I don’t know how to can and don’t want to learn, we have eaten the plums, given them away, and invited friends and acquaintances to come unburden the tree. University students passing by our house have plucked low hangers or leapt to pull down a bigger bunch.  Once, a young girl from the elementary school across the street climbed up and tossed plums to two waiting friends.  I had to warn her that her mother wouldn’t want her climbing a tree–it was dangerous. I offered to give her a bag of plums.  She shook her head No, jumped down and they took off, not too hurriedly, eating plums.  I used to climb trees.  I wouldn’t mind if the girl thought she was stealing plums.  She had a personal drive in any case.

Some of my favorite passages in literature are little asides about relationships with trees, like this one in Willa Cather’s My Antonia.  “Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons” (21).  Actually, it’s not really an aside, since land, and plants, and animals are a vital part of Cather’s fictional and real world.  I talk to trees—spirea bushes and other plants, too. I have friends who do the same and I suspect many, many people do.  I have saved seeds from an apple tree for so long they must be dead.  They’re not useless, though, since they remind me of a person and a time and a tree that used to be in a particular back yard.

After reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben I’m aware of how complex their lives are and how ignorantly I admire and consort with them.  They have a social structure–family, friends, defenses, enemies.  Feelings. And they communicate, in their own way.  That kind of knowledge I can enjoy so much, and appreciate.  But the sight and smell and feel of them is easier and more immediate. And fiction weaves them into my social structure.  I do wonder if they understand my comments, or absorb the tone, and if they pass on our conversations.



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Black Lives Matter Near My Hometown

I’m proud of these protesters near my hometown for acting on their convictions and wearing masks, too. Bless them. The article is by Ben Matthews, with the Southeast Missourian.  

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Judging Fiction Contests

March, when the COVID19 pandemic descended in our area, was also the month for submissions to Pleiades’ R. M. Kinder Realistic Fiction Prize (I didn’t name the contest.  I just judge the entries).  I began reading them almost immediately, as is my common method, and took notes. During the month I reread stories and revised notes. When the final entry had been added to the group, I left the stories alone for a few days and let them settle in my memory.  When I returned to them, I looked at each one again and began ranking them from one to 10, with 10 the highest.  Then I began ranking those 10.

It sounds like tedious work, but it isn’t.  It’s serious and important but also pleasurable and rewarding.  Here is work by current writers, whether emerging or established; here is new form, new format;  new issues; new approaches to old issues; new words; new subjects; new street language; and the old and familiar and traditional.  I love it. I breathe it in.

The truly difficult part of judging is also the most rewarding. Reading toward and for the best of the best, giving in to what a story tries to be. Though the best realized stories always surface, there are always contenders so vital in one way or another that I can’t easily leave them behind.  A voice can be so engaging, so can an eye for details, so can a conclusion, a sentiment, a thought, an image.  I have fallen in love with someone’s style or goal and wanted to introduce that writer to the world.  Usually it’s not one writer, but many, for a different skill or thought.  These writers stay with me.  I remember certain story lines or characters for years.

Giving honorable mentions might seem to relieve the tension of selecting only one, but that, too, is hard.  “Mention” means a brief statement and so many writers deserve at least that.  At least. The ranking would be near impossible.

The winning story has to be one brought fully to its promise.  Each element of fiction employed contributes to the core message.  If details are too abundant (say in a search for realism) the setting can overpower the plot or character; too much action can shallow the thought; too elevated language can credit the author but lose the story. The story must take the reader in and keep her suspended without being aware of artifice.  At the end, the judge should feel grateful to have read the story; to wish she could write that way; to be glad someone can and does.  That may sound like an impossible feat for any story.  Not impossible at all.  I recall such stories and know I will encounter others.

What happens when there’s more than one such story? The criteria sharpen to match the entries. Suppose there’s a story wonderfully entertaining—it’s delightful and fresh, and is meant for a broad audience, accessible to many; and there’s also a story immensely touching, elicits understanding and compassion, meant also for a broad audience. How to choose, if each is just as artful, just as complete?  Then which has the greater depth of meaning, intellectual and emotional involvement, and a moral stance?  The better the competing entries, the better the winner must be.

A friend occasionally chides me for judging contests without pay, but the compensation is so great. I’m honored to be asked to judge and don’t want it to be easy.

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Bird Bouquet

On a recent spring-like day, I went into the back yard and was stunned by a change in our hackberry tree.  It was like a bouquet of birds in the wind.  They lit on branches singly and in clusters and only momentarily. They flitted and soared and whirled, fluttered, hopped here and there and away.  I believed it was a vision or hallucination. I began crying, not from fear, but from the startle and beauty of it—and joy.  It seemed real. I wanted to preserve it as long as possible, and without my phone camera had only my memory.  I tried to memorize the kinds of birds, but I’m not a birder and recognized by type only a few.  Robins galore, with different shades of breast color, from pale pink  to dark red; robin-like birds with white patches; doves (only two) , starlings, finch, brown sparrows, tiny birds with at least three colors—red,  green, and yellow—and very tiny birds with bright yellow bellies and dark green or brown tops.  All moving in and out and up and around and down.  Impossible to count. I finally inched back to the door, sped into the house, grabbed my phone, and, at the door again, inched out.  All but a few had gone. I should have stood still until I couldn’t bear it.  I should have kept the sight as long as possible instead of wanting a photo.  Now, writing about the event, I know my prose can’t capture it. Likely a photo couldn’t either. Maybe not even a video.  The sound was wind-swept bird song, bird talk,  tree rustle and sway, and a vast silence everywhere else.

Leafless, the tree’s twigs held thousands of hackberries.  They were a delight for the birds and the birds were more than that for me.  I was exceedingly happy those few moments, and I feel a bit of that happiness every time I think of them.


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