Books, Words, Writers, Writing

In Love With Your Words


“I do not care what car you drive. Where you live. If you know someone who knows someone who knows someone. If your clothes are this year’s cutting edge. If your trust fund is unlimited. If you are A-list B-list or never heard of you list. I only care about the words that flutter from your mind. They are the only thing you truly own. The only thing I will remember you by. I will not fall in love with your bones and skin. I will not fall in love with the places you have been. I will not fall in love with anything but the words that flutter from your extraordinary mind.”

Extraordinary Mind by Andre Jordan

{via For More I May Not Vouch}

Books, Fiction, Writing

Sir Realism vs Surrealism

If you already read/write surreal fiction, ignore this post. I’m indulging in a little masturbatory reflection here.

My thoughts are so loud I can’t hear my mouth, which is one of my body parts. And writing is done with the body. It’s a physical thing, something you feel in your bones, in your gut, and it moves down your arm and into your fingers where things flow through the pen, out onto paper, or on the keyboard.

Trouble is, it takes a long time for me to calm down enough to let my body write, to get down below my neck. I live from the neck up, inside my head. My reality imprisons me. It keeps me awake at night, staring at the ceiling, talking to dead people, or people who never existed. Actually, I only knew a few people who are now dead, and I often wonder where they went, where they are now, if anywhere.  Sometimes I dream about them, now memory cut-ups inside my head. Cut-ups. Dreams. There is some kind of mirror we step through at night in our sleep, through our own looking glass.

There is nothing more surreal than consensus reality. Those who say they know what reality is are practicing empire, folks. But they are whistling past the graveyard.  Sooner or later, they will notice a glitch. Sooner or later they will go down. Events in life often happen divorced from conventional logic, and writers and artists learn to observe these events and create things with them. Plenty of artists have tread a thin line between sanity and insanity. Surrealism isn’t everyone’s cup of tea because unbounded freedom is terrifying. It’s safer and saner to wander inside the prison of consensus. Writers are known to be substance abusers, but we have to stay sane somehow because unlike dreams, nothing can be arbitrary. Everything in the story or novel must contribute to an overall coherent point, impression, or emotion.

Surrealism doesn’t describe or contribute to consensus reality, but if it’s good, it adds up to some coherent observation about society, life, or other universal.  The idea is to write scenes the way dreams happen, in short bursts, with unexplained details, accepted realities that make no sense at all. Surreal fiction is grounded in everyday consensus reality, but it’s the writer’s job to make the unexplained details of their newly created realities work within the rules of the story. Let’s just admit it: Surrealists are revolting.

Oh, and I couldn’t finish this post without including 35 examples of surrealist literature.  If you prefer short stories, get your hands on a copy of “Sea Oak” by George Saunders. And while you’re at it, check out this review of it.



Books, Fiction, Humor, Writers

Irish Potatoes vs. Couch Potatoes

I’m a huge Flann O’Brien fan, and as such I’m slowly collecting individual softcover editions of his work (and other Irish authors’ works). He’s a writer’s writer, though, and shockingly under-appreciated. His ability to make dire, despair-filled conditions hilarious is unsurpassed genius. He is inclined to use words like “downpour,” “eternity,” and “potatoes” copiously in his scathing satire on the Irish. The closest we have to O’Brien today is John Stewart or maybe Conan O’Brien, given the attention span of couch potatoes.

What is it about Irish storytellers and Irish humor? My theory is that they haven’t had it easy, so humor comes as naturally as breathing. Not everyone would appreciate O’Brien’s gorgeous wit, however, but I rate his work top-shelf and as relevant for the 21st century as it was for the bleak years before and during WWII. I find myself reading passages aloud to myself with an accent that resembles Slavic rather than Gaelic. Nevertheless, here’s a sample passage from the opening chapter of  (sometimes called the funniest novel ever written) his 125-page novel, The Poor Mouth, A Bad Story About the Hard Life (1941) translated by Patrick C. Power and narrated by one Bonaparte O’Coonassa:

I was born in the West of Ireland on that awful winter’s night–may we all be healthy and safe!–in the place called Corkadoragha and in the townland named Lisnabrawshkeen. I was very young at the time I was born and had not aged even a single day; for half a year I did not perceive anything about me and did not know one person from the other…I spent that year on the broad of my back… I noticed my mother in the house before me, a decent, hefty, big-boned woman; a silent, cross, big-breasted woman. She seldom spoke to me and often struck me when I screamed in the end of the house.

