AJ FikryThe Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is the first heartwarming book I’ve read in a long time. My heart was in dire need of warming and this book did the trick. How it is I end up reading a particular book at the time I read it is an endlessly fascinating question to me. Is it mere coincidence that each book seems to come into my life for a precisely-timed reason, giving me the exact message or inspiration I need? Are books, in some sense, the way the Divine chooses to communicate with me? That does seem to be the case, yet my rational mind insists it is only my fanciful imagination that makes it seem that way. Anyway, I think I found The Storied Life…. on a list of good books published in 2014 and felt like I needed to read it.

If books were the divine conveyers of inspiration, then I suppose book stores or libraries would be the temples. This novel takes place primarily in a book store called Island Books. A.J., the owner, is a depressed literature lover, aged 39 when the story begins, who is grieving the loss of his beautiful wife and business partner Nicole, killed two years previously in a car accident.

Island Books is located on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, a fictional place very like Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, cold and isolated in the winter and flooded with tourists in the summer. It is important to the story that the island is not an easy place to get to – it can only be reached by ferry. Island Books is important to the town of Alice because it serves as a social center for the townsfolk with its book events and book club meetings. It also lends the town an aura of educated classiness, as book stores tend to do. The isolated location of the town provides a sense of cozy boundaries and forces the characters to make definite decisions about things like getting married and pursuing careers.

When the story begins A.J. is grumpy, unfriendly, and self-destructive. But he loves books so of course we know he is inherently redeemable. In the first chapter, Amelia, a new rep from Knightly Publishing Company, makes the long trip to discuss the winter catalog. A.J. is in a bad mood. He is rude to her and doesn’t even order any books, but somehow we know Amelia is going to play a role in his redemption. But first a couple of other life-changing things happen to A.J.: one bad and one good.

I saw at least one review that compares this book to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, one of my other favorite heart warmers. Both novels have rather long titles and both celebrate the healing power, joy, and social connectivity of books. But The Storied Life is a much simpler, quieter book than Guernsey. Rather than being set during and after a war with bombs and Nazis, it is just about a small group of lovable characters who read a lot and draw strength and guidance from books.

A.J. has a marked preference for short stories, and refers to lots of them, so I enjoyed the added benefit of being able to accumulate a list of stories I have yet to read. I enjoyed A.J.’s commentary about several short stories I have read including The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County by Mark Twain, and several by Edgar Allen Poe, A.J.’s literary specialty. I am glad I recently read Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find because that story comes up several times in the course of the novel.

Of course there is a charming cast of quirky supporting characters, especially the kindly Chief Lambiase. I wish all cops were like Lambiase, who slowly develops from a non-reader to an enthusiastic book lover through his friendship with A.J. I really think reading books leads anyone to become a better person in general. Also there is Ismay Parrish, the sister of A.J.’s deceased wife, a high school English and drama teacher who is depressed about her bad marriage to Daniel, a philandering writer. By the end on the novel Ismay experiences a redemption of her own.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is an excellent read for book lovers, especially book lovers who prefer the old-fashioned paper kind. A.J. is repelled and horrified by be e-readers. I enjoyed how the author deals with the issue of e-readers versus traditional (i.e., “real” books). There is a rumor going around that brick and mortar book stores are going the way of the horse and carriage. This novel makes a valiant and romantic case for their continued survival. I certainly love nothing better than a book store and want to believe such places and their literature-loving book sellers will be around to grace our cities and towns for many years to come.

Just for fun I checked to see if this novel is available for Kindle. It is! In fact you can download it free if you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited.

I have read lots of novels. I am reading one right now called The Storied Life of A .J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. So far it is wonderful, but I am only about a third through it so it’s too early to say more than that. I think I want to write a novel myself, at least a novella. I’ve written one already but it is so bad I would never want anyone to read it. My goal for my next effort is to write something that I might actually want to show people. When I do write this worthy piece of literature, here is the question I want it to explore:

Assuming you are a person who believes in Truth with a capital “T”, Truth that really exists in some kind of objective sense, is it better to pursue that Holy Grail to the bitter end, no matter what it takes, or is it better to accept a reasonable facsimile, some version of truth with a small “t”, and to live happily within the boundaries of that approximation? (I would not want to want to write a novel about a person who does not believe in Truth with a capital “T” although it might be interesting to cast such a self-negating character as the antagonist or a maybe a supporting character.)

