Sharpening The Pencil



I’m not tired of fiction writing, by any means. But I do tend toward predictability if not occasional outright laziness in my writing, and that’s why I’m spending time editing a 20+ year-old piece of poetry. Now, I don’t pretend to be a poet, nor do I fully understand contemporary  poetry. And that’s why this perhaps overlong piece looks and sounds like 1930s verse. But its use to me is to sharpen the macro view of what I’m trying to say here – and to make every word count.

I recently submitted a rather old novel manuscript to an indie editor for advice on how to sharpen the story – if indeed it needed such. According to AB, my editor, it needed a complete redo. And here’s where I both encourage and and caution writers in following in my footsteps. I learned years ago that editors won’t spend the time with a manuscript that you the writer will; consequently, they likely will not see the story as you do. But such editorial looks will allow you to see how your story seems to interested readers.

In my case, the editor was frustrated with the supposed genre and what exactly the story is about. The manuscript was intended to be about two old friends reencountering one another after some thirty years’ absence. And as often happens, the old friendship still has heft, but it also has difficulties in the extreme. And I wanted to use a geophysical phenomenon as a metaphor for the friendship, which makes the story more literary than commercial genre. And so, after a cordial Skype meet-up with AB, I decided to rewrite to make the story center more on the two main characters than on my supposed plot. Take about killing off some of your best stuff!

But back to the poem.

When writing short or long fiction you can sometimes get away with the occasional bad writing and a de-emphasis on cohesive story. Poetry, however, will tolerate neither. Poetry does have its freedoms, to be sure, but the more you exercise those freedoms the sharper the piece’s language has to be, the more crystal clear the overall effect of the poem demands to be.

So I’m struggling through this in order to sharpen my prosaic pencil. But i’m not being so mercenary as to consider this poem to be the literary equivalent of slave labor. After all, I do like to write poetry, too. Just to give you an idea of what I’ve been doing, here’s a sample of the poem’s beginning, intended to be modern and metaphysical. DIVISIONS is the first section of three parts, and this is how that section begins.



Morning sun, warm on my back,

your breath smells of salt.

Is it your smile

that thrills me so,

or the raucous tune I hear

bouncing over the ocean?

Please! Let your lyric wash

Over me like a new reality.


But a question darkens the thought –
What need do I have of a new reality?

Perhaps there’s need enough

in this early morning chill

to root me in this world forever.

I dare not rise above the water’s

surface, shivering, blind with hunger,

And beg for what’s already mine.



Have you seen beyond

The clouded window? Cold rain

Begins to slant over distant waters.

Can you recall The One?


Mighty sea, mother eternity,

I once rose above you, and

dark forces spirited me away

to a shining city, streets

paved with the salt

of imperious science.

It was there I lost myself

in idleness and poverty.


Do you abide such lassitude?

Only under the spell of

asymmetrical moments.

Infinite sea, your limits

taste the world at every turn.

For the sake of my illumination,

why does my awe of you

seem so much like fear?



Walking barefoot through

this place of dual worlds

is difficult        better still

to touch the face of The One.



I’ve abandoned friends for this,

my surrender to your waves.

I baptize myself then dive

to calmer water where

something of the past

endures, then I bolt upward,

tumbling and rolling with salt

on my tongue and sand in my suit.


Is it really possible to be born

anew in each moment

in these self-same bodies,

wave after wave,

resisting the undertow

water dripping from my nose?

I fear I’m a silly knave destined

To learn the same lessons over and over.




What do you know of the sun,

the solar orb of Helios?

does his solitude

encompass The One?



Noon, and I walk the crystal

sands and watch the crabs dance,

living their measure of life.

Here at the edge,

the moveable frontier,

neither sea nor sand exist.

Here, new elemental forces

are bent on being born.


Dare I speak of what is real

in such a place?   Perhaps not.

Hang reality, I ask for silence.

But a fertile mind knows

no silence. It’s an ocean

of thought, torrents of it,

spreading its fantasies across

a universe of time and space.



The day quickens.

Do you hear the echoing gulls?

A cloud of hearts

Beating within The One.


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Hard-bitten Tenderness


Stories, by Anton Chekhov

I have some 30-40 pieces of short fiction under my belt, most of them published. That this is so may be testimony more to the desperation of litmags and zines than to my prowess in writing such stories. But I promise – after slogging through edits on three novels I have in draft mode – to return to the shorter version of fiction. This isn’t to make excuses. To the contrary, I can feel the impulse building with every chapter page I turn in these wannabe novels. But this time, I’ll have the benefit of having read extensively of some of the masters of the short story. Beginning with Anton Chekhov.
This particular collection of his work has been translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, whom I trust to the ends of literary earth. In their hands Chekhov emerges as a writer with an unerring insight into the human psyche. Without listing storied examples ad nauseum, his tales lament the current version of the human condition, its foibles, its toying with the modern world’s newness and challenges. He writes in hard-bitten style, but the tenderness lying in wait beneath his frustrations is undeniable. He knows the limitations the form imposes, and he makes the most of them. Were he to have lived in the past fifty years, he would challenge Vonnegut and Roth and their tongue-in-cheek roastings of contemporary society. As it is, he fails to escape Russian melancholia. Still, there is much to be amused with as well as to be challenged by in his stories. In essence, were it not for writers like Chekhov, literature would be of little use.

