Positive words

So, as promised, I ran the exercise by my basic writing class.

In my research class, I took a different track and explained that while the Ferguson situation isn’t exactly within the purview of our class, and they really ought to be addressing this in a sociology class or a criminology class, we are in a research course based around popular culture studies and this is a hugely important cultural moment that they need to be reading up on. So I provided the students with two links to troves of information, with instructions to read for themselves:

But in my basic writing course, we talked about words. Because today is the day before Thanksgiving, a lot of students were absent and I had less than half the class, so I’m sorry the rest of them missed out on this experience. But (most of) the ones who were there got it, and they appreciated the exercise.

These are the words my students shared:

Most powerful word(s):

  • disgrace
  • colorful
  • live
  • God/money
  • “This is Sparta!”
  • can’t
  • love
  • hate

Most dangerous word(s):

  • fire
  • kill
  • knowledge
  • “I never want to see you ever again”
  • no
  • yes
  • can’t
  • cut off

Most positive word(s):

  • can
  • Aubrey
  • smile
  • good job
  • dawn
  • yes
  • good luck
  • grateful/silver
  • “My chiseled abs”

And yes, I did tell my students they could do whatever they wanted with the other words, but I wanted them to carry the positive words with them.

And may you carry your most positive words with you into tomorrow as we in the States celebrate gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving, folks.

I don’t know what else to do but write

I have so much to say on the Ferguson situation right now.

I almost typed “the Mike Brown situation,” and we shouldn’t forget how this started. We shouldn’t forget who lost his life, or his family, or his friends.

I then almost typed “the grand jury decision,” but this is so much bigger than them or their decisions.

This is about the entire community of Ferguson, Missouri.

Really, this is about all of us, which is why I’m here typing now, so I could just call it “our situation.” But here I sit in my warm home, typing on my Macbook, so safe and comfortable and privileged. It is my situation, too, because I am a human being and I choose to make it my situation, but I don’t want to pretend that I’m feeling what the people of Ferguson are feeling today. Their rage, their terror, their sorrow. I understand it — I cry as I type this — but I cannot pretend to feel it with the same intensity.

I have so much to say, but it feels like so little.

Almost 15 years ago, I was in grad school for the first time and, as a side job, I was tutoring college students who’d come from immigrant families, for whom English was their second or third or fourth language, for whom their college experience was a first for anyone they’d grown up with.

I had a lot of fascinating conversations with those students, and they might not have known it then, but I learned far more from them than they ever learned from me.

I remember one day a student came in to practice short essay writing and I could barely get him to put his name on a piece of paper. He kept fidgeting in his chair, tapping his heels and clenching his fists. He broke a pencil and when he got up to sharpen another on the old-fashion wall sharpener, he ground it halfway down before he let go of the crank.

I asked him what was wrong, and he began to rant at me about roommate problems, about teacher problems, about all the assholes who just didn’t understand. I stopped him. I pointed to the paper and I said, “Write it down.”

He said that’s not what we were supposed to be doing, but I told him we weren’t doing what we were supposed to be doing anyway, and he clearly had things to say about this. “So write it down.”

As he wrote, the letters got bigger, wilder on the page, the graphite strokes got thicker. He broke the tip of the pencil but I handed him a pen. He wrote so hard that he tore the paper. I told him to ignore it and keep writing.

He wrote and wrote. The sound of the nib scraping across the desktop, line after line, filled the empty classroom where we sat.

When he finished, he threw the pen on the table — it skittered away — and sat back with his arms crossed, and he growled, “So now what?”

I told him to wad up the paper. He looked at me. I said, “Take it in your fist, crumple it up. Make it as tight as you can make it.”

He squeezed that paper two-fisted, pressing his palms together so hard his shoulders trembled. He turned and kneaded and squashed that ball until it was the size of quarter. The size of a nickel. He tucked it away in one fist and kept squeezing, and he said again, “Now what?”

I told him to throw it away.

He got up, stomped to the trash can, raised his arm, and he didn’t so much throw the paper away as he did punch it into the trash can. It hit so hard it bounced out and he picked it up and punched it in again, and it stayed. He came seething back to the desk. He sat down.

He said, “Now what?”

I asked him how he felt.