World in a dewdrop. Photo by Aaron Apple.

World in a dewdrop. Photo by Aaron Apple.

Another word for these “approximations” is tribes. Ideally life within the boundaries of a tribe is happy, familiar, and comfortable. Such a life can be quite pleasant and I suspect, for the vast majority, a perfectly acceptable way to live. If your particular tribe becomes too dysfunctional, you can always migrate to another tribe that seems to have its act more together. But my protagonist is the type of person who knows that all tribes with their customs and belief systems are approximations, or perhaps at best, rough and very incomplete models of truth. The question will be whether this character can accept settling down and living a life according to an adopted approximation of Truth.

In real life our tribes tend to become so monstrously large that they continually crack into numerous factions. A belief system can only hold its shape up to a certain population size and perhaps for a limited number of years before its structure cracks and it divides into factions. Therefore there are now numerous Christian tribes, however many Islamic tribes, countless secular tribes, and hundreds of other religious ones. All of them tend to demonize the tribes that are most closely related to themselves, those that have most recently separated on the most narrow fault lines.

My main character will be a post-tribal person. Is being post-tribal a misfortune or is it a good thing? That will be something else my novel will have to explore but post-tribal is certainly an inconvenient thing to be. Let’s say, for now, the main character happens to be a woman. She begins to question the whole idea of gathering people into groups and sects by culture or belief system. Should she then go try to form a new tribe for post-tribal people? Probably not. More likely she will slowly and painfully realize that she must accept her lot as an outcast; but the paradox is that she is an outcast who believes that ultimate truth includes all people without distinction, that if everyone knew the Truth, all justifications for delineating ourselves from others through any kind of tribal loyalty would cease.

I am still exploring these ideas. If I ever write this novel, the novel will only be an exploration of these ideas. Because I know nothing for sure and I’m pretty sure I never will, at least not in the brief span of this lifetime. I think I do believe in Truth with a capital “T” but after all my years of reading, thinking, writing, and living, that’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I am a slow learner.  I do however believe that Jesus was someone who did know this Truth and that my best chance of coming closer to knowing it is to study his words and strive to understand them, and as far as I am able, to live them. If I do this I believe I will at least be facing toward and not away from the light. Before I die I hope to progress a few steps closer to the light, but if I only die facing toward and not away from the light, I believe I will not have lived this life in vain.

So returning to my thematic question,  I think perhaps my character will be someone who has decided to live happily in an approximation of truth. She will pour vast amounts of energy into embracing the ways of her chosen tribe – perhaps the tribe of the Catholic Church – and then something dramatic will happen and she will have an epiphany that accepting an approximation of Truth means living an approximation of life. She could keep living in the tribe but she can no longer do so happily. In the end, of course, she will leave the tribe and walk into the unknown, believing it is better to exist in the No Man’s land of uncertainty in pursuit of  real life than to exist  within a tribe she knows is only a story, a good stopping-off place perhaps, but not a place to stay permanently.

Photo by Aaron Apple. January 2015.

Photo by Aaron Apple. January 2015.

I know this idea is hardly original. It is probably the basis for just about every novel ever written. But hey, there is only one Truth and we are only one species. We do sure find a lot of different ways to tell the same old stories. My problem will be fleshing out the characters because I am a lot more intrigued by ideas than by people. I really am trying to get more interested in humans. After all, we are the ones who live and experience the ideas. Which may have something to do with why we exist in the first place.

I have added to my collection of Pulitzer Prize winning novels that I didn’t know won the Pulitzer Prize before I started reading them. I found out about this novel about a year ago while reading The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie. Like so many classics I finally get around to reading, my only regret is that I did not read it sooner. Here is the review I wrote for Goodreads….