My rating: 19 of 20 stars

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Revolutions and Writing


It’s been said that the best creative writing comes from periods when political and social revolutions are happening. I suppose the drama of a revolution is a part of that, and the intellectualizing or rationale for the revolution generates situations and characters that writers can easily work with. But a quick survey of modern revolutions and their run-ups reveals different sorts of creativity.

Nothing much in the way of literature came directly out of the American revolution, but in its aftermath, as American society began to settle in, we had novelists Melville and Hawthorne, poets Whitman and Dickinson. The French revolution? Here think foremost of Hugo and Marat, who wrote their stories amid the revolution’s action. And similarly in Russia, the great writer Tolstoy. However, preceding the Soviet Union’s dismantling – a relatively gentle revolution – we have firebrand novelist Solzhenitsyn and poet Yevtushenko.


In later years, the literary medium changed. The Cuban revolution and the U.S.’s almost-revolution of the fifties and sixties brought a new form of creativity to the fore: songs. Things were happening so rapidly, in the U.S. particularly,  that songs quickly written, recorded and put on the airwaves were the best way for energy to coalesce about the day’s drama.

In South Africa, the grander literature preceded the revolution outright, in the novels of Coetzee, and Gordimer, to name a mere pair of many.

And so we see the great fertile literary periods of the twentieth century were in times of ideological change and consequent revolution. What will this century bring, with its social media and blogs – something new and as yet undeveloped?

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From Book To TV Series?


If you’re an avid reader (excuse the cliche, please!), you just may be familiar with Meg Wolitzer’s fine novel, The Interestings. A group of stoned kids at summer camp give themselves this title (We’re the most interesting people in this place!), and the book follows them into their adult years – their marriages, their careers, their personal ups and downs.


Now Amazon has made a pilot of this book. You can watch it for sure if you have Amazon Prime and their app for movies. As with all books turned to cinema, it’s not quite the same as the book – which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. In fact, I rather liked the pilot. The casting and acting are well done, and the screenplay mimics the book quite well. Still, it’s different; it reminds me of another movie from the eighties, Indian Summer. Same initial setting, same sort of character interplay.

Oh who am I kidding? It’s very nearly a soap opera. But then doesn’t every drama on TV strive to be one? This one deserves some attention, though. It’s smart, witty, edgy.

And another thing. Apparently you have to vote on which pilot your prefer. If The Interestings gets the most, it goes forward in production and is shown on Amazon…if you pay up and have Prime. So give it a watch. Vote. TV watchers deserve this one, even alt TV watchers who pay for Prime, like me.

Yes, It’s Me. But Who Am I?


Yes, it’s me. But who am I?

This is a tandem question sure to amuse writers, whether they write fiction or nonfiction. And not a few savvy readers will offer up a smile at this as well. I met a woman once who performed body massage work called Rolfing. She was also a decent folk singer and songwriter. Her avocation(s)? Sports and physics. Discovering all this about her, on one occasion I asked her, “Which of these is the real you?” Without batting an eye, she replied, “Oh, I enjoy all my personalities.”

I could identify with that. I worked as a structural engineer for quite a few years, meanwhile studying the philosophy of and testing my own theories of complex geometries. I’ve played guitar since the 1970s, written poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and edited the work of others in these three fields of creative writing. Not to mention an abiding interest in military history and politics.

Okay, I admit: this might sound like someone who should spend time on a shrink’s couch, or perhaps in the infamous rubber room. But the more I get to know people, the more I realize that when given the economic freedom to allow their minds to wander, virtually everyone has multiple-sided personalities. This, I think is why readers enjoy modern fiction, particularly, as well as biographies of and books of essays by popular personages. We’re all complex people, and we enjoy seeing the complexities in others.

When I first started writing fiction, I first wrote down lengthy, detailed descriptions of the characters who would people my stories. Soon I realized that bits and pieces of all of them were strands of my own personality. In fact, I began to see myself similarly to a piece of rope – you know, fibers twisted together into strands, and these strands twisted together into the rope itself. I saw my characters, then, as an un-twisting of the rope of my own personality only to discover characters hidden within.

Readers will pick up on a trait of a character here, another there, that belong to me, and remark something like this: “I get it, Bob! That Phil character in your book was really you.” This grates, I admit, because identifying Phil as me is only a (very) small part of the truth of either Phil or me.

Still, it’s simply astounding that people who read about Phil and understand that there is a connection, however tenuous, to me, recognize one of the personalities that are parts of my makeup.

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The Angst of Choices Made


Redemption is a recurring theme in modern literature. I think it’s because we moderns are more aware of choices not made as well as those made. Ah, the simple life, it hardly exists anymore, does it? At least that’s what Bernhard Schlink’s book The Weekend, (Das Wochenende) seems to say.


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Growing In Fiction

Writers, how many others like you do you know who resist publishing, not wanting  to see their creations criticized? Further, how many have you known who don’t want editing help, even when it’s offered at bargain basement prices, or even for free? Know anyone who won’t join a critique group because, well, no one there will see the oh, so inspired creativity there?



The only thing I can offer to writers with such fragility in them is that no piece of writing is ever perfect. Sure, you can improve, in structure, in appeal to readers, and in ideas put forth in story. Take this piece on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel. The novel in question here wasn’t perfect,but there were moments of genius, pages of inspired prose. In a sense, Fitzgerald was lucky to see this one published. But if he hadn’t listened to his peers, principally Hemingway, a subsequent and acclaimed novel, The Great Gatsby, would have been a rehash of the first, with the same flaws, and his career would’ve stalled long before it did.


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