Monday, September 24, 2012

Tom Dooley and Me

Virginia's new poet laureate, Sofia Starnes, is compiling an anthology called The Nearest Poem Anthology, designed to be a collection of poems and short essays about how one poem you didn't write affected your life.

I’ve never thought of myself as someone influenced by poetry. Drama, yes. Fiction, no doubt. But a poem? I just never considered how one poem had become a refrain in my life.

From when I was three onward until about seven or eight, my grandmother read to me every night before bed. We didn’t have a television at first, and even when we did, she still read to me. First, little Golden Books, then more books for older children. By first grade, I was reading three grades ahead of my peers.

We read Black Beauty and Old Yeller, Sand Dune Pony and My Friend Flicka, all the Nancy Drew books. Hardy Boys, too. She believed a good story was written for children, not for boys or girls. Her personal favorite was a collection of American poems. I didn’t know a poem from Adam at that time, but I liked the rhythm of the language, how it sounded when she read it. She read some poems to the point where some of the lines were permanently imprinted on gray cells deep in my brain.

By middle school I read about archaeologists and missionaries and doctors working in strange, exotic lands. I wanted to dig in the dirt and find dinosaur bones. Before long I knew the difference between an archaeologist and a paleontologist. Later, I found some books about a doctor who worked in Indochina building hospitals and treating the native people. I had to look for Laos and Indochina on my globe, because I had no idea where they were.

My mother brought home three books about Dr. Thomas Dooley, who helped found what we now call a non-governmental organization, an NGO. Called Medico, the charity sought to establish hospitals and treatment centers in Communist-controlled territory. He wrote with passion and humor, often passing off the dangers he faced with a flip of the pen.

I read and reread these books. Something pricked my brain. Cadences in the language were similar to poems my grandmother read aloud. I began searching for more memories. I opened the second book, The Edge of Tomorrow, and found a chapter title that was screamingly familiar: “But I Have Promises to Keep.” I knew that line. I’d heard my grandmother read it so many times.

I rooted in our bookshelves until I found her battered anthology of great American poems. I curled in a chair and thumbed the well-loved pages until I found Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on Snowy Evening.” And there were the words from the chapter title, parts of the refrain that appeared without attribution in Dr. Dooley’s books, and distant memories of my beloved grandmother, reading to me with me lying in her lap.

I studied comparative literature for years. I read Shakespeare and the poetic language of Chaucer. I read the romantic poets, the American iambic pentameter poets that made me seasick. I read Tang poetry and Han Shan in Chinese. I read Basho in Japanese, but the only poem that continues to influence decisions is a humble poem by Robert Frost.

I can't write a decent poem to save my life, but I can appreciate the work of others. Starnes' new anthology will be a welcome addition to my bookshelves.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Book Review: Miracle Boy and Other Stories by Pinckney Benedict

Pinckney Benedict's Miracle Boy and Other Stories is a collection of short stories that holds nothing sacred except the written word. With his roots in Appalachian culture, Benedict draws on an unusual cast of characters for his stories.

From the opening title story about a young boy whose feet are severed in a tractor accident, the reader knows he's under the control of a master short story writer. A simple tale of a boy with reattached feet who is bullied in school by three classmates, "Miracle Boy" is about one of the bullies rather than the boy with reattached feet. One of the bullies throws miracle boy's shoes over power lines, special shoes he needs to walk as nearly normally as possible. Over the weeks, the shoes hang on the power lines, thereby causing the bully pangs of conscience. The resolution is heart-warming without being sappy. Benedict wouldn't know how to write a sappy ending if his life depended on it.

Move from "Miracle Boy" to "Bridge of Sighs," and you move from one microcosm to another. In "Bridge," an epidemic swept through the rural highlands killing cattle, sheep and pigs. Poultry barns went up in flames with all the birds inside. A young boy watches his father and an extermination man discuss the number of cattle that should be in a barn. Four are missing. The boy sneaks away to where the missing cattle are hidden. After the cattle in the barn are shot, the extermination man follows the boy into the wilderness. In a show of kindness, the extermination man determines the hidden cattle are healthy. He does not shoot them.

And then there's "Zog-19: A Scientific Romance." Zog-19 is a metallic alien who has been sent to earth to learn our customs. He replaces a farmer, almost fools the farmer's wife into thinking nothing is wrong, and struggles with the customs. Zog-19's planet is failing. He is sent to see if Earth will be a good colony. While Zog-19 learns Earth's customs, a space ship lands on Zog. The astronauts discover a planet made of metal with a core of a sentient gas that makes their spaceship travel farther and faster. Mining the gas from the planet seems like the only logical thing to do. Unfortunately, all Zog residents have the same gas inside their metal bodies. Before long, there are few residents on Zog. The planet is dead. Zog-19 isn't.

Benedict's language is strong, almost muscular, yet it is strangely poetic. He takes out his magnifying glass and examines humanity and the hardscrabble lives his characters survive. His stories are best when Pinckney is being Pinckney, letting go of whatever conventions that might restrain him. Fourteen stories, each a gem, combine to present a necklace of images both unexpected and exciting.

Friday, September 14, 2012

My Transformation to Writer Continues

As I've said in several recent posts, I decided to change what I was doing in my life over a dozen years ago. I started learning about my craft. I made more mistakes than not. I read book after book on writing. I read tons of fiction, since I knew that's what I wanted to write. I read genres where I had no business trying to contribute. I mean, I'm not someone who wants to build worlds, populate them with non-humans, write about vampires and werewolves, although I love reading about them.