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A Confederacy of DuncesA Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ignatius J. Reilly is an obese slothful philosopher, who at age 30, lives with his mother in New Orleans during the early 1960s. Ignatius, with his unique medieval worldview and his penchant for conflict with all sectors of modern society, make him a wonderful and hilarious character. In addition the novel bursts with a cast of equally fascinating characters including Irene Reilly, his loving but increasingly exasperated mother, Angelo Mancuso, a meek undercover cop, Lana Lee, the evil proprietor of the “Night of Joy” strip club, Burma Jones, her verbose African-American porter/janitor, Mr. Levy, the owner of a down-and-out pants factory, Mrs. Levy, his pseudo psychoanalyst wife, Dorian Greene, a gay man who loves to give parties in the French Quarter, and Myrna Minkoff, Ignatius’ anarchist ex-girlfriend.

When A Confederacy of Dunces begins Ignatius is waiting for his mother outside the D.H. Holmes Department Store and Patrolman Mancuso attempts to arrest him for being a suspicious character. (There is now a statue of Ignatius J. Reilly where D.H. Holmes used to be. I may want to go see that statue.) Ignatius dresses oddly, always wearing a green hunting cap with flaps and is frequently seen muttering to himself. Chaos ensues as he and his mother escape into the crowd. After a night of drinking at the Night of Joy bar his mother, Irene, runs the car into the wall of an old building and the next day is sued for $8000 in damages. She has become friends with Mancuso and his Aunt Santa and under Santa’s influence, begins to develop a new sense of self confidence. She insists that Ignatius get off his butt and get a job to help pay the bill. This sets the ball rolling for a series of adventures as Ignatius emerges from his cluttered bedroom and begins interacting with the working world.

Ignatius constantly writes his thoughts and experiences on sheets of Big Chief note paper. This gives the reader interludes of first person narration and allows us to understand the workings of his mind, which is a combination of insanity and wild genius. Walker Percy, who helped get the novel published posthumously in 1980, called Ignatius a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” I don’t think you could wrap him up with a better description than that.

In addition to his notes for a future book, Ignatius exchanges long insulting letters with ex-girlfriend Myrna Minkoff. When she challenges him to become more socially active, he attempts to organize the factory workers at Levy pants to attack the office manager and demand higher wages. Later he attempts to organize the French Quarter gay community to infiltrate the U.S. Military as a path to world peace. Neither movement proceeds smoothly.

Toole had to have loved people of all kinds to have written A Confederacy of Dunces; you feel he poured his soul into writing it. Unfortunately he could not get it published and killed himself in 1969 at the age of 31. So sad. The ending just screams for a sequel and it’s hard to imagine any other author being able to come close to the unique voice of this novel: the New Orleans setting is steeped in atmosphere, the dialects are perfect, and the historical time comes across in a way it would be hard to capture again. Toole had to be there, and in fact some of the incidents are based on his own experiences. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a more deserving novel.

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stonerStoner by John Williams was published in 1965 and in fifty years has developed a reputation as a sort of under-the-radar classic, much admired among the literati, little known in the popular market. Fifty Shades of Gray it is not and the novel would shudder with embarrassment to be classed among such vulgar fare. Stoner has been proclaimed by many reviewers as a brilliant but “quiet” piece of literature. I agree with that general assessment – that is if a novel about the storms and agonies of a human soul can be considered quiet. And a novel that can portray such storms and agonies in a way that pulls you in and makes you want to keep reading has to be brilliant.

Williams offers no flashy gimmicky hooks such as sex or murder and certainly not a hint of glamour. In fact, if he promises anything, it to deliver an truthful account of an undistinguished ordinary life. The book begins with an obituary of sorts, telling us that the main character, William Stoner, taught at the University of Missouri for nearly 40 years, until his death in 1956. In part it says:

“An occasional student who comes across the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”

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Born in 1891, William Stoner is the only child of a pair of dirt poor farmers who live 40 miles outside of Columbia, Missouri.

