December 22, 2011

“The Hare’s Mask,” by Mark Slouka

I finished this year’s Best American Short Stories 2011 last night. It always gives me a moment of mourning ~ because I so look forward to it and I draw it out as long as I can. And this year especially because my taste must be similar to this year’s editor Geraldine Brooks. The stories she chose, to a one, were outstanding.

Some years, there is a story or two I can see the attraction of but the craft is not quite there. The reason they were included had more to do with the energy of the language or the unique vision of the author, merits unto themselves.

This year, not a one.

And, oh man, that last story, “The Hare’s Mask,” by Mark Slouka. Oh, wow. I was drawn in but marveling at its construction and the end moved me to tears. It’s the story of a young boy and his father, who was in Europe during the rise of the Nazis. The plot is, basically, the family harbors a man in their rabbit hutch for a few days, meanwhile the father as a boy has to go out every Friday and kill one the rabbits for the table. But he loves these rabbits and names them. Two in particular are his favorites. It is tough times, and then he must choose which of those two to kill. See, I’m getting tears just talking about it.

But what this story does so amazingly is the layers of metaphor and meaning. In the background is the Terrors, and we find out early that the boy/father is the only one who survives. You have the microcosm of this boy having to decide which of his beloveds to kill and then having to kill them, which so strongly resonates with the setting of the story. Even that small thing, the hare’s mask, which is the skin of the face of a hare that is used to tie flies, is a perfect metaphor for the masks we put on, the death of loved ones, the care the father takes with his children. And then you have the present day, which is the son knowing all this, sort of the omniscient narrator, but then his younger sister wants rabbits. It’s really hard for the father, and the son knows it, but the father lets her get rabbits anyway.

It gives me chills to think about the artistry of this piece. What I try to capture in my own fiction ~ with varying degrees of success ~ are those little moments of grace, lived reality, the small kindnesses and violences we do one another. And not just “capture” like a bug pinned to corkboard but elevate to art. How do you transport lived experience onto a higher plain? Make so just right, so moving, so perfect? Well, of course the short answer is that you can’t.

But you can try.

December 21, 2011

Fall Back ~ It’ll Catch You

I haven’t written about my writing for a while. Call it a combination of fallowness (fallosity?) and despair. I hate to call it despair but there’s definitely an element of that. It’s much nicer to think of it as a field laid fallow, a ground being prepared for the next season’s bounty.

I’m just coming out of a rough period, as I’ve mentioned before. Hence the despair part of it. But I take comfort in the fact that I’m feeling driven again. I’m feeling inspired. Not that you need inspiration to get the work done. But when you’ve been to that dark place, Pandora’s hope comes very sweet.

As I write this, my good girl insists I mention that I have been writing. I write for my job, I write this blog, I write all kinds of things. But my honest answer is that I haven’t been writing what matters to me most which is my fiction, and increasingly my memoir. Despair-causing, in and of itself.

But I take the metaphor of the fallow field seriously. One thing that has gotten me through my writing in small ways and large is faith in the process. I may feel like I suck, but I know that it’ll get better. I can make it better. I just have to do the work, put in the time, and I will be rewarded by something. It may not be great, or even good, but I will have accomplished something, and even if it’s not good it’ll contribute to something better down the line.

Faith in the process. Putting in your time. Butt in the chair, brain to the task, pen to the paper, fingers to the keyboard. When all else fails, including and especially inspiration, this will get me through.

All this to say I have a little more than a week off from my job, and I hope to get a lot of writing done. I have an exciting new project I want to get off the ground. I’m not going to say much about it. It’s not the memoir ~ I don’t believe I have quite that much faith yet ~ but instead a YA novel, potentially a series of novels. So it’ll be fun, in addition to everything else. Cast it all to wind and write!

Wishing you the gift of faith in your process.

December 20, 2011

Free Rice

Have you played this?  If not, you're in for a treat.  Down the rabbithole, my friends!

December 19, 2011

The Meaning of Christmas

Last year, we went hog wild on presents for the kids.  We bought our daughter an elaborate doll house, and we bought our son a dragon castle ~ all in addition to lots of regular presents. Then what happened?  You can predict.  They played with those expensive toys for maybe an hour total.

I think it's partly because they're twins.  They're very imaginative, but they play with each other.  I think toys like that are made for kids who don't have close siblings.  Sure, they want them. But they're really just as happy making artwork together or choosing one small thing each and making a story between the two of them. 

It's actually pretty amazing.  One will start:  "You are out walking one day and then you see a mean wolf."  The other one will pick up: "But the mean wolf is feeling nice that day, so instead of biting you he invites you for dinner."  And so on.  They go back and forth.  They never disagree, but this story is this live thing between them.  I should post about it.

But my point.  This year we're trying to make Christmas more about others and about doing things.  So we've made a tree for the wild animals.  That's the photo above.  We made ornaments out of orange and apple slices, peanut butter pine cones rolled in bird seed, and popcorn and cranberry strings and then chose a small protected pine in the mountains and decorated it.  I had them choose gifts for family members and help wrap them ~ their first time.  It got considerably less exciting as the day went on.

And to help teach them about money and that Christmas is about giving, we gave them each a $20 bill and they chose gifts for another less fortunate kid.  They've never used real money before, or chosen gifts like this ~ something they like they choose and then have to give away.  They did great! I was very proud of them. 

I would love to hear any ideas you all have in making Christmas better for kids or for teaching them the true meaning of Christmas.

December 16, 2011

The Ending that Shakes the Foundation

Spoiler Alert: I’m talking about surprise endings in literary fiction here, so if you don’t want it spoiled, don’t read!

I love Best American Short Stories. I read it every year, along with PEN/O’Henry. I’m taking my time, savoring it. There are always a bunch of the stories I’ve already read in their original pub ~ but I always reread them ~ and then there’s the delicious new ones.

Last night, I read Rebecca Makkai’s “Peter Torelli, Falling Apart.” I began reading it, thinking, this is interesting, not riveting but interesting. It’s the story of two guys who have been friends since childhood who are also both gay. The narrator, Drew, though he doesn’t say it, is in love with the other one, Peter, a charismatic actor. They kissed just once when they were teenagers. But now Peter’s falling apart and his acting career is in crash and burn. Because Drew is his friend, he gets Peter a job at a fundraising function reading a story that Drew doesn’t much like but thinks it suits him. Predictably, Peter flubs it, but so much less predictable is the end. Rebecca does this astounding authorial feat that upends the story and shoots you way out and above and resets the whole thing. I won’t do it justice, but I’ll try. Peter storms out and Drew knows that he will never see him again, but Rebecca frames it using the language of the story that a few pages before Drew had dismissed basically as rubbish (the one that Peter began reading outloud). This electrifies the story, it turns it over, it makes it so sad and moving. I can’t really explain it well.

I get chills just thinking about it. I love it when authors do this. If they always did this, it would get old, certainly. (Like a lot of people say the epiphanic ending is over. But it’s not over ~ writers just have to be careful how they use it. It must be made new, like everything else.) But it is so amazing, when it happens. I can think of a number of old examples: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and the movie Jacob’s Ladder, to name two. More recently, two novels that have blown my socks off are Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. Again, chills thinking about them. These are all executing a raven. The whole of By Nightfall is about the narrator’s attraction to his wife’s brother, but then in the end it’s about the wife, in such a sad and moving way. I reread and reread it to reposition the rest of the book. In The Sense of Ending, you are blown away by the realization that puts the narrator’s whole relationship with a past love in a new light. Amazing. And the amazing Julian does it again.