I mail-ordered a Dalkey Archive edition and it arrived redolent with the writers’ and book lover’s scent, Eau de Nicotine and wrapped like a gift in Happy Easter wrapping tissue with a vintage picture postcard of St. Michael’s College in Winooski VT and a smiley-face “thank you” sticker tucked in for good measure.

Poor Mouth


Where’s the Material in My Crap-Bland World?

Everyone who reads a lot of fiction sooner or later begins to gravitate toward a particular genre, sub-genre, author, style, national region, etc. and begins to read everything she can get her hands on that fits one or more of those specific categories. Over the years I have narrowed down my preferences for, nay, my admiration of a specific range of work. I can’t say why this is so, except that after I read a work of fiction that rings with the qualities that make me laugh and cry over the truth that’s being expressed, and then read outside that range that other stuff seems so bland and ordinary. Like drinking espresso shots then starting on decaf…

The fiction culture that is tops for me is the Irish: Beckett, James Joyce, and Flann O’Brien. For me these three capture the expanse, depth, and complexity of the business of being human in writing–their craft, their insight, and the sheer enjoyment of poring over the poetry of their words, sentence by sentence. The next best for me are the Brits in general, 1980s-2000s, say, Roddy Doyle, Bruce Robinson, Irvine Welsh. These guys certainly aren’t anywhere in the same league as Beckett et al, but they nail the underlying pathos of existence to the wall with amazing dexterity and angst and gorgeous upper-cuts of black humor.

Screen Shot 2013-05-04 at 11.23.35 AMThe reason I wrote all of that was to say this: When a novice writer (one who hasn’t hit her stride yet, hasn’t found her voice, as they say) falls in love with a certain style of writing, but that style is completely foreign to her own experience and lifestyle, it creates a type of cognitive dissonance when she plays around with imitating that style and she finds herself frozen inside a huge block.

If you’ve seen the film “Trainspotting,” you know what scene I’m talking about. It’s not like in Welsh’s novel, though. And not everyone will appreciate my taste in literature, even if its author can claim Rabelais, Chaucer and Shakespeare as his bawdy forebears, with all their rich language and gut-deep truth. But it’s the humor and voice that I’m looking at in the following example (takes a bit of patience to get into the Scottish dialect flow–usually you’d never get away with writing like this, but for some reason it works for Welsh). Here’s Rent Boy in the bog (john) after he’s inserted those little wax “bombs” that promise to help him kick junk:

Ah whip oaf my keks* and sit oan the cold wet porcelain shunky. Ah empty ma guts, feeling as if everything; bowel, stomach, intestines, speleen, liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and fucking brains are aw falling through ma arsehole intae the bowl. As ah shit, flies batter oaf my face, sending shivers through ma body. Ah grab at one, and tae ma surprise and elation, feel it buzzing in ma hand. Ah squeeze tightly enough tae immobilise it. Ah open my mitt tae see a huge, filthy bluebottle, a big, furry currant ay a bastard.

Ah smear it against the wall opposite, tracing out an ‘H’ then an ‘I’ then a ‘B’ wi ma index finger, using its guts, tissue and blood as ink. An start oan the ‘S’ but ma supply grows thin. Nae problem. Ah borrow fae the ‘H’, which has a thick surplus, and complete the ‘S’. Ah sit as far back as ah can, withoot sliding intae the shit-pit below ays, and admire ma handiwork. The vile bluebottle, which caused me a great deal of distress, has been transformed intae a work of art which gives me much pleasure tae look at.


