Emotions, Fiction, random thoughts, Writing

Some Thoughts About Empty Icons

I’m looking out my window at a few yellow leaves that cling to bedraggled branches. I’m wearing a thick jacket because I have no income and I have to save heating costs so I can afford to eat. My hands are numb with cold as I revise my stack of short stories and write this post. “Cyber Monday” has thankfully passed as the feeding frenzy ensues toward a fiscal freefall. For me, a smart phone is out of the question.I am nearly finished reading a used copy of Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson, which is an ode to impermanence.

A glop of anger sloshes perpetually around and bumps against my insides about countless things like the $165 billion in food that Americans waste every year, like the loss of entire species like caribou, salmon, lions, elephants. Like the willful denial of the earth’s climate change. Like the…Someone stop me from banging on for hours here. Thank you.

Why am I writing all this on a blog that aspires to explore the experience of writing fiction? I think it has to do with memory and image which are at the heart of all fiction. Unfortunately for the planet they also comprise the heart of American advertising and manufactured scarcity (although not much, including scarcity, is manufactured here any more) which yields consumption. The quickest way to the American wallet is through image and memory.

The image of Twinkies is all about romance and image and memory (nostalgia for a non-existent past), an American icon like dad driving on a family vacation, like a refrigerator filled with food, like a writer bent over a typewriter. The name “Hostess” (which began in the 1930s) is so kitschy 1950s, and the blond Twinkies oozing cream from their centers so suggestive, and the empty calories so a part of so many people’s empty childhoods. Like so many acquired brands (Nabisco, for example) that discontinued nostalgia and its products that you can’t buy now at any price.

There is something so fragile, so sadly transient about image and memory. The Hostess Brand, like so many other things, is in liquidation at this writing. It is the end of an era and there are no images or memories for an end-run. It is over. Finished. Yet memory and longing outlive us all.


I Will Not Be Eating Turkey Today

Through their stories, fiction writers can either perpetuate myths or they can debunk them.

Today is what Americans call Thanksgiving. The cold cases in the supermarkets have been stuffed with brined turkeys, all neatly packaged and bar coded, all week. But today I will not be eating turkey. My soul aches when I see homeless people who are brought out to eat a charity feast once a year. I will not be commemorating a myth that is largely false.

I am of European ancestry, but today I am steeping myself in the Native American story. Not the fictionalized one in doctored history books served up in schools and infused in the collective story of white denial, but from the great people themselves. I am listening to Red Thunder, Robbie Robertson, and other amazing musicians who bring tears to my eyes and stretch my heart out to a different horizon. I am listening to accounts of genocide that has gone on for hundreds of years, not only on American shores, but in nations all over the planet.

I am listening to stories of the forced sterilization of women, of the removal of children from their parents to live in the homes of white people who strip them of their cultures, their spiritual traditions, themselves. I am listening to stories of how alcohol causes diabetes in Native Americans; how dealers, sometimes Indian dealers, sell dangerous drugs on reservations. I’m talking dangerous drugs, not the ones given to us by Mother Nature to expand our spirit. (See: “We Live to Survive: One Week with Lakota“–around 14:00 the video shows groups of inebriated residents from Pine Ridge; around 21:00 we learn about “huffing alley;” if this isn’t the degradation of native spirit, I don’t know what is.)

Several years before the government made such ceremonies illegal, I was privileged to take part in an all-night peyote ceremony. I had no introduction. I had no idea what to expect. I helped to prepare the medicine. I tried to be inconspicuous, ignorant as I was (and still am). When night fell I sat in the tipi circle with an open mind and let what come. The experience was life-changing. I got a taste of how removed I am from myself, from the earth, from truth. I was overwhelmed by my own blindness, how lost, how  stone-like my heart. Yet the young man who sat next to me the entire ceremony showed me how not to be afraid by himself not being afraid. Let it flow. Everything in its moment and everything as it comes, he seemed to be saying, without a word. It was truly a humbling experience, to learn how limited I am, yet how life flows through me as it does everything else, an eternal river, an eternal road, yearning like everyone else to go home.

Expansive, sacred peyote and the naked moon, stars falling down through the opening above as our spirits rose.

Your people lost a great one, Russel Means (who went to the other side one month ago today).

