A Human Seed Within Nature

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Next month, July 12, will be the 200th birthday of Henry David Thoreau. The man most remember as just another author read in high school English classes, was in fact an early American man of letters, an archetypal naturalist, and a person both reviled and respected for his moralist posturing. William Howarth, a Thoreau scholar, has taken this opportunity to write of Thoreau’s complexities in the most recent issue of American Scholar (Summer 2017), “Reading Thoreau at 200,” of how in an era in which we value corporate profits over a natural environment that can only offer us sustenance, Thoreau’s work has slipped into disfavor.

Odd how educational thought finds it so easy to draft behind the surges  of an overreaching business world, isn’t it? The truth? As Thoreau might have put it, there are connections here, some illusory, some tenuous and prone to expedience, others slowly rooted and out of sight, holding such disparate worldly structures together. Shallow societies neither note nor respect these deeper connections between human society, its technologies and regimens, and the seemingly spontaneous and chaotic natural world.

The further truth? Nature’s constructs do have a sense about them, but they are there playing the long game; they’re in it for the long haul, persisting for millennia uncounted as human societies rise and fall. Maybe this is why we all but declare war on nature, hacking farms into the Amazonian rainforest, filling the atmosphere with our technological offal: we sense our frailty and wish to impose it on the natural world.

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But it’s just this situation that eventually compels a human seed to grow within nature, a person such as Thoreau, to walk away from the ways of our human world and return (if only for strategic moments) to the soft-spoken natural world that encompasses everything we do. This may be the only way we can allow ourselves to understand nature, to give a nod to its lessons and perhaps for an occasional brief and shining moment accommodate them within human activity.

This is why I was so enthralled with the subject of my last post, Connie May Fowler’s memoir, A Million Fragile Bones, of her struggles against the Deep Horizon debacle in the Gulf of Mexico, of the manifold ways the gulf’s flora and fauna struggled against this poisoning tide, of how dependent we clearly are on a flourishing natural world.

The world of 200 years ago had a single Thoreau, and this person’s thought helped damp the worst of humanity’s instincts for most of two centuries. The world of the 21st century, however, and despite the passion and drive Ms. Fowler displays in her memoir, will need a thousand of her to accomplish the same balance between us and an environment that helped create us and will likely preside over our eventual passing.

 

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Kirkus Speaks About Intimate Things

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Coincidentally, today’s the day I received a review of In This Love Together – Love, Failing Limbs and Cancer. When you’re writing about things as intimate as a marriage, inseminated deeply with love, you’re never sure if you see the width and breadth of the forest for at least one of the trees comprising it. The review seems a good one, but a couple of twisty phrases had me unsure. (This is quintessential writer’s insecurity – comes with the territory.)

So I felt the need to gather a second opinion, from the one person who had almost as much to do with the book’s compositions I – Connie May Fowler. Connie’s opinion? It’s a rave review – you should celebrate! So to kick off the celebration (to be followed by a very necessary, spring cleaning scrub-down, fore and aft, of my condo), here’s what Kirkus has to say about the memoir:

Mustin (We Are Strong, But We Are Fragile, 2014, etc.) offers an emotional, articulate memoir of his late wife’s fight against cancer.

The author, a longtime engineer, had already gone through a rocky marriage and a sour divorce when a former co-worker, Becca, reentered his life. She was an outdoorsy, practical, and attractive environmental specialist who was still healing from a previous marriage herself, and the two began seeing each other romantically. As Mustin notes, dating in middle age isn’t very different from the blissful giddiness and insecurity of dating in one’s 20s, and eventually he and Becca married at a courthouse on a workday afternoon. But 17 years later, his 64-year-old wife developed a cancerous tumor on her tongue. “My thoughts resist the linearity of chronological order,” the author says as he explains his abstract narrative, which starts the book with the onset of Becca’s illness, backtracks to the day that they first met, intersperses well-researched facts on cancer, and weaves through events in the couple’s marriage with the randomness of human memory. It’s a brilliant storytelling device—the reader struggles to understand new contexts, details, and narratives, just as the author himself struggles to make sense of a maddening terminal illness. Mustin’s love for and frequent awe of his wife is evident in every detail of this remembrance. Even when he frankly points out her shortcomings, such as her somewhat taciturn air and her difficult relationship with her mother (which he discovered during a particularly uncomfortable holiday visit), his reverent tone gives his words a rosy, warm hue. The details of Becca’s squamous-cell carcinoma are unsparing, yet the author balances them with delicate, loving vignettes of their life together, including unexpected moments of romance, which gives the book a disarming eloquence. Their relationship was not perfect, as Mustin makes clear; their flaws, insecurities, and reluctances often got the best of both of them. Yet as he writes their story, he articulates how their difficult journey revealed their true love, in spite of it all.

A memoir that balances clarity, precision, and emotion while telling a tragic story.

