Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Flash View with Steve Mitchell

Steve Mitchell has been many things, including the author of The Naming of Ghosts and the organizer of the interview series The Writing Life.

And then what happened?
The car pulled away, sliding into traffic and away. It was summer and the sun was high and at some point the glass looked like hot gold, blotting the interior as the car disappeared from view. I stood at the curb. I remember waves of traffic flowing by me and the faint scent of something summery, perhaps magnolia.

What do you think about it now?
I think we were young. But usually, I don’t think. The memory simply arises, with an exhilarating sadness. That sense you can have of your life changing at a turn, with the excitement and the unknowing.

Describe a dream
I’d swallowed a raw egg whole. I could feel it in my throat, feel the lump behind my ribs. I could see the egg in my chest as if studying an X-ray. I wondered if I’d stop breathing, or if my esophagus would crush the egg in a slow fist, the way they say a snake does.

Then I was inside the egg too. Because in a dream you can be two places at once, both inside and outside. The shell was close and comforting at first but it grew tighter and tighter. I began to peck at the shell of the egg, tiny pecks at first then, sensing cracks, hard and more insistent.

I could see the body of a bird, me, closed within the shell, immobile in the throat. I worried that even if I escaped the shell I’d be captured by the mouth. Then I woke up.

What question shouldn’t you have asked?
“Why?” You should never ask why. Every answer to “Why?” is a lie.

What question couldn’t you answer?
See above. Also, “What does it mean?” Good Lord, if I knew what it meant, I’d never have to do it. Meaning is always three steps beyond me. Every time I think I’ve caught up, it’s turned the corner a block ahead.

It seems some folks live in a world where meanings are lined like boxed sets of books on their shelves, color-coded and pretty, with an accent lamp. Most of the time I can’t find a meaning when I’m looking for it. It’s only later I discover it, pushed under the bed or wadded at the back of the sock drawer.

Name it!
The Denial of Comfort

You can read more about Steve Mitchell and his work at:

Saturday, March 23, 2013

I’ve Been Meaning To Write This For a While

            In the middle of the night, I went to the bathroom, and, afterwards, when I pushed the toilet handle, nothing happened.  I took off the tank lid, expecting to see a broken chain, and discovered there was no water.  I checked the faucet of the intake pipe; it was open.  I checked the bathtub and sink taps; water flowed from these, just not to the toilet.  It was a mystery.  I shrugged, used a wastebasket to flush, and went back to bed.
            In the morning, I put “Call Plumber” on my To-Do list.  For weeks I meant to make the call, but I didn’t get around to it.  I told myself it was because I had so much work to do (even though I know the call would only take a few minutes), but I knew the truth.
            I am a procrastinator.
            I always have been, and I suspect I always will be.
            I pay a financial price for it.  I put off getting the car inspected, and received a warning.  I put off the inspection, and received a fine.  I didn’t pay the fine, and the letters started to come.  Finally, to prevent the car being towed, I had to pay hundreds of dollars for what should have been a thirty dollar obligation.
            I pay a professional price.  I miss submission deadlines.  I have manuscripts that I have finished and not sent out.  I have half-drafted pieces that I need to complete.  I have ideas that I haven’t started writing at all.
            I pay a social price.  I have friendships that are deteriorating because I’ve been meaning for months, even years, to write a long letter or email.  I’ll be invited to parties or events, but not get around to responding until it’s too late.
            My family pays a price as well.  It can take months for me to fix a bike chain, a skateboard, a burnt-out light bulb, or, say, a toilet.
            And yet there also are advantages.  I’m not asked to do certain tasks because I have a reputation for being unreliable.  Other ones end up not needing to be done all.  Anyone who has returned from vacation and worked through backed-up emails knows this.  Respond to one immediately and later in the queue there will be another that says to ignore the earlier message.  Sometimes when we quickly address a problem without fully understanding it, we make it worse.  If we put it off, we find we have a better sense of possible solutions.  “Sleep on it,” the procrastinator’s slogan, can be excellent advice.
            In fact, I suspect procrastination may be the way a psyche provides balance.  The primal urges and hungers drive a person to action; the procrastination mechanism, whatever it may be, says, “Wait a minute.  Slow down.  What’s the rush?”
Fundamentally, procrastinators are optimists.  We believe that we have time, that there will be a tomorrow.  Rather than being driven by the fear, panic, and urgency of “live each day as if it’s your last,” we wander through our days with the belief that there will be more…more days…more time.  We’re wrong, of course.  There will be a final day, but when it comes, I’m not sure that we’ll feel better about it because we mowed the lawn that morning.
I never did get the toilet fixed.   Weeks later, I absent-mindedly used it again in the middle of the night.  And I absent-mindedly tried to flush . . . and it did.  At some point, the water had returned.  The tank was full.  Even in my sleepy state, I was stunned by this minor miracle.  The next morning I crossed “Call Plumber” off my list and felt a sense of accomplishment.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Driving Into Ideas

