Maybe? Not

Some posts on this blog have made me look foolish, and dozens of others could have used a few more minutes of editing before I hit Publish. And while I don’t regret anything I’ve posted here, last week’s angsty diatribe wasn’t one of my prouder moments.

For better or worse, this is how I operate. When my pride is wounded, I have to feel the pain fully. That means allowing myself to think some pretty dark thoughts, and getting those ideas out. Once I have that release, when the illness is no longer festering in silence, can I look past it and move on.

I expected to be over my little snit in about a week, and sure enough, I’m back in the saddle. I’m not going to let an over-educated, self-important punk with an absurd theory about fiction (“I don’t like stories, I like writers”) gaslight me out of this profession. I’m following through on my 2019 short fiction goal of beginning the submission process for each of the eight stories I feel have potential. I’m curious to see what type of person I become on reaching that milestone.

I do think it’s time, though, to take a break from fiction workshops. The three I’ve attended the past few months have enabled me to make significant updates on my stories, but the work (not only on my only writing, but commenting on the submissions of other workshop participants) has been exhausting, and working on my own schedule the rest of the year will do well for me. I’ve already submitted to my monthly writer’s group meeting in October, but when that review happens, it’s all on me for the rest of 2019.

As for the ass-clown who saw no worth to my fiction (and who, during evaluation of his own work, compared himself to an Old Testament prophet)… he needs to be satirized through one of my fictional character someday.

Time, Maybe

After some good experiences with fiction workshops in the spring and summer, I decided to take another at the beginning of this month. Got a lot out of the sessions — updated a story I’d drafted, received constructive feedback from the instructor and most of the participants, and provided my own comments to other writers who appreciated my insights.

And then… there was this one reviewer. Who had nothing positive to say about my writing. Who was very creative in his sarcasm. Who underlined one sentence and wrote “Ridiculous” in the margin.

He reminded me of students I knew in graduate school. The ones who were brighter and more well-read than me, and went out of their way to remind me how ill-informed, illogical, and just plain laughable were my opinions. Didn’t matter the subject — literature, philosophy, religion, politics, relationships, sports, which restaurants to eat at, which route to take home.

I didn’t have a term for my experience at the time, but if I could have looked forward to today’s terminology I would say they did a very effective job of gaslighting me. They made an overwhelmingly convincing case that I didn’t know what I was talking about, so I might as well shut up.

The experience convinced me that I had no career in academia. After getting my degree, I knew it was time to move on. The abuse had become too much.

And judging by what’s happened to me in the quarter century since I left, I say I made the right decision. I’ve become more successful than I ever imagined myself being back in my graduate school days. I’m married to a creative and beautiful woman. My children are healthy and are on the cusp of starting their own careers. It’s been great.

And then, I decided to trust imagination, and start doing the only job I’ve ever wanted to do. A job which included writing my own fiction. Finish the novels I’d been working on, and revise the short stories I’d drafted. And until this latest workshop, I felt I was gathering momentum.

But now my writing is ridiculous.

My mind tells me to dismiss the comment, and focus on the positive responses. But that’s not how I feel.

I’ve been living a fantasy the past year and a half, reacting to a mid-life crisis. I’m thinking it’s time to face reality: this isn’t going to work out.

Tonight was the last session of the workshop, so I’m probably going to feel better in the morning. Give me a week, I’ll probably be back on schedule.

But before I make that turn, I wanted to get how I felt out of me. I might find these words absurd in the near future, but right now, I’m thinking it’s time to put this writing ambition of mine to rest.

Maybe.

God Land

White Evangelical Christians voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election. Attempting to explain this odd political alignment has since become an obsession among American writers.

Lyz Lenz is uniquely qualified to comment on this topic. A life-long Christian, Lenz and her husband began attending Evangelical churches in the 1990s, and helped form an independent church in the early 2000s. This was also the time Lenz began voicing her uneasiness with the Evangelical movement’s attitudes towards women, race, and politics. Her husband didn’t approve of her positions, and in 2016 she voted for Clinton while he went in with Trump, a political split which prefigured their imminent divorce.

Lenz’ 2019 book is part investigative journalism, part memoir, with the latter being its strength. The author doesn’t reach many unique conclusions about Evangelicals — as stated earlier, the topic has been covered extensively over the past several years — but her personal journey is compelling. Perhaps the most riveting moment comes in an early chapter, when she and her husband confront a pastor about the conduct of another pastor. The pastor apologizes to Lenz’ husband, but when she insists the apology needs to be offered to her, the pastor replies “I did apologize to you when I apologized to your husband.” It’s one of several indignities documented by the author in her last ten years as an Evangelical.

Given her experience, it’s easy to see how the author would eventually abandon her faith. It’s during a Holy Saturday service towards the end of the book where Lenz finds her reason for remaining a believer:

I believe in church because whatever else, it’s an intentional community of people trying to do good in a world that could use more of it.