He spread his hands forward and out across the table. Flexed his shoulders. Exhaled. He said, “Better, actually.” He sounded surprised.

I said, “Good. Whatever you came in here with, it’s over there in the trash can now. You can pick it up and take it with you when you leave, if you want, but for now, it’s garbage. Now let’s get to work.”

Doing that didn’t solve his problems, by the way. His roommate was still an asshole; he still fought with his teachers. We still had trouble in tutoring. Nobody understood. What I asked him to do, it wasn’t some magic exercise in throwing away his pain. It wasn’t some Zen “letting go” moment. I didn’t even know what I was doing with the kid. I was as lost as he was.

I just didn’t know what else to do but write.

So we wrote.

Tomorrow, I’m going to go into my classrooms and teach. And I can’t not teach this moment in our history. I can’t wad it into a ball and throw it away and move on.

But I don’t know how else to address it but through writing.

So in both my writing classes, I’m going to talk about words, about their power. I’m going to ask my students to write down the most powerful word they know. I’m going to ask them to write down the most dangerous word they know.

I’m going to ask them to write down the most positive word they know.

I’m going to tell them they can do whatever they want with the first two words. But I’m going to ask them to carry the third word with them when they leave the classroom.

And here, in the comments, you’re welcome to play along and leave your three words. Or at least your most positive one.

I could really use your positive words right now, friends.

Reading at Salon Skid Row

Earlier this week, I joined a group of fun writers and poets at a bar in downtown Portland for a little drinking, a little laughter, and a lot of literature, because we were all reading as part of the Salon Skid Row series.

Hosted by Josh Lubin at The Corner Bar, the series is old school in the best way: an open mic, a little ad-lib humor between readers, a lot of casual fun. And then there were the featured writers: Douglas Spangle, Pecos B. Jett, Alexis Orgera, and me.

Douglas Spangle, Pecos B. Jett, Alexis Orgera, and me

Douglas Spangle, Pecos B. Jett, Alexis Orgera, and me

Yes, that sign says “Off-Track Betting.” The Corner Bar has a sideline as a gambling joint: during the day, folks hunker down to yell over their beers at tv screens showing horse and dog races, and even in the evening, the digital slots are running behind a curtained wall (more than once, our fiction and poetry was good enough to draw gasps and laughter from gamblers playing the machines in the corner).

The audience was just as much fun, too, most everyone in their cups and all us readers taking the cue to read something lively. I read a bit from Hagridden (the introduction of Whelan), and then I decided, for the anniversary of Box Cutters, to read my bar story out of the chapbook. People got the creeps from Whelan and told me afterward that they were eager to hear more from the novel, but everyone really loved LoAnn and her ventriloquist dummy!

It was a great night in a fun venue, and I loved the bar-reading/open-mic vibe of the whole thing. I’ll be back for future events as an audience member!

NaNo(Re)WriMo: the first big rewrite

Well, I’ve done it at last.

A while ago, I mentioned that I was feeling revolutionary, that I wanted to throw away everything I’ve written on this novel and start again, that I wanted to make such drastic and dramatic changes to the book as to change the narrative structure, the POV, the purpose. I tried last week and it didn’t work, so I tried something else, and something else.

Then, at the very end of last week, I found it. My way in to the new draft, my voice.

And I have indeed chucked the old text, all 40,000 words of it, and started again with a new POV. And it just feels so RIGHT, gang! This, at last, is the book I’ve been trying to write for a year now. And (as with the first full draft of Hagridden), I can see the whole thing stretching out before me, just waiting to get written.

Which is why, for the first time in this year’s sort-of-NaNoWriMo posts, I’m going to share with you an excerpt.

Bear in mind, this is still a rough draft. Lord knows what changes are in store in revision. But this is the gist, folks, the general idea of the beginning of the book:

The sun hung low in the sky over the East Texas field and the cricketsong had just begun when of a sudden it ceased, and a crowd of grackles scattered from the widespread cedar elm at the edge of the shallow gully embanking the creek. No one outdoors to witness it when, through dry, unmown ryegrass and in the vast shadow of the elm, JW Coe highstepped slow and cautious down into the creek, stooped under the weight of a wide stone slab.