          I have posted before about getting ideas on the couch or in bed.  It turns out that this is typical.  In a Business Link survey of UK entrepreneurs 49 percent said they got ideas in bed, and Time magazine did an entire cover story last year on the phenomenon.
            Many writers not only get ideas, but actually work in bed, including Jack London, Walker Percy, Edith Wharton, Colette, Proust, and James Joyce (and Groucho Marx published a book titled Beds).  Then there is this explanatory passage about the creative process from Freddy and the Ignormus by Walter R. Brooks.

            If you are going to write poetry, you need two things.  You need quiet and you need coolness.  You can’t have a lot of people talking to you, and you can’t be all hot and sticky.  Of course you also need paper and pencil. So Freddy always took these along, and he would lie on the bank and write a little, and then think a long time, and then write a little more. Sometimes he would do so much thinking and so little writing that Theodore thought he was asleep. But Freddy said no, he was just thinking very hard.
            “But you don’t snore when you’re thinking,” said Theodore.
            “Sometimes I do,” said Freddy.  “Sometimes I do.  When I’m thinking extremely hard, I snore like anything.”

            In addition to dozing, there are two other times that ideas consistently come to me:  driving and walking.  (I’ll talk about the second in a later, hopefully longer, post.)
            For me, driving, especially on the Interstate, puts me in a meditative state.  It triggers lines from poems, memories, faces of friends, and that, in turn, triggers ideas.  For example, several summers ago, as I was driving home from an out-of-town conference, I found myself remembering the ending of John Donne’s “Valediction Forbidden Mourning.”  Other lines from his work then came to mind, such as “someone who has deeper dugged love’s mines than I/tell me where his happiness doth lie.”   And the opening of “The Sun Rising”:  “Busy old fool, unruly Sun,/Why dost thou thus/Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ? /Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?/Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide/Late school-boys and sour prentices.”  I’ve always loved the phrase “saucy pedantic wretch” since I first read it as an undergraduate decades ago.  As I said these lines to myself, over and over, I started to shape a poem in response.  Sixty miles later, or roughly an hour, I had a draft.
I understand the criticism of the Interstate system; it has played a part in the destruction of so many wonderful things from downtowns to local accents.  And, yet, I confess, I almost always feel a thrill as I accelerate onto an entrance ramp, and I almost always have ideas when I come off the exit.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