There are enough moments like this to make this a memorable work.

Zombie

The cover to the first issue of “Tales of the Zombie,” a black-and-white comic magazine from the 1970s

Like a sham election in a calcified dictatorship —
The people’s candidate has won an unprecedented thirty-second term! —
literature’s greatest writers each year are canonized, anthologized, solemnized,
and for the majority of undergraduates who come from families with sufficient means,
somnambulized.

Graduates wishing to spend more of their parents’ money,
or who don’t mind working for pennies,
or just want to avoid having to begin a career in a mindless profession,
can choose to enter the rooms where the sham election’s ballots are tabulated.

Some advance so far as to believe the votes they cast
can actually determine the election’s outcome
not realizing until they have submitted their ballot
that the selection is merely among clones.

THE GREAT WRITERS shuffle along the halls of academia,
the corpses of their copious corpora animated in required readings,
essay assignments, dissertations, books from the university press,
and collected editions, both printed and online.

I respect the accomplishment of my prodigious literary ancestors
but have lost my desire to join in the worship of their zombie lives.

Zen in the Art of Writing

Ray Bradbury said he wrote 1000 words a day, and submitted stories on Saturday that he began drafting the preceding Monday. Judging by the sheer volume of his published work (27 novels, 600 stories, scores of plays and radio/television/movie scripts), I have no reason to doubt these claims.

While he is remembered as a master of the science fiction and horror genres, Bradbury resisted those labels during his career, as he found them dismissive and limiting. He is not known for his non-fiction, but his 1994 collection of essays on writing is a valuable read for any aspiring writer, regardless of genre.

Written over several decades, mostly as prefaces to his novels and short-story collections, the essays are more autobiographical than critical. You learn a lot about Bradbury’s career — formative childhood experiences in Waukegan (a mid-sized city in northern Illinois where, coincidentally, my wife and I owned our first house) and Los Angeles, early efforts and eventual successes at writing, investing $9.80 in typewriter rental fees while drafting the story that eventually became Fahrenheit 451 — and to the author’s credit, Bradbury’s prose rarely descends into solipsism or self-congratulation.

One of the more poignant moments in this collection comes in “Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle, ” where he recalls an experience of his nine-year-old self:

Buck Rogers arrived on scene that year, and it was instant love. I collected the daily strips, and was madness maddened by them. Friends criticized. Friends made fun. I tore up the Buck Rogers strips. For a month I walked through my fourth-grade classes, stunned and empty. One day I burst into tears, wondering what devastation had happened to me. The answer was: Buck Rogers. He was gone, and life simply wasn’t worth living. The next thought was: Those are not my friends, the ones who got me to tear the strips apart and so tear my own life down the middle; they are my enemies.

As he explains more fully in “How to Keep and Feed a Muse,” he would eventually move on from the Buck Rogers strips, but even as his aesthetic judgement matured, he saw a continuity from his early love of the comics — “The constant remains: the search, the finding, the admiration, the love, the honest response to materials at hand, no matter how shabby they one day seem, when looked back on.”

Other gems in this book include his observation in “On the Shoulders of Giants” that science fiction, routinely derided as escapist entertainment, is rather “an attempt to solve problems by pretending to look the other way.” The titular essay is an extended and well-crafted examination of the relationship between work and relaxation, both of which are essential to the writer. Bradbury claims writers must become partners, not slaves, to their work, and that only by doing something as insane as clacking out a thousand words, each day, can writers release their inner truth: “Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come.” Call it writing as metaphysics, a theory that probably wouldn’t hold up under close scrutiny, but is nonetheless inspiring.

I may never achieve Bradbury’s level of productivity, but I’m confident he would advise me not to worry about word count. His essays are about joy and discovery, and how writers, by following their passions, can realize their ambitions.

Worth

The thing you find worthy

A clever insult
A conversation that displays your intellectual superiority
A poem alluding to an obscure 17th century philosophical treatise which only you understand

There was once a time I admired people like you
But now I realize the truth

Your greatest fear is that someone will call out your bullshit
Because you realize you have no defense
You have never had an original thought your entire life
Your intellect is bound by the patience of academics

Who never really cared much for your arguments
You were never anything more than ATM for them
They were glad to give you the receipt of your diploma
Because newer machines require less maintenance

I find worth in

The effort
The journey
Laughing at the failed experiment

You will never understand the value of trying
Because you’re only comfortable mocking the failures of others

I do not want your apology
What I really want is your humiliation

1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler

The two-decade period between the world wars fascinates me. A devastating conflict and worldwide pandemic (the misnamed Spanish Flu accounted for far more fatalities than the war) was followed by an explosion of wealth in developed countries, and then an implosion of financial markets across the globe. Technological advances were balanced with a growing interest in eugenics; life expectancy increased, but working conditions deteriorated.