The problem with being an American writer, I’ve found, is that unless you come from the South, say, or maybe New England, there is only the crap-insipid strip mall culture and miles of bland suburbia with nothing but cars and concrete, where no one knows anyone, and friendships and one’s whole life are like fast food. Am I just whinging or did I strike a nerve?

I think I’m going to be sick.


Books, Lists, Reading

Free in the Age of Kindle: A List

Here’s a list of free, downloadable books. Its focus is literature, but there are other genres as well. Okay, you probably already knew about these free and legal sites. But I thought I’d post them anyway, just because I like lists.

Classic Bookshelf: This site has put classic novels online, from Charles Dickens to Charlotte Bronte.
The Online Books Page: The University of Pennsylvania hosts this book search and database.
Project Gutenberg: This famous site has over 27,000 free books online.
Page by Page Books: Find books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells, as well as speeches from George W. Bush on this site.
Classic Book Library: Genres here include historical fiction, history, science fiction, mystery, romance and children’s literature, but they’re all classics.
Classic Reader: Here you can read Shakespeare, young adult fiction and more.
Read Print: From George Orwell to Alexandre Dumas to George Eliot to Charles Darwin, this online library is stocked with the best classics.
Planet eBook: Download free classic literature titles here, from Dostoevsky to D.H. Lawrence to Joseph Conrad.
The Spectator Project: Montclair State University’s project features full-text, online versions of The Spectator and The Tatler.
Bibliomania: This site has more than 2,000 classic texts, plus study guides and reference books.
Online Library of Literature: Find full and unabridged texts of classic literature, including the Bronte sisters, Mark Twain and more.
Bartleby: Bartleby has much more than just the classics, but its collection of anthologies and other important novels made it famous. has a huge selection of novels, including works by Lewis Carroll, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, Flaubert, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others.
Free Classic Literature: Find British authors like Shakespeare and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, plus other authors like Jules Verne, Mark Twain, and more.
Banned Books: Here you can follow links of banned books to their full text online.
World eBook Library: This monstrous collection includes classics, encyclopedias, children’s books and a lot more.
DailyLit: DailyLit has everything from Moby Dick to the more recent phenomenon, Skinny Bitch.
A Celebration of Women Writers: The University of Pennsylvania’s page for women writers includes Newbery winners.
Free Online Novels: These novels are fully online and range from romance to religious fiction to historical fiction. Download mysteries and other books for your iPhone or eBook reader here.
Authorama: Books here are pulled from Google Books and more. You’ll find history books, novels and more.
Prize-winning books online: Use this directory to connect to full-text copies of Newbery winners, Nobel Prize winners and Pulitzer winners.


Books. Writing. Caffeine.

Summer vacation has been like this: I haul myself out of bed, fight into my clothes, get the Mr. packed up and out the door. House to myself, but it’s terrifying. Not the house, the day according to my mind.  To paraphrase Dostoyevsky, What if hell is a room with a chair in it? Or Dante: Abandon hope all ye who enter here.  They were both writers. They knew exactly what I’m feeling, I tell myself as I pour water into the kettle and put fire under it.

I do my bathroom stuff, putter around, stalling for awhile, until the kettle boils. I scald the teapot and pour out the water. In go three Irish Breakfast tea bags and I pour in boiling water, cover, and push a wool hat over the teapot to keep the heat in. I shuffle around some more, turn on the modem and the laptop, re-arrange the mess on my writing desk. Things are supposed to be brewing in my head. It’s writing time, hon, I tell myself. No escape. I get myself my favorite mug, pour tea, add milk and honey, and carry it to my red reading chair that sits next to my writing desk. I sink into the chair. Aaaaah. My favorite time of the day. I grab one of the fifty books I’m concurrently reading and settle in with my caffeine and pages from a published writer.

