Monday, November 22, 2021

A Wondering


Blog 29 November 2021

Earlier today (11-21-21), I finished typing the first draft of my latest novel, the fourth in the Quarry crime series set in rural North Carolina. In the original writing, as well as the process of entering the manuscript into a computer, I experienced a phenomenon I would describe as a “wondering.” Specifically, I found myself wondering if the quality of my writing has, perhaps, lessened around the edges. Has there been, is there, a diminishment in my capacity to express effectively and fully that which my mind imagines?

I recalled reading Witness to a Century, a memoir of a lifetime of journalistic experiences by George Seldes. I believe it was 1987 because Seldes, who was born in 1890, was ninety-six the year of publication. This was an individual who’d spent the bulk of his life traveling the world, reporting on major events involving larger-than-life personalities. He’d lived history while reporting on it.

My point in raising this memory is that I found Seldes’s writing spare, not just journalistically lean. It was as if there were empty spaces in his descriptions, as if something was missing. I sensed a diminution in his capacity for fullness in his writing. I found an absence of layering in the composition, the difference between a modern, smart phone photograph and the flat image of an old Kodak Brownie.

This should not be viewed as a criticism of Seldes. The man was, again, ninety-six. (He probably should have received an award recognizing his accomplishment.) Rather, citing this memory is part of my “wondering” as to the quality of my efforts at seventy-nine.

As an aged writer, are there detectable changes in my writing? If so, am I capable of detecting them? My wondering emerged from reading my latest effort at a novel. I suspect there may be changes and they’re likely not favorable. In part, it had to do with what I found to be a more prosaic aspect to my wording, a triteness of expression about something original emerging from my mind. Was I in too much of a hurry to get the story out of my head and onto paper or is my concern, again, reflective of changes in capacity?

The awareness of time left to write effectively was a major factor in my decision to retire as a Clinical Psychologist at sixty-four. I wanted to take the plunge to writing full-time while I possessed my faculties, rather than continuing to search for time niches in which to write. Regrets about that decision? NONE!

My response to the above concern: I plan to tear as vigorously and rigorously into the editing process as I ever have. This manuscript will abide in active limbo (is that an oxymoron?) until I’m satisfied I’ve applied whatever I have left qualitatively to the enhancement of the product. For me, hope (as it always has) lies in the trying.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Last Blue - Review


Blog 28

In keeping with my intention to periodically spotlight an author whose work touches me, this month, I’d like to tout a particular novel, The Last Blue. Above all, it’s a superb love story, literate without being kiss-of-death literary. Of course, it is literary in form, use of exquisite language, and heft. Emphatically, it is not a Harlequin Romance or anything else in that formulaic genre. It is rich in characters with character, intricate plot, and exuberant, eloquent descriptions of Eastern Kentucky wilderness. I found myself pulling for Havens and Jubilee, the story’s protagonists, teared up at the conclusion.

That said, underlying this patiently and credibly developed love story is a deeply weighed examination of prejudice against human difference. In this case, the rejected are blue-skinned people. That’s right, blue. There is a genetic condition, met-hemoglobinemia, in which, due to a lack of a catalytic substance in the blood, the person’s skin is blue. This is not science fiction. Though it can be fatal, there are variants that are treatable. The person can not only live, but live with normally complected skin between treatments.

The author, Isla Morley, grew up in apartheid South Africa, extensively affected by the violence surrounding racial prejudice. The Last Blue was her attempt to explore the inanity of prejudice of any kind. Somewhere in the mix, an element of ignorance, especially willful ignorance, seems indispensable for prejudice, destructive as it is in any form, to become violently toxic. How many of us have heard someone utter a variation of “I don’t care if a person is black, brown or green?” (Why do I, at those moments, suspect I’m listening to a denied prejudice? Isn’t that how it becomes rooted? By starting with denial?) Well, what about blue?

