Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Undercurrents: Notes, thanks & condolences

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Some random thoughts as Thanksgiving permeates the atmosphere:

  • If you’re keeping count, on the day this appears in the paper there will be 29 days remaining until the end of the world, or possibly until the end of the Mayan “long count” calendar, depending on your point of view. Question: What would you do if you believed the world would end in a month? I’m betting Black Friday would be farthest from your mind.

  • Speaking of which: By the time the sun was rising last Black Friday, I was trying to go to sleep after a night of shopping beyond my means with my family. I upset some people by posting a photo tagged “Occupy Walmart” just before the frenzy started on the DVD aisle.

I don’t think we’ll be doing that this year, though I might be unpleasantly surprised before it’s over. Question: Do you try to hit the after-Thanksgiving sales (or this year, the actual Thanksgiving Day sales)?

  • A highlight of the season last year was attending the improv-heavy performance of “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and Then Some)” at the Seaside Repertory Theatre. The REP is once again putting on the show every weekend in December. You never know quite how it’s going to go, kind of like the actual holiday — and also like the actual holiday, there will be laughter and tears.

  • The election is over. Get over it. Unless you think it’s a sign the Mayans were right, in which case it doesn’t matter any way, so get over it.

  • We have been house hunting for some time now, despite the impending end of the world, and it looks like we’re close to closing on one at last. I have enjoyed renting for the past few months, because the honey-do list shrinks significantly when you don’t have to worry about home maintenance so much. But now I’m looking forward to having a place to call our own again — and to having a place for all my books again.

If all goes well, and the world doesn’t end, we’ll be there before Christmas. If you don’t mind, I’m going to give thanks ahead of time for the continuation of life as we know it, and for a place to share with my family.

  • Finally, please join me in extending condolences to the family of Tony Jordan Simmons (no relation), who died Saturday after a long struggle with COPD. When I first came to work for The News Herald in 1993, I received several phone calls from people who thought he had taken a job with the paper after retiring from his career as an officer with the Panama City Police Department. He even called me once to say hello, after he got some calls at his home from people who thought he might be me.

Now my thoughts and prayers go out to his family as they must say goodbye.

(This was my Undercurrents column this week.)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Something someone said once

I'm feeling a bit off today. My name (sort of) was in today's obituary page. It wasn't me, but it was about as close as I'd ever like to see.

So I wondered what people might say if it was me; what eulogy would I receive? And that reminded me of one of the nicest things a coworker ever wrote about me. It was upon the release of my book, "Dazed and Raving in the Undercurrents," a collection of my better columns at the News Herald in my first 10 years of employment there.

The writer was Claude Duncan, at the time our Editorial Page Editor. Here's what he wrote, as taken from our electronic archive at the paper:

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Bay County perspective: Words as flashes of light

By Claude Duncan Editorial Page Editor

Tony Simmons is a journalist in, for newspapers, a post-journalistic age. With family to support, he thus also practices the bread-and-butter craft of editoring and has during his decade at The News Herald been beat reporter and columnist.

Simmons is good at all that. But he was born a journalist, with fingers connected to the mind’s eye. By training, intent and design, modern reporting in that respect is mindless work, albeit hard work.

Journalism was born of travel writing when much of the world was new to much of the world, and everything — everything — was about discovery. The writer inescapably was a part of his journey, as was self-discovery.

The poet Sarah Manguso, referring to the 18th century French philosopher most remembered for his encyclopedia, wrote that to Diderot, "the word is not the thing, but a flash in whose light we perceive the thing." Journalists like Simmons invoke masterfully what Manguso calls "codependent impulses" with readers. His new book, Dazed and Raving in the Undercurrents, is nothing if not flashes of light exposing this eternal co-dependency.

"Despite what you may have heard, you can go home again," Simmons writes in one entry, from 1995, "but you probably won’t enjoy it very much. … The faces I recall sometimes recall mine. In the Piggly Wiggly, we pass and they ask where I’ve been, what I’ve done with myself. I ask the same. Smiles circulate around uncomfortable silences. Then: a parting with promises to keep in touch."

Simmons often refers to himself on these visits home as "the prodigal." In morality tales, a prodigal is a rejecter who comes to happily embrace that which he rejected. So it is with Simmons, eventually.

Early on, though, Simmons can’t even remember his high school graduation ceremony, presumably as his mind already was in flight from town. When he returns for a niece’s graduation, he connects old slights to newly aging faces. Yet, by then, he also has written of a boyhood friend injured as an adult in a car wreck, perhaps for life. Simmons titled the rumination, "Now is the time to look up old friends."

In one visit home he found, "I am no longer familiar with the landscape of the hamlet where I wandered in my childhood. Trees have grown and grayed. Roads have widened. The houses of old friends have burned or fallen to disrepair or had their stiff, wooden skins covered by synthetic transplants of aluminum and vinyl." By this fall, too late for this volume but memorable to readers of this newspaper, upon seeing a photograph of his grandmother’s house, Simmons "thought of how he missed that front porch, and those days of play and work, and the old woman who had lived there, who always had been an old woman in his memory."

This is journalism eternal. Made peculiar to the time, it could have been written centuries ago, or centuries hence. Something like it was, and will. Self-discovery is human nature at its most unchanging. Simmons’ words are flashes of light for the reader to perceive things. His fingers are connected to his co-dependents’ mind. That is his art.

Dazed and Raving in the Undercurrents, as Simmons notes in his introduction, "is not just a collection of columns. It also is the story of a life — an unwitting autobiography composed as it unfolded." Rather little is nostalgic. It is full of observations about the ordinary modern world’s technological and cultural facets that Simmons, like his co-dependents, inhabits with dizzying degrees of confidence and confusion, skepticism and satisfaction. Always, though, Simmons seems not bored.

This is a book for the excitable who want to feel understood, and for the bored curious who want to understand the world outside their door. Always, it is about Simmons, the journalist, and therefore, always to some extent about the reader.

Claude passed away suddenly on Oct. 29, 2008, after retiring from his position at the News Herald. He was 62.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Video Post (Catching Up, Part 1)

Here is part of how I've been spending my time recently:



Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Local Books Alive is Saturday

I will be participating in the Books Alive! Local Authors event at the Bay County Public Library on Saturday. Here are the details:

What: Morning presentations and afternoon book signings by 24 local authors; free admission, open to the public
Where: Bay County Public Library Meeting Room, 898 W. 11th St. in Panama City
When: 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday
Schedule: 10 a.m. presentation by Sharman Burson Ramsey; 11 a.m. presentation by François-Marie Bénard; noon-1 p.m. lunch on your own (as the room is rearranged); 1-3 p.m. book sales and signings
Details: 522-2120 or bmead@nwrls.com

I talked with Sharman Ramsey by phone today to prep a story about the event for Friday's paper. She knows a lot of the same people I do, and she credits them with her success in finding a publisher. Specifically, she said, Karen Spears Zacharias told her who to contact at Mercer University Press.

