Sunday, January 3, 2021

Our Man in China

"Your ability to see is not increased by the distance you put between yourself and your home. If you do not see what is around you every day, what will you see when you go to Tangiers?"    --Freeman Patterson, Photography and the Art of Seeing

"If anyone is looking for knowledge let him go where such fish are to be caught: there is nothing I claim to less. These are my own thoughts, by which I am striving to make known not matter but me."    --Michel de Montaigne, On Books

* * *

My dad didn't write very much. He was dyslexic, and also an engineer, and maybe because of these factors he always seemed much more comfortable in the world of measurements and numbers. I have no letters from him. I don't have any emails he sent. There's no written archive of posts on social media. About the most writing he left behind was his signature in greeting cards. On some occasions he might even add a "Happy birthday!" for good measure.

Oddly enough, though, when Dad died he did leave behind a big stack of old notebooks. They're the same brand I like, but while I use a slim notepad with stitched binding, Dad favored stout, stocky sprial-bound notebooks two inches thick. You could call them "pocket-sized," but only in the same way you'd describe a mass market copy of War and Peace.

Then again, this was a man who spent his life sitting on a leather wallet as thick as a cinderblock, so I don't know. Maybe he put the wallet beneath one cheek and the notebook below the other just so he could sit level.

I didn't expect to find very much in the notebooks. Still, I couldn't help looking. I spent an evening flipping through the pile one by one, curious to see what was there. There's something odd and comforting about seeing your father's handwriting even when it's only recording some unintelligible minutiae of metallurgy.

And for the most part, that's what the notebooks were for. They're filled with hastily sketched diagrams and technical notes, chemical formulae and the serial numbers of machine parts. Now and then his personal life peeks in -- there's the occasional grocery list, a note about medication, a reminder to call mom about the cat. But then, with no transition but the turn of a page, one of the notebooks becomes something else entirely.

Over the course of about twenty pages Dad wrote the only journal he may have ever kept (certainly the only one that I've ever seen). The context is a work trip to China; Dad's there to inspect a production plant and make recommendations. But the evenings he has to himself, and these he spends exploring.

The journal actually begins as a letter to Mom. Within a few paragraphs, though, that's all forgotten, and it begins to read more like an inner monologue than a letter directed to somebody else. Dad notes his impressions of the city, his hotel, the local food, the people he meets. The entries are sporadic, a few paragraphs here and there when he finds himself alone and with time to kill. Often they begin by noting that he's about to eat a meal, or that he's waiting for a cab, or that he's sitting on the hotel balcony finishing his coffee.

What's surprising is how fast these entries add up to a personality, to Dad's specific consciousness filtering the world around him. Sometimes it's recognizable to me as the man I knew: Birder Dad noting the local magpies and swallows; Hungry Dad making notes on the nearby German restaurant, his trouble using chopsticks, his inability to find good coffee. (Give Dad enough food and interesting birds and you could keep him busy for weeks.)

Other times Dad's reactions surprise me. I never knew my father to be particularly social, but there he is writing with a twinge of loneliness as he notes that he's the only one at the hotel who ever sits outside on the balcony. He never struck me as conscious of age, but then he notes how young everyone seems, describing the city as a "college campus during homecoming (said the 55-year-old-man)." The self-consciousness in his parenthetical seems completely alien to the person I knew, but telling for the person he was.

The way these observations stack up, they begin to illuminate not just what he saw but who he was. Like a bolt of lightning, each entry presents the glimpse of a thought seen within the flash of my father's attention. But then it's over just as fast; the moment passes, and the light goes dark.


Sunday, December 27, 2020


I'm reading The View From the Studio Door by Ted Orland. I picked it up after I finished Art and Fear by Orland and David Bayles. These seem like the right books for December. I'm a sucker for New Year's resolutions, but to resolve anything means reflecting on the year before, and these books have helped put a lot of things into focus.

Orland makes a good case for productivity as a necessary factor in creating good work. "Productivity" seems to be a buzzword right now, particularly in the business world, where it's ended up meaning something close to "getting more done in less time for the sake of making more money."

But in the creative sense, "productivity" means something maybe more along the lines of "making enough garbage that you get to something good." It's the effort that logically follows from Sturgeon's Law. If 90% of everything is crap, then to make one piece of good work you have to make nine heaps of shit. It's got nothing to do with your talent or skill. It's just the way it is.