In the 1930’s, FDR dispatched artists (in Morley’s story, a writer and a photographer) to Appalachia to capture and comment on the extreme poverty and deprivation of its people. To his credit, FDR was trying to keep artists employed, in an effort to keep art alive. He recognized its potential for spiritual uplift during the Depression.

Morley stumbled upon these historical facts serendipitously, but then, used them to create a heart-wrenching, heart-expanding story. The tale moves between 1937 and 1972, and after reading the book, I also view Morley as a master weaver who left no threads dangling at the conclusion.

For a spirit-dilating reading experience, I recommend The Last Blue.  Available on

Friday, September 17, 2021

Writing Under Duress

Blog 27 September 17, 2021

Writing under duress. I imagine as many reactions to that underscored word as I do readers of this blog. Whatever the reaction to duress, it could significantly affect the needed equilibrium of a writer to create.

Familiar to many writers would be the duress of deadline, externally or self-imposed. My sense is the latter might be an even more difficult challenge. If it’s just me and my pen (or keyboard), the pressure emanating from within, let me count the ways I can divert myself from the task at hand. I cannot; the number defies counting.

Most of us have dealt with deadline duress multiple times, e.g. likely at every level of education and work. At this moment, I’m referring to creative writing, i.e. fiction, and the duress of external pressures, unrelated to writing that, nevertheless, impinge upon it. To cite just a few examples: a personal or occupational crisis, the loss of a loved one or a beloved pet, tension in a major relationship (especially when you’re trying to write about relationships) and, not unfamiliarly, a financial pressure.

My purpose in examining this issue is not to restate the obvious. We all share in periodic bouts of duress. Rather, it’s to stimulate thought as to how to deal with it, how each of us deals with something that has the power to douse the flame on our desire and wherewithal to create. Let me initiate an approach to the question by offering a couple of my methods to prevent duress from grinding my writing life to a halt.

Framing an effort to combat the ordeal of duress, I strive to maintain routines, e.g. exercise, when it would be so easy to let them go. To accomplish this, one’s sense of meaningfulness normally derived from routine may need to be temporarily suspended. The purpose is to get through the duress functioning. The routines of yesterday, pre-duress, were part of the structure of my life and they will likely be so post-duress. Therefore, I strive to bridge the abyss of duress by sustaining routines of living when they temporarily appear diminished in relevance. In addition to reminding myself at some point the duress will end or at least lessen in intensity, I maintain some aspect of the writing process on a daily basis – writing, if I feel I can; if I feel I cannot, then, revision, editing, reading, and, if possible, thinking about what I’m writing and where I’m headed.

Recently, under duress, I thought of the firefighters from New York City who died heroically on 9-11-2001. It brought immediate perspective to my duress, shrinking it while calming, allowing me to proceed.

What do you do, some of your methods?

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Politics and Writing


August Blog 25

Has the political fracturing of the United States affected my writing and what I choose to read? How could it not as it pounds away at my thinking like the mountainous waves at Nazare explode against the beach? To explore this question, perhaps it would be best to start with how I try to approach and respond to politics.

Politically, I tend not to publicize my views, though admittedly, they leak through in discussions. I prefer people to have a sense of where I stand on an issue in a normal course of events rather than arguing opinions or attempting to conceal them

In general, I tend to tilt Liberal on social policy issues and vote Democratic. It relates to the core of my bare-bones political philosophy: If I’m going to err in support of a policy, I’d rather err on the side of trying to do too much than not enough. I have felt this way since childhood and have never wavered in that belief. It has to do with an abiding concern for the less fortunate. That and I always want to be thinking beyond myself. In its significance in my life, it bears moral and spiritual heft.

That said, to keep my mind wedged open, I regularly follow what I perceive to be moderate Conservative writers, e.g. David Brooks, Michael Gerson, David Frum. I view their work as an invitation to challenge and broaden my thinking. Conversely, I try to avoid extremists of any kind, not just of either side. Extremists stir emotion, but in the end, they do not help in my unending quest to learn. To do that, I need a thinker / writer who appeals to and respects my intellect.