He was both thinner and fatter than in decades previous, with narrow shoulders and a hollow chest but with a taut paunch pushing against his shirt and vest, his wool coat unbuttoned because the buttons would no longer meet. But he wore the same brown hat he’d always worn, gone loose with age and stuffed with rolled newspaper to keep it snug over his thinning hair, long as usual but faded from the ashy blond of his youth to just ash. His heavy mustaches and long goatee still stained yellow with tobacco. If the occupants of the yonder house were still those he’d known three decades ago, they would doubtless recognize him, though for all he knew that family had long moved on and another family come to replace them, no part of the world empty for long.

He stopped every few paces to check his distance from the house up the slope and then behind him to Fulton, his old carthorse, uncarted and drop-hitched and chewing the rye. He wanted to know how active were the occupants of the farmhouse and how far he’d have to run if it came to that, but he saw no movement and he’d left Fulton the horse obscured enough. So on he labored, hauling the stone on his back.

[. . .]

Then with his eyes on his feet he paced out a length of land down into the gully, into a thicket of brush where the day’s last light had already died. Nearly every step he paused and set the stone down, held its top in one hand as with his other he lifted brambles and dry, fallen limbs as silently as he could manage, the journey only a dozen paces but taking him the better part of thirty minutes. With each cracked branch or small rock slipped down toward the vanished creek, he stopped and straightened and watched the house, though soon he was deep enough in shadow he was certain no one would see him.

The sun was long behind the house and nearing the earth when Coe reached the patch of earth he knew to be a grave.

[. . .]

He rammed the stone into the earth. The dull thud was soft enough but he turned toward the house anyway. He could not see it. He reached beneath his coat and drew a hunting knife and dug at the ground with it, careful not to scrape the stone for the sound it would make, and he gouged a grove into which sank the heavy slab. He worked for some minutes. Finally, he lifted one hand and then, slowly, the other, and when he saw the stone was fixed in the earth he kicked the loose dirt into the groove and packed it with his boot. Then he stepped away and beheld the stone.

[. . .]

A sound arrested him save his head, which he jerked toward the house. Wood clapped on wood, the sound of a door shutting, then boots on planks. Coe reached his hand to his knifehilt but left it there, the knife sheathed so the blade would catch no light. These habits so long unused but still there in his old muscles, in his hot blood. He studied his breath, let it come slow and even so it would make no sound. The boots at the house walked on, then disappeared though no sound of a door followed them. Coe waited. After several seconds he heard a fainter, more distant clap of wood and he stood, slowly, to peer up the creekbank. He could see nothing, not even the house, but he heard a distant, muffled song, the lyrics indecipherable but interrupted by grunts and what he recognized as happy curses. A man in the jakes on the other side of the house, away from the creek.

Frozen in the shadowy gully, the first stars pricking through the blue skin of the sky, he imagined what would happen, what had always happened. The man returning from the shithouse, the man spying the drifts of visible breath in the cold air like smoke wafting up through the liveoaks. The man realizing the presence of an intruder on his land, the man descended from the men Coe knew, a man who would know where Coe was and why. He would consider calling into the house for reinforcements, for arms, but he would not want to be called a fool. So the man would step down from the porch into the cold, damp earth, his boots soft in the grass. He would look in the last of the light, and Coe would have to answer, quiet and with a high-pitched voice, an imitation of a boy or, better, a calf if he could manage it. Something to draw the man in, and in the man would come, lured by the voice of something he could handle alone, something he could tell a story of later. And when he was close enough, Coe, even in his elder years, would rush unannounced from the trees, up the rise and out of the shadow, the knife out of the sheath and into the man’s neck in the same movement. The blood hot on Coe’s wrist and forearm, the man’s breath hot on his neck as he leaned in close to die in silence.

It all felt so familiar. It all felt so keen, so clear. Coe caught himself almost wishing for it to happen.

That first night I blazed through a thousand words in about half an hour and wanted to write on but it was late and I had work the next morning. Since then, my pace has been slower, partly because each time I sit down to the book, I’m revising the text before I carry on with the story, and (the past couple of days) partly because I’m sending characters into situations I need to check the details of against history. (Always researching, me.) Still, I’ve put together another 3,000 words this week, for a 4,200-word draft so far, and most of those words are pretty good, I think.