It's often who you know that gets that first foot in the door. The rest is up to you.

(I will post a link to my Undercurrents column later this week, which will feature my talk with Sharman.)

Other local authors participating in Saturday’s event will include Anne Ake, Sherry Anderson, my good friend and former News Herald colleague David Angier, Carole Bailey, François-Marie Bénard, my other good friend Mark Boss, Bert-May Brady, Michael Brim, Jay Furr, Bruce Gamble, my also good friend Michael Lister, Judy McCarthy, another person with whom I am friends Nick May, Janet Nicolet, Pamela Peterson, Christopher Scharping, Todd Vandermolen, Linda Williamson, Greg Wilson, Marlene Womack, the Gulf Coast Woman’s Club “Heritage of Bay County, Florida” and myself, whom I sometimes don't like not at all.

Come out and see us!

Sunday, October 07, 2012

A Lesson in Breaking the Rules

SEASIDE — It was dark and clear as I slid the car into a narrow spot close to the Seaside Repertory Theatre, only to see a sign that the spot was reserved for visitor check-ins. Surely that’s just for business hours, I thought. Then I grumbled to myself that it was too narrow for the car anyway (surrounded by oversized SUVs) and I backed out.
I don’t generally break rules, and I told myself that was why nothing was ever easy. What would it hurt, after all? Who could it harm?
We circled through the square, packed with pedestrians, not an empty parking space in sight. Cars and SUVs ahead of us waited for openings, so we passed them and turned behind the Central Square buildings in search of a ready spot.
It was Friday night in tourist heaven, and cars were packed in every which way. (I was sure someone who was not a visitor checking in would have already grabbed the space I’d vacated, and they wouldn’t think twice about it.)
We found a spot a few blocks away from the theater and strolled cobblestone streets. The full moon reflected on the white buildings cast plenty of light.
Down narrow lanes we could see the square, where families gathered for the weekly movie to be projected on a screen in the amphitheatre. I wondered if they would notice the warning as the movie began — the one forbidding public display of the film — and if anyone would even consider not breaking the rules.
Who were they harming? No one I could think of.
We had come to view “Den of Thieves,” the latest play produced by the REP. It’s the story of Maggie (Megan Bode), a shoplifter looking to change her life, who gets tangled up in a crime with Paul (Alan Daugherty), her sponsor in a 12-step program, at the urging of Flaco (Brook Stetler), her jealous, drug-dealing ex-boyfriend, who brings along Boochie (Teance Blackburn), his new girlfriend, a topless dancer.
Max Flicker, Justin Baldwin and Bruce Collier play supporting roles as gangsters. The show is very funny, but is recommended for mature audiences because of adult language and themes (much of it thanks to Boochie, whose favorite “f” word is not the first one you might think of).
Caught trying to steal $750,000 in drug money, the quartet become prisoners in a mob boss’ den. Given until sunrise to choose one person to die and three to donate their thumbs, they engage in verbal gymnastics as they struggle for self-awareness and self-acceptance.
That’s the kind of thing that happens to you when you break the rules. Later in the storyline, a gangster is shot dead. Why? Why do you think — he broke the rules. Let that be a lesson.
After the show, we walked back behind the businesses to our parking spot, past dozens of empty spaces. The town was emptying out, but in the park, the families who had gathered on blankets and lawn chairs still were watching as an extraterrestrial prepared for a return voyage home.
“Be good,” he said.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Catching Up Again - It Must be Autumn

No Jail Will Hold Me For Long
So I got arrested last Thursday. Sort of. Actually, I turned myself in.
For some reason, the MDA thought I could help them raise money. Boy, were they wrong! If I'd had to stay put until my bail was raised, I'd still be there.

Tony and Simona
One cool thing, though, was running into a former student intern of mine, Simona Ondrejkova, a Mosley grad in 2009 who originally came here from the Czech Republic. She's now a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch, so I think I did a good job of pointing her AWAY from a career in journalism. She didn't take the "intake" photo above, but when I was being processed out, she was taking intake photos for the newly-arrested.

Nick Signing Books
Friday, I took the day off from my job to spend with my lovely wife as we celebrated our 27th wedding anniversary. Early in the day, however, I went to Gulf Coast State College for the second session of my 6-week Education Encore course on Creative Writing Techniques (which was supposed to be titled "Writing Short Fiction" but whatever). Nick May came along for a visit, talked about his process and sold a few books.

Working on a Writing Prompt
I've been pretty pleased so far this semester, as the class is filled with hard-working writers who are willing to share their work. My friend Mark Boss will visit the class this week.

Meanwhile, I continue to struggle with my zombie novel that I began last November as part of NANOWRIMO. And when the struggle gets to be too much, I dive back into my dystopian detective tale set in the Year of the Comet. And waste far too much time on tumblr. And watch far too much TV. (Have you been following Fringe? or Doctor Who? or Revolution? or ... well, I have.)


Monday, October 01, 2012

September in Florida is the Bee's Knees

News Herald File Photo

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Standing on the overgrown edge of a parking lot one afternoon this week, I spent a few minutes watching a bee with oversized golden pods on its legs collecting pollen from a patch of dandelions.

“That’s the bee’s knees,” I thought, and decided to Google the origins of the term when I got a chance.

The sun was headed to the west, filtered through pine limbs and hanging vines lining a creek beside the lot, casting everything in gold. A sense of autumn was in the air, crisp and immediate, and I wondered what I was supposed to be learning from that moment.

Put away stores to get you through the cold months? “Winter is coming”?

Take time to stop and consider (if not actually smell) the flowers?

I’ve been pretty good about the latter one recently. No matter the speed at which the world zooms by, and the desperation with which we are pushed to keep up, it is absolutely necessary to your mental and physical health to take a time-out on a regular basis.

That’s why I was standing by the wilderness just beyond the pavement, after all: fresh air, sunlight and a moment’s quiet. Nature and reflection.

It’s September in Florida, and there might not be a finer time to be here.

Walk the dogs and grin at the birds jockeying for a spot at the bird feeders along the tree line, the Monarch butterflies (or their look-alikes) flittering about.

Sit in the gulf shallows — the water is perfect right now — and feel the waves washing over you.

Float in a swimming pool and stare at a cloudless blue sky until it seems like you’re falling upward.

Wade on the shoreline after dark, picking up sea shells, avoiding the tiny crabs that rush to avoid you. There are dozens of butterflies floating on the tide, more as far as you may walk.

Pause to locate constellations, drawing imaginative connections between the stars. Mars flickering close to the horizon doesn’t seem so much angry as simply wearing season-appropriate colors.

(Is it autumn on Mars, I wondered, and yes, the Planetary Society assured me that Saturday is Mars’ autumnal equinox.)

While I’m online, I look up “the bee’s knees.” According to various sources, the origin of the term is muddled. In 18th century England, it was used in reference to something small or insignificant; in 1920s America, that was reversed as it described something or someone who was outstanding in some way, like “the cat’s pajamas” and similar slang. It is also thought to have been a Cockney term for “business.”