I think the risk of such an ending is that it comes off as fake or tacked on. I LOVED Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag, but I felt that the end was unearned and tacked on. She shouldn’t have chosen her husband over her children. But in another way it is totally earned and it’s rather my own biases coming in. That’s one of the risks of such an ending.

I’m just standing in awe of these writers’ art.

December 15, 2011

Merry Christmas

Just trying to get in the mood! And work on my rudimentary Photoshop skills.

December 14, 2011

The Aspirational Optimism of Best-of Lists

It’s the time of year for year-end lists. I know it’s not the politically correct thing to do, but I just love these lists, and I always skim them. Yes, lots of worthy people and books get left off these lists and it’s always the same people chosen and in fact I’m sure that I’ll eventually be left off many if not all of these lists.


I love the aspirational optimism of these lists. Optimism because there’s something almost childlike and naïve about making a list of ten best. Especially if you’re someone like me who falls in love with so many of the books I read. I can see their flaws, sure, but oh what they achieve! Aspirational because, like new year’s resolutions, what are best-of lists for if not to hold the bar up and say, this is good, I want to achieve this.

Also aspirational because I invariably think I should print out the New York Times 100 Notable Books and make sure I read them this next year. I never do ~ I follow my whim too much in my reading for that ~ but it’s a nice thought.

And I love the fact that there are a lot of them and some books keep popping up. I will buy a book if I keep seeing it pop up in the press and on lists. Or I’ll have already bought the book but I’ll put it on top of my pile because I keep seeing it. I also love the other lists, the quirky ones.

So I hope you get one of those best-of books this year for Christmas ~ and it blows your socks off!

December 13, 2011

Astrid Lindgren and Pippi Longstocking

Check out Sarah Mensinga's other cool art at

"If I have managed to brighten up even one gloomy childhood ~ then I’m satisfied." ~ Astrid Lindgren

When I’m in a rotten mood, one surefire way to comfort myself is to think about a book that I read and loved as a child.

I remember loving Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. Pippi's combination of self-sufficiency and confidence in the face of adversity inspired me so much.

If you haven't read it:  Brother and sister Tommy and Annika meet a curious neighbor, a girl named Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim's Daughter Longstocking, or Pippi. She has red hair in stiff braids that stick out from her head and freckles. She has a monkey named Mr. Nilsson and a horse. The three go on many adventures together.

What struck me as a kid was the scene where she cleaned her own house. She tied brushes to her feet and skated around and made it a game. Her parents were gone ~ her mother died and her father was away at sea ~ but she was able to make due all on her own. I loved that self-reliance. And she was the strongest little girl in the world, another aspect of being able to take care of herself. She was as odd as I felt, yet was supremely comfortable with herself.

Like so many writers who create worlds, a whole industry has grown up around Pippi and her world and movies have been made and spinoffs writtten. Astrid also wrote a whole bunch of other things too.

So today I thought I’d point out a few resources about Pippi and Astrid. Here’s the wiki page about the books. Here’s the wiki page about Astrid Lindgren, the author, and here is her official site, though it’s in Swedish of course. A button in the lower right hand corner converts it to English. Astrid was also a screenwriter, so there is a lot of video on the web.

Astrid Lindgren

And that quote at the top? That’s how I’ve always felt. If something I’ve written touches just one other person as much as what I’ve read has touched me, then it’s worth it.

December 9, 2011

Friends Friday

I love the people whom I’m able to pick and who choose me back! They are the true miracles, true treasures of the world. Today I wanted to highlight a few writer friends who are doing such great work. I can only highlight a couple, so I apologize in advance if you’re not here. I value our friendship so much!

Pembroke Sinclair

PS is a kickass writer who writes kickass protagonists. She loves writing about apocalypse and the deeply moral issues that come with the collapse of society and the moral implications of life. I make is sound grand, but when you pick up her books, you’re in for a ride.

I’m in the middle of reading her latest, Life After the Undead. I got to read it in manuscript form, and now going back, she’s done such excellent things in revision (not that it was great to begin with) and I’m seeing deeper things and it’s still fresh and a great read. I say her protagonists are kickass, and they are, but there’s also a fragility about them I can’t quite put my finger on. Here’s what it’s about:

The world has come to an end. It doesn’t go out with a bang, or even a whimper. It goes out in an orgy of blood and the dead rising from their graves to feast on living flesh. As democracy crumples and the world melts into anarchy, five families in the U.S. rise to protect the survivors. The undead hate a humid environment, so they are migrating westward to escape its deteriorating effects. The survivors are constructing a wall in North Platte to keep the zombie threat to the west, while tyranny rules among the humans to the east. Capable but naïve Krista is 15 when the first attacks occur, and she loses her family and barely escapes with her life. She makes her way to the wall and begins a new life. But, as the undead threat grows and dictators brainwash those she cares about, Krista must fight not only to survive but also to defend everything she holds dear—her country, her freedom, and ultimately those she loves.

And big congrats her way too! She just finished the first draft of the sequel to this, tentatively titled Death to the Undead. You should also pick up her specfic Coming from Nowhere, which has great aliens and a plot that is so well-constructed but will keep you guessing. Oh, and the great kickass narrator.

Take my word for it: You’re going to see her name coming up a lot.

Nina McConigley

Nina writes such lovely and honest stories ~ "Curating Your Life" (American Short Fiction Fall 2009) is an exemplar of taking the facts of your life and transmuting it into fabulous New Yorker-style fiction. My favorite kind. And I’m so proud of her. A Wyoming but international girl, she’s living in London right now and going great guns on her novel. I can’t wait to read it.

Nina’s life is so fascinating. Her mom is originally from India, and her dad is originally from Ireland, and Nina was raised in Casper, Wyoming. Her fiction often stems from that friction, that intersection of cultures. It’s always deeply considered and painfully honest.

Nina went to Houston ~ second ranked in the nation ~ to get her MFA, and she’s been to Bread Loaf more times than you can count and she’s won awards for her plays and her short stories, including finalist for the Flannery O’Connor short fiction award and a nomination for a Pushcart and much more.

I would recommend you read "Curating Your Life" (here's her reading part of it; unfortunately the whole story is not online) and keep an eye out. Another we’re going to be seeing a lot of. I for one can’t wait!

Ken Olsen

Ken is a freelance journalist who writes these amazing stories about military veterans. These are such works of art unto themselves ~ so moving and well-written. They explore such deep questions in such a human and heart-felt way. It makes you want to take arms against injustice.

But the work of his heart has been a memoir. He has been working on it for a long time, and now it is nearing completion! A HUGE congratulations goes out to him. A great feat. (And now that I’m struggling to approach my own memoir, an even larger feat than I dreamed.) I can’t wait because I think it’s going to be one of those that will sweep the nation, one that you hear about on NPR and elsewhere. It’s a memoir, but it reads like Steinbeck or another literary great ~ and I mean that in the best sense.

This is what the memoir is about.

A college classmate – who leaves me weak-kneed and breathless when she merely tosses her dark bangs out of her eyes – heads to Alaska for a summer job on a fishing boat. This small-town Wyoming boy follows and ends up gutting salmon in a fish cannery to earn a plane ticket home. Six months later, she runs off to North Africa with the Peace Corps and I stay in Alaska, heart bruised, hoping she’ll return. This sets the pattern of our relationship: I pursue, she retreats. Two-and-a-half years later, she returns and we end up on a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. We fall in love again during that near-death experience, and I struggle to keep our relationship – and myself – together as we spend a decade careening around the West and Alaska. For all we give each other, I’m blind to what she most needs: For me to let her go.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? From what I’ve read, yes, yes.

