Winter writing retreat, day 5

Here I am blogging before I’m even finished writing, but today that’s because I’m enjoyed a FULL day of writing and it’s not over yet. (My wife is entertaining company this evening, so I get to retreat to my study all night if I want to. Seriously: one of the most important things to any successful home writing retreat — to any writing life, really — is a supportive partner. And I’ve got one of the best.)

But since dinner is coming up soon and I’m getting ready to pause in the work anyway, I wanted to take a moment to share my day’s writing reminder. Yesterday, for people following along, I got the reminder that sometimes writing time doesn’t go according to plan, and that’s okay because the writing will always be there waiting. Today, I harkened back to an early problem I had with the Hagridden draft: STOP RESEARCHING!

I seriously blew two whole hours today checking maps and topography, reading about 19th century shotguns and the rank designations in cavalry units, watching videos of people firing muzzle-loading rifles and shooting bowling balls out of homemade cannons . . . which is when I realized I’d falling into the Pit of Research (I had nearly two-dozen tabs open in my browser!) and hadn’t done any writing in hours.

This is my park -- I took this during my walk this afternoon, just before the sun set.

This is my park — I took this during my walk this afternoon, just before the sun set.

This was a common problem when I was drafting Hagridden, too, though because my resources then were a bit scarcer, I was more easily able to stay on track. Today, I actually had to leave the house and go for a walk through our big neighborhood park to clear my head and get unstuck from the mire of the Internet.

And it worked, because on that walk, I was able to mentally figure out all the rest of this chapter I’ve been working on, and I deepened some of the purpose motivating my characters, and I generally just rebooted and got myself back into writing mode.

Back in my study, I worked through a couple more pages and now I’m in the right place to carry me through the night.

So, daily writing tip: turn off the wifi, and, if necessary, talk a long walk in cool near-winter air. The Internet can be awfully friendly to a writer, but it’s like a boozy friend who drinks too much and forgets boundaries. Sometimes it gets too friendly, and that’s when you need to get some distance.

And now, dinner, and then back to work! (Sorry, Internet — I’m taking the phone off the hook after this. We’re still cool, but I need some space.)

Winter writing retreat, day 4

I figured folks might find this post useful, so I thought I’d go ahead and write it before I get to work.

Yes, you’re reading that right. It’s 10:30 at night and I’m just now getting to the writing.

The plan today was to take the morning off — we had some errands to run — and then I could settle in to write all afternoon. But, as my wife reminded me today, “Sometimes life happens.”

We had a mishap in the kitchen this morning, a stuck drawer and, consequently, a broken drawer pull (we’re strong in this house!), which just made the drawer that much more stuck. So after our regular morning errands, I had to then make a run to the hardware store and, at home, fix the drawer. And today we got our gutters cleaned, which I thought was a stroke of brilliance (pay someone else to do the chores so I can focus on my writing!) but it turns out the gutter crew was more distracting than I’d expected. Not a bad thing — I enjoy talking to crews who work on things for me, and I learn a lot — but between that and my kitchen drawer, my afternoon was pretty well blown.

No worries, I figured. I’ll just write a bit after dinner.

But first I had to make a batch of my homemade salsa and a dozen chocolate-covered strawberries for an event tomorrow, and fixing the drawer had made a mess of my kitchen, so I had to clean that up before I got to the cooking, and then I had to clean up from the cooking . . . .

Oh, and my sister gave birth to a new niece today (happy birthday, new niece!), and I’ve been engrossed in baby pictures.

So here I am at 10:30 pm, finally getting to work.

And this is okay. I mean, I’ll be honest, there were several times today when other things were going wrong that I added “I’m not writing” to my list of frustrations and let myself get pretty pissed off. But ultimately, this writing time is a wonderful privilege, and I have to remember that this is the way I usually work, writing whenever I can get the time. And, actually, I did get a little writing done today already — a couple of paragraphs and some research in a lobby waiting on an appointment this morning; half a chapter at home this afternoon between chats with the gutter crew. And besides, it’s not like the writing is going anywhere. Look: here it is, waiting patiently for me. Hi, writing. It’s good to see you again.

So if you ever want to set up a writing retreat for yourself, remember (and I needed reminding today, so it’s okay if you forget): sometimes life happens. And the writing isn’t going anywhere. So relax, and enjoy the writing time you have, whenever you happen to have it.