After my second cup, I’m revved up. I flip open the laptop or open a notebook, depending on what phase I am in with a story. If I have a tiny image or swatch of character, I’ll have pen in hand, scribbling. Or not. Usually I can’t sit still long enough to let things settle in. I’m up with my face in the fridge, staring at the eternal ant trails along the sink, petting my cat Freya. Something is going on in my head, though, I tell myself. I’m just not aware of it. It’s marinating in there somewhere, just let it sit and turn it over from time to time. Continue reading

Fiction, Writing

Memory vs. Facts (plus nature’s call while browsing)

Just this morning I was re-reading some entries in an old notebook from back in 2002. As a writer the idea of memory has intrigued me for some time. In one entry I wrote “Memory is overrated. It’s severely flawed, so what’s the point of it? How can we begin to understand reality if memory keeps getting in the way?” That entry reminded me (i.e., I remembered ✓) of a quote I recently found but don’t remember (✓) where: “The only difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.”

Memory is maddeningly subjective and infinitely malleable. As in asking someone to identify a perpetrator in a lineup. Or to recall (✓) events on Thursday, November 6, 1986. Some people can do a very convincing job. But no two will recall (✓) the events in exactly the same way. I only recently learned the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. The former is “an account of any part of the author’s life, delivered in any order, while the latter relates all of the notable events of the author’s life, typically in chronological order.” [quote from here]. Certainly some people’s memories are more reliable than others, but there is so much room for embellishment and gap-filling that both memoir and autobiography tread a thin line that distinguish them from fiction.

Transformation–taking the raw materials of your life, making small and large changes to turn what you know into fictional material. Transformation gives you power over events–life is disorganized, here you impose order; protects you–no one knows who he is; provides new insights by trying to see it from the point of view of your characters, not the people you knew; gives you power over your story. ~ Kit Reed

Another entry in this same notebook involved a visit to an old childhood hangout: Bart’s Books of Ojai, which calls itself as the world’s greatest outdoor bookstore. What does “greatest” mean? Best? Largest? Either way, it has (since the 1990′s) become a required destination for the upscale bibleoholic. Anyway, here is some of what I wrote:

For some reason bookstores are the best laxative on the planet. I wouldn’t dare go to a bookstore that did not provide a public restroom (I think bookstore owners understand this, hence you will probably never find a bookstore without a public restroom). There you are browsing the titles with your head bent to one side for hours (people always know what you’ve been up to because when you step out of the bookstore your ear still meets your shoulder for awhile). You see a hundreds of books on thousands of subjects. You pull this one then that one. You move to a different section. Something jars your memory (✓). A title. An author’s name. Some list you left at home with a name on it. Some idea, some story, some image.

Pretty soon you realize it’s time to find the restroom. You high-tail it to the sign with the appropriate gender word on the door and hurry to do your business. It never fails (same as reading on the john), annoying as it is because it interrupted the flow of that day’s quest. You finish, wash your hands and leave passing a line of others who also had the same urge. Life presents such oddities. Bart’s has one unisex restroom. To get to it you have to sidle through a long aisle stuffed with travel books. 

Yesterday I was in Bart’s. That place is older than dirt. It looks a tad seedy, yet comfy, Bohemian, with a garden courtyard between two old houses and surrounded by a fence of bookshelves.  The place is open to the elements, protected only by large umbrellas. A labyrinth of nooks and crannies filled with mouldering books. Trees grow in the middle of aisles. One of the buildings houses art prints and art books. The other features collectors’ editions with a separate room just for cookbooks. No one hassles you. You can wander in there for hours and days. You could get lost and sleep over night in there and no one would know. Most of the books have minimal value, but sometimes you can find a gem. I found a first English edition of Spengler’s The Decline of the West for $30. I was browsing the travel books as I waited to use the john (I had put off using it too long).  I could hear someone in there rustling around. This person was taking forever. My bladder was having none of it. I imagined its face to be the very one in Munch’s “The Scream.” Continue reading