“From the earliest time his could remember, William Stoner had duties. At the age of six he milked the bony cows, slopped the pigs in the sty a few yards from the house, and gathered small eggs from a flock of spindly chickens. And even when he started attending the rural school eight miles from the farm, his day, from before dawn until after dark, was filled with work of one sort or another. At seventeen his shoulders were already beginning to stoop beneath the weight of his occupation.”

I quickly developed a caring interest in this big awkward farm kid. I am a bit discouraged to think that a farm life can be as joyless as that of William’s parents. Although they have a humble dignity, they are worn to and emotionally drained, seeming to barely able rise above the dirt they work. I guess I have this image of the agricultural life as healthy, wholesome, and happy, like Leo Tolstoy’s happy peasants or the colorful pictures in some long-ago Little Golden Book, with smiling pigs, cows, and chickens, happy overall-clad children sitting on fences, and town gatherings with pie and dancing like in Oklahoma! The Stoner farm is devoid of anything like these images; the family seems to live a quiet lonely life of backbreaking drudgery.

In 1910 a county agent suggests to his father that William be sent to the University in Columbia to study at the new School of Agriculture. So Williams goes and lives in the attic of a relation of his mother’s. In return for bare bones room and board William does work around the farm while studying at the University. In his second year at the school, he takes Sophomore English with a cynical crotchety professor named Archer Sloane. Dr. Sloane, by a rare miracle, is able to ignite in Stoner’s mind a love for literature. It happens in a moment. Dr. Sloane has just recited Shakespeare’s sonnet #73, which he expects to fall on a class full of deaf ears as usual.

“Sloane’s eyes came back to William Stoner, and he sad dryly, ‘Mr. Shakespeare speaks to you from across three hundred years, Mr. Stoner; do you hear him? William Stoner realized that for several moments he had been holding his breath. He expelled it gently, minutely aware of his clothing moving upon his body as his breath went out of his lungs.”

In that moment Stoner’s consciousness enters a new level of awareness. He has fallen in love with literature. Dr. Sloane knows he has hit the chord and invites him to change his major. Sloane becomes his mentor and helper in his transition from farmer to scholar. I know that one of the strengths of this novel is its elegant unsentimental prose, but my gosh. When William Stoner goes home one day in the 1920s to bury his father, and sees the shriveled state of the corpse and the wisp of life that is left of his mother, it really hits home what he has escaped. Whatever the drawbacks of the academic life we see that it is better than the life he escaped, which for his parents, has become not much more than a living death.

World War I happens and most of the young men run off to sign up, including Stoner’s two best friends, David Masters and Gordon Finch. Stoner is drawn by the pull of the crowd until Dr. Sloane advises him to think. Does he really want to join up? Does he believe that his work at the university is at least as important as fighting a war in Europe? Does he value the mind enough to continue his studies despite the pressure and loss of worldly respect if he chooses not to go? Stoner spends a day in contemplation and decides to stay and continue his studies. David Masters, a brilliant student, is killed in France shortly after his arrival. Gordan Finch returns and becomes a dean at the college.

Like many of us who stumbled blindly through our twenties, Stoner is book-smart but socially ignorant. When he meets Edith, the daughter of a wealthy business man, at a college social event, I wanted to scream, “Don’t do it!” But he didn’t listen to me. He marries her and incurs much misery for the rest of his life. Edith is an ethereal girl who seems incapable of real love or even affection. Apparently she hates Stoner for wanting to have sex with her.

The author does not pass judgment on Edith as a person; he just reports the facts in an almost tender way. In fact he provides a possible explanation for her behavior:

“Her moral training, both at the schools she attended and at home, was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual. The sexuality, however, was indirect and unacknowledged; therefore it suffused every other part of her education, which received most of its energy from that recessive and unspoken moral force. She learned that she would have duties toward her husband and family and that she must fulfill them.”

They do manage to have one child, a sensitive girl named Grace, who Stoner adores. As Edith is always sick, delicate, and cannot stand the smell of diapers, Stoner is the baby’s primary caregiver during her earliest years. However, when Edith notices the happy father/daughter relationship, she sets out to use the child against him in every insidious way she can think of. Edith seemed deeply disturbed to me, a really chilling character. .

