New Year’s News

The_Two_Jungle_Books_1895_Akela,_the_Lone_Wolf
Now this is the Law of the Jungle—
as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper,
but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
                                    Rudyard Kipling
 

 

Another excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures appears this month! It’s called “Law of the Jungle” and it’s featured in the current issue of The Chattahoochee Review, “The Animal.” I described the process of writing that chapter in March of 2012 (see “wild truth” and “finding the trail”). The issue’s not available online, but the curious can get their paws on a copy here.

The cover art is kind of spooky, no?
The cover art is kind of spooky, no?

Continue reading New Year’s News

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Strange but True Stories of Survival

photo by Sean Munson

Summertime update: My essay “The Saltwater Twin” (which the observant among you will notice shares a name with this blog) is coming out in a great magazine called Creative Nonfiction. This month! As in, you can order it nowcreative nonfictionCreative Nonfiction, according to their website, “was the first and is still the largest literary magazine to publish, exclusively and on a regular basis, high quality nonfiction prose.” This issue is subtitled, “Strange but True Stories of Survival and Unlikely Events.” Editor Lee Gutkind called “The Saltwater Twin” a depiction of “the author’s struggle to avoid drowning, both literally and metaphorically.”

The essay that appears in Creative Nonfiction is essentially the first chapter of my work-in-progress, The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures. While I continue to work towards the goal of publishing a book, a chunk of my time each week has also been spent looking for online and print publications that might be good places to submit chapters and excerpts of chapters. I was initially somewhat frantic about this task and the hours it took away from The Writing of the Book, but it’s actually been a pretty significant learning opportunity – I’m a better writer for it.  Continue reading Strange but True Stories of Survival

words to lift your hat to…

Thesaurus“Now there’s a word to lift your hat to…” – Emily Dickinson

When my third grade teacher, Mrs. Broadhurst, showed me a thesaurus for the first time, I was thrilled. I started peppering book reports with words like assuage and recondite. Which word was the right one? Which would say just the thing I needed it to say? I used to stare at a leaf or a wall as the day faded and ask myself, what color is it now? And moments later – now?  What pigments would I mix to get it to look like that? What word says what color that is? And when darkness took away all color, there were sounds – the rustle of sheets, a gurgle deep in the belly of the house.  A distant car outside, someone awake going where, why, at ten thirty, eleven thirty, twelve thirty at night?  There were words somewhere to say what was happening at any moment any place in the world. Continue reading words to lift your hat to…

The Next Big Thing

big bear sign vintage

I’ve been invited by writer, performer and activist Nikki Patin to participate in an interview series called The Next Big Thing in which authors talk about their work. (Thanks, Nikki!) You can check out what Nikki’s up to at nikkipatin.com. Since I’m kind of new at this interview thing, I’ve asked my friend Lindsay to weigh in. Welcome, Lindsay! Let’s go! Continue reading The Next Big Thing

Letting Go, Part 1

The last chapter in The Saltwater Twin (don’t hold your breath, friends, I’ve months to go yet) is going to be about letting go. It’s something I wish I were better at. It’s a little bit of a pickle, actually, because as a writer, it’s sort of my job to notice and hold and catalogue details, but as a human being who prefers to feel mostly happy and relatively untortured, I find letting go to be a useful skill. It’s something I keep having to learn, maybe the most important thing. As such, it seems like a fitting topic for the last chapter of a book that is something of a piecemeal memoir of my whole life so far.

It’s been a challenging month. (More on that in the next post.) This old song has been playing in my head. I couldn’t remember all the words, but I knew it was Irish; I thought The Clancy Brothers sang it. Yesterday I went online to find a version to download. Turns out “The Parting Glass” dates back to at least the 18th century, and The Clancy Brothers did often play it to end their concerts. There are different versions, of course, because it is an old, old song with, as it turns out, both Irish and Scottish roots, but here are a couple of the verses that are often sung:

Of all the money e’er I had,
I spent it in good company.
And all the harm I’ve ever done,
Alas! it was to none but me.
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all.

Oh, all the comrades e’er I had,
They’re sorry for my going away,
And all the sweethearts e’er I had,
They’d wish me one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto my lot,
That I should rise and you should not,
I gently rise and softly call,
Good night and joy be with you all.

Okay, so it makes sense why this song has been playing on the record player in my brain recently, since it’s about letting go – well, saying goodbye, anyway – for a short time or a long time or forever. The melody sounds sweet and old and wistful, like the song is trying to teach you how to let go gently before the last note fades. The Pogues did a rendition and The Wailin’ Jennys, The High Kings and, of course, The Clancy Brothers. I was listening to the latter when a thumbnail image in the margin caught my attention: “Bob Dylan: Thoughts on Liam Clancy.” I clicked. In the clip, Dylan tells a story about drinking pint after pint of Guinness with Clancy someplace in Greenwich Village when Clancy said to him, “Remember Bob, no fear, no envy, no meanness.”

Yes, I am now getting my life lessons from YouTube. Because that’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard. The best advice for writing and for life.