Throwback Thursday: the very first words of Hagridden

I was digging through old files looking for notes I might use in my new novel, and I stumbled upon my old three-ring binder of Hagridden notes, all those articles and ideas I’d been compiling in the few years between my first idea for the book and my first draft of it. The binder mostly contains printed material I was keeping on hand for later, scholarly essays on Cajun and Native folklore (like the rougarou and an old Chitimacha legend about a flood), pop-culture articles on mythology in comics (I was looking at Swamp Thing), critical analyses of some of the Japanese films that informed my novel, publication information on history books I wanted to read, a list of Civil War battles and skirmishes in Louisiana.

And, right up front, my very first attempt at getting the ideas down in writing: two and a half pages of narrative, and another page and a half of notes.

The first words of the earliest first draft of Hagridden.

The first words of the earliest first draft of Hagridden.

You’ll note it’s covered in black marks. I did that digitally — this earliest jotted narrative includes the names of the woman and the girl, which I’ve always said I know but would never reveal. So I’ve blotted them out.

But, names redacted, here are the opening paragraphs:

Open in tall rushes (either bayou or wheat?). If possible, spend more time with the landscape, but don’t lose the immediacy of the action. Perhaps add the sounds of distant battle? Also spend more time with the dead bodies — describe the smells, and the clothes. Question: Does [the girl] carry a pistol? Does [the woman]? Basically, open with this:

A warm summer wind swept out of the porcelain blue sky and descended into the rushes. Even bent over as they were, the grasses swelled taller than the two soldiers running through them. Only the dulled bayonets affixed to the ends of the men’s dirty carbines showed above the swaying rushes. The men could barely see each other in their chase, and neither one spoke as they ran. The one behind, a rebel in stolen Union blues, stopped a moment and popped off a round, but it went lost in the grasses, and the man ran on, watching when he could for the Union soldier’s bayonet.

[The woman] watched as well, squatted in the dirt with the grass thick about her. She saw the rear bayonet stop again and descend into the grasses, heard another round fired, then a noise she’d come to recognize as a carbine jam. The Union man heard this, too, and he turned back through the grasses, searching for the disadvantaged reb. [The woman] waited. When she heard the clash, she made a sound like a finch and waited to hear its echo. The echo came, and [the woman] crawled through the grass roots until she found her daughter-in-law [. . .] crawling toward her. [The girl] nodded in a question, and [the woman] nodded in answer. [The girl] pointed to her mother-in-law’s dress, and [the woman] reached into its pocket and pulled a military service pistol from inside, but as she eyed it and then the grasses where the two soldier’s fought, she shook her head and put the pistol back inside her dress. She laid a finger to her lips, and [the girl] nodded.

Together they worked their way silently toward the fight. Every several feet [the woman] or [the girl] would stand to watch the heads of the rushes, looking for movement out of synch with the wind, the signs of the skirmish ahead. They heard grunts as the two men fought. They came to a carbine, then another, both without their bayonets. One of the men gasped. The women were close now, and they crouched in the grass to wait. The grunts were growing fainter but not farther away. After several minutes, there was only the sound of heavy breathing blending with the hot wind. Alma nodded, and the two women crawled forward. They could see now through the moving gaps in the rushes the bodies of the two soldiers. Both lay on the ground in a clearing of crushed grass they’d made when they fell. The perimeter was splattered with thin sprays of blood. [The woman] stood, and [the girl] stood beside her, and they walked into the clearing to stand over the men.

They’d stabbed each other. The yankee lay with one arm bent back beneath him, the shoulder joint popped loose and protruding horribly. He wept as he breathed. His eyes were rolling in their sockets. When he saw the women standing there, he opened his eyes wide and tried to speak, but they saw he had a hole torn in one lung, and all he could do was gasp. The reb clutched a bayonet stuck in his thigh, and he was bleeding from the shoulder. He too looked at the women then [the girl] in particular, and when he spoke to [the girl] his voice came in a Tennessee accent.

“Ma’am, of jesus ma’am, I need some help.”

[The girl] watched him. He looked now at [the woman].

“Either of you know any nursing? Either of you can sew a suture?”

[The woman] nodded again, and [the girl] bent over the reb. She took a hard grip on the bayonet and wrenched it free; the reb grabbed his thigh and screamed, then grit his jaw tight and breathed through his teeth. He looked at the bloody blade and then at [the girl].