More Advice, Almost None of it Good

            When I was young and trying to learn how to be a man, I had several role models, including Bo and Luke Duke, Pappy Boyington, and Ricardo Montalban.  With them, things always worked out.  They didn’t get stressed; they didn’t yell, and they knew who they were.
            You knew they would give you good advice, no matter what ridiculous situation that you found yourself in.  The actual people in my life, however, were not always as wise.
            My first brother-in-law, who taught me a great deal about drinking and illicit activities at an age when I should have been learning to drive, once told me with great seriousness, “When you throw your beer cans out the car, pick a lawn that’s been mowed.  Then you know someone will pick them up.”  At the time this sounded like the Teachings of the Buddha.  It was an entire life philosophy, one in which you could practice responsibility simply by seeking out others who would be responsible for you.  Brilliant.  Since he knew that I wanted to be a writer, he also had some advice about that (although he wasn’t a writer himself): “Writing a novel is easy.  Write three short stories and then just put them together.”  I found myself more ambivalent about this, unable to decide whether it was brilliant in its simplicity or simple stupid.
            I’m also unsure about the advice my father once gave me about job interviews:  “Say you can do whatever they’re asking you to do, and then learn like hell to do it before you get fired.”  This worked for him, and he learned it from people who came through the Depression.  So, sometimes I think it’s admirable, but, since I’ve also been on hiring committees listening to people make such claims, I also know that it usually doesn’t work and, in fact, annoys.
I’m less ambivalent about other advice I’ve received over the years, including
“Walk it off.”
            “You don’t need primer.  It’s a waste of time.”
            “Don’t worry about the helmet.”
            “Just leave it like that.  No one will notice.”
            “Don’t worry about measuring.  Just eyeball it.”
            “Say Yes to everything.”
            Teaching and writing are two fields rife with advice.  Much of it dubious.  A professor once told me, “Never teach anything you love.  The students will just taint it.”  I took that moment to heart in that I consider him a role model, the burnt-out teacher that I never want to become.
            As I get older, I realize that advice is almost always for the person giving it.  We feel righteous and wise, and later we can say, “I told you… why didn’t you…”  There is a terrific pleasure in knowing how other people should live; it makes us feel good about ourselves.
Some advice, however, can be useful.  When Charles Simic was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, he was asked what advice he'd give to people looking to be happy, and he said, "For starters, learn how to cook."  And, Goethe said, "One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words."  I don’t always manage this, particularly the last one, but I try to keep it in mind.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Few Questions for Meg Pokrass

I recently had the idea to start asking people a few cryptic, almost random, questions, ones with pronouns that didn't have references, a kind of flash interview.  The first person I contacted was Meg Pokrass, a writer that I've admired for a while.  The author of Damn Sure Right with Press 53, Meg is a master of the flash fiction form.   Her second collection, “Happy Upside Down,” will be released in the Fall of 2013. 

How did it happen?

How did I become a flash fiction writer and editor… 
Well, I wrote poetry for 20 years and never really did much with it. Did corporate work, which I did not like. Then I got physically sick, very sick… for 4 years with an autonomic nervous system disorder called RSD. I could not walk and was in excruciating pain. That was about 5 years ago. When I got better, short stories flew out of me onto paper and I submitted them to journals. As you know I write flash fiction, which is like miniature stories, and often a hybrid of prose poetry. 
How? No logical explanation. I think my brain changed through the trauma of the illness. Most of my life, I have had talent but no belief in it. I have chronic anxiety.
I’ve become fearless about writing and publishing my work. It wards off worry.

Describe a recent dream.

Holes in Keds Dream
Barney, my mom’s best friend checking out holes in my Keds. Suggesting they were a sign of poverty. Mom singing, trying to distract us. She never wanted to say to us, her kids, the words “we are poor.” Suddenly, it was clear this was not Barney, it was my father who had been gone for years. He had a hawkish nose, thin blond hair. Looked nothing like Barney and was not sweet. He yelled at mom to stop singing. My sisters and I were all crying. He said the holes in my shoes and in all of our shoes… would never get better.

So what would you do now?

Same thing. I’d run through fire to stay creative.

What question couldn’t you answer?

What are you going to do about becoming financially comfortable, Meg? Do you have any innovative business ideas? I mean, you can’t make money writing flash fiction…

Name it!

 Okay. Here is one innovative idea Joe… and I do not think it has been done before:
I could start a call-in literary sex chat line which involves trained actresses playing characters from classic novels. Call it Literary Orgasms. Let’s start with Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott (as an example).
 Maybe it would go like this:

HORNY LITERARY CALLER: Hello, I would like to speak with Meg, Jo, Beth or Amy please. 

PHONE REP: Thank you for calling Literary Orgasms.
For Meg, Jo, Beth or Amy, any of the March sisters: you pay $7 per minute. 
Add Marmee and it goes up to $12. 
Professor Bhaer. $16. 
Alternatively, you can talk to all of the March sisters at once, add Marmee for a one-time promotion, that is today only for $100. 
All conversations are confidential. 
Visa or Mastercard?

For more information about Meg Pokrass, her website is: