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.

July 13, 2011

More on Role Models

I plan to write more on the topic I addressed a couple of days ago (role models for boys), but in the meantime, there's this great post on the Art of Manliness about the lessons to learn from The Old Man and the Sea

(I know that the idea of role models is problematic, and that those people who are held up as role models are fallible, just as we all are, but that does not undermine the value of such things.  We need ideals to strive for, I believe. IMHO.)

In the meantime, another lesson from Old Hem ~ thanks, Art of Manliness!

“Success” is all too often assumed to be the indicator of the value of a man. But success, in and of itself, merely speaks to a particular status and may have nothing to do with the journey that the man took to get there, or whether or not he retained his integrity along the way. Among the many aspects of the story, it is the idea of redefining success and victory that makes The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway’s classic novella, so profound.

July 12, 2011

Alice Munro

Alice Munro is one of my writer gods.  Her work is everything I aspire to emulate: quiet and subtle yet emotionally shattering.  I started reading Too Much Happiness last night and the first story ("Dimensions," which I've read before in the New Yorker) gave me nightmares.  A good thing, hehe.  So today I wanted to post a quote from her that I have up on my wall from a great interview.

“I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way—what happens to somebody—but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something is astonishing—not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.” ~ Alice Munro

July 11, 2011

Being a Man in This Day and Age

How many men do you know who are overgrown children? They never marry, spend their days playing, and don’t have much real responsibility. Or they are fathers yet don’t lend much of hand with the kids or around the house. Or they run out on their responsibilities. My husband and I have been talking about this lately. Not because he’s one of them ~ in fact, I am so lucky because he is an equal partner with the kids and with the housework. I am so so lucky. “Where did I go wrong,” he jokes.

He’s one of those guys who gets things done. He sent me a great quote a while back:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” ~ Robert A. Heinlein
I have complete faith that he can do all those things, perhaps with the exception of conning a ship. He’s someone who, if he doesn’t know how to do something, he figures it out. He’s someone who’s physically confident. I’ve always said, he’s the type of guy who inspires confidence in others. He’s got a lot of common sense and he’s very tall with a deep voice. (Did you know that most captains of industry are taller than average?)

What we realize more and more is that he may be the exception, rather than the rule.

What my husband and I talk a lot about is that men on TV sitcoms are the butt of everyone’s jokes. They are often incapable, lazy, dumb, and all those other stereotypes. It’s as if the stereotypes of the women in the 50s (ditzy blonde; here little lady, let me take care of that) have been reversed and now it’s okay to make fun of men.

There’s also been a lot references to Hemingway in the news lately. For example, on and USA Today. There’s a lot of talk about his relevance, or irrelevance. But, what these articles point out is that Hemingway lived life, that he had an ideal he desperately tried to live up to.

I guess what I’m getting at is that where are the role models for our boys? Heck, for our men? If all they see around them are images of laughingstocks, if they’re allowed or encouraged to be little boys their whole lives, if they don’t have things to be proud of, how in the world can they be happy and functioning adults?

That’s why I love sites like The Art of Manliness. It’s about taking back pride. It’s not about denigrating women. It’s about being the best husband, father, and citizen that you can be. It’s about pride and being capable. This is not at the expense of women. When will we begin to think of the world as a land of abundance, where one is not at the expense of the other?

Why are capable men like Hemingway considered throwbacks, instead of role models? I say this as a feminist.

PS Perhaps I am oversimplifying, but I worry about the future for my son, just as I worry about it for my daughter.

July 8, 2011

The Lake of the Ozarks

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “Ozarks” I get ~ got ~ an image of hillbillies, broken-down unpainted houses, with lots of hound dogs and barefoot kids out front ~ you know, sort of like I was raised. We certainly did see some of that when we took a “short cut,” thanks to the navigator ~ ahem, me ~ but turns out that the Lake of the Ozarks is pretty developed and a little bit of a tourist trap. It’s one of those places that makes city folks feel like they’re in the country without missing any of their modern conveniences.

I’m just sayin.

But I loved it, and we had such a good time! Every other year, my husband’s family takes a vacation together, and we rent a huge vrbo (vacation rental by owner) house on the water somewhere. We’ve been to Phoenix, the Keys, Michigan, and now Missouri. It’s so great to hang with the inlaws and to have the kids spend time with their cousins. They’re all such good people. We take turns making dinners and we go and do all the things there are to do.