Tobias Straumann’s 2019 book focuses on the economic instability of Germany. Straumann is not the first historian to blame the Treaty of Versailles for Germany’s inter-war financial crisis, but his in-depth investigation of the numerous attempts to alleviate the Germany’s war-time debt obligations is insightful. Hitler of necessity has to play a prominent role in the narrative, but Straumann’s use of him is adept, almost literary; as he does in the cover illustration shown on this post, the Nazi leader lurks in the margins, only occasionally stepping forth to be quoted, but when the Germany economy collapses at the end of the book, his rise to the chancellorship seems inevitable.

In his introduction, Straumann states he was inspired to write this book by the European debt crises in the early years of the current decade. While it would be interesting to compare the economics of the 1930s and 2010s, no comparison is actually made. It’s an unfortunate omission, as seeing how the two decades responded could have made studying the 1930s seem more relevant.

The prose style is scholarly, and aside from Hitler no memorable characters emerge from the text. Fortunately, the audiobook reading by Nigel Patterson moves at a clear and brisk pace, giving life to the often dry text. Overall, if you share my interest in this era, or are intrigued by international finances, this book is definitely worth your time.

Kinesiology Tape

I don’t make a habit of writing product endorsements on this blog, but I simply have to relate my recent experience with a particular sports medicine device.

As I mentioned on becoming a right-handed fencer again, my left elbow started aching over the winter. I wore a brace over my forearm for several months, and while the brace did alleviate some of the discomfort, I never felt my elbow was healing.

Last month, I visited my sister, who happens to be an experienced physical therapist. She took one look at my brace, and went straight to her supply cabinet. She then cut a strip of kinesiology tape and attached it to the back of my forearm, as shown in the above picture.

From what little I understand of the science, the tape relieves pressure from over the inflamed tendons, allowing them to heal. Personally, I never felt any tugging, so when I first started using the tape I wondered if it was actually doing any benefit.

I’m glad I kept my cynicism at bay, because after only three weeks of using the kinesiology tape, my elbow pain disappeared. As in, it doesn’t hurt any more.

In case you’re curious, the tape is applied like a very large bandage, only with stronger adhesive. The edges of the tape start curling up after a couple of days, and after around five days it’s time to tear it off and apply a new strip of tape. You can shower and bathe over it without having to take it off.

This relief for my left elbow forces me to choose between Renny and Lenny again. Perhaps Renny will appear in some tournaments, and Lenny in others. (You can switch fencing arms during a tournament, so long as all the gear for both arms has passed pre-competition testing. But no, you can’t go full Inigo Montoya and switch arms in the middle of a bout!) But if either of them develops an elbow problem, I now have a solution for them.

The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)I’m generally not a fan of mysteries, as they tend to overemphasize plot at the expense of characterization. Stieg Larsson’s 2005 thriller, however, showcases complex relationships among the cast of characters, in particular the two leads, the brilliant yet awkward Lisbeth Salander, who is also the novel’s title character, and unlucky but determined journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

Mikael and Lisbeth are hired to investigate a decades-old mystery involving a wealthy Swedish family. The more they find out, the deeper in trouble they find themselves in. The pace is perfect, a steady stream of action that never bogs down or goes too fast. The mystery is intricate, but not overly byzantine, and the resolution is satisfying.

The subplots involving the two characters are just as compelling, and complement the main action well. Mikael seeks redemption for a libel case he has lost, while Lisbeth struggles with sexually exploitation and assault. The experience is like having two good side dishes along with a very good entree; instead of overpowering the meal, the sides make you appreciate the entree more.

After completing the audiobook, I realized that I probably would have enjoyed more as a reader than a listener. The performance by Simon Vance is good, although there was one section that drove me absolutely bonkers: during a long email exchange, Vance reads the full header of each message, with the To and From (including the full email address of each, including the domain name) as well as the Subject, complete with the RE:. “Enough already!” I screamed at my car’s speaker after the third or fourth message. It was an unnecessary and distracting part in an otherwise solid reading.

Overall, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is an outstanding novel, and is a perfect companion on a long road trip, even with the excessive reading of the emails.

 

Persistent Metaphors

PHOTO PROMPT © Penny Gadd

“When was the last time you watered this plant?” Reginald asked, rubbing a withering branch between his fingers.

“Years ago,” Celia replied. “I tired of it, and intended to kill it by neglect. But it’s held on, with neither sunlight nor air. If I were to bag it and vacuum out the air, it would likely survive that deprivation also.”

“You could toss it in the trash.”

“Ah, but it’s, pardon the pun, grown on me since then. It’s become a metaphor for the persistence of life.”

George Orwell would be proud.”

“Orwell is dead, but aspidistras, and metaphors, endure.”

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest with a photo prompt and 100 word limit.