“That’s gone bleed out fast,” he said. “Help me, ma’am, help me.”

[The girl] raised the bayonet and brought it down hard into the man’s chest, just left of the sternum. The man made no sound save the scrape of the blade against one rib. He threw his chest off the ground and splayed his arms, then he collapsed to twitch on the blood-soaked earth.

[The woman] was leaning over the yankee. He was watching her and still wept openly. His mouth kept moving like a drowning fish, and then he made some sound, air out past his quivering lips.

“Ma’am,” he said, but it was all he could manage, so he said it again. “Ma’am.”

[The woman] put one hand over his blood-frothed mouth and with her other she pinched shut his snotted nostrils. He reached up his one good arm and pulled the hand over his mouth, gasping harder but shoving out words in desperation. “Please,” he gasped, “ma’am please, please ma’am.”

[The woman] jerked her head at [the girl], and [the girl] stepped over and pulled back the man’s arm and held it to the ground with a knee. [The woman] pout her hand back over the soldier’s mouth and waited until he jerked on the ground. His dislocated arm flung from under his back but it was useless and only flopped against [the woman’s] back and arms. The women sat and waited, and the yankee stopped fighting and sank into the earth to die.

For folks who’ve read the novel, this scene will seem both familiar and quite different. For starters, while I knew right away that I was setting this novel in southwest Louisiana, I didn’t seem sure yet whether I would put it in the bayou or up higher on the prairies. That strikes me as interesting now, considering how important the bayou became to the novel.

Another major difference some readers will pick up on immediately: quotation marks! Ah, the early days, when I was still slogging my way through ideas and had all the time in the world to stop and add quotation marks to dialogue. ;)

But then there are the characters themselves: the women here are less instinctually attuned to when soldiers enter their territory, and they have to actively stalk the men. They also carry — and consider using — a firearm; in the novel, they’re long past such noisome foolishness and kill quietly and efficiently with just knives and sharpened sticks. In other words, this scene seems set earlier in the war, when the women were comfortable with having to kill but not yet practiced in it.

Hence that early line in the published novel: “Such events were rare and getting rarer, but when it happened it would happen the same.”

And sure enough, the events here and afterward play out much as they do in the novel, though it’s the woman, not the girl, who makes the final kill into a more hands-on experience; and (in text I’ve left out because it drags on awhile) the women seem less experienced at disposing of the bodies.

The rest of these pages are just notes on what will follow this opening murder, all present-tense sketchwork without character names or much detail. (Interesting, in hindsight, that I initially named the two women and no one else, but very quickly reversed that so the two women are the only characters in the book who don’t get names.) But this opening unfolds roughly as it does in the novel.

Some surprising differences I’d forgotten about: In the notes, the man who would become Clovis operates not in the swamp but in town (not yet identified as Leesburg) — he’s practically respectable, and the women have to come to him by the back door to avoid being seen by his usual customers — and his slave Teague is just a small boy. Later in the notes, the neighbor (who became Buford) arrives as he does in the novel, but in these notes he carries most of his old gear from the war and he stops at his own shack to hide it before he continues to find the women. The would-be Buford also seems more at ease and more polite — less haggard, less broken, less desperate — than he does in the novel.

My notes end with this line, apparently a brand-new idea at the time: “Mention historical hurricanes that hit LA at beginning and end of Civil War? How? To what purpose?”

I couldn’t pin these pages to a specific date, but I know I was still in grad school in Texas when I wrote them, and given the reference to the hurricanes (an idea I only had after Katrina hit New Orleans), they probably date from the end of 2005, or possibly very early in 2006.

What is most interesting for me is seeing how plain the language is in these first notes. Sure, I was just getting the words on paper and didn’t even plan to do much with them for a while, but looking at these paragraphs now, I’m awfully glad I gave myself the extra three or four years before really trying to write a serious first draft. I definitely needed those years of writing other things for my craft to deepen and mature. I probably could have kept going on this early draft and revised and revised and revised until it became the novel you all know and love (you have bought a copy, right?) — because, as I wrote the other day, I finally got the revisions right on a short story I started twenty years ago, so I know that such transformation is possible. But doing that on a full-blown novel might have driven me mad, and I’m so much happier to have written it the way I did, with greater confidence not only in the story but also in my craft.