I will  not be eating turkey today.

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

Process, Writing

Loss, Forgetting, Regret, and Writing

As in the old agenbite of inwit.

Okay, I’m not a therapist by any stretch. But one of the things I’m learning about writing is that you can re-visit your regrets and write about them in a blog or letter or story or book. You can keep them private or publicize them. But getting them out into the open can be cleansing and healing.

Next week finishes another term. The final project for this poetry class is to choose five of nine poems we wrote and revise them to turn in as a portfolio, which our prof will grade. Whenever I finish a class I always wonder if I could have done more, asked more questions, read more, contributed more. Somehow nothing ever feels complete.

I’m wrestling with a very obstinate short story. I’ve already written like five drafts and it still sucks. It’s one of those animals that circles the area from a distance, eying me and sniffing me out, but as soon as I move it darts away. I spent several hours writing paragraphs and scratching them out today. Ditto this evening. It doesn’t feel like writing, but it is. If only I’d spent more time writing rather than playing on various websites. If only I’d spent more time reading rather than watching television or washing dishes.

Then, too, things have a way of not staying in place. Awhile ago I was looking for the name of a short story that I remember as my favorite in a collection. But naturally I forgot both the name of the story and the author because my head’s too stuffed with junk. It was about girls at a summer camp. I didn’t have anything to type into the search box in Powell’s and kept scoring zero. But then I remembered that the author’s name had a “z” in it. So? I couldn’t use that in a search query. I seem to recall she’d written a book with the word “coffee” in it. I thought it was a novel. So I went to Amazon and hit the advanced search feature. I typed in all I knew: keyword: cofeee; category: literature, fiction. It took me to a page where I saw ZZ Packer’s name about two books deep on the page–a short story collection by ZZ Packer. Ah ha! So I typed her name + short stories into the search engine and saw “Brownies” on a scan of the results. I clicked the link and recognized the plot summary. But I still couldn’t remember where I put the book.  And why I couldn’t find my notes that went with it? Forgetfulness. Possibly a theme for a story. I know Proust is known for remembering things; maybe forgetting is more appropriate for the age I live in.

Continue reading

Process, Revelations, Writing

Haruki Murakami as an Unrealistic Dreamer

I’ve been feeling uneasy as memories are stirred up on the one-year anniversary of the Fukushima triple disaster. I’ve been reading news and tweets all over the place about the after effects of radiation that continue to show up around the planet. After saturating myself with “facts” and opinions,  I realized what I really needed was the perspective of an artist who looks beneath the surface of things, who observes life from

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami

the eye of the heart. So I came across Haruki Murakami‘s acceptance speech on receiving the Catalunya International Prize last summer. It’s one of the most compelling speeches on one of the most horrifying topics I could ever dream of reading. Murakami is on my “to read” list, but now I need to read him more than ever. You can find a translated copy of his speech here.

One commenter wrote that “unrealistic dreamers” should rule the world but that will probably never happen. I agree. Not as long as malignant narcissists keep their iron grip on things. As a writer myself, I understand the ethical imperative to use my art to help raise the level of human consciousness on this planet, even if the results are only microscopic. Microscopic is better than zero.

Emotions, poetry, Revelations, School, Writing

Eight Intelligences

As a writer I have to make a concerted effort to observe things with my eyes and ears, what’s going on around me, what people are there, what they are doing and saying, and what’s in the room or on the street. Observation is the lifeblood of inspiration and depth in one’s work.

But as a poet, I don’t have to try to feel things deeply. I’ve always done it effortlessly on a level that can’t always be articulated.

At the risk of sounding spoogey, I can only describe it as though an invisible, permeable membrane surrounds my body. I’m not psychic or anything like that, but I do feel things deeply–empathic, perhaps. I think most of us have this ability. But we’re also taught to ignore our feelings, to push them down as a sign of weakness. They are, after all, irrational and they don’t serve commerce.

We are, most of us, hyper-aware on some level that something is going very wrong on our planet–unprecedented climate patterns, mass extinctions, irrational human behavior, and so forth. Often we can point to what it is, but just as often we cannot.