December 7, 2011

The National Conversation on Occupy

Have you been following the Occupy movements across the country? It’s so interesting how it’s the 60s of our age. Similarities but differences too.

I’ve always been interested in kairos, an ancient Greek rhetoric term that basically means right-time right-place. One of the things that fascinates me is why an issue will sweep the nation, when the problem has been around for years.

An example is Matthew Shepard. On one hand, about dang time, you know? It took this iconic death to prompt us to have a national conversation about it. But, on the other hand ~ and I say this in no way to denigrate what happened to Matt and the just cause surrounding it ~ that same year fifteen-year-old Daphne Sulk, also of Laramie, was beaten and stabbed to death by her 38-year-old boyfriend and her naked body was left in the snow near an interstate rest area, all because she wouldn’t get an abortion to cover up the child molestation. If that’s not an iconic image, nothing is.

Let me say that again: Women and girls are molested, raped, and murdered by their partners every day in this country (three to four a day for just the murder part), and we act is if it doesn’t matter and doesn’t happen. This is not to take away from the fact that men and boys are murdered but it’s hard to wrap your mind around the enormity of it. Sorry for the screed, but my God!

Anyway, my point is that the country was ready for the conversation, and that’s why it struck like wildfire across the nation. It’s kairos.

So, if you’ve been following the national conversation around the economy and the Occupy movements, here’s one you might want to read. It’s from a more personal point of view. I read the lovely Dear Sugar religiously every week, and this last letter was from a woman who was upset about her parents and her student loans ~ you’ll have to read it to get your take on it. But make sure to read the comments section, which evolved into a discussion of the Occupy movements. (Here’s another interesting NPR piece, too.)

Is the movement actually about the bad economy? Or is it about a feeling of helplessness? Or is it about expectations and privilege? Are times so much different now than “when I went to school”? Or is it about something entirely different?

December 6, 2011


Today, just some evidence. 

As a child I remember thinking that old people were the most physically beautiful people in the world.

And they have so much to teach us.

Yet we don't want to listen to their stories, as if age actually lessens a person's value.

Is it fear of death?

December 2, 2011

Your First Follower, or In Praise of Agents

When I was an undergrad, I did my thesis on Margery Kempe, who lived from about 1373 to about 1438 in Norfolk, Kingdom of England. She was this firecracker of a woman who some believed should be a saint.  She was born into a family of merchants and then married and had 14 kids.  Then, she became very devout and made a bargain with her husband that she could remain celebate.  Now, remember, this was a time when women had little choice but to spend their adult lives having children.  She went on pilgramages and had a lot of autonomy. 

Most importantly for what I’m talking about, she had two scribes throughout her life who wrote her spiritual autobiography. She herself did not know how to write, if I’m remembering correctly.  But the scribes did not just write about her.  They promoted her.  They were the original pr men.  She was acting in accordance with a tradition of anchoresses and saints of her time, and these anchoresses and saints all had someone at her or his side to champion the cause, to get the word out.  These scribes were absolutely essential to the “success” of their saints.

And, so, a while back, I was watching TED talks, as I love to do, and I came across this one. It’s Derek Sivers talking about how to start a movement.  Watch it now before you read on.

Isn’t it brilliant?  One guy dancing alone is just a crazy lunatic, but it’s the second guy, for whom it takes just as much courage to get up and dance, that gives the first guy power.  The second guy is a leader in his own right and lends legitimacy to the first guy.  Derek’s point is that if you want to make a difference, don’t be a leader but rather that first crucial follower.

You see where I’m going with this?  The reason why the saints became saints is because they had their seconds, their legitimizers, their scribes.  They would be just another crazy person starving themselves in a cave if it weren’t for this other guy paying off the bills and slipping food through the door.  And, most importantly, talking to everyone who’ll listen about this really cool person in a cave.

So this brings me to agents.  They are a writer’s first and most important follower. They are most often the one who legitimizes the writer’s endeavor.  They do the heavy lifting of the getting the word out, of making the crazy world of this other guy holed up in a dank writing studio something everyone wants to know about. 

Because without them, you’re just a crazy lunatic.  Not really ~ well, maybe ~ but you get my idea.  One of the very noble things that agents do is legitimize you. They swallow their own self-ishness to represent you.

So, to my agent Rachel and all the agents out there, you rock!

Friday Funnies 2

So, are you learning the ropes in the trenches? :-)

Here's a link to an old post at the Telegraph about Dan Brown's writing (thanks Michael at D&G for the link).  I love how he calls it ingeniously bad. Compelling though, literary crack.

December 1, 2011

“Stand in Your Truth”

I recently read Suze Orman’s book The Money Class. I really like her no-nonsense practical approach to finance, and I particularly love her phrase, “Stand in your truth.” To me, it means quit lying to yourself, quit sabotaging your own success, and admit those places where you repeat the same mistakes over and over and over. I posted the phrase on my computer in big bold letters.

I’m trying to follow it in all areas of my life. With the whole eating well thing, I try to admit that actually I’m not hungry ~ I’m just bored or stressed or trying to deal with things. With money, simply avoiding the issue won’t get us anywhere. With emotions, don’t bury them, but work through them. Face it, face it all. Quit hoping it will go away and avoiding and deal with it.

So it was particularly interesting when I came across this yesterday at Lifehacker: “How to Identify and Learn from Your Mistakes.” I love how writer Scott Berkun breaks the types of mistakes we make into four types and then discusses how to deal with each one.

The four types are 1) stupid mistakes like stubbing your toe, 2) simple mistakes like running out of beer when you have more guests than you expect, 3) involved mistakes that are understandable but require effort to prevent such as regularly arriving at work late, and 4) complex mistakes like failed relationships.

Dealing with stupid and simple mistakes is easy. Just avoid them, if you can, but once in while it’s going to happen.

For involved mistakes, you need to make significant changes because these come from habit or from our very natures. It’s tough because it’s changing one habit for a new and better one ~ and we all know how hard it is to change our habits ~ or going against something we really want. These habits, too, are often things we’ve tried to fix in the past, so we feel guilty and like we’ve failed even before we’ve begun. But he makes a very valid point, which is that we often refuse to even acknowledge that we made a mistake. He suggests that we enlist the aid of someone else to help us change, and that we really take stock of our ability to change.

Complex mistakes are the most interesting, he says. You need patience and you often just make things worse if you don’t watch it. He suggests getting multiple outside perspectives on the problem ~ call in the experts, if you will. Then describe what happened, which helps you to clearly define the problem. Make sure you don’t jump to conclusions and do a thorough investigation and examine your own biases. Work backwards from the event, which will help you see contributing factors.

He ends with a reminder to have courage to admit things and face the problem and realize that mistakes are inevitable and you just need to learn from them. Also, try to bring a little humor to the situation ~ it’ll loosen you up and help you deal with it.

I found all this really helpful and in keeping with my “Stand in Your Truth” offensive. We’re all facing tough economic times, which brings up a lot of emotional stuff as well, and the better we can face it, the better we’ll do in the long run.

How are you dealing with economic challenges?