I let these thoughts tumble together in my brainpan like bees in flight, like shells on a flattening wave or the first flurry of a Martian dust storm.

All of these things, no matter how small, are important to someone.

This was my most recent "Undercurrents" column for PanamaCity.com and The News Herald.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Going to MDA Jail — Post my bail!

I'm going to be "arrested" on Thursday, Sept. 27, and carted off to "jail" at the Outback Steakhouse in PC.

While it's not a real jail, it's even more important, as I'm raising bail to help children and adults with muscle disease in my community who are supported by the vital work of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA).

I might not be able to rely on good behavior to get out, so that's why I need your help: I need you to donate to my bail! Just CLICK HERE to make a secure donation, or you can visit the site MDA set up for me and click on the DONATE TO ME button.


Saturday, September 08, 2012

Not what you expect to find in Biloxi

Debra and I visited Biloxi, Miss., this week. While she was at the VA, being put through her paces, I drove along US 98 along the shoreline where the casinos used to be (they have moved, and the ruins of their former pre-Katrina locations remain) and stopped in at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, drawn in by the beautiful architecture (designed by Frank Gehry).

Named for George Ohr, "the mad potter of Biloxi," (1857-1918), the museum is much more than just his work. It has his ceramics as well as centers for African American art, a reconstruction of a historic house destroyed by Katrina, and other special exhibits. (Entrance was $10, and the exhibits weren't staffed at the time I visited, so I just stayed to the freebies.) In the main lobby, I viewed the work of Trailer McQuilkin (incredible sculptures of delicate and endangered plants that he made from thin sheets of copper. You should check these out.)

I looked at a small exhibit of ceramics that showed some of the historic pieces unearthed in the area, visited the gift shop, had a coffee in the cafe, then took the elevator to the roof overlook. These images below were taken from the overlook across the campus of several buildings.

Next, I descended the winding exterior stairs into a grove of oaks, passed the various "pods" and went to the sidewalk along US 98 to get another shot of the grounds.

Here's another view of the silvery pods showing what appears to be some damage from a fallen oak limb to the one on the right:

Anyway, I really liked hanging out at this place, passing the time.

Obviously, still under construction, but for a moment it was like strolling through the future. I'm hoping that's a metaphor for something.


(The quote on the wall reads: "I am the apostle of individuality, the brother of the human race. But I must be myself. And I want every pot to be itself. This pot is here. And I am the potter who was.")

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

After the lights go out

I watched the pilot episode of NBC's new sci-fi-ish adventure series "Revolution" last night. It is still up on the NBC website as of this writing, to view for free (you will have to sit through some commercials during the show, and be warned that the volume on the commercials is about 4 times that of the program).

After a brief teaser that shows the power going out all over the world, the episode jumps 15 years into the future, where the survivors have formed 18th-century villages that pay tribute to feudal lords and "republics." Nothing electrical operates, not even batteries. A young woman named Charly (read as "Katniss" -- she's a hunter and awesome with a crossbow) is sent on a quest to find her uncle in Chicago after some bad stuff goes down at home.

That's all the plot I'm giving away.

I enjoyed the show, though I would have liked to have seen a little more hardship on the road between the village and Chicago; it didn't seem like that much of a trek, which made me wonder why the characters didn't have more of a connection to each other. If Chicago is only a day's march away, you'd have thought Charly and her uncle might have met before.

'Life After People'
Revolution is produced and directed by John (Iron Man) Favreau, executive produced by JJ Abrams (Star Trek), and stars Billy Burke as a swordswinging badass and costars someone you never heard of (Tracy Spiridakos) as Charly. It has epic scope, a neat conspiracy, some teasers of things to come. The action sequences are engaging and the scenery is epic.

Seeing the wreckage of the modern world, I was reminded of a History Channel show called "Life After People" that showed you what would happen to our world if we all just disappeared one day. It really wouldn't take all that long for the drains to back up and the wilderness to eat away our proudest constructions.

The concept also brought to mind the excellent novels "Ariel" and "Elegy Beach" by Steven R. Boyett (a former Gainesville resident), except "the Change" that swept over the world in these books ended all technology and brought magic and magical creatures into our world. (I highly recommend these novels; Boyett's treatment of magic as a sort of mental mathematics is incredible, and his characters are human and engrossing.) One of my favorite scenes in the second novel takes place when the characters locate a "bubble" where technology still works and magic doesn't; they take turns listening to an iPod; the young ones are in tears because they've never heard such incredible music, and never will again.

"Revolution" has no fantasy or magical elements to the story, but it has a palpable sense of danger and loss. There is clearly a scientific reason that the lights went out, and I suspect Charly will get to the bottom of it by the end of the season, opening new questions to explore. Check the show out. It premieres Sept. 17 on NBC, if you don't want to stream it.


Monday, August 20, 2012

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

I've been M.I.A. on this blog (I almost wrote D.O.A., which at least metaphorically speaking would not have been incorrect) for a while now. Lots of reasons, no excuses (I mean, I haven't even done the lazy thing and posted a link to my weekly column). It's a strange time to be me, with one transitional status after another washing over the family. Suffice to say, I apologize and pledge to do better.

And speaking of my column (and lazy posts), here's my latest one: Skeeters get meteor watchers to buzz off.

But we've begun overcoming the inertia recently.
Donna Williams, left, and Debra Simmons
We visited the "Clothing Optional" artists reception at CityArts Cooperative Saturday evening:

Martin Trejo, left, and Nathan Simmons
Then we drove over to Rosemary Beach to enjoy my son's band (The Offer) performing an acoustic set at Amavida.

Friday, we took a couple of hours to look at rental properties (we're trying to sell our house), and Saturday we spent a few more hours combing various neighborhoods looking for rental signs. I don't even remember Sunday. I need a nap.

Anyway, I'm back, and for the 19 of you who care, I'm returning to a more regularly-scheduled program.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Break on Through

Had one tonight. Cracked this story I started last night. It incorporates elements from ideas I first churned at the Rosemary conference, as I think I mentioned already. But it's a new thing, and I think it works. I'm pretty pleased right now, but then, I'm not working on the details of it yet. That will be tomorrow, when I begin to force the parts into a shape.
But this is a cool place to be in right this moment. To paraphrase Hannibal Smith, I love it when a plot comes together.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Macro image of deep ocean worm
Taken from Telegram.co.uk
This is what I'm working on tonight:
A horror short story. An original creature (not a vampire, werewolf or zombie). At least three deaths. Taking place in Century.
And I'm stealing all of my own ideas from the recent writers conference prompts to get there.
Wish me luck.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Re: Reboots, remakes, retreads

This week I want to talk about reboots. Not the kind that the guys on “I.T. Crowd” refer to when they answer the phone and instead of saying “hello” say “Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on?”

I’m talking about remaking things that worked well enough the first time. Restarting franchises. Reworking old concepts. Or worse, reworking new concepts.