I watch nature for signs, for meaning, for warnings. I didn’t read a book to do this. No one taught me. I feel it. For example, I know if it’s going to be a wet winter if a lot of orb spiders spin webs around our house. I know something is really off when our evergreen Portuguese bay tree leaves begin to turn yellow and it produces massive amounts of purple berries–something it’s never done before. I know something is weird when spring birds have already begun arriving in early January.

My reason for writing this blog is that as a writer, although I know I must write every day no matter what’s going on no matter how I feel, sometimes the silent wail of the planet and its creatures is too alarming as it pushes against me like a fist. It crushes my heart. It all seems just too overwhelming, you know what I mean? Sometimes I just sit, frozen in a theater of images that make no sense.

Apparently we have not one but eight intelligences. Yet we use only two of these in our current education system. This is unfortunate, to put it mildly. They are silent because they’ve been shut out for so long. But we carry all of them within us. If we were to tap into more than two of them, perhaps we could regain our rightful gifts as a species. We have only to sit very still among the trees, under a night sky, in a quiet room, or other environment outside the blinding and deafening human world and listen.  For me that’s usually around three or four in the morning, staring up at the dark ceiling when I wake feeling very, very alone.

The Eight Intelligences

Emotions, Notebooks, Revelations, Writing

Paying Attention to Detail

I was reading through one of my old notebooks. It was an amazing experience. Amazing because I’d forgotten about so much of it. Life is very much a white rabbit, always vanishing down its hole, carrying a pocket watch as it goes.

Notes in a Moleskine notebook

I re-discovered an experiment I did once, suggested by Jack Heffron in his Writer’s Idea Book. One night I left my notebook at my bedside and as soon as I woke the next morning wrote down as much as I could remember about my dreams.  I carried the notebook around with me all day and wrote down everything I did, things I saw, people I met, places I went in as much detail as I could (capturing detail is a real challenge for me).

I ended my walk at a local coffee shop and had an herbal tea, writing more in the notebook, sketching the people inside. I continued to write in the notebook until I went to sleep that night. The next day I re-read what I’d written. It was quite a volume of material. A single day in the life. What amazed me, though, is that some of what happened in the dream I recorded also took place during the day.  I don’t know what that means and I won’t speculate. But because, like everyone else, I’m caught up in all my distractions during the day, I never would have caught this had I not written it all down. The most valuable results from the exercise were the amount of details I managed to capture. It doesn’t matter if I use them in a project. What matters is that I paid enough attention.

As a side note, I’m trying to observe how shame and suffering work in our lives. I’m trying to pay close attention to unseen gesture and emotion (what people repress out of fear, shame, shyness, whatever). It’s always very subtle.

The most difficult of all is paying extraordinarily close attention to what is on my mind.


When Books Were My Only Friends

I was an only, lonely child. I had no other relatives except one pair of adoptive parents and one pair of adoptive grandparents. That’s it. And my father’s occupation required that we move to a new city often, so I never learned the art of socializing.

This combination of factors was responsible for me being an introvert and for books being my only friends as I grew up. I disappeared in the worlds opened to me between the pages of books: Alice in Wonderland, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, and other childhood classics as well as many obscure titles (like Wind on the Moon). I was a member of a children’s book club. I joined the library book club summer reading program every year. One summer I read every book on the small Ojai Valley Library sci-fi shelves. I read under the covers with a flashlight. I read in the crotch of my grandmother’s apple tree. I read in tree houses, in orange groves, in travel trailers, in the back seat of cars, in restaurants, in waiting rooms, and among water willows near one of the homes where I lived.

My grandfather used to serve me milk with a little coffee in it (about 4 parts milk:1 part coffee) when I was around four. He served it to everyone in multi-colored Fiestaware pottery tumblers with removable wooden and steel go-along handles. Over time he kept adding more coffee to my milk until he decided I was old enough to change the ratio: 1 part half and half: 4 parts coffee. I’d sit at my grandparents’ Formica table and read: Gone with the Wind, The Confessions of Nat Turner, The Virginian and drink coffee laced with half and half every day, lost in the fictive dream. My grandfather meant well. He had no idea I’d be a life-long coffee addict with a big fat reading habit. As I wrote in another post, I’m the world’s slowest reader, but that’s okay. Maybe I savor my books because life’s too short to waste on forgettable fiction.

