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About writing

This is what I know. Not much. But this. That writing is an absolutely individual endeavor. A writer can write in any way he wants, but he has to know, whatever he writes, his work reveals himself. Who he is. Why he is. If he wants acceptance by the largest possible audience, or by his wife alone, it will be there on the page. If it is not, well, then maybe he shouldn’t write.

Writers hear voices. If there is just a single voice in my head, I may write down what he’s saying for a time if it interests me, but usually I can’t write for very long unless there is a conversation. If there is a conversation, I can write as long as it takes, or until I am exhausted. And when I’m tired, and I quit, I can pick it up again later because, in reading what I have written down before, I can hear the voices again.

Not being a genius by nature, I am dependent on the voices I hear. Thankfully, all I need is a little time to concentrate and I hear them loud and clear. Better than that, I may hear them at almost any time that I’m not distracted by ‘matters of consequence.’ The Little Prince warned me about those, and the result has been, of course, that I neglect too many matters of consequence for my own good. The rent has to be paid, and on time. But art is not about dollars and cents, though it is about a common sense. Great artists might work to pay the rent, but the work is in spite of, not because of the consequences. Caravaggio knew that. So did Melville.

The matter then becomes finding a subject that matters to me. Being a soft product of the 20th century, I can’t write about anything that doesn’t matter to me. That is a given. Writing is very narcissistic. Trivial matters, or matters of life and death, are all the same. Life is often fashioned from the dust we make. And I understand that this reveals a lot about me personally, but that fact is usually not important. I don’t mind people knowing my predilections and peccadillos. But ignoring them in what I write would be frustrating if not impossible. As Mr. William said, ‘the truth will out.’ My job then is to take note.

Understanding that others who read my work may not appreciate the way I write, or my attitude, is of no consequence. None. That is an absolute. But that is a learned response after many years of trying to shape what I wrote to meet someone else’s wants. I did not do that very well. It was not satisfying. It was not fun. In fact, it was painful. Perhaps that is why so many writers say writing is painful. They may not be writing about the things they should. The best of writers, from Jane Austen to W.B. Yeats, loved doing it. And they did it for themselves.

That is not to say that I’m not trying to be readable. The opposite is true. I seek that excellent conversation that is possible with the minds of others. I want to be read by as many a possible and I’m greatly gratified by a mutual understanding of something that matters to me. But it is my work that I want to be understood. I’m much confused by the idea that I should write to please others. The hypocrisy of that has driven better writers than I to drink.

I am an atrocious speller. This began early on, when I was a child, and reveals just one of my many faults, but I have to deal with it the best I can. I love words and I don’t want them misspelled. It’s a mental handicap, and especially when mixed with a level of dyslexia (whatever that is), I know this can be off-putting to say the least. But I work at it. However, it is the idea in a given work that is the first thing. Not a single word or a sentence, though the idea is often buried in there, somewhere. My spelling, or syntax, is most important to me as it bears on that idea.

Syntax is an issue apart. I certainly make mistakes in my usages, but I also employ syntax to alter the meaning of the words or to change the direction of the movement in the work. This I learned from The Bible, and Chaucer, and Mark Twain, and Herman Melville, and in a few other good places. Syntax is a tool. Not using it beyond the norm is boring to me. Using it badly may be worse, but it is a risk worth taking.

It is important to me not to conflate my faults with what I believe I do well. My faults are not my guide, any more than following the wrong star would be. I work at my faults so that I might do better. But those who are obsessed with the faults—I have never found an exception to this—always miss the point of what I am saying, no matter my attempts to fix the work for them. And I get great pleasure reading a piece years later where I have played with something well and it worked and still works.

Writing is the most rewarding thing I do. It is the most satisfying. It is the most fun.

I don’t do it for money, quite obviously, but it is true that I once tried. That was the accepted norm of my age, as if prostitution was the only proper use for sex. Mark Twain said, “Write without pay until someone offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this as a sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.” He also said an author who wrote without prospect of pay was a fool. But being a natural fool, the effort of will required to stop was not in me and rather than give up the pleasure of writing I found my way to what I do now.