Not the frenzied drafting of a traditional NaNoWriMo, but this is it, gang. This is the beginning of my next novel. And, as a reader, I can’t wait to see how it turns out!

hagridden_book_coverMy first-ever attempt at NaNoWriMo resulted in the first draft of Hagridden, out this year from Columbus Press. You can order your copy from several online venues, or enter the Goodreads giveaway for a free, signed copy!

NaNo(Re)WriMo: the next several days

Last week was a busy one — I got sick, put out Jersey Devil Press, finished judging the flash fiction for the creative writing contest at Indiana University Southeast, raked leaves, did a lot of reading — so re-starting my current novel proved slower going than I’d hoped.

Then, at the end of last week, I attended a literary reading here in Portland and the writers — Trevor Dodge, Lance Olsen, and Lidia Yuknavitch — were all so inspiring in their fiction that they got me rethinking things about my novel. I started imaging a new way to approach the telling of this story. In fact, I started having just plain revolutionary thoughts.

In ordinary circumstances, this would be exhilarating. I love shaking things up in my fiction, and usually, the more radical the idea, the better the results, because anything that shakes me out of preconceptions or old habits is usually good for my creativity.

But the thing is, I’m not supposed to be rethinking things right now. I’m not supposed to be thinking much at all. I’m supposed to just be powering through a draft, whatever shit that might produce, and then I can clean it up and rework it in revision.

Except this is a sort of revision, and I’m not formally participating in NaNoWriMo this year anyway, so I get to adhere to whatever rules I want.

It’s all very confusing. So much so that I don’t even want to explain here what this revolutionary idea is. But the short, vague version is this: I have my story and my characters and all that, but the narrative perspective continues to needle at me, so I’m thinking — without bothering yet to rewrite anything I’d already written — that I need to just completely change the perspective here. Which is what tried this week, just to shake things up and keep things moving.

It didn’t work very well.

Also, last night I attended another literary event — this time, it was my friend Bill Roorbach in town promoting his new novel, The Remedy for Love — and he spent a lot of time talking about titles. So of course, I started rethinking my own title, which is the last thing I ought to be worrying about right now (I have story to write!), but sure enough, I scribbled a few alternate titles in my notebook during Bill’s reading. I haven’t fallen in love yet, but then, I was never really in love with my current working title, so I’m pretty sure it’s going to change before I’m through.

So, with all that overthinking, I’m only up about 2,000 words since my last post, or 4,200 words since last year. Even without formally participating in NaNoWriMo, this is an unacceptable pace. I’m hoping to hit the work hard this weekend and should post more impressive numbers next week.

I just have to remember to spend my time writing instead of beating myself up for not writing.

It’s funny, all these years and all those many grueling drafts later, how easy Hagridden seems to have been in hindsight.

I’m looking forward to the day when I can look back on this novel and call it easy as well.

hagridden_book_coverMy first-ever attempt at NaNoWriMo resulted in the first draft of Hagridden, out this year from Columbus Press. You can order your copy from several online venues, or enter the Goodreads giveaway for a free, signed copy!

The Hagridden character quiz!

You guys! This is TOO COOL!

Shenice, a staff member at Columbus Press, has gone onto the quiz site PlayBuzz and made a character quiz for Hagridden!

Screen shot 2014-11-07 at 9.02.02 PM

You know the drill: Which house from Harry Potter do you belong in? Which of the Avengers are you? What Game of Thrones woman are you? (Gryffindor, Thor, and Daenerys Targaryen, FYI.)

And now you can take a quiz to find out which character from Hagridden you are! Your options are the Older Woman, the Young Girl, Buford, Lt. Whelan, or (I love this!) Clovis.

I’ve taken the quiz every which way just to see what the results look like, and gang, it’s pretty awesome. But my first try, when I was answering honestly for myself, I got the Older Woman.

hagridden quiz old woman


She’s a popular result, as the first few people on Facebook to take the quiz got her as well. But it wasn’t too long before a couple of Lt. Whelans showed up, and this evening I saw the first Clovis.

My wife took the quiz, too, and — unsurprisingly — she got the Young Girl. Of course my wife is the hot young love interest! But seriously, the description Shenice wrote for the Young Girl fits my wife to a T:

You are young at heart and are not afraid to fight for what you want. You are strong, brave, and courageous. You are strong willed and always look out for those you love.