Stoner continues to find meaning and refuge in his teaching and his studies, but when Archer Sloane dies, his replacement, Hollis Lomax has issues and takes a severe disliking to him. When Lomax becomes head of the English department, he sets out to stymie Stoner’s academic career through bad class assignments and petty persecution. The best part of the book is when Stoner, at age 43, finds his true love, a fellow instructor named Katherine Driscoll. Sharing a passion for medieval and Renaissance literature they love being together; it is like fresh rain on dry parched farm land. Of course it doesn’t last. Although they keep their romance low key and secret, the university is a fish bowl and there are those who can’t stand for Stoner to be happy.

Years later, shortly before William Stoner’s death, Katherine publishes her book. The tiny dedication “To W.S.” means everything to him. Although his life has fallen short in nearly every way, he has escaped the life of mind-numbing drudgery and has been faithful to the life of the mind. When he arrives at the end of his life, he is able to face it with the stoicism inherited from his parents and is blessed with a certain grace resulting from his faithfulness to the life of mind. He dies better than his father did. As he reviews his life and its many disappointments, he keeps repeating a refrain to himself: “What did you expect?” How often is a death scene the most uplifting and intriguing scene in a book? I loved this death scene. I think Stoner’s faithfulness and integrity pay off in a higher spiritual life, but you’ll have to read the book to see if you agree.

I am rethinking television. Long ago I filed TV in my brain under “T” for time wasters and stuck two sticky notes to the file that said “guilt” and “self-righteousness”: guilt for when I watched and self-righteousness for when I bragged that I hardly ever did. Actually I really hardly ever watched TV once I reached high school age and only rarely had conversations about not watching it. When my kids were young I did become familiar with the Disney channel and Nickelodeon. Last I saw there was this girl named Amanda Bines and these two guys named Drake and Josh and there were lots of cartoons – Sponge Bob, Dora the Explorer, Rugrats, and one about a scientist kid named Dexter and his ballerina sister. But then my sons grew  up and those shows have faded out of my head like a receding sea. The reruns I watched after school as a kid however are stuck in my brain like black & white tattoos: I Dream of Jeanie, The Beverly Hillbillies, Dennis the Menace, Dick Van Dyke, I Love Lucy, Hazel, Lost in Space, Father Knows Best. And Mr. Ed, of course. Leave It to Beaver was not shown on my local station so I never saw that one until I was an adult.

It seems things have changed in TV Land: programming is better quality and less simple-minded. To be sure there is more trash than ever to waste your time watching, but there are also all these excellent well-written though-provoking serial stories like Downton Abbey, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and Mad Men. I realize these shows have been around for years and I am very late to the party. But my theory about stories, whether the form is book, film, or TV show, is that the good ones will keep. No need to jump immediately onto every bandwagon. If a series began in say 2007 and it is stale by the time I get around to watching it in say, 2015, then it probably wouldn’t have been worth watching in 2007.

I like to let things sit for a while. See how they hold up after a few years. Then I am in a better position to assess whether they are worthy of my valuable time. Albert Jay Nock had a similar philosophy regarding current events. He said you can’t really analyze the significance of an event until  decade or two has passed. Only then do you have the perspective to discern anything about the extent and nature of the event’s cultural and historical impact. When you look at things at the time of their inception, whether they be newsworthy events or TV programs, your judgment is clouded by many things including the fashion of the moment, the lure of novelty, and hysteria.

Megan and DonAll this is to say that I have finally gotten around to watching Mad Men at the rate of a few episodes per week. I’ve been doing this for the past month and I’m quite taken by the show. It’s not just the allure and raw sexuality of Don Draper either. I am finding it thought-provoking, touching, and educational in the best way: it deepens my insight into the way the world works. Anything that teaches me how the world works is pure gold.