Beyond the news, I increasingly avoid political tracts. I don’t have the stomach or the time (never did) for diatribes that play loosely with the truth in order to amass points, readers or viewers. In that sense alone, I believe the breadth of my reading has narrowed. But within it, I still try to keep my eyes open, my mind alert, my heart in a good place. If I fail to maintain the battle to recognize subterfuge, I could end up led. My experience as a reader and a thinker insists I remain a student of truth, hopefully until I draw my last breath.

As for my fiction, I have tried to keep politics out of it. Have I succeeded or have my biases seeped through? Though I’d like to believe in the former, I’d bet on the latter. More on this next time.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Blog 24 Choosing My Reading in the Interest of Time

I’ve mentioned in previous pieces about what I view as age-related changes in my reading. Though my interests remain broad, the sense of time left has narrowed my selectivity. I’ve also mentioned that several times each year, I will choose to read a literary work. Several more times, I will stumble upon a literary work without realizing it until I’m embedded in the story.

My unspecified limit is applied due to the time and concentrative energy often required to absorb the density of some literary efforts. At times, it can be a slog, leaving me questioning my own intelligence. At the same time, it has to do with what I suspect is impatience on my part. I want the story to flow, want to flow along with it, especially if it’s a long book. If the writing requires me to stop periodically to review what I’ve just read, sometimes to back up to be certain who the character is that’s speaking or what the point of the writer was, I may not make it to the end.

Whatever duty I might feel toward the writer, it is increasingly eclipsed by a sense of duty to myself. I believe it goes something like this: I’ve been granted life, one life. Within it, I’ve been also granted this gift of having access to endless stories. My duty to myself is to not squander time in some joyless exercise as I near the end of the gift of life. And so, I try not to.

As an example, I’m currently reading,
, “hailed as an international masterpiece,” written by the award-winning South African writer, Marlene van Niekerk. I’ve now trekked through more than one hundred pages of an almost six hundred page book. The story, thus far, is delivered through the eyes and mind of an aging white woman almost completely incapacitated by a neuromuscular disease. The story itself is the endless war of wills between the afflicted woman and her black caretaker, Agaat. Rescued from apparent abandonment as a toddler, Agaat is raised by Milla de Wet to serve. Little more than a slave all her life under apartheid, Agaat perseveres, the table turning when ALS renders Milla entirely dependent upon her servant. It’s a story of mental cruelty and subtle revenge. Overarching the more humble yet gritty story of the two main characters is the dark stain on white South Africa of apartheid that has damaged all South Africans. Sound familiar?

My struggle is with the pacing and delivery. So much of it moves in real time, crawling forwards or backwards at the snail’s pace of Milla’s thoughts and memories. To salvage my desire to pay the writer homage by finishing her opus, I speed read passages to move at a pace I can tolerate. Currently, this is my self-imposed dilemma.

Crazy? Put the book down? I should. I could. I won’t.         

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Blog 23 About Time


To offer another slant on Blog 17, I’d like to again examine the impact of time on reading and writing. Somewhere in my late thirties, I began to shift in my sense of life from time lived to time left. Without a doubt, it had a bearing on selectivity, on the process of beginning to narrow what I would and, most likely, would not pursue. Graven by a sense of time allotted to us, I began to focus more tightly on what I hoped to accomplish. Concomitantly, came the necessity of shedding possibilities of lesser importance measured against time. Example: In my early forties, to concentrate on writing in my “spare” time, I put aside the guitar after eight years of lessons precisely at the moment my teacher indicated I was “good enough” to play in a band. Two pursuits, one direction, my choice was dictated by an inner drive toward some degree of mastery. I’ve always wanted to be good at what I do. Still do. Have I succeeded? I have no idea, but I’m still trying.