P.S. I still don’t have any friends, but I have a LOT more books (read and un-read) on my shelves.


RIP Happy Prince

You know the old saying, “a house is not a home,” right?  I’ve moved around so much in my life since the day I was born that I’ve never really lived in a place that felt like home. As a result I’ve “misplaced” many objects that I didn’t miss until much later, and some of them carried a world of memory with them. I don’t know why.

Some of these objects were books. Have you ever had a favorite childhood book? I had an old book among my childhood collections that I was always aware of, and occasionally thumbed through because the images took me into other worlds; some of the stories also continue to haunt me today. But I just realized this year that I haven’t seen that book in years. I doubt I would have gotten rid of it on purpose. I have other childhood books that I cared a lot less about.

The book was a specific edition of The Happy Prince and Other Tales, by Oscar Wilde published by the Literary Guild of America: New York, 1940, 148 pages. Illustrated by Everett Shinn.  The book had pictorial end papers and several full page color illustrations as well as numerous line drawings printed at the page edges beside the text.

The preface was written for adults by the illustrator Everett Shinn. The stories in the book included The Happy Prince; The Fisherman and his Soul; The Birthday of the Infanta; The Young King; The Star-Child; The Nightingale and the Rose (my favorite) ; and The Selfish Giant.

I didn’t know who Oscar Wilde was, much less that “Happy Prince” has gay implications, much less what “gay” even meant.

But now I recall the cover which is repeated in more extensive format in the end papers and I recall the wonderful line drawings.



Personal, Writing

My Gothic Nostalgia, Part 1

Yes, I’m dating myself when I say that I miss the traditional Gothic community that flourished around the planet through the 1980s and 1990s. I fell deeply, darkly in love with the entire scene for the better part of the 1990s. So much in love that I started my own Gothic literary magazine. Which is probably an oxymoron for the purist types, but it got some good reviews for those of us who are MFA challenged.

See, for me it all started with bands like The Cure, Joy Division, Sisters of Mercy, Fields of the Nepthilim, and New Order. Books written by Ann Rice and Poppy Z. Brite. The oldsters, I know. And even more obscure the two magazines that absolutely swept me into a new dimension of funereal loveliness: Ghastly and Project (both out of print), which were for the most part dedicated to Gothic fashion, but the only two Goth zines I knew of back in 1990.

I decided I would take things in a slightly different direction. New Order’s song Elegia gave me the name, and I sent for submissions at a writer’s collective (no longer around) called Scavenger’s Newsletter. I got enough submissions to publish the first issue in 5 X 8 format. I photocopied the edited stories and poems and some graphics I found in old books (the Internet wasn’t even a word anyone used back then), all at a little shop, then folded and stapled them myself.

I gave the pages a red cover and hand-lettered “Elegia: A Journey into the Gothic,” volume 1, issue 1, $1.50. No paid advertising, but I photocopied a few ads I found just for fun and mailed it out to everyone who had submitted. It was great fun. So much fun that I put out six more issues (in 8 X 12 format), although with longer time in bewtween each.

The reason I had to write this post is in memory of those days before technology and subsequent generations of the Gothic left the truly dark and lovely images behind. When I do a search for “Gothic” now, I see an entirely different mind-set. Not that it doesn’t have its place, but it lacks something I don’t have a language for.

Back in the day the elegance, the gorgeous lament, the music, the fascination with all things funereal captured my heart and soul. I dressed the part, yes, and wrote and thought, and created, and everything I did came from that exquisite sensibility. Leila Wendell, Timothy Renner, Sam Rosenthal, Drucilla Blood, and all the company of night lace and cemeteries…ah how I miss them.

Sigh. Yet there is still one corner of the Internet where I can listen and watch the old Gothic rush over and through me, and that’s whenever I listen to and watch Mary Fahl sing Bury My Lovely on YouTube. No one these days classifies October Project as Gothic, but I don’t care. I’ll take it where I can find it.

I guess my sentiment calls to me. It’s never very far beneath the surface, even though these days I rarely visit cemeteries and my wardrobe has colors besides black. I retired my Docs and my black cape. I still have my fangs. But nowadays the Gothic lives undead in my mind…wait…that’s where it always lived, undead.