What logically follows from that is that creating good work is the byproduct of structuring your time in such a way as to maximize your ability to create work period. That's where the New Year's resolutions come in. Because what I'm thinking about today is how to create better creative habits. Here's Orland, from The View From the Studio Door:

"The creative process unfolds as you find the essential tools in your toolkit ... most of all, it means finding a way to live your life so that you can engage again and again the things you care about most. Conversely, failure to find a viable working process turns would-be artists into ex-artists long before they get anywhere near their best work. ... 

What [this] means is that to make your own place in the world, you'll probably need to create a life in which working on your art becomes a natural part of your everyday life. ... There's no predicting how any individual life will play out, but there is a guiding principle for reaching the best of possible outcomes: stay at work on the things that are really important to you, and you will reach your potential as an artist."

(Excuse my elisions for the sake of brevity. The whole book is worth reading if you haven't already. Find it here.)

Sunday, December 20, 2020

On Uncertainty

 "In making art you need to give yourself room to respond authentically, both to your subject matter and to your materials. Art happens between you and something -- a subject, an idea, a technique -- and both you and that something need to be free to move. Many fiction writers, for instance, discover early on that making detailed plot outlines is an exercise in futility; as actual writing progresses, characters increasingly take on a life of their own, sometimes to the point that the writer is as surprised as the eventual reader by what their creations say and do. Lawrence Durrell likened the process to driving construction stakes in the ground: you plant a stake, run fifty yards ahead and plant another, and pretty soon you know which way the road will run. E.M. Forster recalled that when he began writing A Passage to India he knew that the Malabar Caves would play a central role in the novel, that something important would surely happen there -- it's just that he wasn't sure what it would be."

-David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art & Fear

"So the child walks alone, with eyes fixed upon the mother's face, not on the difficulties of the way; supporting himself by the arms that do not hold on to him, striving after refuge in the mother's embrace, hardly suspecting that in the same moment he is proving that he can do without her, for now the child is walking alone."

-Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing

"And when the students leave class, I add to my good-byes a reminder: 'A twig, not a branch!' I explain that as they continue to practice -- say, on a rope between two trees -- it's okay for them to secure their balance before taking the first step by holding on to a part of the tree for a second. But they must choose a supple twig, not a solid branch. The twig invites equilibrium; the branch wards it off."

-Philippe Petit, Creativity

Sunday, December 13, 2020


I found out this week that Donors was nominated for a Pushcart, which both very exciting and a huge surprise. (Since we're this close to the holidays, I'll also just shamelessly plug the paperback edition of All Due Respect's 2020 anthology, which makes a damn fine gift or vacation reading.)

Donors was the kind of story that will drive you crazy as a writer because the bones were pretty well there from the first draft. Compare that to my current work in progress, a novel which has been a long series of stops, starts, restarts, outlines, character sketches, and every other trick in the book to try and get it to catch. Why is it that short stories can seem to hit the page whole, but novels feel so much more like guesswork?

I've been thinking about that question a lot lately. What I've come up with feels pretty basic, the kind of stuff that's in any halfway decent book or course on creative writing. But since I clearly need the refresher, I'm going to go ahead and share.

A short story is not a novel.

This sounds pretty obvious, but it took me way too long to really grok the implications of this. For myself, the biggest difference is that I can hold a short story in my head. That means I can work out most of the major details before I ever sit down to write.

I can't do that with a novel. (This might just be my own limitation, but you play the cards you're dealt.) With a novel, I can't quite see the way through. It's like standing at the base of a mountain and staring straight up. I get a sense of the thing as a whole, but as for the actual path to the top? I have no idea. When it works that can be part of the fun, but when it doesn't that blindness is maddening.

A situation doesn't drive a story.

My story ideas often start with a situation (usually one I'd like to avoid). With a short story, I know I don't have a lot of time to set things up. I've got to establish the situation quickly so we can get to the characters, because it's their reactions to the situation, driven by their desires, that propels the rest of the story.

In a novel, you've got a lot more time and space. That can be a lot of fun while you're establishing a situation, but it can also be a problem if you haven't figured out your characters. Oh, they'll look like characters. They'll sound like characters. They'll move around on the page as you write in great detail to make sure everything is just so before the action kicks in.