As I approach eighty (one year to go), the winnowing process, begun at forty, has quietly continued. Reading remains a primary source of ideas, but more than ever, a source of pleasure. A writer (possibly Isaac Bashevis Singer) said that fiction is to instruct and entertain. As a young reader, in my desire to learn, I plowed through a welter of what is considered classic literature. Rarely did I find it entertaining. Increasingly, I prefer to be entertained. Above all, I want a good story. Now, I’m more likely to close a novel if by pages eighty to one hundred, I’m not hooked. In general, drawn by the dust jacket synopsis, I’m hooked within the first few pages.

While my interests remain protean, I’m more closely gauging how much time I wish to devote to them. Examples: 1) Literary novels: I’m more selective now in terms of how much time and effortful concentration I wish to invest in them. 2) My lifelong pursuit of general knowledge: Though I retain breadth in my reading, again, I more closely weigh my choices against time.

As for writing, while I try to remain alert to the fragments of ideas that will stimulate story formation, they seem to be occurring less often. Is the flow lessening or am I less attuned to it or less able to attend to it? Then too, my days are necessarily bound by household chores I was freed from for almost forty years by professional duties, but now share in willingly to be fair. Though the chores tend to take more time now, I’m dedicated to them by choice as I’m dedicated to time spent with my wife, unbegrudged after fifty-nine years together.

I don’t experience time as a pinch, but as an assertion of itself. This helps me focus on the hierarchy of choice and what I consider more important at the moment. For readers no longer troubled by the conflicting forces of youth, what do you think? How do these thoughts resonate with you?

In the end, for me, fiction or narrative non-fiction, it’s the story, always.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

What? No Internet?


Blog 22

Following the recent hack of the Colonial Pipeline and its revelatory impact (under duress, too many of us appear to subscribe to every man for himself), a good friend asked me to contemplate the possible effect of a similar interruption to the Internet on writers. I approached this consideration from two angles: 1) with access to the Net and 2) without it.

Access to the Net: Acknowledging the many advantages of the Internet, too numerous to try to enumerate, I have two thoughts to offer about the possible effect of loss with the Net. First, it enables us to escape the solitary, often hard task of writing. How many of us do this, sacrificing the balance of time between writing and everything else? Let me see – I need to check my email. Ooh, ooh, I’ve just got to respond to this one and – and maybe only two, okay, no more than three others. And while I’m at it, I need to clear my email of everything else. Oh, let me take a quick peek at today’s news while I’m at it, maybe read one, I promise just one, long article. Oh my goodness, it’s almost lunch time. Okay, I promise myself, no interruptions while I write this afternoon.

Second, the Net presents us a shortcut to a repository of endless but not always reliable “facts.” Example: In examining a bio of an NBA player from Slovenia, Vlatko Cancar (don’t ask), on the same site he was listed as 6’11, 6’9 and 6’8. Was he still growing before my incredulous eyes? Or was he possibly diminishing, depending upon which direction I approached his personal data? My point: These easy-to-find facts can lull us in our quest for research exactitude.

Without access to the Net: In this instance, I’d like to offer two musings about possible Net loss. First, while we’d be freer to pursue writing without the temptation to escape into the Net, would we? Or would we be temporarily immobilized, at a loss to replace our electronic habit (escape)? Worse, would we just feel lost?

Second, for those of us at least old enough to remember, would we return to researching facts the far more time consuming “old way” – through book bibliographies and library card catalogues – or would we, again, find ourselves diverting into a new form of escapism, possibly even inventing one?

Me? I’d likely return to my first love and pick up a book while the Net recovered. After all, as writers, that’s how we got here, right? It would be like throwing B’rer Rabbit once more into the briar patch. Loss? No more than briefly. Lost? No way.


A Wondering

  Blog 29 November 2021 Earlier today (11-21-21), I finished typing the first draft of my latest novel, the fourth in the Quarry crime ser...