So, which character are you? Take the quiz and share your results on Facebook or Twitter. And share them here in the comments, too!

60 issues of Jersey-style Devilry

Option 4 frontThat’s right, folks. Jersey Devil Press has reached its sixtieth issue.

And it’s full of the usual absurdity: a splinter becomes a surreal launch through space and time, atomic science speaks in hip-hop, dental issues become profound, fish are so much more than mere fish, scarecrows burst into flames, and apples — well, you know know where those always lead.

Plus, we have an elephant head from the excellent Chris Paulsen

NaNo(Re)WriMo: the first few days

So, I’m not formally participating in NaNoWriMo this year. Not because I’m not writing a novel — I am — but because I’m actually REwriting a novel. And that’s not what NaNoWriMo is for, so I’m out.

But I’m still writing, reworking the post-Civil War outlaw novel I started (and failed to finish) last year. I had thought I’d be throwing out most of last year’s text, but on rereading it this past month, I’ve realized a lot of it is salvageable, so instead, I’m focusing on just adding to what I have. I’ll ditch the junk as I go and clean out the rest later in revision.

Which means I’ve been able to focus just on the writing, and so far, I’ve managed to scratch out just under 2,200 words. It’s not a lot for the first four days, but considering that I’m working on grading student essays, editing Jersey Devil Press, and getting well (I caught a cold this weekend), I’m happy with that number.

The biggest obstacle throughout this month is going to be the plot. This is always my biggest obstacle in longer fiction, and I tend to look for ways to shortcut that process, usually by hanging my stories on the coathangers of other plots through an exercise called a descriptive outline.

In this case, I’m pulling together a whole wardrobe of coathangers, taking as inspiration the exploits of the Quantrill’s Raiders during the Civil War, the actions of the Younger and James gangs during and after the war, the events of Lee-Peacock feud in Pilot Grove, Texas after the war, and the “New Rebellion” of Cullen Baker in Texas and Arkansas after the war. I also realized a couple months ago that I needed to bring my cast of characters — much larger than the cast of Hagridden — together in one place, to gather the miscreants, so to speak, so I returned to my beloved Japanese cinema and I’m building my gang of rebels along the same lines as the heroes in Seven Samurai (though my story is more from the bandits’ point of view).

(If you’re interested, you can go to my NaNoWriMo page here on the website to see the list of books I’m reading while writing my own novel.)

I also knew that there would be a key death at the end of the book, and I decided this past summer not to reveal who actually did the killing, which means there’s an element of mystery to the novel. So I’ve had to work that out, too.

That’s a lot of things to hang up on an outline, which will probably be a problem down the road, but this summer I realized I need to treat this novel as episodic, at least for now, so I can write the adventures of my characters a little at a time and then sort them out along the outline later. That means, of course, that I need to know who my characters are and what their biographies are, which is what I spent my summer and parts of last month working on. (More on those characters in the next post.)

So that’s where I stand: I have (finally) a general sense of plot — or plots, anyway — and a fairly strong sense of who these characters are, including where they’re from, what they look like, and how they got roped into the one-man revolution that my novel concerns. And now I’m just writing, a little this week and a lot more this coming weekend.

hagridden_book_coverMy first-ever attempt at NaNoWriMo resulted in the first draft of Hagridden, out this year from Columbus Press. You can order your copy from several online venues, or enter the Goodreads giveaway for a free, signed copy!

Halloween brings the Rougarou!

This past week, Hagridden‘s publisher, Columbus Press, put the call out for photos of my novel out in the world for Fall/Halloween — readers in costume with the book, or the book in scary locations, or the book in Fall scenery . . . . We got a lot of great photos from all you saintly readers, and now, on All Saint’s Day, I can share one more batch — and introduce you at last to the Rougarou!

We’ll start with one more photo from Columbus, home of my publisher:

Another moody Hagridden photo from Columbus, OH!

Another moody Hagridden photo from Columbus, OH!

I was feeling left out, so my wife and I took Hagridden down to Mill Ends Park in Portland. At less than two square feet, it’s the world’s smallest municipal park, and it has played host to all manner of charming mythical creatures, from leprechauns and gnomes to the Easter Bunny. So Hagridden felt at home.

Hagridden in Mill Ends Park, Portland, OR.