I don’t know about you, but as a consumer of movies, TV and other mass media, I’m getting tired of reboots. Even the ones that are good (and some are very good indeed).

In recent years, we’ve seen “Clash of the Titans,” “The Thing” (presented as a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 movie “The Thing”), “Footloose,” “X-Men: First Class” (a reboot that threw out continuity established in the initial X-Men films), “The Karate Kid,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Arthur,” “Conan,” “Fright Night,” “Hawaii 5-0,” “Nikita,” “Teen Wolf,” “Thundercats,” “True Grit,” “21 Jump Street,” “The Three Stooges” and “Star Trek.”

(I’m sure there were many more, but these were the ones that came to mind. I haven’t included here movies or TV shows based on classic literature and that so often are adapted, such as “Sherlock Holmes” or “The Three Musketeers.”)

And don’t forget the lesser English language versions of recent foreign films “Let the Right One In” (remade as “Let Me In”) and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

Here’s a partial list of remakes/reboots either currently playing or coming soon to a media outlet near you: “Mockingbird Lane” (a TV reboot of “The Munsters”), “Total Recall,” “Dallas,” “Dark Shadows,” “The Crow,” “Red Dawn,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Dredd,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Robocop,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” a reboot of a perfectly good movie released in 2002.

Since the third Spider-Man film came out in 2007, only five years ago, doesn’t it seem too early to retell his origin? Or are we supposed to be so much better than 2002 already that we can improve upon the Sam Raimi version? It’s gotten to the point that you almost would expect reboots a month or two after the original.

That’s what DC Comics seems to be embracing. The company rebooted its 70-something-year-old history last September (that’s just 10 months ago) with new versions of classic characters, re-establishing their origins in an attempt to modernize them and entice new readers. A few months later, DC’s “second wave” of titles launched with “Earth 2,” an alternate world where the same basic heroes have slightly different origins.

This September, DC is putting out “No. 0” issues of each book, telling the origin stories of these characters (something the ongoing books have at least addressed already). Meanwhile, the company is releasing a series of original graphic novels subtitled “Earth One” that — again — reveal alternative modern origins for classic characters such as Batman and Superman.

And next summer, a new Superman film will hit theaters and focus on another new origin story. We will get to see Russell Crowe play Jor-El (Marlon Brando’s character in the Christopher Reeve series of films) and Kevin Costner as Pa Kent. That’s only a handful of years after “Superman Returns” (2006) failed to reboot the franchise.

Couldn’t they just turn it off and turn it back on again?


This was my column for this week's PanamaCity.com and The News Herald.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A couple of things

First, my column for this week, which is about the passing of Ray Bradbury and incorporates some thoughts from my earlier blog about the man.

Second, I'm now at the 45,000-word point in my current novel project, which includes a chapter I wrote last night titled "Schrodinger's Girlfriend." If you know anything about the physics reference, maybe you'll understand why the guy keeps his girlfriend locked in a closet.


Friday, June 08, 2012

Some links on the death of Ray B

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)
"Death doesn't exist. It never did, it never will. But we've drawn so many pictures of it, so many years, trying to pin it down, comprehend it, we've got to thinking of it as an entity, strangely alive and greedy. All it is, however, is a stopped watch, a loss, an end, a darkness. Nothing."
— Ray Bradbury, from "Something Wicked This Way Comes" 

I am still processing the things I need to write about the death of Ray Bradbury. Whether anybody reads them or not. I believe he would understand that.

Meanwhile, please check these links, which say some of the things I am feeling or show some of the reasons I feel them:

Ray Bradbury's obituary.

My favorite living author, Neil Gaiman, reads aloud his story, "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury." This made me cry, which one should not do at work.

A tumblr post with video embedded in which RB talks about the reasons to write -- and not to write.

Gaiman quotes Bradbury: "Looking back over a lifetime, you see that love was the answer to everything." 

An introduction to a Bradbury collection, written by Gaiman a couple of years ago. 

Take Me Home, an essay by Bradbury in The New Yorker, published June 4. 

"B is for Bradbury," the 6/29/2010 entry from this blog, in which I write about finding the book that cemented my love of writing (and reading), Bradbury's "S is for Space."

That's all I have for right now. I'll gather my emotions and thoughts and return before too long with more for the 10 or so people who sometimes read this. It's how I deal with things. I appreciate you "listening."


Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Is Life Like This?

(The last of my notes from the Rosemary Beach Conference for Writers. I think.)

JD leads a discussion on "How to Write a Novel in Six Months." He starts by quoting Somerset Maugham: "There are three secrets to writing a novel, and nobody knows what they are."

But here's the only secret to writing a novel in six months: 1) Sit your ass in the chair. 2) Write every day.

Carry and use a notebook. It announces to the world that you are a writer, and it reminds you of the same thing.

JD: "Fiction is gossip about made-up people."

Here's a few more parts of the secret:
1) Don't expect too much from a first draft.
2) Don't stop until you finish.
3) Don't be afraid of the inevitable failure.
4) Digress, chase rabbits, allow accidents.
5) Try again. Fail better next time.

Use material from your life. Write about yourself for the first two weeks. Don't even think about the novel. Not facts, just emotions. Fond memories. Regrets. Trace themes that run through your life. Ask, "Why?"

Next two weeks, write about characters. Who are they? What do they want? Need? What were they like as teenagers?

Notice things. Take photos. Collect news articles. Eavesdrop.

What was the last lie they told? Childhood trauma? Your own obsessions? How do they spend a Sunday? What's missing? What do they want to do before they die?

You character(s) has to want something intensely enough to do something to overcome any obstacles to achieving it.

Write your way through any block or problem.

If you don't surprise yourself, then you aren't going to surprise the reader.

Spend two weeks writing about the places. Be a city planner. Tell legends of the place. Foods eaten there. Annual rituals. Local tales. Who founded it? What is the climate? What kind of trees grow there?

You want to convey a taste of the soil. Somewhereness. Where it came from. Place is destiny. This story could not have happened anywhere else.

Spend a week on themes. Loss. Grief. First love. Marriage. Family. Divorce. Death.

Plot: The longer the work is, the more important plot becomes. But let theme guide the plot. How do actions and characters enrich or enhance the theme?

Hemingway's theme: A man faces death with courage. (Note the irony of his death.)

Point of view. Voice. — Try different approaches to who tells the story.

Don't generalize. Don't be universal; it comes off pompous. Be personal. Tell the story an inch at a time.

Process: Wonder what they will do next. Write that down.

Do the best you can, full in the knowledge that it's not good enough.

In the later drafts, you'll deal with subplots and tie up loose ends.
(Some loose notes from the panel discussion on Day 3:)

- You don't write from discipline. You have to love it.
- Get your best fountain pen and use it to shoot Bambi's mother.
- In a memoir, establish the theme early on. With a memoir, remember that they pay you for the pain.
- (Miles DeMott is wearing a T-shirt that says: "Careful or you'll end up in my novel.")