And so I carry on writing my next novel. And, as I reread the not-so-great text I’m producing each day, I’m relieved to have this reminder that when it all comes together, the writing can get better! I just need to have the core ideas there, and as I wrote yesterday, folks, I’ve got ‘em. :)

Winter writing retreat, day 3

I’m taking a short break from my writing retreat. Yes, I know, it’s 9:30 at night and I ought to be wrapping up, but I’ve always been a late writer, and given a free schedule — or other demands on my time — this is when I usually work best. I have to make myself write during the day the way I have been the past couple of days.

I was up late last night, actually, though all I was doing was fretting over title ideas for my two chapbooks. (I did finally settle on titles, but I’m not yet in love with them. Strangely, this morning I did find a great title for something else I’m not even working on right now. Such are the agitations of my brain.) So, late to bed, late to rise, and I didn’t really get to work this morning until close to 10. That left just 90 minutes or so before I quit and joined my wife for lunch, and then we ran some errands, and then we straightened up the house, and finally, late this afternoon, I settled back in for a few solid hours of writing.

But, fractured and unfocused as all that sounds, I’ve actually gotten a lot of good work done today. This morning was mostly plot work as a warm up and then some revision on work from a few weeks ago. That was Hemingway’s rule, right? Go back over what you wrote the day before and then pick up from there? Maybe that’s not quite it, but that’s what I did, and the work has been going well.

Some of my actual character notes in Scrivener. (I've redacted some details -- can't give everything away!)

Some of my actual character notes in Scrivener. (I’ve redacted some details — can’t give everything away!)

This afternoon, though, I ran into a character I didn’t quite have a handle on, and I remembered that was an early weakness in Hagridden — thin, unmotivated characters — so I paused for a while and worked on the character. Which led me to another character, which created a few more. Soon I had whole genealogies and complex friendships and courtships in my Scrivener file, and dear readers, those of you who keep wondering about a sequel to Hagridden will be happy to know that I have finally figured out how this new novel relates to those killers down in the bayou.

The new book isn’t a sequel, but I always wanted to work in some reference to characters or events in Hagridden, because I love connecting my work in small ways in order to create an expansive fictional universe. I had a couple of minor characters in mind already, and at least one of them probably will still turn up in the new book. If that happens, I’ll let you know. But this other connection is a bit more important but also a bit subtler, so saying anything about it here might prove a spoiler (or at least ruin the fun of those nerdy readers who like looking for clues in books). So the only other thing I’ll say about it is that I’m kind of excited about the possibilities this connection — and, more importantly, these new characters I wrote today — are bringing to the new book.

Which is why I’m staying up late again. I’m feeling the fire, folks, and it’s time to let it burn.

Winter writing retreat, day 2

Today was a nice, long day of writing. I shut my study door a little after 9 am and didn’t come out again til lunch. Then I was back in the study around noon and I kept at it until my wife invited me on a short walk around the neighborhood at 4 pm. Which was a perfect way to unwind.

You’d think with all that time at the work, I’d have pounded out pages and pages of new material, and I did start the day with the novel, working over some plot decisions and looking at some research that might help with the end of the novel. But I soon realized I was just wasting time — research makes for fantastic procrastination — and really, I’m still trying to clear my head of older work, so I went back to those chapbooks I was trying to figure out yesterday. And I’m glad I did, because one of them had a hole in it — I needed one more story to tie it all together. And today, I found it.

What’s more, that story is one I started writing in 1994.

That’s not a typo. I actually wrote the first draft of that story for a college lit class twenty years ago.

It’s changed dramatically since then: At the time, it was a short, juvenile piece about first-date sex and falling in love in a blue suburban moonlight. I read it at an open mic for my college coffeehouse, and later I ran a revised version of it in the college lit rag. But after college, I realized the story felt too sugary, too upper-middle class. So I moved the whole thing out of the white-washed suburbs and set the sex in a trailer. I also added more of the first-date scene, made conversation (and later the sex) more awkward, made the male protagonist less sure of himself.

It never went anywhere. I kept reworking it and sending it out, but it was a crap story. Except I really wanted this piece to do something. So I kept at it, and kept at it, until I finally chucked it in the proverbial drawer. Then about seven or eight years ago I was between stories and looking for something to needle at, so I dragged that old story out and retooled it, made the protagonist a sexist asshole, added a pregnant waitress.* Then I ditched the waitress and toned down the guy’s sexism.

