Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Happy Birthday, Flannery

Today would have been the 90th birthday of Flannery O'Connor.  She is among those American writers who have an outsized influence despite not being better known (another is Theodore Drieser, but more about him some other day.) O'Connor only lived 39 years. But, oh, what use she made of those years.   Her novels, The Violent Bear It Away and Wise Blood  are not great.  I still consider them must reading, but they do not among the first rank of American novels. It was in her magnificent short stories that O'Connor found her place among the immortals.  Some of her stories are so good as to sneak up on perfection.  The characters she created to populate those stories are so vivid that they scarcely seem like fiction at all.  Who could ever forget Manley Pointer in Good Country People? What a delicious character with such a perverse name. Think about it: Manley Pointer, the atheist Bible salesman.  You had to be some sort of genius to come up with that.  Pointer had good company with the likes of Tom Shiftlet in The Life You Save May Be Your Own and The Misfit in A Good Man Is Hard To Find.  The common wisdom about O'Connor was that she was expressing her Catholic faith in her writings. I was never persuaded of that. It seemed to me that O'Connor was like one of her own characters: she was fascinated by vulgar, the violent, and the explicit.  Though she tried to show had bad these people were, I submit that there was some part of their lifestyle that stimulated her.  Regardless of how she came to write her wonderful stories, lets be ever so grateful she did.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Queen of My Song

Odds are pretty overwhelming that you have never heard of Queen of My Song by Stephen Foster. There is no reason for you to know about it.  When I was first starting to write again, beginning with What'll I Do? I would play my Robert Shaw Chorale CD of the Stephen Foster Song Book.  I think the songs worked as a form of hypnosis.  The music blocked out all the other sounds and interruptions and I could just tap away at the keyboard, word after word.  The switch from song to song told me where I was in my time. When I got to Steal Away I knew I was close to the end. I needed to start wrapping up whatever storyline I was working on. The hypnotic state would start to fade.  I would type a series of capital X's across the screen. Below that, a few notes about what I wanted to say the next day.  The following morning, I would be at the keyboard again. I deleted the X's and my notes and waited for the first few notes of Ring, ring de Banjo. With that, I was back somewhere in Detroit with Hofmann and Garvin and the endless shambolic lives they intersected with.  I so liked Queen of My Song, that it's first two lines are the epigraph of Heroes.  I think the words perfectly capture the sorrow of so many of the characters.

"I long for thee, must I long and long in vain?
I sigh for thee, whilst thou not come back again?"

If there was ever a movie version of Heroes, I would want that melody to be the Rachel Deming/Eddie Grimes love theme.

If you are curious, you can hear Queen of My Song here.
See if you don't agree about how haunting and elegiac it is.

You can buy the CD on Amazon.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Waiting For Inspiration In The Cornfields Of Iowa

A fellow named Ryan Boudinot  recently put a bit of stick about in an article he wrote about Masters in Fine Arts programs for creative writers.  His article is called Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One. In a rather snarky way, Boudinot pointed out something that I have long agreed with: if you have the talent to write and you spend incredibly long hours working it beginning when you are very young, you have no need to attend a MFA Writing program. In fact, you are likely just wasting your time if you do. If you are enrolled in an MFA program, that might be proof enough you don't have what it takes to succeed.  Years ago, I read Steven King's book on writing. He said something along the lines of the following: if you have some talent, writing school can probably enhance it. But no amount of schooling anywhere will close the gap between the clever and the brilliant. It's not fair, of course. But talent alights in the strangest places. Some people born with amazing gifts for telling stories might never write a word down. Other people without talent might toil away forever in the local Starbucks, writing and rewriting, and never have anything significant to say.  True talent is extraordinarily rare.  I wonder if anyone watches a major league pitcher throwing strikes at 95 miles per hour and thinks if I just went to grad school for a couple of years in Iowa, I could do that. I hope not. That is not magical thinking. That is not even thinking.  It is something well less than thinking. If I ever met anyone in a MFA writing program I would offer this advice: Drop out. Today. Never look back. Instead, write what you want and put it out to the world. If it's good enough or hits the right notes, the public will find you. If not, so be it.

Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

If You Want To Find The Source of Any Fire

The Detroit News website ran a series of articles about arson in the Motor City. One of the articles in the series notes that Detroit is the arson capital of the nation. Apparently, it's not even close. 

Naturally, reading these articles put me in mind of my novel, Smoke.  Back when I wrote that book, Detroit was already known for its suspicious fires. It looks as if the firebugs in Detroit have not slowed down.  It must be a wonderfully tempting place for pyromaniacs, some sort of reverse Xanadu. If you want to set fire to things and watch them burn without doing any real harm to anyone, Detroit is your place. 

I remember watching a documentary about the Detroit Fire Department called Burn.  I recall watching video of firemen going out on run after run, trying to put out fires. It occurred to me: Why? Where is the wisdom in attempting to keep abandoned buildings from turning to ashes? Isn't a half-burned building worse than a completely burned building? After all, no one was ever going to rebuild. These were structures that had been abandoned. Putting out fires in Detroit should be the new cliché to replace the old saw about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic
If the articles in the Detroit News interest you, be sure to read Smoke.  Let me know what you think when you are done.