One of those ‘God Things’

Sep 22, 2018 by

One of those “God Things”

There are times in life when I’ve found myself saying I’m in the middle of one of those “God Things.” Where no amount of my own pushing seems to be getting my anywhere, and then when it’s God’s time, things click right into place.

The seal of The Grammatic Artist.

Over the past three or four weeks now I’ve been working on the premise for a book project. I actually have a very well developed Hero’s Journey. The story takes place in two worlds. One where my primary character is having a dream/encounter where an angel has appeared and is taking him to a meeting with God. On the outside world, he’s on his way to the funeral of his maternal grandfather, the last of his grandparents, and the woman who takes the seat next to him on the flight, not his wife–she has declined to go with him–tells him it sounds like to her he’s grieving a lot more than the loss of his grandfather.

The day I really got to working on the plot of the Hero’s Journey, I found myself at Kinkaid’s Hamburger’s with my own personal mentor Ron Rose. The discussions we had were timely to what each other were doing. The conversation itself became on of those God Things.

As I continued working, things have fallen into place in like manner.

This past Monday I spent an hour with my preacher who suggested I do more to punch up the ferociousness my lead character has when he has his meeting with God, assuming this is a work of fiction. One I’m trying to make more mainstream than a Christian novel.

Then tonight, I met someone at a Mexican restaurant who it sounds like can help me punch up some of the scenes I’ve been struggling with. Another God Thing. She herself has written a book about finding God in unlikely places. I ordered hers from Amazon already. What are the odds?

I’m behind in my book reviews–nine books behind right now–When Life Gives You Lululemons, The Summer that Melted Everything, Imagine Me Gone, My Name is Lucy Barton, Are you There God? It’s Me Margaret, The Outsider, Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine, Across the River and Into the Trees, and Tailspin, all because I’ve been working on this new book idea.

But that’s okay, because I’m into one of those “God Things,” and when those are happening, well, anything can happen from there….

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My Summer Vacation 2018

Sep 6, 2018 by

My Summer Vacation 2018

During my summer vacation 2018 I travelled the world and never left North Texas. How’s that? I read 40 novels and visited at least three other continents, eight other countries, and many other US cities, all from my living room. And I’ve tried to keep a list of the people I’ve met, but it’s well over 100, so I’ve quit counting. Oh, and I traveled back and forth through time. That is an important point I need to emphasize because when it came to Paris, that really sent my mind for a whirl.

The seal of The Grammatic Artist.

So what did I read this summer and how did I pick the books?

My Summer Reading List

I have been reading straight fiction with a purpose since December 2016. My goal is to read 101 works of fiction in order to improve my writing as a fiction author. Already I have seen improvement in my work, but it was midway through this summer’s reading when a light bulb came on in my head and showed me that I need to work harder at raising the stakes and writing more passionately about the human condition. My perspective about writing, the innocence of telling a story shifted, and as much as I disliked reading Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, I have to admit, I think that’s the book that awakened me to what I just explained. I didn’t like his book because I thought he was a little too much like Henry James, and packed what he could say in four pages into 20. But the realness of the book, the human emotion, the rawness, that spoke to me, and I’ve seen it, looked for it, or been aware of it not being there in every book I have read since.

So what are the 40 books I read this summer?

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway

The Torrents of Spring, Ernest Hemingway

The Figure in the Carpet Henry James

The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway 

EileenOttessa Moshfegh

Animal Farm, George Orwell

The OverstoryRichard Powers

The Captives, Debra Jo Immergut 

10 Scoop, Evelyn Waugh

11 Warlight, Michael Ondaatje

12 The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin

13 Your Destination is on the Left, Lauren Spieller

14 The President is MissingBill Clinton and James Patterson

15 Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler

16 The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah

17  Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, Oscar Wilde

18 A Long Way From Home, Peter Carey

19 My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh

20  The Pearl, John Steinbeck

21 The Human StainPhilip Roth

22 The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante

23 The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne 

24 Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

25 There There, Tommy Orange 

26 The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

27 The Woman in the Window, A. J. Finn

28 When Life Gives You Lululemons, Lauren Weisberger

29 The Summer That Melted Everything, Tiffany McDaniel

30  Across the River and into the Trees,  Ernest Hemingway

31 Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout 

32 Imagine Me Gone, Adam Haslett

33 My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout 

34 Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume

35 The Outsider, Stephen King

36 On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan

37 The Paris Wife, Paula McLain

38 To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway

39 The Waters and the Wild, DeSales Harrison

40 Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate

Where Have I Been This Summer?

