Let the Mothers and Fathers Speak


I’m afraid I’ve become jaded.

Rarely do the newest of fiction and nonfiction books, and even poetry, speak to me as they once have. Lately I’ve had to force myself to read them, something you might glean from the rare reviews I’ve been posting. What’s wrong? Is it me? Have I simply read too many books with recurring structures, the same-old character types, the obvious conflicts and resolutions?

Or is there something lacking in these recent, highly publicized books? Is this why reading them doesn’t excite me as they once did?

As a writer I’ve been on a crusade to adopt what I deem the most workable of the postmodern structures, but I will forever maintain that the story is paramount, whatever other tinkering I allow myself to do. We should realize that the term postmodern signifies a belief that modernity is ending, as far as literature goes, but that it says nothing about what replaces modernity in the society that literature reflects.

So am I being a curmudgeon when I diss a lot of the latest acclaimed writing? I don’t think so, really. I read other reviewers reactions to these novels, memoirs, short story collections, etc. What has been slowly emerging is a respect for the technicality of these literary efforts. Along with that, however, is a palpable dissatisfaction with some perhaps intangible thing in the books they try so hard to like and rave about.


So, what to do?

My answer is to go back to the masters of the past century. Mine is not a sentimental desire for what once was – although there’s a lot of that in the sensibilities that surround us these days. But I don’t think Twain, James, Cather, Hemingway, Faulkner, McCullers, O’Connor, et al, would have us dwell too long on the past. They didn’t, for the most part. But in reading those early works of modernity, you get a feel for the energy of their time, the way that energy affected lives. That’s what’s missing, I think; the passion of the moment in which we live.We writers need to be able to translate that energy, that passion, into characters and structures that all but dictate the story of our time.

And so what you’ll see of me here will for a time be my consultations with the mothers and fathers of twentieth century literature. I’ll write about their stories, but I’ll also try to speak to their underlying energy, the things that propelled those magnificent stories.

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Spaces and Shapes in Poetry

imagesOne more note on modern poetry: poetic space and shape.

By that I mean the way lines are positioned on the page; are you writing in verse format? Imitating the structure of Villanelles? Ballads? Odes? Sonnets? Long free verse? Or are you creating lines that when assembled create shapes that leave subliminal messages counterpoint to your poem?

Note on the last: I’d love to show examples here, but the limits of this blog format pretty much prevent that. Instead, let me make a reference to look into.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind” shows what can be done with space and shapes in poetry.

If you browse through literary or poetry journals at the library with poem shape in mind, you’ll get this point. The images accompanying this post may be rather silly, but they might give you better ideas.


But my advice on considering poetic structure? Unless you’re attempting one of the specific forms above, just write, line after line. When you’re done – or deep into editing – consider where to leave white space between lines. It may come to you intellectually, or you might envision a shape superimposed on the poem. But don’t force this ; it’s not as important as writing good quality imagery with rhythm and rhyme. If nothing is obvious, stop! You won’t want to write cliches in poetry, and you don’t want to force cliches, rhythms and rhymes, and you won’t want to force spaces or shapes either.

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Art and Time in Literature


Worried about structuring your next novel, writer? You readers out there don’t get why the writer hopscotched back and forth in time? This old post on a very fine novel, A Girl In Hyacinth Blue, may help both reader and writer. A hint: Monitor your thoughts for an hour or so. See how they constantly go from  past to future to present in no particular order?



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‘I Don’t Believe In Writer’s Block’/The Atlantic




The article linked below is one all writers should read, and it’s one that certainly speaks to me. I’ve spent years lost in the woods (read: another career) while writing virtually nothing. But what I subsequently discovered is that those woods did indeed leave me with much soil from which stories might grow. And, to espouse a cliche, it’s a process. At first, unsure of my ability to extract stories from these raw experiences, I outlined, organized, and after I wrote I analyzed what I’d written. Now I favor taking off as Steinbeck did in To A God Unknown, i.e., I write without knowing where the writing will take me. This is truly being lost in the woods. Dear writers (and readers) you always find your way out of the woods if you’re determined to do so, but it’s a path you can never retrace and walk a second time.