On and on it went.

I won’t go into too many details here, but a few years ago, the story shifted for me — I added an entirely unexpected element and the whole thing utterly transformed. There’s still the awkward sex, there’s still a trailer, but the rest of the story, including the two main characters, are wholly different. I wish I could tell you how different, but this thing is headed out into the world and I don’t want to prejudice the jury, as it were. Let’s just say, the thing that transformed the story was the influence of medieval hagiographies about married virgin saints.

Of course, given the drastic effects of such a wild departure from those early drafts, the resulting story was such a hot mess that I had to keep revising. And revising. And revising.

But today, I reworked the story, trimmed out another 300 words and added a couple dozen to clarify key moments, and I’ve done it. Twenty years of revision finally wrapped up in about six hours of steady work, and it completes this chapbook I’ve been working on for the past several months.

Now I just need a title. (I hate titles.)


* I was in the middle of drafting another story set in the same restaurant — that waitress, now gone from this dating story, was Florida from “No Milk Would Come.”

Winter writing retreat, day 1

My grading finished and my weekend over, I spent the last hours of Sunday night planning my writing time for this week. I say all the time how I’m not usually one for rigid writing schedules, but when I’m doing a writing retreat — even an informal one at home — having a schedule helps me focus.

But, of course, I’m already off it.

Our cats had a vet appointment this morning — that was already on the books — but it was late, nearer to lunchtime, so I figured I’d get an early start on the writing just to get my head in the right place for the rest of the week.

But then, as I headed off to bed, I started thinking about a couple of chapbooks I’ve had ideas for (NOT the thing I thought I’d be working on this week!) and I wound up staying up late to work on one of them. And then this morning, as I headed into my study, I remembered what a mess I’d made of it in my last frenzied bits of grading, so instead of writing, I spent my morning cleaning my study.

20141215_093753

“Clean,” for me, is usually a relative term. It mostly means “places to walk and sit.”

All of this is fine, by the way. I’m not losing any writing time — I just bumped the first couple of hours forward into last night, and I was going to have to clean the study anyway. If anything, I’m ahead of schedule now.

So, this is how I work.


In the afternoon, I had planned to wrap up that chapbook work I was doing last night so I could get back to my novel, but then my chapbook publisher, sunnyoutside press, passed along an interview opportunity, and since this is day 1 and I’m still trying to establish working habits and a daily-writing mindset, I figured starting in on the interview would be a more productive use of my time than staring at the computer all afternoon wondering what to do next. So I did that.

And I still got some work done on the chapbooks. In fact, one of them is a story away from being complete, and the other is mostly just in need a title (which is my least favorite part of the process).

So, day 1 = success! Not a lot of work done, but more done in one period than I’ve managed in a while, and I’m certainly eager for tomorrow, when I’ll have the whole day to spend writing!


While I’m thinking about it, I went ahead and pulled down all my chapbooks:

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In case you’re wondering what all is in this pile, here’s the list (note, some of these — especially the two I handmade in college or the one by my friend Curtis Thomas, who hand-stapled them at a copy shop and gave them away on street corners — aren’t widely available, so good luck finding them):

  • Christopher Bowen, We Were Giants
  • David Breeden, Building a Boat
  • David Breeden, The Guiltless Traveler
  • Matthew Burnside, Infinity’s Jukebox
  • Justin Lawrence Daugherty, Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise
  • Jodi A. Drinkwater, Blood and Water
  • Sarah Rose Etter, Tongue Party
  • Beth Ann Fennelly, A Different Kind of Hunger
  • Tom Franklin, Poachers
  • Kirpal Gordan, Deadpan Parables
  • Jeffery Hecker, Instructions for the Orgy
  • David Jewell, Ten Poems
  • Matthew Klane, Friend Delighting the Eloquent
  • Matthew Klane, Sorrow Songs
  • Jodie Marion, Another Exile on the 45th Parallel
  • Hosho McCreesh, For All These Wretched, Beautiful, & Insignificant Things So Uselessly & Carelessly Destroyed…
  • A.M. O’Malley, What to Expect When You’re Expecting Something Else
  • Carol Priour (ed), Butterfly Mother: Poetry from the Children of the Hill Country Youth Ranch
  • J.P. Reese, Dead Letters
  • Ross Robbins, All in Black My Love Went Riding
  • Ross Robbins, Sexxxy
  • Barbara Rodman, Flying Suacer
  • Ethel Rohan, Hard to Say
  • Daryl Scroggins, The Entropy of Hunters
  • Daniel M. Shapiro, How the Potato Chip Was Invented
  • Samuel Jeremiah Snoek (yep, that was me before I got married), A Book Full of Poems
  • Samuel Jeremiah Snoek, Closed for Repairs
  • Samuel Snoek-Brown (and this is me married — and happy: see how much better my art is?), Box Cutters
  • Parker Tettleton, Ours Mine Yours
  • Curtis Thomas, The Magical Kingdom of Now
  • Meg Tuite, Her Skin Is a Costume
  • Ryan Werner, If There’s Any Truth in the Northbound Train
  • Ryan Werner, Murmuration
  • Ryan Werner, Oh Lie, I thought You Were Golden