Then cometh the inciting incident, and your main character has to decide: Will she leave the safety of home and enter the unknown? Or will she stick to the status quo? And that's when you realize you have exactly no idea what it is that she wants, or why she'd give a shit about the unknown in the first place.

It's easy to get caught up in setting the stage, especially when starting a novel when there's a lot of space to do so. But a stage is only ever a foundation. It's only there to support the characters.

Ideas don't always play well together.

It's hard to use absolutes when talking about writing, but in my experience short stories tend to focus on a single idea. Not always, but more often than not.

Novels, on the other hand, tend to have one Big Idea and lots of little ones running around. Again, it's the advantage of all that extra space. The trouble arrives when those little ideas get a bit too big for their britches.

In my current WIP, one of the supporting characters, Sam Spandler, works a dead-end-job in the middle of nowhere. I liked Sam, and got curious about him -- what made him tick? What kept him where he was instead of moving on?

He's hiding out, I thought. Hiding out? But why? He stole an identity. He was *hired* to steal an identity. He's helping somebody else to disappear.

Before long, Sam's backstory choked out what the novel was actually about. Instead of recognizing that what I actually had was the plot to a different novel (and one where Sam could be properly treated as the main character of his own story), I kept trying to cram him in to the one I was writing. It wasn't until I'd gone through several failed drafts that I finally realized the problem.

Headaches and opportunities.

It's probably not a coincidence that the things I love most about writing long-form are also the things that give me the biggest headaches. The room to play and explore are part of the fun. So is getting lost.

Finally, I'll add that I found Jessica Brody's Save the Cat Writes a Novel hugely helpful as I was untangling some of these problems. Like any good guide she helps point the way but still leaves plenty of space for discovery.


Sunday, December 6, 2020

Crown Hill

Yesterday I visited Crown Hill Cemetery for the first time since I was a kid. I don't know if it's a popular destination for field trips, but for my school it was. Mostly what I remember from those trips is climbing the big hill to see where James Whitcomb Riley is buried. I climbed the hill again yesterday and was surprised by how many other names I recognized along the way, the rich and famous families of a generation ago whose kids are rich and famous today.

I was there to visit a friend, and also because I've been feeling cooped up and the cemetery seemed like a safe place to be in a pandemic. There were a few other people around, some to visit graves and some out for fresh air. I was there for both. I visited my friend and took a long walk then stopped off again to say a goodbye. It's funny the memories you can come up with when you just stop to think of them. I remembered us getting lost on the way to a concert, and an oncoming van that veered into our lane. The driver had a red coat and a big white beard. One of us shouted "FUCK OFF, SANTA CLAUS!" before he swerved out of the way. We kept shouting it the rest of the night.

On Friday I got two pieces of mail, both from Edith, my pen pal at an assisted living facility who passed away last month. I wasn't expected to hear from her again, especially after my last letter came back with the words "DECEASED - RETURN TO SENDER" written on the back. Sometimes you don't get the closure you'd like and that's just how it is. So the two letters were something of a surprise.

The first was from Edith herself, dated back in October, but the second turned out to be from her daughter. She'd been there all along, as it turned out. She read my letters out loud to her mom and typed up her mother's replies. She told me how Edith passed, and that she was surrounded by loved ones. She shared kind words about my letters and her own condolences for my dad, which was a kind thing to do while she was freshly mourning her mom.

There's a plaque next to Riley's grave that explains why people leave coins there, and that the coins get picked up periodically and donated to the poet's namesake hospital for children. I didn't have any change on me, but there were a handful of quarters that others had left. From his grave you can see the skyline of Indianapolis, but that isn't the most beautiful view from the hill.

Before I left the cemetery I went back to the car and found the CD I bought the week that my friend died, an album we both loved and listened to often when we were out getting lost in the city. I slipped the paper cover from the case and left it on top of her headstone, pinned in place by a ceramic angel someone else had left behind. Maybe it would have made more sense to leave the CD, or maybe not to leave anything at all. I'm not sure "sense" is the right metric here. In any case I'd brought what I brought, so I left what I left. Then I said my goodbyes and went home.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...