Hagridden in Mill Ends Park, Portland, OR.

Seriously, this is a TINY park!

Mill Ends Park, Portland, OR.

Mill Ends Park, Portland, OR.

This weekend, we also hosted my cousins from Scotland, and since they’d just finished reading Hagridden on their way to Portland, we got photos of them with the book, too — including the first-ever photo of the ebook Hagridden on an iPad!

Lauchlan and Shannon M with two versions of Hagridden.

Lauchlan and Shannon M. with two versions of Hagridden.

And, of course, because it was Halloween, we also hosted . . . .

the Rougarou!

The Rougarou!

The Rougarou!

This was my Halloween costume, complete with gold-braid “chicken guts” on the sleeves and the Davis Guard medal on the chest!

He wore his uniform crisply laundered and bright gray despite the few missing buttons. On his breast the coin medal newly polished.

(chapter 18)

My wife made the "chicken guts" on the sleeves.

My wife made the “chicken guts” on the sleeves.

I do like me that coat. [Clovis] pointed to the cuffs, the corded brocade there. Them chicken guts look right smart and that medal hanging there, that genuine?

It is.

(chapter 19)

The rougarou, being a bit vain, wanted to pose with the novel that is (in his mind) all about him:

The Rougarou with Hagridden.

The Rougarou with Hagridden.

He particularly enjoyed chapter 15, which describes how he makes his wolf mask — his true face.

Reading the chapter about making the wolf mask!

Reading the chapter about making the wolf mask!

Of course, we’re always looking for more photos of Hagridden. You can add one to the comments, or you can message me on Facebook. (I’ll try to ask permission from everyone to share the photo on Facebook, on Twitter, and/or on my blog, but in case I get inundated and don’t have time to get back to each person individually, let’s all just assume that if you’re sending the photo to me, you’re giving me permission to share it.)

And don’t forget about the Goodreads giveaway!

More readers celebrating Halloween/Fall with Hagridden

Hagridden‘s publisher, Columbus Press, has put the call out for photos of my novel out in the world for Fall/Halloween — readers in costume with the book, or the book in scary locations, or the book in Fall scenery . . . . Whatever you fans (they’ve started calling y’all “Hagriddenians”!) come up with.

And so far, the response has been cool as an autumn day!

Reader Angie S. is making fast progress in the novel!

Reader Angie S. is making fast progress in the novel!

Hannah D. took Hagridden into the deep, dark woods.

Hannah D. in Columbus, Ohio, took Hagridden into the deep, dark woods.

As a reader in Columbus, Ohio, noted on this photo, "Turns out #Hagridden pairs well with fall!"

As another reader in Columbus noted on this photo, “Turns out #Hagridden pairs well with fall!”

One more Columbus reader -- this one went for "spooktacular" and NAILED it!

One more Columbus reader — this one went for “spooktacular” and NAILED it!

Oregon writer Emily Grosvenor finished Hagridden aver coffee at Chrysalis Coffeehouse in McMinnville.

Oregon writer Emily Grosvenor finished Hagridden over coffee at Chrysalis Coffeehouse in McMinnville, Oregon.

My own mother sent this photo in. Yes, that's a very young me next to my mom's copy of Hagridden.

My own mother sent this photo in. Yes, that’s a very young me next to my mom’s copy of Hagridden.

And finally:


Texas writer Dan Cooper and his daughter (who took the photo) sent in this pic, which is composed out of PURE AWESOME!

Texas writer Dan Cooper and his daughter (who took the photo) sent in this pic, which is composed out of PURE AWESOME!

Want to play along but don’t own a copy of Hagridden? Head down to your local library and see if it’s on the shelf there! Take a photo of it in the library! Or borrow a friend’s copy! Or enter the Goodreads giveaway! (Of course, the giveaway runs til late November, so you wouldn’t get your signed copy until closer to Thanksgiving, but hey, Fall-themed photos of Hagridden are proving popular!)

If you want to share a photo, you can add one to the comments, or you can message me on Facebook.

(I’ll try to ask permission from everyone to share the photo on Facebook, on Twitter, and/or on my blog, but in case I get inundated and don’t have time to get back to each person individually, let’s all just assume that if you’re sending the photo to me, you’re giving me permission to share it.)

Looking forward to more pix, gang!