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Irony and Complexity


The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

As is my case with most books, I warmed up to this one slowly. My warming, however, became only tepid with The Orphan Master’s Son. I like stories, you see, and defined characters within such stories. That makes me an odd fit for postmodern literature, something I’ve posted on ad nauseum. This book of that ilk branches and wanders, flitting from character to vignette randomly, much as one might experience in a dream. There is a semblance of coherent story here, so I’ll take a shot at synopsizing it;

Pak Jun Do’s father is the ruling influence of a North Korean orphanage, and the boy’s mother has been spirited away to entertain high placed personages in Pyongyang, leaving Jun Do an orphan of sorts. He eventually finds himself in the role of kidnapper for North Korea’s high-ups. In such a country it’s best to blend in, to be all but invisible, but Jun Do’s role makes this impossible, and he continually finds himself skirting torture and death. Somewhere deep in this life he encounters a North Korean-type starlet, named Sun Moon, who has been conned away from Kim Jong Il to be the mistress of yet another muckety-muck. Jun Do falls for the wryly named Sun Moon, who sets a host of characters on a path to free her from the Dear Leader.

If this sounds like an overly complicated story – or perhaps no story at all – then you have a sense of what postmodern literature has to offer.

Two things tie Johnson’s novel into a semblance of coherence: first, it depicts the difficulties of living under such a regime. Second, it contrasts that form of society and life with that of the U.S., and it does so wryly, with irony of the highest order. The manner in which the author approaches writing this novel set in this particular culture is, I think, the reason it won the Pulitzer.

Johnson seems to have little regard for reader comfort in structuring this novel, even down to the insertion of dialogue tags in his sentences, and he apparently feels no need to lead the reader from vignette to vignette. His project here is perhaps overly ambitious, and I doubt he could have accomplished in a novel all he wished to without wandering about in this manner.

My rating: 15 of 20 stars.

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A Conversation and a Learning Experience



Last week, while feeling the pain of a rebuilt knee jousting with the better pain medicines, I had a call from a friend of a friend – a writer – who, after some brief forays into seeking publication for her work, was feeling down and unloved. In the writerly reward sense. As it turned out, pain and its palliatives loosened my mind and tongue for an almost hour-long chat. Strange to feel the elder statesman mantle about my shoulders, but I suppose I have been around the block a few times. And so what jumps up from the conversation after a week? Two things:

> “If you’ve written your books with prologues,” I advised, “Flush ’em.”  “No,” she whined, “I love my prologues.” As it turns out, so do I. But the savvy talents in the biz keep telling me to dump the reader right into the action. Give ’em medias res. The saving grace here? You can always work whatever you have in your prologue into the text as quickie looks back. Or whatever. All this to say, it needn’t be a total wipeout.

> The ever faithful saw: “Hang in there.” She’d “only” had two requests for manuscripts from two agents after less than a hundred queries. Both were turn-downs in the end, but two in a hundred? That’s huge. All this to say that finding the perfect match – an agent who really gets what you’re doing and has a market at his/her fingertips – is more huge than huge. It is, in fact, kismet.

And I think I learned more from this chat than she did. Soldier on, folks.



Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you. I’ll soon be adding podcasts of selected book reviews to my website, as well as an opportunity to buy mp3 files of my reading of Sam’s Place – Stories, so look for those.

New Forms, Chances Are

Most of what’s being written  about new publishing opportunities has to do largely with e-books, and some about new marketing opportunities, both involving the digital world.

But why not also involve the structure of writing itself?



An idea has been slowly coming to me over the past couple of months involving just such a twist. We know that Tolstoy, Dickens, and others, made their writerly bones by publishing their novels in serialized form. The lure of getting a comely story in bits and pieces has the potential to enthrall readers, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t work today — in perhaps a more inventive form.

The novella I’m writing now – a dystopian piece – has me thinking broader and deeper, story-wise, and structure-wise. More on this experiment before the end of the year.



Visit my website here, where you’ll have an opportunity to download an audio eversion of my latest, Sam’s Place, as well as select book review podcasts. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.