Friday, June 01, 2012

Writing is Not Difficult*

(More notes from the Rosemary Beach Conference for Writers. Please note that the students had very little time on the writing exercises, so none of the stories are complete and all of them are first drafts.)

JD: "Writing is not difficult. Writing well is."

Assignment: He gives us a character to start with: She's an exterminator for a pest control firm; single mom; two kids; dating a community college teacher; and something happened last night that's bothering her.
Give her a name. What does she want? Why? What's stopping her.

I name her Maggie. She's 32.

I write:

He set Gillian on his knee.
Maggie couldn't get the image out of her head. She tried to clear her thoughts — needed to focus on the task at hand, mixing chemicals and water in polished steel tanks. She wore goggles and gloves and a breathing mask, all of which made it more difficult to read the measurements and handle the equipment, but without which she would be exposed to toxins.
Was she seeing things clearly? Was she protecting herself and her children well enough? What sort of guy was Jeremy, really?
The motto of her company, Marine Pest Control, was "Kill'em all. Let God sort'em out."
Jeremy seemed like a good guy. Community college professor. Psychologist. But what was it she always heard about psyche majors — they were all crazy? She wondered what a psyche major really thought of a single mom who killed bugs and rodents for a living.
She'd been dating Jeremy for a few weeks. Dinner, a concert, a movie. He had met her kids twice. Last night, her 6-year-old, Gillian, was still awake when Jeremy had brought Maggie home. The babysitter left, and Jeremy sat to talk to Gillian.He lifted her and set her on his knee —
And Maggie felt her skin crawl, like the first time she'd cracked open a termite infestation.

JD: All characters have jobs (even those who don't) and the job they do informs how they see the world.

Assignment: Explore a person at work. How dull life has become. How can you change it? He or she loves their spouse and kids, but is dying inside. Had such potential once. Never will get another chance. Must do something now.

I write (and you'll just have to forgive me if it's too autobiographical):

I don't smoke. Any more, at least, though I never really did much of it. But I still go out to the picnic table at the back corner of the office building where the smokers take their breaks. If I didn't visit the table a couple of times a week, I wouldn't take many breaks at all. The work would just go on.
It does anyway. If I don't do it, maybe things wouldn't get done for a while, but somebody else would eventually step in, fill that hole, turn that gear, and the machine would keep rolling along. No one stops the presses.
But I sit out there and look at the trees, listen to the traffic, watch a homeless guy walking with his life in a ratty backpack. And I wonder if I couldn't just walk away too? Who would miss me?
Don't get me wrong. My life isn't so terrible. I don't dig ditches. I don't eat at the Rescue Mission or sleep under a trolley bench. I have a great wife and kids. They love me and I love them. We have a decent home. A new car. Health insurance.
And sometimes it feels like I'm losing my damn mind. I'm 47 years old, or nearly 48, and where am I going? What have I done? What difference have I made?
I talked to a friend last week who I only ever "see" on Facebook. My first friend. Grew up together. First guy I ever got drunk with. His dad just died. He was devastated. And I'm not feeling that great myself, all of a sudden. 

Assignment: JD asks us to pick a number between 1 and 26; we do this three times and write them down. Then he hands out a piece of paper that has three columns: A list of 26 jobs, 26 things a character wants, and 26 opening scenes. Each of your numbers match one of the columns, in that order. My numbers were 23, 17, and 11. That means I will be writing about a TV Anchorperson who wants to talk about his or her child's death, and the opening scene is digging a shallow grave.

(I find this completely random choice interesting in light of what I wrote on the first day about my greatest fear.)

I write:

"This is a good spot," she said.
The drive into the country was pleasant. The woods were thick here and would be due for a prescribed burn soon, which would further cover her tracks and destroy any evidence she might leave behind. She traveled a mile in, down a sandy road maintained by the forestry service, then got the basket out of the back of the SUV and walked along a narrow fire break into the rows of pines.
"You'll like it here," she said.
The sun was low when she turned off the break and into the line of trees marching off in unnaturally even spaces. She found a spot in the open, where scrub ferns and sticker vines had grown thick, and she put down the basket.
"Don't be afraid," she said.
She took a garden trowel out of her jacket pocket and uprooted the brush. She set it aside, root and all, and continued digging in the sandy earth.
"It's not your fault," she said. "I want you to understand that."
The ground was soft. She was surprised by how soft it was., how it surrendered to her tool. Even so, she would need to have her nails done again before tomorrow's 5 p.m. show.

That's as far as I got. I believe the last image would have been her placing the basket into the hole she dug and saying, "This just in." Either that, or getting back to work, reading the teleprompter and describing the abandoned corpse of a baby discovered by a hunter and his dogs out on a forestry lease. "This just in," she said.

Next: How to write a novel in six months.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

A List of Lists

Nash at the podium.
(More junk I wrote down at the Rosemary Beach Conference for Writers.)

Leonard Nash talked to us about lists. Specifically, mining material from your life to use in stories. More specifically, for memoirs. He said the difference between a memoir and an autobiography is that the former is how you recall your life and the latter requires considerably more objectivity. (I have put my own ideas in parentheses.)

Leonard: "Our lives are comprised of overlapping short stories, not discreet chapters."

How many days can you remember by specific date. Write them down and why.
Calculate how many days you've been alive.
List every town or city you've lived in.
Every home you've lived in. Draw a floor plan. Note rooms where something happened. Explore closets, drawers, attic, basement, etc. Every house has a different story inside it.
Places of worship you attended. What parts of the building did you explore?
Every pet you recall. Chronicle your life in terms of the pet you had at various times.
Every car you owned. (Every car you drove that wasn't yours.)
Every neighbor you ever had. Why were they significant? Which ones scared you? Why? What jobs did they have? Which worked on hobbies, their yard, etc.?
Every job you've had & ones you failed to get. What you liked/hated about them. (Something you learned there?)
Restaurants you recall. Associate a person/happy memory/sad memory with them? A waitress? Owner? Physical details.
Stores you recall from childhood. Physical details. Scents, design. How they looked, how they changed. (Popcorn and Icee at Kmart?)
Family homes others talked about that you never saw.
Teachers you had. Quirky habits they had. Things they did/said in class/to students. Classroom details.
Every school you attended. Art, cafeteria, smells, gym, etc. Activities you did at school. The smell of Pla-Doh, crayons, the taste of the milk. Times you got in trouble (or should have). What's in your desk each year? What's on the walls?
School field trips. Awards you won. Prizes, payouts.
Recall when you believed in the tooth fairy. Santa. etc. The loss of learning the truth.
List every member of your family, what you recall of them, who passed away when you were young. Members lose to divorce/estrangement.
Work skills. Languages, devices, hobbies, processes you know.
Kinds of businesses your recall that no longer exist. Milkman, diaper service, vacuum salesmen?
Romantic partners you've had, both significant and not so much. Dates. Also, ones you didn't date and why.
States you've visited. Countries. Towns. What stands out. What was odd?
Best days of your life.
Worst days of your life. Does the same day appear on both lists?
Holidays. Family rituals. Tragedy or trouble involved.
Favorite smell? Memorable smell?
Sounds you love/hate.
Politics: who you voted for, changes of position, who influenced you?
Books that influenced you. Which five would you take on a space journey?
Favorite 5 or 10 movies/songs/musicians
Celebrities that hold meaning to you; the ones whose death would (or did) break your heart.
Arts and artists that inspired you and why.
Famous people you've met. Details. Where and how and why. Did it affect you?
You bucket list. Any regrets you have about not achieving these milestones
Your moment(s) in the spotlight/15 minutes of fame
An end-of-life decision you were involved in.
Risks you've taken (physical or emotional)
Near death experiences
Odd/strange/unexplained occurrences
The most embarrassing, troubling truth about yourself (give some thought to it)
What music you listened to at different ages.
Clothing you wore at various ages. Hair cuts.
Items from childhood you still own. Why these things?
Money and your relationship with it. Bitterness? Greed? Need? Who loaned you money?
Parents habits you took for granted. Something they taught you.
Write a list poem.
List years and associated memories.