Zen and the art of brutality; or, How can a Buddhist write such violence?

A lot of people read my fiction and tell me something like, “Wait. I thought you were Buddhist?” Even friends are sometimes surprised that I am (by intention if not always by action) so committed to compassion and nonviolence and the pursuit of enlightenment, yet I write such cruel characters, such violent events, such a harsh and unenlightened world.

But perhaps the fullest and most thoughtful expression of this perceived contrast between my spiritual practice and my writing practice came in a recent comment from my friend Marie Marshall (author of Lupa and I Am Not a Fish). Her question is actually so well expressed I’m going to quote from it:

I was struck by the violence in Hagridden which, although not described in a matter-of-fact way, seemed simply to be ‘what happened’. You, as the author, neither relished it nor shrank from it, and it was simply a necessary part of the ‘drama’ of the book being played out on the page. Yet by inclination you are a Buddhist, and Buddhism is a pacifistic philosophy. On the face of it, there is absolutely no expression of horror, not even the mildest ‘tut-tut’ from the voice of the author, in the work.

I assume that in your writing you attempt, as I do myself, to allow things to happen because they happen. ‘This happens’, rather than ‘Isn’t it terrible that this happens’. Where does your/our own morality sit? Where does that author’s philosophy sit? Do you – do we – as I suggested in my review of Hagridden, make an amoral narrative a moral position in its own right? Is an amoral position more powerful, in a way, than trumpeting our agenda? Or is this simply what we ‘ought’ to do as honest authors?

So.

Where to begin?

I hesitate to write too much about Buddhism here (as I am wont to do, actually) because I am not a good teacher on Buddhism. Frankly, I’m not even a very good practitioner. So I don’t want to misrepresent things here; which is to say, this is just my poor, limited understanding of what I personally understand (or misunderstand), and please don’t mistake it for genuine dharma.

But I remember some of my earliest formal instruction in Buddhism, from Theravada yogi Thynn Thynn. She showed us a cycle of judgment, three lines: a “good” judgment line, a “bad” judgment line, and a “neutral” line. They were arranged in concentric circles, each line a cycle that fed back on itself, judgment begetting more judgment.

I saw immediately what was going on: we needed to strike a balance, to find Buddhism’s famed “Middle Way,” and so we were supposed to train ourselves to avoid both “good” and “bad” judgments and remain neutral.

But I was wrong.

Thynn Thynn taught us that “neutral” is also a judgment, a matter of forced perception. And because “neutral” is still a form of judgment, it’s not the same thing as NONjudgment — and what we wanted to do was free ourselves from the cycle of judgment entirely.

I wouldn’t say that nonjudgment is the same thing as Marie’s “amoral” position, because I share our common connotation of amorality and so don’t think of “Buddhist” judgment in those terms. If I were being one of those frustrating Buddhists, I’d say that nonjudgment is neither moral nor amoral — it exists beyond such duality. But then, all “amoral” means is “without morality,” which is about as close to nonjudgment as we layfolk need to get.

And in terms of my writing, Marie has it pretty well spot-on: I try to tell the story that needs to get told in the way it needs to get told; and, in the case of Hagridden, my objective, external, distant narrative voice — the voice of No-Narrator, if I were being clever — is a cultivated thing. It’s the voice I needed to adopt to write that book. And that No-Narrator is nonjudgmental: the voice is just the voice of the story, and you readers get to make of that whatever morality you will.

But I can’t say that Hagridden — or any of my fiction — is amoral in the conventional sense, because I, the author, have a pretty strong set of morals, rooted in Buddhism and pacifism,* and they can’t help but manifest themselves in the work I write.