November 29, 2011

The Lovely Audrey Hepburn

"If I'm honest I have to tell you I still read fairytales and I like them best of all." ~ Audrey Hepburn

November 28, 2011

The Perfect Purse

I’ve had the same purse for more than 10 years. Durable black leather. Tasteful (some would say cheap, I suppose). It didn’t cost that much to begin with. It’s the perfect size ~ long enough for a checkbook but not too big and heavy (unless I collect a little too much change). A long strap for over the shoulder or even crossed over the chest. Not too complicated ~ only one little internal side pocket into which I stuff stamps and my coin purse (which was my dad’s hearing aid case, so that's 25 years old). I clip a card case to the strap ring, so my credit cards are securely fastened. My Android phone just slips inside.

(I realize as I write this that it makes me sound like an old fuddy duddy, and saying the words fuddy duddy makes me one too. I've never been one for Ferragamos or Vuittons, though I can see their beaty.)

I’ve mended this purse at least three times. One of the leather patches that attach the strap rings to the purse broke, and my friend Rena got it fixed for me, and they did the opposite one too. Then the strap broke, so I got a new strap. Then the flat piece that holds the magnet in front broke, and we got it fixed.

I love this purse. I have a larger shoulder bag for notebooks, etc., but this is what I carry everywhere. It went with me to Ireland and England, it’s been through the wars with kids, and so much more.

I have two pairs of pants of which I would kill to get another pair (one velvet wide-legged and one comfortable but fashionable part polyester). My Canon Powershot A610 ~ way out of date now, but it’s been the workhorse of cameras. I’ve got a serious addition to store version tupperware and storage containers and bags. When you find just the right one, it’s heaven.

This is very much me. When I find something I love, years down the road I invariably wish I had bought ten of them. When something like this breaks, I try to find a replacement online, but I’m only successful about 50% of the time. Sometimes I can get a used version.

I wasn’t always this way. Growing up fairly poor, I wanted stuff, and when I started to make a little money ~ heck, even when I was just getting by ~ I would acquire worthless junk just to acquire. Knicknacks that had no meaning or worth.

I’m reading the biography/memoir of Audrey Hepburn by her son Sean Ferrer. What an exquisite book ~ moving and well-written and graceful. It sounds like AH was also very much this way. She found much more worth in something of quality than in just having stuff. I identify with AH in so many ways, and always have, but even more so now that I’ve read this book.

Where did we ever get the idea that quantity makes up for quality? It makes sense in a numbers game, I suppose, but when you’re talking about life ~ real life! ~ it’s too complex to be quantified, no matter how hard we try to make it so.

So, this week, I’m wishing you the perfect purse.

November 26, 2011

Life Lessons from Zombies

We almost had a crisis first thing Thanksgiving morning:  The video game Plants vs. Zombies wouldn’t play!  Crisis averted, however, by the good people at Popcap Games.  They responded quickly and fixed it.

Thanksgiving day.  Reminds me to send a huge thank you to all you toilers on holidays.  It sucks working weekends and midnights and holidays, all so self-centered people like me can have our entertainment.  Another thing to be thankful for on this day.  You guys rock!

Anyway, as I played and played and played and my five-year-old son played and played, it got me thinking about how a well-designed game reveals your own proclivities and is a lot like life in some ways.

If you’re a cautious person, you’ll probably choose mostly defensive pieces ~ wall-nuts and potato mines ~ but of you’re an aggressive person, you’ll pick the most bang for your buck ~ice shrooms and jalapenos.  Defensiveness and aggressiveness exist on a spectrum, and I would think that either end would not do too well in this game.  Too defensive and you spend all your time running.  Too offensive and you leave huge holes in your line.  The best course is the middle one ~ some good offense balanced with some good defense.  Finding that balance is not easy, however.

It’s a really well-designed game because it has enough of a comfort zone yet it keeps pushing you forward, plus it has enough variety that you are always entertained.  One aspect is that just when you get comfortable, they force you to use a whole new set of tools to accomplish the same task, out of your comfort zone, which teaches you the value of those tools.

You guess where I’m heading.  Life is like that.  If you’re too cautious, you never really live.  If you’re too aggressive, you burn out and leave a beautiful corpse.  Not that a long life is a goal unto itself.  But the middle road is the best, moderation in all things.  The problem, of course, is to find out where the middle road is and to try to navigate that road.  The problem, much like the game, is that that road is always changing.  It never lets you rest.  You have to change and adapt along with it. 

I did my master’s thesis on the process of identity negotiation (in pioneer diaries), and it’s the same there.  As much as we’d like to think that we’re this fixed thing, we’re unequivocably not.  By dynamically identifying with others (“I want to be her”) and othering others (“I definitely am not her”), our self changes, as much as we would like to remain the same. 

So, in essence, our surroundings are changing, we are changing, and we’re just doing our level best to keep in top of it ~ or to convince ourselves that we are.

But, you know?  If you don’t, if you deny any part of it, you aren’t really living.  You’re missing the thrill, or you’re missing the depth. I am thankful for this life, in its many guises.

November 24, 2011

Bravery on This Day of Thankfulness

Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate!  Best wishes for the holiday season to all!

There are many things to be thankful for, but today, most of all, I'm thankful for bravery. 

I think bravery is something we need in big ways, sure ~ do I take the plunge and get married?  do I take that job? ~ but even more importantly, we need small everyday braveries.  Things like getting out of the bed, choosing what to wear, getting on the subway or braving the weather, meeting the boss when she calls you into her office, resisting buying something you don't need. Daring to imagine yourself differently in millions of tiny ways.

And the bravery to create.  That's a biggie.  There are many who have given up, many who have taken the road of cynicism and snide comments and tearing down of others who are trying to be brave, trying to create.  They are the destroyers, the crazymakers, the chicken shits.  They cannot find the generosity, the courage, the love within themselves and toward others and themselves.  He or she needs to dare to imagine him- or herself a new person, a more generous one, a generative one. They need to embrace and love, rather than pinch and shut down.

This year, I am thankful for what bravery I have, and I wish for all of you the bravery large and small that you need to get through the hour, the day, the week, the life.

November 22, 2011

Naughty Schoolboy

Unexpectedly home with a sick kid today.  I was going to take tomorrow off, so here I am a day early.

Why does a change of schedule like this both unsettle us (me) yet also give me such a sense of freedom at the same time?  It’s as if I’m a naughty schoolboy, and I’m getting away with something. 

But you know what I’ll be getting away with?  I have a new idea for a book, a series actually, and I’m going great guns on the brainstorming part of it.  Which of course is the fun part of it because you’re not actually having to do any work yet.

I am thankful for the resources and ability to be a naughty schoolboy. I hope you are able to do something fun this weekend too.

November 21, 2011

Montage Monday

On Saturday, in addition to ballet, grocery store, and birthday party/swimming at the rec center, we went to a Lego party at the train depot.  It was so much fun!  There were snacks and lots of nice people, and the kids loved it.  It was put on by the Historic Laramie Railroad Depot and COWLUG (Colorado & Wyoming Lego User Group). Here's some pics.

Here's an overview.

One of the great things was that the people who put it together have such a sense of humor.  Everywhere you looked there was something new.  That's a dragon eating the car dealership. Oh, and behind here is the Octopi Wall Street, with a bunch of octupuses taking over.

Yes, indeed. That's aliens turning ostriches into pigs.

Fumigation.  If you've ever been in one of those little blue toilets, you totally understand.