I read literary fiction. Some of it dry as stale toast; some of it exciting; all of it not what I felt qualified to try. I wanted to write about strong women in situations beyond their immediate control. I wanted to drop women into a maelstrom and see if they could swim. Some sank. Some stunk. A few rode the froth of the eddy to the top to grab my attention. Enough of these tired cliches.

I found I liked strong women. I liked reading about them. I liked writing about them. In fact, the main character in my Mad Max novel was not supposed to be the main character. She started life as a secondary character, rather like a Greek chorus, commenting on action but not being affected by it. And then one day, she grabbed me by the throat and shook me. "Listen to me," she shouted. "My story is the only important one."

I had started Mad Max: Unintended Consequences as a story about a divorcing couple. I wrote in first person from three points of view: the wife, the husband and Mad Max. The wife becomes strung out on drugs. I had a terrific time writing long, rambling, run-on sentences reflective of what goes on in an addled brain. The husband thought and spoke in clipped terms. Half sentences, partial thoughts, Clint Eastwood-type "go ahead, make my day" stuff. Great fun. Max was more measured in thought and speech, expressing herself in complete sentences, adding her observations as her daughter's marriage dissolved. The first working title was Death of a Marriage. Didn't work.

My writing group, the Lake Writers, suggested (no, twisted my arm) I write using a single point of view, a single voice. I didn't think the story would be interesting, but I tried. First I tried the daughter. Not good. I never thought about writing from the husband's voice. That's when Max stood on her hind legs and yelled at me. The more I let Max be Max, the better the narrative flowed.

So, I locked myself into first person singular. Max tells her story her way. Sassy at times. Snarky at others. She has to deal with the dissolution of a complete family. And in so doing, she is forced to choose between doing what the family needs and doing what she needs.

You'll have to wait for a later post to see how she balances the conflict.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Review: What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

I confess. I'm absolutely batty over Malcolm Gladwell's writing. I don't always agree with him, but his essays in The New Yorker are a highlight. I read them hungrily, so when a friend of mine sent me What the Dog Saw and other adventures, I couldn't put it down. This is a collection of the best of the best from The New Yorker.

In the title essay, Gladwell wonders what went on in a dog's head when it encountered the original dog whisperer, Cesar Millan. Millan works with troubled dogs in troubled families. Some families don't know how to discipline their pets to achieve the desired results. Some dogs don't know what's expected of them, so they act out. Millan assesses situations and works with the family to reverse bad behavior by enforcing good. Much like children who respond to structure and consistency, dogs need the same thing.

We meet Ron Popeil, one of the first television pitchmen, who help revolutionize our kitchens with gadgets we couldn't afford not to have. His scream-and-buy delivery served as the model for later pitchmen, all of whom try to sell us items for under $19.95 (plus shipping and handling). "But wait, there's more." We can thank Popeil for these techniques and for Gladwell for introducing us to a most interesting character.

Several essays deal with the Enron debacle, including as profile of Jeffrey Skilling. He probes whether Enron had too much or too little information to make informed decisions. He writes about Enron's hiring practices where the best and the brightest were hired and set loose on the U.S., and indeed the global, economy.

In a wonderful essay about who's right for a job and, therefore, likely to succeed, Gladwell focuses on a football scout looking for the next great quarterback. In draft after draft, highly praised and highly picked quarterbacks, all stars in the college system, flame out in the NFL. He says in the 1999 draft, five quarterbacks were drafted with great hooplah. Of the five, only Donovan McNabb lived up to his promise. The others didn't. Why? Because the greatest college quarterbacks run the spread offense, something that doesn't exist in the NFL. A star in one league, an overpaid dud in another.

From a profile on the man who created the birth control pill and who never profited from it to FBI profilers who are wrong more often than they are right, Gladwell reveals his intensive curiosity for things out of the ordinary. Have you ever wondered why we can buy basically one kind of ketchup but a hundred different kinds of mustard. Gladwell did--and wrote about it.

Why do I like Malcolm Gladwell? Because his mind is even spookier than mine.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Writing Contests

I used to be really high on writing contests. I entered them several times a year. That was five years ago. Since then, I've cut back on entering, even though I won or placed in several. I found I didn't have time to prepare fresh material for each one. I don't like to submit the same material over and over in hopes new judges will love my work.

I still get lots of requests to enter all the time. I dug deeply into several and was surprised at how much each one cost. With the cash prizes very low, I realized many small contests fund their prizes through entry fees. And others use the fees to build their coffers. But when commercial enterprises, read mainly publishing magazines, offer "great" contests and prizes if you pay dearly to get your material read by a judge, well, count me out.

I reduced my participation to three contests a year. I like the groups and think they do good work outside of the contests. Imagine my surprise when one contest chair called me over Labor Day to tell me she just found my 2012 entry.

Just found my entry? I'd all but forgotten I submitted anything, but a check of my records revealed I had indeed submitted three entries. She apologized profusely for losing my entry. Seems she put it aside, had several emergencies and forgot about it.

We ended our call with both of us laughing. Stuff happens. She had the decency to call to apologize. I promised to submit entries again next year. Maybe the same ones. Maybe not. We'll see.

Well, phooey! Those entries were all winners. Better luck next year.