In reading 40 books, you’d think I’d been to a lot of unique places, but that’s the thing, it seemed like I ended up in some more frequent locations, just at different times. But that’s okay. There were lessons to be learned in this regard as well, particularly when it comes to Paris.

And this happened by chance, it was not planned. You see, I have been making a careful study of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and their days in Paris in the 1920s and early 1930s. Add in Paula McLain’s perspective with The Paris Wife, told through the point of view of Hadley Hemingway, fictionally, then you have a pretty good idea of what Parisian life was like pre-World War II. Then when you pick up The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and read about the Nazi’s invading Paris and rounding up the Jews, well, then your head does a weird emotional turn–probably something very similar to what it was like when the Nazis were taking over and rounding up the Jews and sending them away, shooting people in the streets, and it becomes hard to comprehend and imagine in juxtaposition to the color and magic described by Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

I would not have had this experience had I not invested so much time with Fitzgerald, Hemingway and McLain in advance and then read Hannah.

But this is just one instance.

I came to the belief that drunken women on pills should be its on genre in bookstores, only to realize that this is an old trope itself–Valley of the Dolls, which I’ve not read. Regardless, it is prolific in today’s modern literature. And it sells. Why? I’m not exactly sure, but it does. Ottessah Moshfegh’s book this summer hit the New York Times Bestseller list for one week with My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window spent weeks this summer on the NYT bestseller list. (Both stories centered in NYC).

Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home  took me on a road race in the 1950s around the continent of Australia and then got side tracked in an Aboriginal camp.

The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway took me fishing and bullfighting in Spain. I didn’t realize it got so hot there in the summer. 

I re-read The Pearl by John Steinbeck and had forgotten about the racism and greed and evil that can come from having found a gem like that. 

I made it to Africa with Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. Though the book was somewhat confusing at times, it was nonetheless a good commentary on the news media.

Then there were the books on Maine–Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone, and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. How it was I managed to read them back-to-back the Lord will only know, but that’s how my reading adventures seemed to work out.

Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere and Tiffany McDaniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything brought me to Ohio.

There and Back Again

What have I learned? I think in many ways, I’m still figuring that out. I have noted that I need to do more in raising the stakes in my writing. I’m not going far enough in my negation of the negation–I’m not getting to the very end. But like I said, The Human Stain helped me see this more clearly. I do not, however, see myself reading another “Roth.” The guy is just too wordy.

I read 14 novels in August. I’ve finished one so far in September. Off pace already. Right now I’m 20 pages into Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and I’m wondering why in the world it was necessary to describe her getting a Hollywood wax job by page 16.  Has including that much sexual detail become completely necessary to entice someone to keep reading a story that might not otherwise be able to stand on its own? Or is this something for a book club? I’m beginning to see a pattern in books for book clubs–lots of explicit sex, presumably to keep housewives interested in the reading to keep them coming back for more? I don’t know, because to me it seems like–well, it’s not the best of literature, that’s for damned sure.

Okay, time to do some writing for the day.

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The Human Stain by Philip Roth

Aug 9, 2018 by

The Human Stain by Philip Roth

I finished The Human Stain by Philip Roth this past weekend and at times felt like reading the places where he crammed four pages of internal monologue into 20 it should have been called The Human “Strain.” I read this book on my Kindle and listened to other parts on Audible to help speed things along. I don’t normally do that but there was so much gray on the pages my brain needed a break.

The Human Stain

The Human Stain

The Human Strain

All that said, I did like the story, and more importantly, I learned some important things about writing from reading The Human Stain. That simply must be emphasized here. There were times Saturday when I wanted to drive to Interabang Books in Dallas and buy a hard copy of the book to have to underline in it, so I can go back to passages in time and read them again and pull from them, possibly. But then I got to sections, like when Delphine Roux has her thoughts … and thoughts … and thoughts … and thoughts … and thoughts … right before the climax of the book and I damn near put it down for good.

This is what one is taught not to do is writing schools. And yet the book was the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award. So like in all things, there are rules, but then they are meant for everyone else.

There was a lot of head hopping in this book, things that Nathan Zuckerman could not have known to write it. When he’s supposing in his head about a character, like the example above of Delphine Roux, an antagonist of protagonist Coleman Silk throughout the work, suddenly in the next sentence, we’re in Delphine’s head and we know all about her life in France before coming to America. We know about men she was with. We know about her mom and her mom’s French history. We even get to hear her mom talk. We know about a trip she took to New York. We know how she sent an anonymous letter. We know how she contrived a b.s. story to tie in to the death of Coleman Silk. None of which Zuckerman could have known–yet he presents it in the story as fact. The same for Les Farley. The same for Faunia Farley. The same for Coleman Silk. The same for the guys who take Les Farley to the Chinese restaurant and out to the portable Vietnam Wall.