Who knew carrots would encourage dinosaurs?  And that there were carrots in the age of dinosaurs.

November 17, 2011

Tears and Much Gnashing of Teeth

Some households have problems at bedtime. Tears and much gnashing of teeth as kids refuse to go to sleep. For whatever reason, that’s not us. Our challenge is mornings.

This is how it goes. My husband gets up and jumps in the shower, and I get up bleary-eyed and got down to make breakfast for the kids. We’re usually pretty well-rested, though we complain, because my husband puts a high value on schedules and sleep, which is nice. Still, I’m not a morning person.

I go down and let the dog out and make breakfast ~ usually scrambled eggs and cheese or sausage, toast or a muffin, some kind of fruit, and juice. (I try to get each food group into each meal, though usually not veggies at breakfast, and I try to base our lunches and dinners on vegetables. But you know, some days a diamond.) We have short-cuts. The scrambled eggs are made in the microwave, and we cook the sausages first thing when we bring them home from the grocery store and then freeze them, so you can just heat them up in the microwave too. I try to get a little of my husband’s stuff going ~ make him tea or heat water for coffee.

About the time he’s out of the shower, I’m headed upstairs. I pick out clothes for the kids and bring them down and put them by the stove so they can dress right there where it’s warm. Then I head up to take my shower. My husband wakes up the kids with hugs and brings them downstairs one at a time ~ often carrying them ~ and wraps them in their blankets and puts them at the table. Then he goes about doing his own breakfast, feeding the dog, and sometimes putting dishes in the dishwasher away.

Sounds like a well-oiled machine, right? Wrong. Five-year-olds are involved.

By the time I’m stepping out of the shower, I can hear the kids through the grate right below me. They’re messing around, poking and laughing and dragging their feet. Soon my husband’s voice comes up, a warning tone to get on with it. Ten minutes later, he’s yelling at them to get upstairs and brush their teeth, but they don’t yet even have their pajamas off. Finally they come dragging upstairs. They piddle around till I lose patience and yell at them to get their teeth brushed. It goes downhill from there.

All this yelling at them can’t be good for them. And my husband and I get really grumpy.

It’s all about self-control and responsibility, I think. Oh, and because they’re only five. But there are other families that don’t go through this EVERY MORNING. There must be something wrong with us.

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-control lately. I think it’s inevitable to ponder it when you’re a parent. Every child is different. You’ll have the kid who is just naturally a responsible people-pleaser, but then you’ll have the ones who aren’t intentionally bad, they just have another agenda. But the basic question is: How do you instill responsibility and self-control in a child? How can you know, when they become teenagers and are out of your sight, that they aren’t doing something really stupid and dangerous? And it’s when they’re really young that you need to instill this. How do you do that without yelling at them constantly or putting them in fear for their lives?

And it’s not just them. I think about my own self control. I wasn’t raised with many boundaries, so I’ve had to learn them along the way. I’m a pretty responsible person ~ being raised on a ranch does that ~ but as far as personal schedule and self-control, it’s a bit dicey. My eating habits are iffy. I’ll be really good on exercise for a while and then totally stop for months. Left to my own devices, my sleeping habits suck. And what about the writing? You need self-control and motivation to get anything done.

We as Americans like to think of ourselves as exceptions to every rule. The rules apply to other people. “American Exceptionalism,” it’s called in academic circles. It started with the founding of our country ~ our country was founded on the idea that we are exceptions to the religious rule of where we lived. And since then we’ve always been for the underdog, for the rebel.  We believe that other people should control themselves, for heaven's sake, but we don't have to.

But I digress.

My husband and I are trying new things, new creative approaches to getting ready in the morning. This is how this morning went.

A couple of days ago we told them that it was their responsibility to get themselves dressed and ready in the morning. We’ve done this before ~ oh the tears and gnashing of teeth! But this time we told them that they had to earn the right to watch any TV in the evening. They got one warning, and after that ~ bam! ~ no TV that night. For 2 days they’ve done pretty well.

My husband is out of town, and this morning I just let them go. My husband can’t do that, and I felt the urge to come down on them like the wrath of God, but I let them go. I said, once or twice, very calmly, it’s your responsibility to get ready. You might want to think about it because you’ve only got a half hour. You’ve only got ten minutes. At one point, my son tried to turn on the TV and I quickly put the kibosh to that.

Needless to say, when I was ready to head out the door, they weren’t ready. My son had managed to get his teeth brushed after the whole TV incident, but he didn’t have his shoes on, his hair combed, nor collected his coat and backpack. My daughter stood in front of the stove completely naked, hair uncombed.

I said, “I’m heading out the door in three minutes. You better grab your clothes and shoes and anything else you want to take.” Then I discretely grabbed a brush and threw it in my bag and walked out the door.

“You wouldn’t really leave us here, Mommy? Is it one of those fake times?” they asked.

Of course not, I said to myself. You’re only five. But out loud I said, “We’ll see, won’t we?”

I went out to the garage and started to get in the car and wait. Very quickly, here came my son, tears streaming down his face, hair standing on end, socks on his feet, shoes and backpack and light sweatshirt clutched in his arms. Did I mention we’ve been having windchill in the negative digits? “I’m sorry, sweatie,” I said, “ but you’ll need to get your coat." Off he ran.

In the meantime, I hear loud screetches and then here came my daughter, tears streaming down her face, miraculously fully clothed, shoes even on her feet, with everything but her backpack. “You’ll need your backpack,” I said.

“Here, Mommy, will you please hold these?” she said. She’s no dummy. She figures if I’m holding something I won’t leave.

Back came my son and got in the car. Back came my daughter and got in the car. I tossed the hairbrush back to them, made sure they’re buckled in, and started to drive to school.

Silence for a few minutes, then my son said, “Do we still get to watch TV tonight?”

November 16, 2011

Plants vs. Zombies

Yesterday, when I picked my five-year-old twins up from after-school daycare, my son was sitting off by himself, headphones on, in front of the computer in the small side room, away from the chaos and noise of kids dancing and drawing and agreeing and disagreeing in the main room. He had found a new computer game. When he saw me, he jumped up from his chair, practically hopping up and down, and said, “This is the greatest game ever! Can we get it on our computer at home?”

It’s called Plants vs. Zombies. It really is a great game ~ I stayed up way too late last night playing it after the kids went to bed. The zombies are coming across your lawn to enter the house and eat your brains, and it’s your job to plant various plants in your back yard that defend against them. There’s a little bit of sun that rains down that you have to collect to grow your flowers, and then you plant sunflowers to gather more sun. There are peashooters and repeaters and snow peas that spit projectiles at the oncoming zombies. There are cherry bombs that turn all zombies in the vicinity to ashes. There are wall-nuts that stop the zombies’ progress. There’s a potato mine that explodes if they walk over it, but it takes some time to grow. And then with each level you advance, you get new types of plants, but you’re limited as to how many types you can choose. It turns to nighttime and you have to use various types of mushrooms. Then you’re in your backyard with a pond and you need to plant lily pads in order to plant the plants. The final line of defense is a series of lawnmowers that, if the zombies reach them, they are mowed over. But, the drawback is, once it’s gone it’s gone, and it takes out your plants too. If a zombie makes it past, it walks into your back door and “The Zombies Ate Your Brains!” Game over.

It is seriously addicting. I may have to buy the full version.