Recreate dialogue. Fill in the gaps. Go for the spirit of the truth.
Remember 3 dimensions: the light, bird songs, smells, sounds of groundsmen (physical details, not just in your head)
What do you want? Want vs. need at these particular times/circumstances. How did you deal with it? What do you want now? What is keeping you from success?
Write a potential first graph to your memoir. Start with the trouble.

He recommends reading "The Territory of Men" by Joelle Fraser

NEXT: Creating characters and making them move.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Inspiration of Paintings

(More notes from my experiences at the Rosemary Beach Conference for Writers.)

I mentioned in a previous post that JD had us write about myths after reading his story based on the fall of Icarus. He was thinking of a poem based on a particular painting when he began the work. So his short story was three times removed from the myth. He passed out a series of paintings by Edward Hopper for us to look at, asked us to answer a few questions about the one we chose. I chose this one:
"Gas" by Edward Hopper, from the MOMA collection.

Why I chose this painting: Pegasus ascending above the old pumps. Red, winged and fiery, climbing over the trees in the background. We take the gas to go beyond. It fuels the mechanics of our imagination. The man checking the pumps will never fly away.

The mood or emotion suggested by the painting: Isolation vs. escapism. Defeat? The trees wall him in from the larger world. He has his routine, his daily expectations. He doesn't even notice the winged stallion any more. He keeps his shop clean, he records the numbers. He never looks up. There is a suggestion of wild flowers growing alongside the pavement, but his back is turned.

Give him a name and a point of view, a history: Wilson McCall. Brewton, Alabama. 1949. His father was a cotton farmer and he grew up in the dirt. Now he smells of petroleum rather than the earth, and he can never get his hands to smell of Ivory soap. His son, back from France and Germany, went off to college in Birmingham, dreaming of being a playwright or an author; he doesn't care if the numbers add up; he wants to roam. (Are those wild strawberries growing by the road?)

JD says: Fiction writers lead at least two lives. Everything is grist for the act of creation.

LLS: When the well runs dry, she mines her memory, finds seeds to take and turn into stories. Evocative details prove authenticity. To be fresh and unusual, be specific. She suggests drawing a floor plan of the first home you remember living in, then note memories from specific rooms in the house. Go where these memories take you. Apply them to your fictional character.

Next: Leonard Nash teaches us how to make lists to mine material from your life to use in stories/memoirs.

What's in a name?

>>My column for The News Herald this week<<

Friday, May 25, 2012

Creating a dream in the reader's mind

(More notes from the Rosemary Beach Conference for Writers...)

Day 2.
JD says fiction is "creating a dream in the reader's mind." Dreams are not about ideas, they're about images. He suggests not dwelling on or describing in too much detail a character's physical attributes except as such a description is necessary to advancing the action of the short story; "You make a reader see a character by making a character move."

Close your eyes. Hear the word. What is the first image you see when you hear this word:

Write about that.

JD: Fiction is only about trouble. Everything you don't want to have happen to yourself and your family and friends should happen to your characters.

Live in a non-habitual way. Logic doesn't get you there.

TIP: Stuck for inspiration? Go to OED online and use "lost for words" or the Word of the Day. Take that word and use it in the next sentence you write.

(Today's word is pleniloquence, n., meaning loquacity; excessive speaking. "Though I hate American pleniloquence, I cannot easily say No to young men who bid me speak also." — RW Emerson)

I've never been accused of pleniloquence, though I tend to ramble when nervous.

JD gives us a line to start a story and less than five minutes to do something with it. Here's the line: "Most things will never happen. This one will."

I imagine a quiet man speaking to a bound victim. Dexter standing over a table, maybe. I write:

"Most things will never happen. This one will," he says.
"Don't freak out. It won't make this any easier. Take a breath and let it wash over you, the fear. Let it drain.
"Your dreams are not going to come true. You will never finish that novel, or hold your grand child or pay off your mortgage.
"You can scream if it helps. Just once, though, because we have to finish this.

Then I realize the killer was talking to me. How weird is that? Then I wonder if this killer is related to my Lady in the Lake piece. Who was he? Was he watching the lake from his trailer?

JD quotes Coleridge: There can be no great art without a certain strangeness.

Something unfamiliar, odd or perplexing. Our lives are deadened by routine. You break routine when you make things up. Make the normal strange.

(We read a three-paragraph story and analyze it. The use of sounds in the text. The recurring images. The importance of names, vivid details that set the tone. The plot is not on the page, it is suggested by the actions we see. First graf is set-up. Second is build-up. Third is pay-off.)

John gives us a scene prompt: You have a man and a woman in a room in Salinas, Kansas. He wears cufflinks on a white shirt, and a silk tie. She seems preoccupied and holds a glass in her hand. You must use the words "salvation" and "light." One of them is the central character. What do they want? What is stopping them from getting it?

I write:

Too many flowers, she thought. They hang on the walls and stand against the baseboards, scatter out of the chapel into the hallway. The perfume of orchids and lilies and roses and chrysanthemums overpower her. She feels dizzy again and leans against the gunmetal box, her salvation, jostling the cup of water in her right hand.
The Dixie cup spits on her fingers and droplets spatter Jeff's crisp white shirt. She daubs at the drops but they soak in, showing pale skin tone through the shirt. He never wore T-shirts, and she wouldn't bury him in one. Not that he would care; he wasn't in Kansas any more.
The diffuse light from the stained glass windows casts a warm color across the fabric. She strokes his silk tie, straightens cuffs that need no straightening. Her fingers rest on his crossed hands, and they aren't even cool to the touch.
Is it warm in here. she wonders, trembling. Is it growing lighter?
She leans away from the box and looks for someplace to sit, but the room is infested with colors, heavy with pollen, bright with western light. She wonders about that, about the sunset. About the dead in Christ rising first.The minister had said so.
She poured the water into a bouquet of black-eyed Susans and went to look for a stronger drink.