Consider, for example, my short story, “Lightning My Pilot.” In it, a mother inadvertently sets up a fantasy world for her son, one in which clouds are “god-ships,” and then she struggles with her creation as the boy commits to the fantasy and the fantasy turns violent. “Why are the god-ships fighting?” the boy says during a lightning storm, and we realize he’s assuming the thunder and lightning are a war in the clouds. Later, during a rainstorm, he says, “I’m not in their war, but all this rain, it’s like their blood, so if I got wet, it’d be like they got their blood on me. Would they feel sorry about that?”

The mother is horrified by the world she’s helped create.

Except this wasn’t just her creation. When the boy sees the concern on his mother’s face, he tells her not to worry, that he can handle whatever she has to tell him.

“It’s what he’d said when his father deployed,” the mother realizes.

Later, we get a few other details: a photo of the uniformed (but absent) father, along with his framed special forces patch; the fact that, at some point not long ago, the boy attended a funeral for “Daddy’s friend Mike.”

“Lightning My Pilot” is about the relationship between the mother and son, about the bond they form through this fantasy, about the boy showing his mother a form of compassion she hadn’t fully realized before. But when I tell people about that story, I call it my anti-war story.

That’s my moral perspective. (It doesn’t have to be yours.)

I wrote that story a few years ago, shortly before taking up the first full-scale revision of Hagridden, so that story and Hagridden share these themes in common: what it’s like for families during wartime, the ways in which war can (sometimes quietly) ravage the lives of noncombatants on the homefront.

And as violent as Hagridden is, as much as it depends on the horrors of wartime to drive its story, I consider it an anti-war novel. This is certainly a sentiment some of my characters express, though there are also characters who seem to revel in the violence of war. Because that’s the world, not as we wish it to be but as it is.

I often confess to being an idealist, but people tend to dismiss idealism as fancy and foolishness. So I try to amend the label and call myself a realistic idealist, by which I mean I hold my world and myself to certain ideals, however unattainable they might be, if only to strive to become better than I am — and we are — now. But I don’t think you can hold ideals without knowing about our shortcomings, and it’s that world — the world that strives but fails — that I think makes the most compelling fiction.

I once attended a conference panel on Buddhist fiction in which someone questioned whether any such thing is possible. They cited Robert Olen Butler as having said that Buddhist fiction is impossible because fiction requires plot and plot depends on desire, but Buddhism seeks to extinguish desire. No desire means no Buddhist plot and no Buddhist fiction.**

But, I scribbled in my notebook from that conference, it is the seeking to extinguish desire that is the point. Buddhists desire No-Desire, so to speak, and therein lies all the internal and external conflict a writer would ever need. We try to make ourselves better or — more often and more foolishly — we try to force the world around us to conform to what we think is “better,” and that struggle is the stuff of most great fiction.

And sometimes that struggle is violent, and cruel, and without morals.

And I try to write that struggle without judgment. Because, as Marie says, that’s my job as a writer. And maybe it’s my job as a Buddhist, too.


* I feel I can’t write this honestly without addressing the misperception that Buddhism is a pacifist religion. It’s not. There are a lot of important teachings about nonviolence, and certainly Buddhists are supposed to try to transcend anger as we would any other emotion. And by and large, many, if not most, Buddhists are committed to pacifism and Buddhist cultures have tended to be less violent than most other cultures. But Buddhists get angry; Buddhists go to war; Buddhists even commit atrocities. It would be dishonest not to acknowledge that.

** Actually, what Robert Olen Butler has said — in many articles and interviews, though I’m quoting here from his book From Where You Dream, is this:

And, as any Buddhist will tell you, you cannot exist as a human being on this planet for thirty seconds without desiring something. [. . .] In fact, one way to understand plot is that it represents the dynamics of desire.

A winter writing retreat

I’ve written before about how I don’t typically stick to a rigid daily writing routine. I generally work my writing into a crammed and constantly changing schedule of teaching, editing, committee work, housework, pet care, meditation, errands . . . .

But I’ve also written before about how wonderful it is to have the time to devote to writing, to set aside hours in a day over days or weeks at a time and make writing my only job.

And now that my fall term of teaching is over, I have a few weeks to do just that, so ladies and gentlemen, I’m going on retreat!