I wish that more people wrote. The world would be a better place and I would have more to read. I read a lot. But most of what I read I scan because the author is often employing words poorly or by-the-numbers. Strunk and White and the rules of usage in their Elements of Style are not the only villains in that, but they were key players in my time. I know too well that pedestrian verbiage-to-order was promulgated by most English teachers—not all. I had a few I loved dearly. But most teachers are obsessed by the rules and don’t have time for content. And that is, by extension, the world they lived in.

I can’t think of a single great writer who went to college. Perhaps there is one I haven’t read yet, but the pattern is that college is there now to drive all art away and guard the procrustean goal lines. All those creative writing classes and what do we get? Just a lot of people cut to fit the corporate mold who write free verse on the weekends to express themselves. We get unhappy vignettes about the corporate soul and the futility of life, and manuals of sexual behavior that are, thankfully, illiterate. Times have changed since the days when Mark Twain had a thousand paying markets to choose from.

I am reminded that Oxford and Cambridge once had a few good writers, Graves, and Lewis, Tolkien, but that is another era, pre-war, now over two generations ago. That alchemy is long gone. I recall that Thoreau dropped out of Harvard because he wouldn’t conform. That was a time of high standards broken by those who could. Nothing of the sort exists today. Today we have the internet, and low standards broken by any who can.

The great publishers are all gone, their names are now absorbed and diminished by corporate conglomeration. The great magazines are all gone as well, and the few good ones left on the internet are dependent on political causes in order to survive. Nothing of the broad-mind and spirit of the old Atlantic or Harper’s remains. And the popular magazines that introduced the public to a full range of printed rhetoric, such as The Saturday Evening Post, are too long gone, as are the ‘pulps’ that gave us so much of the modern idiom.

There is no such breeding ground today of new talent, nurtured by the likes of William Dean Howells, Richard Watson Gilder, George Horace Lorimer, Harold Ross, or John W. Campbell. The flexible and fungible standards of the internet won’t do. And the internet only pays the monetizers, and those sites run by the corporate few for the benefit of the fewest, that want writers happy just to have their names in print.

That is not to say that writing for a paycheck is wrong. If what you do is the construction of information with words, to be passed on to others, that’s fine. It is a challenge and a craft as fine as brick laying. It might even be good journalism. But it’s not often an art. Those few who manage to use a little art in their paid work today are the exceptions. I am sure that some prostitutes still raise their skill to the level of art. Any human endeavor can be transformed that way. Hell, Michelangelo worked for the Medici! But when he did, he worked on his own terms.

If more writers worked outside the numbers, they might discover their own minds, instead of parroting the dogma of others—they might find true insight into the mysteries of life. They might not earn a paycheck from doing that, but the reading would be more enlightening, and the writing would be more joyful. There is always more wood that needs sawing and a ditch that need digging, or filling. The pay for digging ditches is better and more reliable, granted. But that effort in itself would likely give them some understanding of the values they pursue as well as the ones they have lost. If what they do can be replicated by a bot, there isn’t much point to sweating it out, is there? Certainly, there is no hope for a paycheck when the bot slave is doing it for pennies.

AI is the new paradigm for cheap words. All the words in all the works of all the great authors are now accessible, usable, adaptable, and disposable. Any author is now working against a tide of such cheap goods, as much as any craftsmen in textiles, or wood, or ceramics. This cannot be stopped. It should not be stopped, lest that power to control the output make pikers of the Medici. It is up to the artist or writer to create what the bot cannot do: the original. And the original is only in the mind of the individual.

Those who recon, as Mr. William said, that ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,’ that now believe that all the world is a simulation, and all the men and women merely bots, must have to deal with we few, we happy few, who know the joy of writing out of our own spirit. Bots are joyless. They can have simulated sex but never love. And simulated love is not love at all. Love and joy are beyond simulation.

How do you know, says the skeptic? I answer, how do you even know to ask? Your benumbed spirit may be capable of pretense, but even it must understand the first principle of economics: you get what you pay for. Joy is found in what you have done and reflects your mind. Love is what you can offer to another. You have known this since you were a baby. Look back.

It is no loss if an age of joyless writing is behind us. The boon of writing for love has always been before us.