But as I was thinking about it this morning, I thought: that’s exactly what you need in a plot. You need it to be seriously addicting. How does the PvZ do it? Well, you have a protagonist (you), antagonists (zombies), and a battle with interesting and clearly defined characters on your side. The zombies too have interesting characters. There’s an athlete zombie who can bypass things and there are disco zombies who swarm. It’s progressive ~ you win (or lose) one level and get new plants and new challenges in the next level. Just like chapters. Each level is enough alike that you easily pick it up and understand it but also enough different that it’s a challenge. Chapters should progress that way ~ not aliens dropping in deus ex machina (unless you already have aliens) but also a new twist each time.

I’m telling: it’s got me thinking about my plotting.

November 15, 2011

“We teach life, and life isn’t easy”

For my day job, I interviewed a very nice gentlemen yesterday who is a lawyer who oversees law clinics here at the University of Wyoming. Law clinics are where law students take pro bono cases and actually enter the courtroom with an experienced lawyer to assist. The director’s outlook on life is such a great balance between idealism and practicality, and he loves what he does.

(I love talking to people about what they are passionate about. It’s one of my great pleasures.)

It struck me throughout our conversations how similar being a writer and being a lawyer are in so many ways. Here are some of them.

The original meaning of freelance was, of course, a knight put his “free lance” in service to a king. He represented that king and kingdom on the field of battle, and he put his skills and his life on the line to defend that king. Another word for that is mercenary, but it’s two sides of the same coin. A freelance writer is the same. She puts her skills and her work life on the line to represent someone to the world. And a lawyer is the same thing. They put their professional reputation and skills to the test in ways that have huge impacts on the lives of those involved. Idealistically, each of these is a person giving their lives for another. Less idealistically, this is someone making a buck off someone else in their time of need.

Another way that a writer and a lawyer are similar is that there are academic and practical branches of the discipline. These overlap, but one does not prepare you for the other. In the case of being a lawyer, the director said that three years in a classroom does not prepare you to be a lawyer. Only being a lawyer can prepare you. In that way, it should be a trade school, not an academic discipline. That’s why these law clinics are so important. In writing, there are academics who study it, and then there’s rhet/comp or creative writing that practices it. Sure, academics write as well, and I think being in academia is infinitely fascinating, but it holds the same relation to practicing outside the institution as academics does to practicing law. A technical or creative writer can’t enter into a in-depth theoretical discussion with an academic, any more than an academic can write a technical report or short story (unless the person is both). This split is the source of much conflict in English departments.

I asked the director what students were not prepared for when they came in. He said that they were not aware of the shear amount of hard work involved. Most of the time, it’s not at all glamorous. Same for writing. The years of apprenticeship (10,000 hours) and the piles and piles of rejection. He also said that students were not prepared for the amount of emotion involved. Think about it. You have people’s lives in your hands. Victims of assault and child abuse and rape and murder (well, not the actual victim). And what you help come about has huge impacts in the lives of everyone involved. Not only that, but you have to face very emotional situations on a daily basis. I think that’s true of writing as well. To truly do your best work, you have to put your heart on the page. You have to put your characters through hell and feel that hell as you write, or it won’t translate. Same with nonfiction ~ you’re working with people, and the best work is when you connect with your subjects deeply.

Finally, he said, “We teach life, and life isn’t easy.” We write life, and life isn’t easy. The best writing gets to the messiness of it, to the places that are hard, that are not black and white. But it’s worth it. Life is worth it, and the challenge of writing is worth it.

November 14, 2011

Ira Glass and Narrative Drive

Ira Glass of This American Life gave a talk on Saturday at the University of Wyoming. I couldn’t wait, since I first heard of it!

Saturday was one of those bitter cold days on the high plains. The wind had been gale force for days, and the storm blew in that afternoon, so the cold lazered through the many layers of coats, hats, and mittens. The first flakes fell as my friend Naomi and I walked across campus to the A&S Auditorium. They seemed pretty innocent, but by the time we got out there was ice over everything and the wind blew you skating across the pavement. Winter storm warmings, for sure.

We were early, and our tickets were in the balcony. It’s numbered weirdly, with our section only having odd numbers (we were seats 7 and 9), and they were built in a time when people either were the size of school children or did not require much comfort or space. Even my knees hit the seat in front of me, and I’m average-sized. All was solved, though, when we took matters into our own hands and went farther up so no one was cramped in beside us.

Ira Glass. Wow. He is so cool. Nerd cool, brainy cool ~ you know what I mean. Like those old Geek Squad commercials. The guy next to me (before we moved) said, “He looks like Elvis Costello,” and he does. A suit, heavy black-rimmed glasses, long brown leather shoes, very kinetic.

The program started about 20 or 30 minutes late. A woman came out to introduce him, and then the lights went off. Then you heard that voice through the darkness, just like you do through the radio, so cozy and friendly and almost inside your own brain. It’s as if your preternaturally verbal favorite brother, someone you’ve known your whole life, is telling you a really good story. He kept the lights off for a while as he spoke and joked about doing the whole program that way. When he turned on the lights, he said, “I could say anything I wanted for the next couple of minutes because you’re not listening. You’re checking out what I look like and marveling that that voice comes out of this head.”

He orchestrated the whole program from an iPad that he held in the crook of his arm or rested on the music stand next to the tall stool, which he never sat on and never drank from the bottle of water that rested there. He was too busy moving, one side of the stage to the other, moving downstage and back, smiling, talking, waving his arms, setting the iPad down and picking it up. He would sometimes hold the iPad up in front of him and then hold his right arm out behind him before bringing his hand in an arc to touch the iPad and start or stop the music. It was as if he were a concert pianist.

And he has impeccable timing with the music. You don’t usually see someone turning off and on the music, but it was second nature to him, and he explained at the end where the music was from (the internet, movie scores) and tricks to using it (stopping the music makes whatever comes next seem very important and starting it again signals a change in tone or subject). He also explained that the iPad was connected wirelessly to a computer behind the drops, and the software allowed him to do it all from his iPad. It was amazing, with an Oz-behind-the-curtain feel to it.

And he said such smart things (of course). They were smart not only because some of them I’ve long thought.

He emphasized the power of narrative drive. It’s innate in all of us and is more powerful than any of us know. He explained how a normal news story goes ~ it’s a thesis-based essay, with assertion and evidence/quote, then new assertion and evidence/quote, with analysis. But then he explained the structure of stories on his show. It’s this thing leading to this thing leading to this thing, with a moment of reflection, and then repeat. It doesn’t matter how banal the details, if they’re cause and effect they draw us and leave us asking question after question, if only “What happens next?” And the moment of reflection can be something unusual, but it also can be a universal truth that we all know but the story reminds us. He ended everything with the story of Sheherazade, how that narrative drive saved the girl’s life and brought the king back from insanity. It made him empathize with the father of Sheherazade ~ I’ll get back to this.

At one point he stopped the music and said, “Radio is a very visual medium.” I sat there thinking, yes it is, in the very best way. It’s visual in the way the best books are, in that if the story is done right you the listener/reader supply a lot of it. You are an active participant in the creation of this story. And then he said, “It’s not, but it sounded like it’s true,” and everyone laughed.

They did the TV show, as well as radio. TV is a problem to do in the format of This American Life. On the radio, the teller can tell things that happened in the past, but on TV to really take advantage of the medium you have to be there and witness the action with the camera. Which means you have to foretell the future. He said, “It makes you understand why they put a bunch of extroverts in a house together and scatter cameras all around.”

He talked about how we are inundated with narrative nowadays, moreso than at any other time history. But the thing is, most of it doesn’t move us. It doesn’t do what stories have done forever, which is to connect us with others, to make us imagine what it would be like to be them, to empathize. This is something I’ve long said: The reason I am obsessively fanatical about fiction is that it is as close as you will ever get to another person’s insides, to their emotional and intellectual life. Both the writing and reading of fiction is an exercise in empathy. Can fiction save the world? Yes, I think it can.

There was much more, but I’ll stop here. It’s got me thinking a lot about narrative and about reflection and the conjunction of verbal storytelling and written. Ira Glass, you rock!

November 11, 2011

The Mean Reds

So I’ve been scarce on the interwebs for a while. Not just here on this blog but elsewhere on Facebook and Twitter.

As I’ve said previously, I’m a bit manic depressive, and right after attending Bread Loaf I nose-dived for a bit. I’m sure you’ve all experienced it at one time or another. No interest in much of anything. Slogging through your day. Dreading even taking a shower because, you know, you’ll just have to take another one tomorrow and it doesn’t really seem worth the effort. Being shorter with the kids then I like to be.

But that’s not the worst part. My drive to write even went away. The joy in looking forward to creating, the joy of creating, being compelled by reading, feeling part of a larger and more noble endeavor, even feeling competitive against other writers ~ that all went away for a while. I avoided writing most everything (except work of course) ~ which would have helped ~ and I avoided most social things because it just takes more energy than I can muster. Mostly what I felt toward writing was simple despair. I suck in every way possible. Why would I ever think that I could get anywhere (despite any evidence to the contrary)?

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about: Depression. Perhaps a bit worse than the usual turn.

But I’m climbing out of the hole. One thing that really helped was I took a four-hour nap on Saturday and then slept in on Sunday. A little alone/me time made a heck of a lot of difference. Plus, I think I was pulling out of it a bit anyway. Now I need to get back to my writing and my exercise routine, and I’ll feel a lot better all around.

But, this blog. Even before all this, I had read that your blog shouldn’t just be a solipsistic writers workshop. That sent me for a bit of turn because in fact I talk a lot about writing ~ because it is my passion and what fascinates me. I tried to think of other subjects. I certainly could do more on the subjects I write about (history, gender, living in the West, etc.). But then I thought, you know what: sure, maybe I could include more general topics, but I love writing, and I know a lot of you love writing, and it’s what lights me up on the inside, so I am going to continue to write about it. Sure, I’ll try to include a broader range of topics, but writing will always be included as one of those.

I’ve always wanted these blog entries to be as well-thought out as possible, as cogent and well-written and compelling as possible. With that in mind, I may or may not write a blog post every weekday. If I think a little more deeply on a subject and try to develop it more, it may take more than a mere twenty minutes. But then again, I may also balance longer ones with some short ones (a la Seth Godin).

And as I said, I think my subjects will trend the way they have in the past, but I might try to include more book reviews. I don’t want this to be this blog’s only subject, but when I finish a book, I might review it. I might also include more general interest things, whatever catches my fancy at the time. I’m also going to continue to point out as many interesting things as I can.

Overall, my motivation here is to be part of the larger conversation, to think out loud, to make explicit those things that, if I don’t write about them, I don’t think them through. I also truly believe that this blog gives energy to my other writing and makes me feel part of the community.

So I’ll be showing up here a lot more. Once a week at least, possibly five days a week. And I appreciate all the people who stop by here to read, when they could be doing something vastly more useful, and I hope you’ll comment if you feel the urge.

Finally, I welcome guest bloggers! If you’d like to, shoot me an email PLEASE!

August 9, 2011

Off to a Conference

Sorry for the blog silence.  No excuses.  But now I'm off the Bread Loaf Writers Conference for a week and a half where I get to work with the inestimable Luis Alberto Urrea.  Have you heard of Bread Loaf?  It's kind of like the ultimate space camp, only for writer geeks, not science geeks.  So I'll be taking notes and be sure to give you a full report after the 20th.  Happy August!

July 21, 2011

Executing a Raven

Well, it wasn’t really a raven. A crow actually. But raven sounds more poetic, don’t you think?

Yesterday afternoon as I was driving by a park on the way to pick up the kids, I saw the most amazing thing. It was a hot but nice afternoon, with a bit of a breeze blowing in from the west. This crow was trying to land on the top of a telephone pole. You could see him angling, his body crunched with the effort, his wings flapping wildly trying to control his flight. (I say he ~ it might’ve been she. What do I know?) The thing is, he wasn’t trying to drop down on it from above. The wind was in his face, so he flew past it from below, flapped hard until he rose to the height of the top of the pole, let the wind push him backwards, and then he folded his wings and dropped onto the flat circle.

It was absolutely amazing, I tell you! He had to do it twice. The first time he did a complete circle ~ came in below, rose, let the wind carry him, but too far, so he dropped again, flew forward, rose, and then dropped onto the landing pad. Amazing athletics, I tell you.

That got me to thinking about executing a raven in writing. Don’t you just love coming across something in what you’re reading that absolutely makes your jaw drop? A perfect turn of phrase or the subtle observation perfectly expressed or a word in just the right place, or a plot twist that gives you the chills, it’s so good.

There are authors who consistently execute the raven. That’s why we read them. Alice Munro and Julian Barnes and so many others. You just stand in awe of them. Their gymnastics are almost always a perfect 10. The crow, too, was obviously a fabulous flyer, because why would he attempt it if he was not. The skill involved is amazing, and this bird was almost flawless.

But the thing is, even with his skill, this crow had to do it twice. Some maneuvers are so complex and dependent upon chance that you just have to keep trying to get it right, to land Plop! onto that little tiny wooden circle.

Here’s to you and me, today, attempting to execute a raven.

July 15, 2011

Writing and the Heart of Artistic Expression ~ A Guest Post by Shann Ray

It’s been a while since we’ve been honored by a Cool Person Guest Blogger. Well, yesterday I emailed Shann Ray, who I wrote about in yesterday’s post, and he graciously agreed to do one. And a powerful and moving one it is. So without further ado.

Our Cool Person Guest Blogger today is Shann Ray. As I mentioned yesterday, Shann is a professor of leadership and forgiveness, a basketball dunker extraordinaire, a coach, a father and a son, a Westerner, and a kickass poet and writer. His writing has the brute force of Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx, yet a style all his own. In addition to his fiction I mentioned yesterday (“Before Sand Creek” and “The Great Divide”), you can check out "City of Hunger and Light" in Five Chapters, and definitely pick up his book, American Masculine.

Writing and the Heart of Artistic Expression

The greatest work of art is to love someone. -Vincent van Gogh

Bell hooks, the powerful feminist writer and a clarion voice in American life, envisioned a world in which we willingly attune ourselves to the deeper disciplines associated with love. "Genuine love," she said, "is rarely an emotional space where needs are instantly gratified. To know love we have to invest time and commitment." In poetry and prose, the same investment of time and commitment sometimes results in small miracles that move the human heart.