Actually, I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying home, where I’m going to do an in-house retreat.

I had the idea late last year, when I was at my Buddhist center, attending a teaching on maintaining a practice and setting up personal retreats. That teaching was focused on dharma practice, but, busy mind that I have, many of the notes I took were about how to convert the advice to my writing practice.

I was especially taken with this idea of making time sacred, of adopting a mindset in which any time — even five minutes — can become a “retreat” if you embrace that time fully and maintain a focus on the practice. And while it’s hard to do that in a writing practice (how much effective writing can one legitimately get done in five minutes?), it’s something I’ve kept in mind over the past year as I squeeze in my writing around all my other time-obligations.

Which is how I’m managing my writing retreat over the next few weeks. Some days I’m dealing with appointments (the vet, the chiropractor), and some days I’m doing readings, and some days are just house days. But every day, whatever else is happening, I’ll be dedicating at least a few hours to fiction.

A lot of that time will be spent staring at my Wall of Fiction, I'm sure.

A lot of that time will be spent staring at my Wall of Fiction, I’m sure.

The past few days have been my vacation. I’ve played some computer games, screwed around on the Internet, slept late. But come Monday (when my grades are due and I’m officially done with the fall term), I’ll be waking up early, brewing a pot of coffee, and retreating into my little study downstairs. I’ll be writing for a couple of hours every morning. I’ll often be writing late at night. And if nothing else is on the calendar, I’ll be writing all day.

I might even put on a tie.

It’s winter break, folks. It’s time to get to work!

IU Southeast Writing Contest Winners, 2014

Screen shot 2013-11-21 at 7.09.25 PMLast year, I had the honor of judging the fiction section of the Indiana University Southeast Writing Contest. It was a wonderful experience reading such talented writers, and I was doubly honored this year when those students invited me to campus to read from Hagridden and give a talk on fiction writing.

Anyone remember this fun evening?

Anyone remember this fun evening?

 

But then the university went further still and invited me to once again judge the writing competition, this time in the flash fiction category.

The IU Southeast has now announced the winners and held their awards gala (I’m told my friend Steve Bowman, who teaches at IUS, made kind mention of me, too — thanks, Steve!).

I offer my congratulations to all the writers who submitted their wonderful flash fiction, and extra applause to the winners: Tanya Le (1st place for “Crying While Laughing”), Josh Medlock (2nd place for “The Last Valentine’s Day”), Deanna Babcock, (3rd place for “Neighbors”), and Katelyn Hamilton (Honorable Mention for “Gone”). It’s worth pointing out, too, that Deanna Babcock and Katelyn Hamilton also place in other categories — clearly, the writers at IUS are multitalented!

Best of luck to all the writers as they keep at the craft! Send your work out into the world, gang, and here’s to many future publications!

Buy Hagridden and support military families

I have two dedications in my Civil War novel, Hagridden: the first is to my wife, the second is to “every civilian who ever lived through a war or is living through one now.”

In public appearances, I tend to tell people that my novel is about the people that war leaves behind.

Both of which are to say that, having written this novel about the desperate circumstances of a mother and her daughter-in-law left alone when their son/husband goes off to war —  and as a brother-in-law to a man who has served in our own wars today, the nephew of an Air Force colonel, and the grandson of men who served in WWII — I have a special place in my heart for military families.

Screen shot 2014-12-08 at 7.11.53 PMSo this holiday season, I’ve decided to donate a portion of all my Hagridden sales to the National Military Family Association. Founded in 1969 by military spouses, it has become an impressive organization whose mission is to help provide “comprehensive child care, accessible health care, spouse employment options, great schools, caring communities, a secure retirement, and support for widows and widowers” in American military families.

As a pacifist, I abhor war itself, but I have always honored the service that military life represents, and I think that too often we forget the sacrifice of those that military service leaves at home. And I figure this season of compassion and generosity is the perfect time to help families who face hardship because of their service and sacrifice, and the mission of this organization fits perfectly with the themes of my novel.

So every time you buy a copy of Hagridden — for yourself or as a gift, or both — I’ll donate a portion of that sale to military families.

This will carry on the whole month of December, so if you’ve already bought copies of Hagridden this month, you’ve already helped military families; and if you are still doing your holiday book-buying, you can still help military families.

And if you’d like to donate directly, you can do so at the National Military Families Association website, where you can also find information about other ways to get involved.