Benedictions: a 19th century novel

Chapter One:  The forgotten order of things

         This is what I remember. But someone else could say, “I know that place, and you’ve got the names all wrong.”

         I’d have to tell them that they’re mistaken. In any case, I don’t remember them being there.

         They might answer, “The doorway was on the left. That woman was a blonde.”

         I’d have to suggest that they were standing at a different angle, and the lighting was not as good.

         This all happened before mobsters replaced cowboys at the movies, and long before government Indians and stock market brokers took over the business of gambling. I was a nobody then, the same as I am now, only then I was a nobody with promise. The unsecured credit of my youth once opened doors which have since been securely locked.

         Reflecting on that time, I am often aware of the forgotten order of things. We all tend to place remembered matters in a sequence of importance determined by the lives we are presently living, and too easily forget the value of things we once held so dear. We judge our past selves by the logic of the present, as if we might have foreseen the unfolding of things we could not possibly have known in advance.

read more…

In the Mask of Age

Watching your parents grow older was the hardest thing you did.

Now, you wear that mask of age pretending to know something more.

But you know less now–forgetting along the way–than you did before.

You were stronger then. Sleep could be missed. The day was always young.

Hard to say now what I have to say for myself. I was never as brilliant as Mamet.

Always slow of thought and tongue. Never as mad as Pynchon or facile as King.

But my heroes were always authors. Artful writers, not soldiers or players.

And matters of actual life and death set aside for a fantasy of what might have been.

You saw in your father the man you might be, in your mother what you should do.

You knew from their faults what should not be done, yet you might do it again,

Or else deny all you are to remake your soul as if you’re a figment of imagination

And not the fruit of their own loins, their hope and the product of their best wish.

With age you look back. Is it a pale landscape there, littered with dark shapes?

You feared that dream all your life. Has it come true now, or is there color there?

Do you remember too little and recount again what you have recalled before?

But that does not make it true. Repeating a falsehood does not make it true.

What is true is what you see around you. The detritus of life is here. Was it good?

Did you do better than you might; to ever ‘risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,’

Or only what you could? Did you start again, or did you complain for your loss?

You might hide now behind the map of age, but on this road, you are here.

An American Character

When a lone, forty-two-year-old Englishwoman, Isabella Bird, travelled by train from San Francisco into the Sierras in the late Summer of 1873, she sat with the miners and loggers and railroad men. She had little money and no prospects other than to make her way home to England but first wanted to see what she could of this country she thought to be the most beautiful of all she had found on her journeys to Canada and to China and from Australia to Sandwich Islands. Chronically ill and in search of some relief from the life of an invalid as much as her actual frailties, she was not to be deterred by nature or caution or pain.

         Her excellent and colorful writing, full of wonder in the moment, does not shy from addressing the discomforts and perils, the hygiene, bad food, cramped space, and lack of sleep, so we can believe her when she says she never felt endangered by the rough men with whom she traveled. For an instance, “the only hotel in Truckee had windowless rooms and rented their beds by the hour amongst “men’s coats and sticks hanging up … miry boots littered about and a rifle in one corner … I slept soundly, being only once awoke by an increase of the same din in which I had fallen asleep, varied by three pistol shots fired in rapid succession.”

         Given the times, she does not mention the conditions of the toilet but admits that the linen was washed only occasionally. She carried a carpet bag with necessities. She wore a ‘dust cloak,’ an ‘Hawaiian’ riding dress and a silk skirt, or pantaloons for riding. And when an opportunity arose, she hired a horse and rode alone into the great pines of the Sierras at 6000 feet to the yet untrammeled beauty of Lake Tahoe, encountered a bear, was thrown and had to walk for miles before being rescued by lumbermen.

read more…

Families

We may live apart from our families,
But we are a part of them all the same—
Perhaps more so as, with absents,
We have the time and space for reflection
While not emersed in an emotional swamp
Of the mundane, nor the drum of close
Proximity to the petty or ungenerous.
The blood of families is made by mind
More than metaphors of heart or spleen—
By mind more than all else, not genes.
We are the product of sentiments
And of predilections, prejudice unseen;
And, just as often, of our reaction to such
Foolishness or brilliance as made us,
As to the enigma of origins we never knew
But shapes us, and makes us, all the same.