Next: The inspiration of paintings.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Free to a Good Home: Dead Girl

My friend Mark Boss, writer of the Chimp With Pencil blog I follow, has a special deal for you: His urban fantasy novel "Dead Girl" is FREE as an e-book download today through Saturday (that's May 24, 25 and 26) at Amazon. Just hit the links and take advantage.

In his words:
"DEAD GIRL is the story of sixteen-year-old Dahlia Grove, who is trapped in the Shadow Lands, a parallel reality where packs of feral children battle monsters for survival in a haunted city. She has one week to escape. If she fails, she dies. DEAD GIRL."

Says Mark: "If you know someone who enjoys urban fantasy, whether it's Harry Potter or Harry Dresden, I think they'll like this story. ... Writing and editing this book has been a long haul, and I'm excited about finally getting it out to readers."

Mark is good people and an excellent writer and editor. You should read this. Then buy his other books.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

More from Day 1: Flash Fiction, Obituary and Myth

(Continuing my notes from the Rosemary Beach Conference for Writers...)

Flash fiction time.
The plot is often off the page, only suggested. In short stories, you begin as close to the trouble as possible. Flash fiction is the trouble. It is the art of suggestion, allowing the reader to finish the piece, to fill in the blanks, to decide what it means. It is the Zen of fiction.

Fiction writers don't need answers. They ask questions.

JD's prompt: Write an obituary for someone you know. (Recognize that sitting in this room you might not know the details of the life; make those up.) Suggest the public and private life of the deceased. (I wrote a made-up obit suggested by the life of my late grandfather, but I prefer not to share that here.)

Smith, left, with student writer.
From Laura Lee Smith's class on short stories:
The shape of the work is character>problem>conflict>resolution, the effect is a punch in the gut.
Another way to see it: Character/Desire/Complication/Struggle/Resolution (Win or Lose?)

She is sometimes asked where she gets her stories or her characters, and she uses a line she learned from John: "At Publix. And if they're out, I try Home Depot."
In fact, she will eat lunch in the local hospital cafeteria sometimes, just so she can eavesdrop. The stories just come walking through.

Think in terms of Want vs. Need. Your character wants a glass of water. His need conflicts with that.
Begin with at least a hint of the trouble. When something bad happens to your character, make it worse. Lead to a moment of truth, understanding, change or character evolution.

TIP: Read John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction."

Fiction is stuff that happens.
Get a phone call. Feel a cold coming on. Run over a squirrel or dog or cat. Throws his back out. Bank calls; account overdrawn. Old girlfriend shows up at the library or in the office. Finds an odd lump. Gets a ticket. Hit by a car. Pipe bursts in laundry room. Sees someone fall at the grocery store. Sets off a fire alarm. Wrongly accused of shoplifting.

Short fiction deals in compressed time. All in one day, all in one car drive. Don't try to develop lots of details to cover long periods of time.

TIP: Read "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver. (contained setting, limited characters, short span of time)
Check out: three minute fiction
TIP: Skip the throat-clearing and set-up. Start close to the trouble. Begin in scene.

HOMEWORK: John asked us to write a myth. Actually, he read his short story about a father and son and a tragic hiking accident, inspired by the myth of Icarus. He asked us to pick a myth or legend and use it for the inspiration for a short story.

I tried three times.

First I wrote: There are stories associated with the network of gravel lakes surrounding Century, the swampy deltas sifted by the Campbell family for their concrete business, leaving white sand beaches and soft bottoms, clear brown tannin water. Kids growing up in the 1950s talked of strange blue lights seen in the lakes...

Then I wrote, simply: The Lady of the Lake. A woman swimming. A group of boys watching. ... 
But that seemed off somehow.

Finally, I dove in:

All the kids on the school bus saw her that afternoon, Nimue in the brown tannin, floating nude, a fleshy crucifix on the surface of the fish pond. The road through these river basins was raised above the marshy earth. It looked down on the plot of grass, the house trailer, the john boat on saw horses, the pond, the woman afloat there, skin pale and pink like the flesh of a catfish, red hair spreading on the water like a stain, like blood snaking from her face, brass on copper.
The driver pulled over, unsure what to do. The children crowded the one side of the bus, jostling for a clear view, and he shouted at them to sit down, to move to the other side of the bus and be quiet while he called the county dispatcher. He would tell the first police officer to arrive that he didn't know what to do. He couldn't leave the kids unattended on the bus, couldn't go check on the woman and leave them here by the road. So he made them move to the far side of the bus and sit on the floor, and he looked away.
Some of the girls were crying. Some of the boys laughed because you could see everything, they said, over and over again. Everything. The holy grail. The golden fleece. Everything. Some. like the driver, just stared at the floor.
The officer directed the driver to pull the bus further down the road, out of view of the pond, and to wait there so he could get a statement later. He climbed the wire fence, boots sinking into the marshy ground on the other side. His steps left brown scars in the earth, sucking noises as he raised his feet. He noticed the woman's feet were clean as he waded out to meet her.
He pulled her to the shore, lifted her into his arms, carried her to the flat-bottomed john boat and set her down, covering her with his uniform shirt. He stood there in his V-neck tee and waited for the ambulance to arrive. He could hear it wailing across the piney woods, and he shivered, as cold at heart as her dead weight had been in his arms.
I watched all this from the house; put some of it together from the talk that circulated in the days that followed, but most of it I saw for myself from where I stood behind the glass of the trailer's bathroom window.

(I wrote a few other notes, questions about who the characters were and how they related to other characters I had made up for an earlier assignment. But that's the gist.)

Next: Day 2 of the conference, word prompts, scene prompts, and more.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Word Prompts at the Writing Class

(Notes from the Rosemary Beach Conference for Writers continue...)

JD's prompt: Think of your foremost fear. Phobia. What are you afraid of? Write an example and attempt to trace it to a childhood incident if you can.

I wrote:

My greatest fear is the death of my children. They're both in their 20s, both intelligent, cautious, capable, imaginative. But I worry. Four years ago, a phone call from the FHP awoke us. My son's best friend was dead in a car wreck. 18 years old. I have not gotten over that and I don't think I ever will.

Phobia? Snakes. We lived by the woods in a rural area with a creek that cut through our front yard when I was a kid. Snakes every summer. Moccasins. Rattlers. Diamondbacks. King Snakes. Corals. We killed snakes by the bootfuls every year. Chopped with a shovel. Shot with a rifle. Our dogs cornered them. Our cat stalked them. Too many times, I ran right up on them at play. Now I have nightmares about infestations of snakes. The only good snake is a dead one. Just yesterday, my wife went out in our yard to water her garden and was about to sit on a little rolling tool box on the lawn — and there was a pit-nosed snake curled under it, just the tip of its tail showing. I split that thing in three pieces with a shovel before tossing it over the fence.