No fear. Yep. Fear suffocates. We are our best when we throw ourselves into our work wholeheartedly without worrying about the outcome. I, for example, don’t know what will happen when I finish this book. What if no one publishes it? No one reads it? What if I’m fooling myself that I have something worthwhile to say? There are a million what ifs. But I think I’m best, I’m smartest and happiest when I can let go of the fear that things won’t turn out the way I hope.

No envy. Yep. I’ve been reading a lot of essay and memoir while working on this book. The Saltwater Twin is a collection of personal essays, a new form for me. I want to get a sense of the ways it has been done, how best to assemble a collection of work, how to create a dynamic narrative arc from stories that felt random when they were happening, how to strike a satisfying balance between story and non-narrative (but hopefully still diverting) musings. Sometimes I envy the writers I’m reading. They’ve already published books. They already have fancy websites and checks from publishers and book signings with plastic cups of wine. That envy is a fruitless pursuit, and it leads, frequently, back to fear. Who am I to think I can do this thing?

No meanness. Ah. I like that meanness has multiple meanings. Meanness, as in unkindness, does not make good art. The voices that hiss “stupid” or “worthless” or “give up now” do not make me want to sit down and type. But neither does meanness as in stinginess. I can’t hold anything back. I want to give my whole self to the work – everything I have – and freely.  This goes for life, too, of course. You are a genius, Liam Clancy!

So, my lads and lasses, my comrades and sweethearts – letting go of fear, of envy, of meanness. Will you fill a glass and toast with me to that?

And Now, the Octopus

I’m working on a chapter that’s based on a monologue I performed a few years ago at Live Bait Theater in Chicago. Every summer, my friend Tekki, the artistic director of Tellin’ Tales Theatre, curates an evening of solo performance based on a theme. That particular year she titled the show “Potholes on the Path to Enlightenment,” and she asked us to write about an epiphany. That’s not really so hard, I thought: almost every story is about some kind of discovery – some little or big a ha! But she wanted it to be something pretty major, something that could, like, change your life. When I started working on the piece, I became a little obsessed with octopuses. For weeks, I read and wrote about octopuses. (By the way, octopuses is the correct plural – either that or octopodes. Octopi is frowned on by most references because the –pus derives from Greek and not Latin.) I wrote about an octopus I remembered from Sesame Street, which I watched as a kid. A man’s voice said, “And now, the octopus,” then this octopus swam around a tank for a minute, and that was it. Anyway, I was trying to write this piece about epiphany; I thought I should be writing about God, transcendence, the search for meaning, and I kept coming back to the octopus.

Figuring out what my brain is onto is one of my favorite parts of writing. The work is making clear the dot-to-dot of connections I’ve made in my head and finding a way to take the reader along on the journey. I don’t want to make it all too obvious or the reading won’t be any fun. But I can’t make it too obscure either – I can’t lead the reader into the woods and leave them with no trail to find their way back. I want the reader to make the discoveries I made in the living and the writing of the story – in this piece, for example, how the search for God and meaning relates to octopuses (also Clash of the Titans and Esther Williams).

An epiphany is an insight that comes about because of something ordinary. I probably watched my octopus on Sesame Street every day. It was ordinary. But the octopus itself, all rippling flesh and unfurling suckers was extraordinary. The octopus was an epiphany billowing across our black and white TV.  It said, wake up! Look at what’s out here in the world. Look and look and look.

Tell me, friends. What is it that makes you wake up and look?

the courage of your lungs

It’s June already. Summer is breathing down our necks. How did this happen? I’ve been working hard all spring, but teaching a full load of classes and workshops (oh, and trying not to be a hermit because that never ends well) has meant that I’ve only completed one 7,000 word chapter, “Law of the Jungle” over the past several weeks. But summer’s nearly here, and that makes me feel energized and alive and ready to run. I know just a few weeks ago I wrote a post “In Praise of Slowness,” but now I’m kind of in the mood to go fast. Not a teeth-gritted-when-is-this-hell-going-to-be-over kind of fast, but the kind when your body just begs you to run.

One afternoon this spring I asked the students in my after school program to write images that showed relationships. They wrote of grandmothers dancing at family reunions, a woman chasing a man and throwing her high heels at him, a father marveling over his infant son’s feet. One student wrote: Two girls running, the wind blowing their hair back.”

(If you want to, you can pretend you’re listening to the “Chariots of Fire” theme as you read the rest of this post.)

That’s the kind of running I mean – when your lungs ache and your legs get a mind of their own, running like a kid, running toward nothing. The goal is not the goal, you just open up and run like a smiling dog on the beach. So that is my summer plan. I have a goal in mind. It’s a big goal, a lot of chapters. But I’m going to set my mind on running for the joy of running and see how that works out.  And when my lungs ache I will remember running in my college town through fields of corn you could practically hear growing, wisps of clouds in the sky, worn pavement rising to meet my feet.  I’ll revel in my fleet feet, my capacity to move and breathe and feel the sun and wind on my skin.

This summer I’m running. Who’s in?

You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.

                                                                                                        – Jesse Owens