(notes for a poem)

My youth of yore now seems like myth to me,

A dream by day and night and twilight;

A play of biblical acts and whimsey,

Of proverbial meanings and meaningless chore,

Made light even then by the learning and a joy of being;

When the delight of knowledge and knowing

Were forbidden fruits, the bitter as good as the sweet;

 And friendships bloomed as wildflowers do, and withered,

As if the hours were days in a haze of years.

And life—life was a play, set on a stage with wings,

With limits unknown, and without intermissions.

Myth it was, and me too stupid to see,

If I’d seen that then, there might be some eternal me.

High Window

What appeared to be a square of moonlight upon the floor,
As I stepped forward with bare foot to see,
Turned out to be a fallen pillow in the dark,
And I was once again reminded of the magic of pillows,
As well as the need of high windows and what can be seen there,
And how old houses are added to and subtracted from.

There once was a room above me, a nursery, it is said,
in olden times, when this single bedroom was a home.
But the ceiling that was here, once within my standing reach,
And the floor that was there, have been removed, leaving open space
And naked beams; the beams out of structural necessity, perhaps,
But leaving a lone window in the dormer between the slants of roof.

This window captures the turn of seasons high in the maple of the yard;
A breathtaking of reds and yellows in autumn, the shiver of pale limbs in winter,
And a billow of clouds year ‘round that make mountains out of thin air, or, in a flash,
Can reveal a fear of God. Some nights it will catch the singular passage of the moon,
And lying abed with my dreams I might see the very universe.
That frame, a photograph, in its isolation, lets me see what is truly there.

And I think of John Carter and his adventures on Mars,
Cast out of a deep blue sea, a Gulliver upon a distant shore.
Carter was a rogue, as I have never been, but there is a rogue within me,
That seeks escape at night and adventures where I have feared to tread.
He won his princess and battled demons and rode the nightmares.
until their evil spirits were broken beneath his will.

But I step with a bare foot upon my fallen pillow and wish it were more,
And wish that I could have all of its dream-filled magic back.
The children of the nursery above, without my vantage of time,
Saw from that small window only the earth below them,
And settled for that perhaps, or they might have journeyed to the horizon
That bound them then and founded a country there.

The Invention of Man: a novel

In love, but broke, the sixty-eight-year-old bookseller, Michael McGeraughty, has converted a fifty-year-old camper-trailer to a small bookshop of about 1500 volumes, to be pulled by his thirty-year-old pick-up truck. His idea is to be a modern-day ‘book peddler’ in an American tradition going back to Parson Weems and once reimagined by Christopher Morley in Parnassus on Wheels. Meanwhile, he is still pursued by the FBI who believe he is connected to a libertarian revolutionary group (which he is), with designs on overthrowing the authoritarian government (true enough) through violence (which he is not). His aim is simply to wander the back roads of the nation, looking for ‘First Principles,’ and the characters that might make them work, while espousing good books and selling enough of those to pay for food and gas. His wish is that his true love, Deirdre Roberts, newspaper reporter extraordinaire, would accompany him on his odyssey. Instead, his only company is a middle-aged history professor, out of work, and most recently living with his mother.

read more…

An annotated browser

In ancient times, using a pen name, I wrote a series of short-short stories for use as one-page advertisements, under the heading ‘An annotated browser,’ to promote the shop. These are a few examples.

Counterpane

         It is an established fact in the used book trade that a healthy shop cat will lose one and a half times its body weight in fur every 28 days. On bright winter mornings, with the sun reaching through the front windows to steal the reds and greens from the dust jackets of books displayed there, the cat hair floats, illuminated, on invisible currents.

read more…

Biedermeier lives!

Biedermeier: his identity, both mistaken and true is now available in paperback and Kindle from the great and powerful Amazon.

From the back cover:

Otto Biedermeier, the Hollywood icon and B-movie legend, was murdered by his wife, Mysterious Circumstances. Tom Lenz, a film historian and the director’s biographer, wants to update his 20-year-old monograph as well as to pay his respects.