Yes, this is fiction, but I had a hard time with that, when it’s been drilled into my head, “No head hopping.”

Half-Mast v. Half-Staff

Another point, Roth shows he has vast knowledge of the classics, foreign languages, literature, the psyche of the human condition, etc, (and that’s a big etc.) but he makes the simplest of mistakes which makes me question all the rest of it. The mistake? He says, repeatedly, that the US flags have been lowered to “Half Mast.” Only problem is that masts are on boats, and most flags in the US, particularly the ones on land, fly on staffs, so the proper use of the term is to say, “Flags are flown at half-staff.” So I wonder if his editors, being so overwhelmed with all the other profundity, simply didn’t bother to check. “He must be right!” Or had their minds been so numbed with the 4 pages into 20 monologues they were simply to fried to check out something so simple.

Raising the Stakes – Negation of the Negation

But I came away with a better sense of the proverbial “raising the stakes.” The Robert McKee point of the “Negation of the Negation.”

Coleman Silk has a secret and that secret ultimately isn’t his undoing, but drives the story to the dark corners it sheds light upon. And that’s the beauty of what Philip Roth does with The Human Stain. Race, political correctness, morality, family relationships, secrets, all those themes are woven together and pushed as far as they can be taken. And that is what works in this book. That is what makes it a good read, and a beneficial read as I continue to work toward my goal of reading 101 literary works to help improve my own writing.

Conclusion

Read The Human StainIt won the PEN/Faulkner Award. After seeing Faulkner’s name, yeah, I can see why. (If I could think like that and the synapses and dendrites of my neural pathways were not searing from having spent forty-eight hours of heat-seared Texas summer time sunlight and unseasonably cool evenings surveying the pages of Philip Roth’s book searching for the meaning in his words and trying to find personal meaning and satisfaction in each single solitary one of them for my own beneficial use, I’d write a long and in-depth sentence explaining how that makes every bit of perfect sense to me and how when each new day begins for the rest of my life I will be a changed man because of reading such expansive thoughts that he included on his pages, well, you get the idea….)

 

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On Chesil Beach–Book Review

May 5, 2018 by

On Chesil Beach

Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, (book 67 on my reading list) a book I read for the Dallas bookstore Interabang’s book club, is a work I am not sure I would have read on my own and am not sure how I will feel about openly talking about at book club in June. But once you get past the vivid descriptions of honeymoon sex between Florence and Edward, the two main characters in the book, there is a tremendous story, and I do mean a tremendous story that makes the book a fabulous read. It’s just the sticky parts, if you will pardon the pun, that make it, well, yeah.

On Chesil Beach

Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach.

McEwan’s writing is colorful and deliberate. There is no mincing of words in description and emotions of the characters is right there on the page for all to see, feel, and experience. I’ve been working on a book that at parts my advisor from SMU warns might get me banned from libraries. I promise you, it has nothing on this book. NOTHING.

But the parts where McEwan explores the heart of Edward and his feelings about his love for Florence, his new wife, are exquisite. On page 152, Edward thinks to himself, “He was discovering that being in love was not a steady state, but a matter of fresh surges or waves, and he was experiencing one now.”

Pages 177-78 set up the crux of Florence’s inner argument in such an amazing way:

“It was the brooding expectation of her giving more, and because she didn’t, she was a disappointment for slowing everything down. Whatever new frontier she crossed, there was always another waiting for her. Every concession she made increased the demand, and then the disappointment. Even in their happiest moments, there was always the accusing shadow, the barely hidden gloom of his unfulfillment, looming like an alp, a form of perpetual sorrow which had been accepted by them both as her responsibility.”

The San Francisco Chronicle called the book a “perfect novel.” I’m not sure there is such a thing. With all the sexual content, I cannot agree with that. Yes, I know this is part of life, birds and bees and all, I just can’t dub the perfect novel one about so much vivid sex. The back story that feeds it, yes. And I understand why it’s necessary to have it to feed the backstory, just call me a prude. I’d like to take my daughter to book club next month and I’m not really going to feel comfortable doing that given the nature of this book.

The writing is quite good, that said. The story is one I do recommend. It will stick with you and make you think. And that is what a novel and good characters are supposed to do. And what the perfect novel is supposed, in fact, to be. Yes, I’m contradicting myself. Read a few pages as a parent with children and you will understand why….

The Movie

As you may know, the movie, starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, will be released on May 18, 2018. Reviews for the film are not out, but I will update the post, or make a new one once the movie is out. It will be interesting to see how they externalize the emotions of the two characters when so much of the book is internalized. The trailer looks quite good and in reading the comments, most commenters have little idea what the story is about. Though I did find it comical when one described it as “Fifty Shades of Gray, limited British version.”

Here’s the trailer for your benefit.

What I did notice in the trailer and you can see in the image above as they’re sitting out by the ocean, he’s wearing his coat and tie. On page 175 when he comes to her there in the book, she thinks to herself, “At least he had not put on his tie!” So the adaptation skews from the book and ventures into its own territory. It will be interesting to see how far.

 

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Cameron, Fitzgerald, Hanks & Hemingway

Apr 5, 2018 by

Cameron, Fitzgerald, Hanks & Hemingway

Credibility, May Day, The Past is Important to Us & Fifty Grand

I witnessed a cosmic literary alignment this week when reading selections of Julia Cameron, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Hanks, and Ernest Hemingway randomly together. Each of them fit together in a unique way.

Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron’s essay “Credibility” taken from her Right to Write fits with the others like a glove.

Four great writers who sat down and wrote to overcome their fear of whether or not they were good enough.

The essay says that in America we have a conviction “that being published has to do with being ‘good’ while not being published has to do with being ‘amateur.’ We treat the unpublished writher as though he or she suffers an embarrassing case of unrequited love.”

Her male counterparts understood the importance of the act of writing.

What if F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Hanks, and Ernest Hemingway had all said to themselves, “My writing isn’t good enough to publish. I’m just going to stick it in the drawer.”

Or worse, “I’m just not good enough.”

Or worse still, “I’ll never be good enough, so I’m not going to write at all.”

You may think I am joking about this, but how many people do you know who have said this? The answer is too many.

Anyone can sit down and write. And the more they do so, the better they will get. As long as they are reading, too.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “May Day,” his first great novelette, was published in July 1920, and related to a series of events that took place in his life in 1919. He feared that he had “unsuccessfully” woven the events into a pattern in his story. But he published the story regardless and it is a wonderful piece of writing.

His story details a Yale reunion on May 1-2, 1919 in New York and follows the antics of Gordon Sterrett, Phillip Dean, Edith Bradin, Carrol Key, Gus Rose, and Peter Himmel. The tale is sad, but has moments of color, yet is told masterfully.

Gordy is caught in a pickle and a situation of misery he seems to have created on his own. But reading the story one gets the sense of the true genius of Fitzgerald’s writing.

Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks’ “The Past is Important to Us,” in his book, Uncommon Type, introduces us to Bert Allenberry, also in New York City, who has developed a time machine that allows him to go from near future to June 8, 1939 where he frequents the World’s Fair and finds himself infatuated with a woman from another time.

Hanks weaves a great tale of Bert not being happy with what he has, all the money he could want, and longing for something he can’t have. Like Gordy, Bert’s demise is created out of his own greed. The underlying theme is very much the same between the two stories written almost 100 years apart.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway’s story, “Fifty Grand,” from The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, The Hemingway Library Edition, involves a washed-up boxer named Jack Brennan who is facing his last fight and puts $50,000 down on himself to lose.

This is another story set in New York city. In this edition, there are extras with previous versions of the stories included. Right behind the published edition is exhibit 12A which has the note, “1st 3 pages of story mutilated by Scott Fitzgerald with his—.”

Boxing stories aren’t really my thing, but Hemingway’s writing is so rich and concise. Remember, he says 80 percent of a story should be like an iceberg—with the bulk of it unseen.

Conclusion

So how is it that I can pick up four books randomly and read four separate pieces together and they have overlapping themes?

That remains a mystery, but in part, Hemingway and Fitzgerald hung out together as best friends. They fed off each other. Tom Hanks has been an actor, screenwriter, director, and producer. His writings also have appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker. His book Uncommon Type, where every story features a typewriter, is his first collection of fiction.

Each of these writers overcame what Julia Cameron wrote about in her essay “Credibility.” They, like all writers, heard the call all writers hear and did something about their need to write. They sat down with blank sheets of paper, pricked their fingers and poured their hearts out onto the pages before them. Then they went back time and again and revised and made their words better and better and better.