Our house had eight bedrooms, all of which were occupied, and its own dock on the water. We had two jetskis for the whole week and a boat for a day. Most everyone spent all their time down by the water. My two have just been learning to swim, as they’re five, so we were concerned that they would go in, literally, over their heads, but we made the rule that whenever they were outside the house they had to wear their life jackets, which worked out great. I think their swimming came a long way during the trip. Most of the time was in the water, but some of us with young kids took in Cars 2 and some went for a helicopter ride and my mother-in-law got to visit a great friend of hers who was having a bit of a rough patch.

The only challenge we had was on Friday. It was just my husband, kids, and I in our rented van. We’d just come out of the Camdenton Walmart, got in, and were driving through the parking lot, when ~WHAM! ~ we were rammed by a row of 23 shopping carts! Turns out, the young guy had only worked there four days, and he wasn’t paying attention and used the cart pusher to ram the carts into the side of the van. It’s funny now. What insued was 45 minutes of standing in the steaming hot parking lot directing cars away and talking with the manager. They were all very nice about it, and the poor kid who did it kept pacing back and forth and rubbing his hand over his crew cut.

I was in the middle of revising my story for workshop at Bread Loaf, and it was so fabulous because I had the time and space to do it. The house is large and rambling, and our bedroom was on the lowest floor, fairly isolated. My husband would take the kids down two swim and I would be able to just go to the room and write. I was able to get the very intensive revisions done over the course of the week. Lovely. I also got to sleep in every morning, thanks to my husband!

July 7, 2011

A Reading by Diana Gabaldon

Well, I’m back from vacation at the Lake of the Ozarks, and it’s taken me a couple of days to get my act together, but I missed you guys! I’ll tell you all about it, but before I do that I wanted to write about the great reading I went to last night.

The lovely and hilarious Diana Gabaldon gave a talk and short reading last night as plenary speaker for the University of Wyoming’s Sir Walter Scott conference (directed by my mentor and great friend Caroline McCracken-Flesher). I just felt honored to be in the room!

My first impression of Diana was that she is beautiful. She’s fairly short, but her presence fills the room, as she stands tall and projects such positive friendly energy. She wore a long flowing dress in black with rust and ruby and green panels at the bottom, and her hair is long and black. She has a heart-shaped face and a wide smile. As she said during her talk, “It’s German bones with Spanish coloring” ~ one side of her family came from Spain, the other side came from England with a bit of German thrown in, and she grew up in Arizona. (People come up to her and ask, impertinently, “What are you? Native American? Russian? French?”) Her voice is gravelly, with a quick-fire delivery and impeccable comedic timing.

(Her name Gabaldon rhymes with “stone,” by the way.)

There was a little difficulty with audio at first, but then Diana entered escorted by a wonderful bagpiper named John. (Sorry ~ I didn’t catch his full name.) Diana began by talking about her background as an academic in marine biology and behavioral ecology, with her dissertation on the nesting habits of the pinyon jay (or, as her husband says, “Why Birds Build Nests Where They Do, and Who Cares Anyway?”). She taught human anatomy and physiology to football players at 8 a.m. and would wake them up with this ditty:

In days of old when knights were bold
And condoms weren't invented
They'd pop a sock upon their cock
And babies were prevented

Yes! She has such a great irreverent sense of humor, and we were in stitches throughout. Yet she had some really profound things to say.

She talked about successful novelists. None that she knows have MFAs ~ which, since I have no MFA, immediately made me feel better. As she said, “Most successful novelists do not have an MFA. It’s not that they aren’t useful; it’s just that they don’t have much to do with writing.” Good point. There are great things about an MFA, but to master writing you have to be intrinsically motivated, to be obsessed and obsessive.

Most of the successful novelists she knows did something else first. Ian Rankin, crime writer, was a grape-picker and a swineherd and a taxman, among other things. Jack Whyte, historical novelist, was a cabaret singer and a whisky seller. Robert Burns and Thomas Paine were both tax collectors. Diana was an academic and, as she said, “killed seabirds and tortured boxfish” for her job. Novelists, she said, “hold jobs that nobody notices very much when they slack off.” Ahem. “All novelists find their own way,” she said, “often a screwy path.”

She talked about the distinction between storytellers and novelists. A story is nothing more and nothing less than a character in a situation that produces conflict, and even bad writers can be storytellers. You just need to keep generating questions, even small ones, in the reader’s mind.

She also talked about the distinction between genre writers and literary writers. “An invidious distinction,” she said, but genre uses the big human archetypes. Romance novels satisfy our needs for courtship, specfic/scifi our curiosity, westerns our need for identity and self-determination, and mysteries our need for social contracts. A very interesting way to put it I thought and something I’m going to be thinking about for a while. It goes along with the idea that genre stories follow specific patterns and conventions upon which our needs and desires play out. They affirm our needs, rather than challenge them. Literary fiction, she said, may use pieces of those archetypes, but it is fiction about individuals out around the edges.

This resonated with me a lot, as well: she didn’t start writing fiction until she was 35, but she had written all her life. She had known she wanted to write from age 8, but her family said, “You’re such a poor judge of character, you’re bound to marry a bum. Get a good education so you can support your family.” So she got a practical degree and became an academic. I was the same way ~ I felt I needed to do something practical and that’s why I almost flunked out of engineering and it took me 13 years to get my degree, in English, finally.

What got her started writing was that she turned 35 and realized that Mozart died at that age and so if she was going to be a novelist she’d better get started. She started writing Outlander the next day. She didn’t know what she was going to write about, but she liked to read mysteries, among other things, so she thought she’d write a mystery. She liked to do research, as she was a research professor, so she decided it would be historical. The reason it was Scotland was that she watched an episode of Doctor Who and there was a fine specimen of a Scotsman in a kilt. “Hmm, that’s fetching,” she thought. So her inspiration was the image of a man in a kilt.

Okay, she thought, I need conflict, so she thought the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 would be good, Scots versus the English. Well, if she had her man in a kilt, she would make her woman English, and there would be even more conflict. On the third day of writing, she had the woman walk into a room with a bunch of Scotsman but what came out of the woman’s mouth was decidedly modern. Diana fought with the character for days until she finally trusted the instinct and that character took over telling her own story ~ and that’s why there’s time travel.

That’s how she writes. She puts herself in the scene and figures out as she goes. “My hands are cold. Why are they cold? Oh, it’s winter. But my feet are warm ~ there’s a fire. Oh, there’s a dog over there.” And so on. She writes in bits and fiddles ~ that’s why it takes her a while to write a book. She doesn’t write from an outline or a plan. She puts herself in scenes where she can see what’s happening, and the scenes start to accumulate and fit together and then she has the timeline in the back of her mind and she starts laying them out in 40-60 page chunks and then she knows where to go. She knows the shape of her structure and all her books have a shape.

Reader interest in historical fiction ebbs and flows. This, she said, is due to a couple of things. 1) It’s related to the age of the reader, because as we get older, say 30s and 40s, we start thinking about our mortality, and we try to place our lives in context. We need confirmation of our choices. 2) In times of uncertainty, historical fiction is popular. People want assurance that things can work out, and historical fiction gives them that.

History isn’t what happens, she says; it’s what people write down. So true. There are three levels of lies in history: 1) the inadvertent lie or selective reporting, which is point of view, 2) deliberate bias but not messing with the fact, which is newspaper reporting, and 3) deliberate bias, which is propaganda. “I was born Catholic,” she says, “I know it when I see it.” She goes on to say that novelists can use these three levels to good effect. A good novelist will use facts and point of view and bias to enhance his or her story. And when Diana writes about a real person, she reads that person's writing extensively to get a sense of them, and she tries not to make them any worse than they really were.

She is sometimes asked, since she’s of Spanish heritage, why she doesn’t write about Spain. Nobody asks that of a white mainstream author, however. A very good point. “The thing about being a novelist is that you can be anybody, anywhere, anytime.” The adage write what you know is wrong, she says; it should be write what you want to know, what interests you.

Finally, the theme of the conference was Sir Walter Scott, Sheriff and Outlaw. A writer, she says, is both. They are sheriffs because they make the rules and enforce them, but the characters disobey just like the populace. They are outlaws too because they are a law unto themselves.

She finished off the evening with a sparkling reading from the book she is working on and answered questions.

And I leave you with some of John’s amazing bagpipe music.