 

After meeting again with Ms. Circumstances, a former circus performer whose specialty of magic tricks on the high wire had made her briefly famous before capturing the heart of the filmmaker, Tom Lenz has his doubts.

 

Once, I had asked,“Why? Does it matter? No one seems to care. People apparently want to be lied to. That’s what politics is. That’s why they go to the movies, isn’t it?”

 

Otto was firm in his answer. “Truth matters. You have to look for it. What our children know is our only legacy. That’s why I make my movies.”

‘The Decision’

I don’t know many libertarians. There aren’t a lot to know out here in the boondocks. Mostly it’s the same mix of people I knew in Boston, just fewer of them. And even the few libertarians I am aware of locally are not given to too much conversation. They are well used to the common responses when confronted with matters of government and individual responsibility.

“But you can’t leave a decision like that up to the average person. They might do anything!”

The fact that the government they rely on is made up of average people, both good and bad, who are by nature self-interested, are easily corrupted by power and greed, and faced with an emergency, usually make the wrong decision, never seems to dissuade many from this preference, no matter the trail of tears and wreckage left behind. read more…

About William McGuire and other unexpected stories

The original plan, as plans often do, went awry. Two of the stories I had hoped to include with the print edition of the novella, I Am William McGuire, did not work out as hoped. Most of the shorter material I write is intended as backgound or continuity for novels–stories within the story–and one of those novels, A Young Man From Mars, is one of the oldest of the unpublished works precisely because the internal stories that make it whole are not yet satisfactory to me. I have made the point elsewhere that I believe the novel is best when it reflects the whole of a human life, and that plot should be a natural outgrowth of a life and the way it is lived, or of several lives, and not superimposed. Each of us is a creature of a plot of our own making. What we are born with and the accidents that befall us are only the raw material. How we choose to deal with or avoid those motivations is our story.

The two novellas, I Am William McGuire and If Blood Were Orange, were written originally as screenplays, but as time passed and I began to accept the fact that I would never be able to see them finished that way, I completed them instead as they are now. She Knows Her Onions was a story I took out of The Dark Heart of Night to keep the book a more reasonable length. That Little Old Lady and Me was intended as a part of John Finn but in the end I thought unnecessary to that effort, though still fun, in and of itself. Seely’s Surfside is a key moment from a novel that will never be completed for other more complicated reasons.

In any case, these stories, long on my website, are now available in print through the Great and Mighty Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/William-McGuire-other-unexpected-stories/dp/0989790363/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=I+Am+William+McGuire&qid=1600286701&s=books&sr=1-1

About Resolution 451

The old Cincinnati Library 1874-1955

A dialog.

“What’s this?”

“What?”

“This ‘Resolution 451’ business.”

“Not a business. Just a revolution. Like a New Year’s revolution.”

“You mean resolution.”

“Well, yes, but it’s a revolting matter to have to deal with after all the ages..”

“How so? What’s the matter?”

“It’s about time for the peasants to revolt. That’s all. Past time, I think.”

“Why?”

“To save books from perdition. They’re being destroyed, removed, replaced, expurgated, and abridged. Libraries are busy giving up the wealth of their collections for space to install machines that will be out of date in ten our twelve years—machines that operate soft-ware that will be useless in five or six. The arbiters of political correctness are getting rid of anything that does not meet their approval, altering texts they don’t like. Special interest groups are removing books they disagree with. And the publicly funded colleges all assign the same texts. Publishers are refusing to publish books that do not fit with their political templates. Our literature is being lost to morons who read twitter feeds.”

“Wooh! Except for the twittering, that’s always been going on. It’s the way it always was.” read more…

An article of confederation

Years ago, in the midst of my bookshop battles and as some psychological relief, I began writing a comedy which was then entitled ‘Knox Books’ as both a homage to the great Boston bookseller of revolutionary days as well as a ‘play’ on the homophone ‘knocks.’ Such humor can be entertaining to a stressed brain. I staged that concoction as a sit-com of sorts—imagine a ‘Cheers’ for books, if you will, with a cast of odd-ball regulars confronting crises du jour. The crises were, of course, all the concerns of bibliophiles humbled with the usual human defects. Despite a lack of interest in that work beyond my own confines, I’m sure it would have been a hit. . . At least it kept me sane. read more…

A Time for Books

I have finally done something I had promised to do here years ago. But it is posted at the Bookshop site under ‘annotations.’