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll find more information on my books. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

A Jones I Never Anticipated

I think I’m an addict.

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No, no, not what you have in mind; not street skag and not the more commonly accepted uptown coke. Certainly not opioids, although I have a longstanding prescription for a small amount to help me deal with persistent knee and leg pain.

It’s writing, I think. It’s my compulsion to write that has me jonesing now, and I don’t like it.

“You’re a good writer,” my next door neighbor urged last week, “but you need to learn how to market your stuff.”

It’s true; I feel fortunate to be working with two publishers simultaneously, but neither of them seems willing to do the marketing for me. Well, that’s not completely true. The publisher of my bio-fiction novel, The Third Reich’s Last Eagle, senses he has a winner in the book and has promised big money to promote it, but he shows a propensity for not being able to say no to the river of suggestions from pre-publication readers who seem determined to make the book theirs, not mine. The current kerfuffle is that there’s a demand for maps in the book to orient the reader. This would double the book’s cost, and so R.R, as the publisher calls himself, has delayed the book’s launch.

 

The oddball-ness of my  story collection, Collateral Damage and Stories, which is already in print, must have amused someone at Kirkus. That book review agency has awarded the collection a “recommended review” status (not a “starred review,” but halfway there) and will be shoring it up with some pub in an “Indie Books Worth Discovering” gambit.  I guess their sensibility for good writing must be close to a bullseye; our local newspaper book reviewer gave it a heavy dose of praise in a half-page article.

And my memoir, In This Love Together, is set to hit the streets. I’m anticipating more kind words from reviewers and readers, thanks in large part to some precious and astute help Connie May Fowler gave to the project. I’ve decided to have this one published by Gridley Fires Books, a company I’ve set up to declare myself a business and to handle special books like this. It’s about my two decade marriage to my late wife, Becca Gifford, and the grief and struggle we faced with her terminal cancer. I plan to use this book in a unique campaign to  raise awareness of cancer in its many forms and, hopefully, goad cancer researchers to do more to provide cures for this awful family of diseases.

Years ago, I thought that this modest level of success was the goal of my creative writing commitment. Not so, I’m discovering. That I seem to be basking in the glow of minor league success seems a bit hollow at the moment, although I will gladly commit to doing the best I can to promote these books. I may even draw a few more words of praise for my efforts, but I know even now that my jones lies elsewhere.

It’s writing; that’s where true satisfaction lies for me. I’ve often said that I’d write anyway, but I’ve never realized just how true that is. The act of writing daily adds a degree of purpose to my life that I never really anticipated. How is this so? I’m still not quite sure. But I do know I need to write the way I need food and drink and air. I may gain some philosophical and psychological handle on all this eventually, but I’m not now in full pursuit of success in the traditional sense. As a traditional motivation. Yes, I will chase it, simply because that’s the way this hand is played, but it’s quite ironic that the act of writing is for me both the means to satisfaction and the end result.

But what to do to be rid of this moment’s unsettling, this crankiness that leaves me snapping at friends and family? Well, it’s obvious, don’t you think? I need to find a way to get back to writing. Soon.

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll find more information on my books. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Writers Writing Well and Partying on down

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I was fortunate to be accepted to the 2015 Vermont College of Fine Arts Novel Retreat in Montpelier and a couple of weeks ago, I attended. Montpelier is a small town, the smallest state capitol by population in the U.S. (7,855 in 2010). It’s an arty, outdoorsy town, quite similar to my home, Asheville, NC, although Asheville is much larger. The college has existed under many names over the years and is now principally a low residence college of fine arts. Very small and for the most part well managed and well kept, judging by my limited observation.

But to the retreat.

There were 29 attendees, 6 men, 23 women – typical of such gatherings -and the retreat was presided over by three prominent writers: Connie May Fowler, Clint McCown, and David Anthony Durham. This sort of retreat isn’t a teaching/learning experience as much as guidance though problems the attending writers might be having with current writing projects, in such areas as story structure, characterization, authorial intentionality, the blending of dialogue, narrative and setting, and the emotional energy of a piece of writing.

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One interesting concept Clint McCown brought up was something emphasized by T.S. Eliot – the objective correlative of such a story, i.e., a device or object about which a story centers. Tomorrow I’ll publish here a short (one page) piece I wrote to implement this tool.

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The retreat also offered (for a few $$$ more) to have one of the three facilitators read part of a work in progress and offer a rather professional perspective on it. I didn’t take part in this – a judgment call on my part, but it didn’t seem necessary. We also had plenty of time in both morning and evening to write, to digest the bits and pieces of advice coming forth from the facilitators and other writers. My main enjoyment, though, was in hanging out with other writers – always the most interesting of people.

Such endeavors may seem frivolous to some, but it’s as mentally exacting as medicine, law, and the sciences. Therefore (this may be a massive rationalization), it’s necessary to blow off a little steam after such intense days, and that’s why writers make good partiers (see video below).

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