I’ve been studying and writing short stories of late. Writing short stories is a pathway to the soul of writing. They don’t allow for lengthy writing. A writer must be concise. The transformation of the lead character must happen in a few paragraphs. The whole story is contained to about 1,500 words. This demands practice and determination. Once a writer perfects such a medium, he/she is better prepared for novel writing. Or so the theory goes.

I’m about to do my fourth revision of my novel The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club. I’ve been writing short stories for about two months now. They are a joy to compose and challenging as well. My word usage is much tighter than before. That’s the biggest thing to come from this exercise, but so is the joy of telling new stories. I highly recommend such a study. Not to mention reading from masters like the four authors above. You will be surprised how much you will learn.

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A Short Story Audience with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Hanks & Cameron

Mar 27, 2018 by

A Short Story Audience with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Hanks & Cameron

What I am writing is one of the sanest things I’ve ever come to know in my life. Each evening of late, I’ve had private, short story audience with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Hanks, and Julia Cameron.

Realizing that Hem., aka Papa, committed suicide in July 1961, and that Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at age 44 in 1940, that Tom Hanks is a Hollywood A-lister and I am not, and Julia Cameron, although she is on Twitter, has never liked one of my tweets mentioning my progress in any of her five books, I understand it sounds crazy to say that I find myself in close association with each of these famed writers, but please, let me explain.

Storied Audience

Each night of late I have a special audience with authors Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Hanks and Julia Cameron.

As noted last week, I read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s narrative that includes his time with the Fitzgeralds in Paris and their return to the States. The edition I have includes previously unreleased materials.

I’m now reading the Hemingway Library edition of The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. For each story published, there are versions with edited portions that seemed to have little to do with the story itself. But when read with the story, these missing sections cast another meaning upon the intent.

Hemingway believed a story should be like an iceberg—mostly underwater and unseen by the reader. This has changed my perception of writing.

Yesterday’s Mr. Peabody and the Robins, is evidence of my efforts to be more laconic in wording. Initially the piece stretched to 1,200 words. It posted at 975. As I moved the story from Word to WordPress, I could hear Clive Owen from the movie Hemingway and Gellhorn offering a toast.

When I finish the Hemingway story each night, I open the 796-page volume of F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. This is the world of writing where when he was alive, Scott made more money than he ever did from his novels–particularly The Great Gatsby.

While Hemingway’s stories are more to the meaning of the word “short,” Fitzgerald’s pack a punch at their end, leaving a reader startled—truer to the ending of Mr. Peabody and the Robins.

Fitzgerald endings seem to say, “Boom. The story has ended, and you know it. Now think about what you have read because it is going to stick with you for a spell.”

When I finish with Fitzgerald I set his book on top of Hem’s and pull out Tom Hanks’ Uncommon Type. All of these stories in some way include a typewriter. In the documentary, California Typewriter, Hanks says if he could only keep one of his 255 typewriters, he’d keep his Smith-Corona Silent, the same machine I used to type the draft for this post. Regardless, I read Hanks’ story, then set his book down and pick up Julia Cameron’s book The Right to Write.

Cameron divided her book up, as she did with her Artist’s Way trilogy, in easy-to-read essays. Each is about four pages followed with a page or two of exercises, all healthy for any writer or anyone wishing to write themselves a better person.

Conclusions

So, Donny, you’ve taken us a long way for the setup, what happens after you finish reading Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Hanks, and Cameron each night? How long does that take? What do you get from such?

Does Tom Hanks really come to your house? Do you put two sheets of paper in the Smith-Corona Silent so as not to damage the platen and leave the room and hear typing when you’re not in there?

Do Hemingway and Fitzgerald write from the grave while Hanks channels from a movie set?

And what about Cameron? Is she in Taos or in New York writing from her picture window? Traveling and doing Artist’s Way courses? Out walking?

She encouraged you to get your typewriter, is she linked to the same network as you? How does this all work? Please, tell us. Let us know before this spills into the National Enquirer, the Globe, or the National Examiner. She still has you reading those does she? Weren’t you just supposed to read those for one exercise? Is this really the sort of writing she meant to come from reading that stuff?

Now, now, I’ll have to tell you more tomorrow. I have some other writing to do today. I’m still working on my Narrative Time Line from Cameron’s book The Vein of Gold.

Tonight’s reading:

Hemingway’s “Fifty Grand.”
Fitzgerald’s “May Day.”
Hanks’ “The Past is Important to Us.”
Cameron’s “Credibility.”

Tomorrow, the conversation about all four pieces and how the cosmos aligned all four of them to make sense, magically.

 

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