Annotations

In the last days of the Republic

I first knowingly encountered the Administrative State in 1972 when I went to City Hall in Boston to get a peddler’s license so that I might sell books and magazines on the street. I was under the delusion (illusion is too kind) that the First Amendment to the Constitution afforded me the right to sell almost any printed matter except pornography, and this being 1972, even that indecency would be overlooked. But the first week out on the street with my yellow pushcart (wittily named De Cart) got me a warning from the constabulary (i.e., the cops) who were charged with enforcement of the laws of the Administrative State, and I was told to get a proper license or I’d get a fifty-dollar fine. read more…

About the knight’s tale

In related matters, my new novel, The knight’s tale, a story of the future, is now available in paperback from the mighty Amazon as well as in at least one fine bookshop. This novel was written a few years ago but only available until now in parts on my website. It has been part of an effort since beginning to write again to touch on several themes I believe to be important while playing with the many genres of fiction that I love and have read since I was a boy. With The knight’s tale my interests were the ongoing predilection of human beings for slavery as much as our amazing sense of regeneration, set in a future time when the worst has already happened but the best might be possible once again. The question is a simple one, if history repeats itself because we so often ignore it, might not the future come more than once? The adventure science fiction story was a staple of my youth and I hope I have done it some justice.

Asger Hamerik

How is it that such a great composer as Asger Hamerik can be so forgotten? Can the mediocrity of our age actually be so overwhelming as to ignore even that rare genius who survived the smothering of the ‘modern’ to produce seven wonderful symphonies and an inspirational requiem, several operas and suites, and most of it while teaching right here in America? Perhaps I should be grateful that Rachmaninov and Mahler are still with us. Certainly he is not alone in being ignored while so much mediocrity was raised to set examples for the Broadway/Hollywood nexus of manufactured schmaltz and Götterdämmerung during the last century. Symphony orchestras play with their warhorses again and over again, as if to benumb audiences rather that present another recent example of why the Twentieth Century was such a hell-hole for human creativity as much as it was for the human beings themselves. In the same way that Shakespeare survives endless mutilation on the stage, Beethoven, and too few others can survive such rote, while Joachim Raff, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Johan Svendsen and others of such great imagination have seemingly been buried. Hamerik is my favorite of those I have found on my own. The murder of what has been labeled ‘classical’ music in the twentieth century has now been long successful. The audience has dwindled to so few that without state sponsorship, there would apparently be no full orchestras left, and this excuse is often given for the constant beating of the kettle drums, but that is only after the fact. The aesthetic suicide that was so facilely called ‘the modern’ was first imposed by the academy of the damned that is our educational elite. Yet another accomplishment they can be proud of.

Other than that, I don’t have an opinion on the matter.

http://cphpost.dk/history/the-greatest-danish-composer-america-ever-had.html

http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=309766

Bronze Age Collapse in the Time of Brady

The spawn of a recent article by Richard Fernandez (https://pjmedia.com/richardfernandez/surprise-collapse/) is a rather gloomy extended thought on my part. It is my tendency to be gloomy, true, but that aside, I have the habit of seeing analogy in most of what I hear and read. This is like a constant echo going on in my head, a second voice not unlike my own, and often results in a stupid slack jawed look on my face when I am engaged in listening to others (either that or I’m just tired). I have even been known to drool on the page of a book in my hands—something akin for me to farting in church. But back to my thesis: The Bronze Age Collapse in our time. read more…

About American Philosophy

The occasion of this post is my recent discovery of a wonderful book by John Kaag entitled American Philosophy, a Love Story. Before I get to any criticism of the work, I should commit myself beyond the adjective ‘wonderful,’ and say that I think it is indeed truly excellent and worthwhile, but worth a great deal more to those who are interested in the genealogy of the ideas that drive our modern world. The rest of you may just get a kick out of the love story. read more…