My fear is the lurking danger. The one you don't see coming, that takes your loved one in an instant. That doesn't give you a chance to say goodbye.

JD tells us: "Don't be afraid of failure. All works of art are failures. All we can do is try to fail better next time."

Writing is patience. Diligence. Tenacity. It can be a learned craft; the more difficult skill to learn is storytelling.

As fiction writers, we write about the things we don't understand. And we don't understand ourselves sometimes. Writing can be therapy.

We don't offer answers. We ask questions.

Fiction allows us to shape our troubles, fiction being defined as "to shape."

JD's prompt: Write about the memory suggested by this next word:

I (knowing even then that my first thought was triggered by the previous prompt) wrote:

It's black and white, the color was leeched by a setting on the digital camera. I'm seated on a stool in the kitchen of my home. She's hugging me, caught under the crook of my right arm, her scented hair soft against my jaw, her cheek against my neck. I'm looking directly at the camera. I don't recall who was taking the photo now. All I remember any more is the sense of loss. She was leaving for college soon, moving away in a few days. It was Christmas week and we were making cookies, having a holiday party and goodbye party all in one. Two months later, she would be dead, but I knew everything was changing even then.

  • Notice everything. You cannot twist the fact that you don't know.
  • Invent.
  • Stop before you're finished. If you're working on an ongoing piece, then stop when you know what the next line will be; you'll have a place to begin tomorrow.
Next time: Flash fiction, obituary and myth.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The First Rule of Being a Writer

(Fair warning: Many of my upcoming posts will come from notes I took during the recent Rosemary Beach Conference for Writers. I will try to remember to mark them as such.)

Day One. I arrive early. The first one to the town hall. JD and Cindy circle the cobblestone on bicycles and park. I say hello and immediately excuse myself, carrying my coffee down the hill toward the beach.

There's a man with a gas-powered leaf blower ahead of me on the sidewalk. He shoots air back and forth, oblivious as I close on him, my quiet walk rendered loud and not so alone. He stops walking and I stop behind him, wary of a wayward blast of air, noise and sand. He looks startled when I step into the street and pick up my pace to outdistance him.

Across the green now, standing on the boardwalk that leads to the shore: There's a blond woman with two blond children climbing the stairs, and an older man waiting for them. "Dugger! Dugger!" the kids squeal. He hugs them and they pass me by, headed back toward town.

I am invisible.

The gulf is flat, deep blue and jade.

Back at the Town Hall, JD tells me about his new novel project. Working title, "Regrets, Coyote." The editor doesn't like that one. Maybe, "Melancholy, Florida." Or maybe not. He's about to begin working through the editor's notes, and he hopes to "find the title in the text." The room fills.

We begin with the first rule of being a writer:

Thinking about writing is not writing. Neither is talking about it, or dreaming about it, or doing research, or whatever. To be a writer, one must write. (In one of our later discussions, a student says she has been working on lots of ideas; she has lots of stories, she just hasn't put anything on paper. "You aren't writing," John says. "You're not a writer." He isn't being rude, he's being honest. She may be a storyteller if she relates the stories orally, but if she isn't putting them into text, then she isn't writing.)

Anyway, our morning exercise is to write what we know: Write about ourselves, a memory of childhood from before you went to school. Your earliest memory if you will. Here's what I wrote:

From bugeyedmonster.com
I started school at 5 years old. Kindergarten. So there's a lot to say about the years prior. Some of my earliest memories are of a trip we took to Texas when I was 3. There may be other images or emotions I recall from before, but there's a bit of narrative with this memory.

My parents had bought me a Captain Action doll that I brought on the trip, and I remember standing by the swimming pool at a hotel where we had overnighted, holding my doll and wanting to get in the pool. (There is a photo of this moment in my mother's old albums, so I have questioned whether I recall the photo or the actual event, but in my memory I see the water, the steps down into the shallows, morning sunlight in my eyes.) The pool wasn't open yet and we were getting ready to leave, headed west to visit my aunt and uncle. My early childhood centered on these toys, these adventures and playful desires. (Major Matt Mason had a moonbase under the picnic table in our back yard, which sometimes doubled as the Batcave.)

That is all I have time for.  If you follow for a while, you'll see that many of our beginnings have no endings.

Meanwhile, JD says reconstructing memory is like writing fiction. Especially those early memories, which are not very reliable and where details are often filled in by imagination.

Next: Word prompts, fears, and when to stop.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Noticing the hush of the world

Town Hall courtyard.
Notice everything.
That was one of the first lessons bestowed upon students at last week’s Rosemary Beach Conference for Writers. It’s a tall order, and it’s less about eavesdropping (although that’s part of it) and more about being in the moment. It’s simple enough to practice; even I can do it.

I ducked under an awning in the sprinkling rain one afternoon and found myself talking with a clerk outside Moonpize, a women’s boutique that was marking its fifth birthday. An older gentleman with sunburned feet joined us for shelter and posed questions about the conference. A former newspaper man, he had learned to fly airplanes at age 68. He joined us in class the next day and shared a story about a New York copy boy’s meeting with Ernest Hemingway.

Edward's bar
In the courtyard of Edward’s, a new eatery on South Main, I stood under a wine-colored patio umbrella beside a table as strangers gathered to break the ice in the courtyard. Some of them carried their own umbrellas and made remarks about the comparative size. The rain passed, the sun returned and equality was re-established. We gathered around the fountain and at cafe tables to talk about everything and nothing, as writers will do.

Another afternoon, I slowly savored a tender hamburger at Wild Olives — the first time I’ve been prompted to take a photo of something I’m eating, if that means anything. It was also good to catch up with an acquaintance who works there.

I ate there on recommendation of Hidden Lantern Gallery curator and artist Lauren Carvalho, who led me through her latest exhibit, “Polished Landscapes: Venetian Plaster Reimagined” by James P. Garrett. On display until June 9, the show features intriguing textured canvases; even those seeming flat hold some illusion of depth, and I knew there was a lesson there, too.

Friday evening, as the conference came to an end, I enjoyed coffee and an “itty bar” of chocolate at Amavida Coffee; the barista, Rachel, told me about upcoming open mic events for writers and readers. (Check our calendar in June for details.)

But there was more.

It’s a cliché to describe water as “clear as crystal,” but the private gulf beach area at the foot of South Main was just so. Clear and cool, with a surface as smooth as a pond, it could have been one of Garrett’s works.

Stand-up paddle boards skimmed above pale sandbars. People lounged on redwood chairs under deep green umbrellas, reading paperback novels. Small children played in the calm fringe of the surf. Fishing boats dotted the horizon like irregular staples joining the emerald sea to the cobalt sky.

After a walk ankle deep along the shoreline, I swam for a bit, then floated on my back, closed my eyes and listened to the hush of the world.

Now, for your next writing lesson, close your eyes and write about the first image that pops into your head when I say this word:


(This is my Undercurrents column for The News Herald for May 17.)