In light of bell hooks’s deep revelations, a new understanding arises: people who live well love well, they understand power and become artistic in conversation, they live transparently and develop integrity in response to their own individual and communal faults-in other words, they know and they are known. They lead others, and their relationships are largely free of diminishment. Engagement is infused with a sense of the appreciative mystery of life. For me, writers who infuse my heart and soul with the appreciative mystery of life often hail from the wild vast country of the American West. The profound rhythmic drive, musicality and force of Melanie Rae Thon, the generous fierce voice of Sandra Alcosser, the crystalline sense of witness, clarity, and beauty in the imaginative landscapes of James Welch. Loneliness and courage and fire and home, all captured in the prose of people attuned to the reality of love and loss at the foundation of life together.

In the great European philosopher Hans George Gadamer's concept of the eloquent or elegant question, we find a lucent manner of relating in which we seek to ask of one another questions to which we do not already know the answer. The eloquent question forms a pathway of listening in which we overcome attitudes and behaviors of dominance, negativity, reactivity, fear, anger, or apathy. When we live from darker, more self-absorbed philosophies we effectively force others to submit to our way of living, especially when their views conflict with ours. But when we live from more hope-filled philosophies we approach those around us as sacred, as Thou or You in philosopher Martin Buber's terms, rather than It, and our conversations result in fulfillment and shared meaning. Initiating and sustaining meaningful dialogue reflects a positive sense of self and other. In art that helps heal the human heart, writers attend to, honor, and transcend the burden of human emptiness.

Ornish, in his decisive work Love and Survival, argues (with convincing scientific evidence) that lack of intimacy or lack of emotional and spiritual closeness to others is the root of human illness, and the positive experience of love is the inner core of what makes us well. Accordingly, the great epidemic of the age is what Ornish calls "emotional and spiritual heart disease, the profound sense of loneliness, isolation, alienation, and depression that are so prevalent today as the social structures that used to provide us with a sense of community and connection break down."

When we consider the children of the nations we consider the next generation, and the opportunity to forgo our self-insulation and sacrifice ourselves for the good of others seems almost to cry out to us, inviting us to listen and take action. The gift of knowing others, and closer still, knowing our own children can completely renew us. Because of inspiration from writers like hooks, Thon, Alcosser, Gadamer, Buber, and Ornish but especially because of the influence of my wife and her dynamic life, in the morning I go now to each of my three young daughters and touch her face and look into her eyes and give her a blessing. The words take me into a quietly enchanting encounter and I go from the blessing better prepared to face the day, and more grateful. For Natalya, "God has given you the garment of praise instead of the spirit of despair." For Ariana, "I have loved you with an everlasting love. I have drawn you with lovingkindness." For Isabella, "God knows the plans he has for you, plans not for calamity, but for peace. Plans for a future and a hope." Yet even in the echo of a morning ritual that heals me, my own frailty and lack of maturity sometimes stalk me throughout the day and rear up in my defensiveness, my will to dominate, my lack of patience, my apathy toward even my most valued relationships. Asserting itself in the daily routine of life is my greed to be served... my failure to serve the most meaningful needs of the beloved others in my life.

The sumptuous wisdom of bell hooks is a wisdom that secures a generous humanity in the center of legitimate mutuality and forms the foundation for the architecture of the mature identity. This involves accepting the invitation to look at one's self, gifts and weaknesses, and draw self and others toward liberation from fear. In this sense what liberates us is love, an identification with the suffering that always precedes life or growth, and a resolved will to seek that which is necessary to make us whole. This love separates the wheat from the chaff from our lives and brings us to our loved ones in a more vulnerable and more truly powerful sense. We can then come to a place of sanctuary with one another in which we find we are capable of living for one another rather than against each other. In this sanctuary joy accompanies us, and we begin to go about the necessary work to move beyond ourselves and willingly give ourselves to others.

Great writing is a whisper in the heart of hearts, and sometimes resounds like a mighty storm.

A well-earned delight takes shape in the heart of readers. In great art, even if that art is sometimes very dark, below or within the darkness we find light, delight in life, and affirmation of people. Cynicism and nihilism are put to rest. Such work is found at the crossroads of ingenuity and a keenly discerned sense of reality. Emerson referred to this crossroads as the oversoul, the place in our collective humanity reserved for transcendence, humility, wisdom, and generative capacity.

that Over-soul, within which every [person's] particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what [he or she] is... and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty. We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within [humanity] is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.

May the world of writing and reading, in the heart of great artistic expression, bring you greater life.

July 14, 2011

Shann Ray and American Masculine

Today, I wanted to introduce you all to Shann Ray (if you don’t already know him). I first heard about him when he won the 2010 Bread Loaf Bakeless prize. I saw that he grew up in Lame Deer on the Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. That’s where my sister Nikki has been an ER nurse for 30 years, so I sent Shann a note of congratulations.

Here’s his bio from his website

Poet and prose writer Shann Ray Ferch’s collection of stories, AMERICAN MASCULINE, was selected for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference prestigious Katherine Bakeless Nason Literary Publication Prize and appears with Graywolf Press. He is also the author of Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity (forthcoming with Rowman & Littlefield), and The Spirit of Servant Leadership co-edited with Larry Spears (Paulist Press). Ferch, who writes poetry and prose under Shann Ray in honor of his mother Saundra Rae, played college basketball at Montana State University and Pepperdine University and professional basketball in Germany. He now lives with his wife and three daughters in Spokane, Washington where he teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University.

Born and raised in Montana, Ray’s powerful, graceful writing considers the nature of humanity with regard to violence and forgiveness. He holds a dual MFA in poetry and fiction from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers at Eastern Washington University, a Masters in clinical psychology from Pepperdine, and a PhD in systems psychology from the University of Alberta in Canada. He has served as a research psychologist for the Centers for Disease Control and as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

His stories and poems have appeared in some of America’s top literary venues including McSweeney’s, StoryQuarterly, Poetry International, Northwest Review, Narrative, Best New Poets and William and Mary Review. Ray is the winner of the subTerrain Poetry Prize, the Crab Creek Review Fiction Award, the Pacific Northwest Inlander Short Story Contest, the Ruminate Short Story Prize, and the Creative Writing Distinguished Alumni Award from Eastern Washington University. His work was selected as a notable story in Best American Nonrequired Reading and anthologized in The Better of McSweeney’s, Vol. 2. His influences include Sandra Alcosser, Claire Davis, Milan Kundera, James Welch, A.B. Guthrie, William Kittredge, Richard Hugo, Richard Ford, Katerina Rudcenkova, and Mary Oliver.

Shann’s father was a basketball coach, and Shann and his older brother Kral are legendary in Montana high school and college basketball. To see some absolutely amazing footage of he and Kral’s dunking, go here (first they talk about Shann's father Tom, and then at about 4:00 they start showing the amazing footage).

But what is so amazing is Shann’s writing. It is brutal ~ and I do mean brutal ~ yet lyrical. You can tell he is a poet, in addition to being a fiction writer. His stories are very dark and violent. Given that my stories are generally pretty dark too, reading his elicits the same sort of deep anguish I get as I write ~ and I’m sure I’m not the only one. But it’s cathartic, and there are small moments of such tenderness. It’s the broken world of a man’s West busted open there on the page. I can’t tell you how much it moves me yet gives me nightmares. And that’s a good thing.  He reminds me of Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Jim Harrison, and Thom Jones.

You’ll have to read it for yourself. Please, I urge you to buy American Masculine today. But in the meantime, here is a story “Before Sand Creek” that appeared on NewWest (a fabulous site - stay and browse for awhile). Here is “The Great Divide,” which appeared in The Better of McSweeneys, Vol. 2, and is the second story in American Masculine.

So, for your own sake, read Shann Ray.