I have always been fascinated by the entire 20th century. What a ride it was, each decade with its own drama, comedy, and distinctive character! But because the 1960’s happens to be the decade in which I entered the human race it has always held a special  magic and mystery for me. Before I developed rational thought I remember feeling a drum beat of change in the air. And as the child of up and coming middle class American people in the process of moving to the ‘burbs I was automatically a potential consumer and target audience for the kind of Madison Avenue dream pushers portrayed in Mad Men. This show really helps me understand how early in the history of television history that was. It throws light on the kooky unsophisticated programming I remember from my early days on the planet. I love their portrayal of the 1960 Presidential election.  Now the medium of TV has matured to the point that it can create a show that critiques itself as cultural history. Boy am I old!

What an impact TV and its slick advertising must have had on early viewers. I remember my mother telling me about when her family got their first television set in the late 1950’s. Mom’s grandmother, Nonie, lived with them. Nonie was born in 1887 and in 1957 was still quite vigorous and active in their small Pennsylvania town. Mom said the TV advertisements used to be quite direct: “Buy Tide NOW!” Nonie would get so excited by the pitch that she’d grab her purse and run “up town” to buy the product.

I don’t mean to make fun of my great-grandmother and neither did Mom. It’s just to illustrate that this kind of persuasive advertising must have been so new to the average human brain. Culturally speaking, they had not yet built mental barriers against its incursions into their psyches. Before TV of course there were travelling snake oil salesmen and then there was radio. Remember that scene in A Christmas Story where Ralphie is all excited about deciphering the secret message in his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring only to find out the message is “Drink your Ovaltine.”

Anyway, Mad Men gives me a fascinating glimpse into the forces that so dramatically impacted the world I was born into. I like how it captures that atmosphere, the newness and the glamour of the Kennedy administration, the feeling of powerful influences so many people did not understand, the threat of atomic bombs, the creeping threat of an obscure new war in some place called Vietnam, and – something so vividly part of my own earliest memories – that sense of enormous cultural change that came complete with its own soundtrack. I love how each episode ends with a snippet of popular music from the period.

The characters of course are the best part: Don Draper and the other white men with all their status quo assumptions about how the world works and their natural placement therein. The attitudes they display toward women are appalling and it does make one wonder how far we’ve really come in male/female relationships. Have we really made that much progress and if so, how did we get from there to here? Because, to me, 1960 seems closer to the Stone Age than to 2015. Can our culture really have shed millions of years of caveman-like attitudes in a mere 50 years?  We know that in other cultures people are still living in the Old Testament, but those are not the cultures (thank God) in which I have been fortunate to live my life. It makes me grateful I made my entrance onto the planet in the time and place that I did. I guess I drew a pretty good culture card.

My 19-year-old son has also begun watching Mad Men. To think –1965 to him is like 1935 to me. Ancient history. And media has been even more pervasive in his life than it has been in mine. He is fascinated by how advertising was set up to get people to eat things and do things just so somebody could make money. A TV show that can raise that kind of awareness within the clamor of our media-saturated consumer-oriented world is truly TV that has come a long way since The Andy Griffith Show.

Ironically enough, Mad Men has spawned its own little consumer frenzy.There are Mad Men Barbie dolls! I wish I’d have gotten some a few years ago because they are already apparently collector’s items going for 100 bucks on eBay. I guess there is a disadvantage to getting to the party late.

 

mad men dolls

 

So what is next in my excursion into the brave new world of TV watching? I’ve heard good things about several shows:

  • Portlandia (Have watched a few of these. Funny.)
  • It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
  • Orange is the New Black
  • The West Wing (This may be my next choice. Sounds interesting.)
  • The Bates Motel (Hmmm – I don’t know….may be violent.)
  • Damages
  • New Girl (I do like the Zooey Deschanel persona, so maybe.)
  • Sherlock

I don’t like a lot of yelling or gratuitous violence in my TV life so, although I’ve heard they are good, I have to cross the following off my list:

  • Sons of Anarchy
  • Dexter
  • Breaking Bad (Yeah, I watched a few of these but stopped after the box cutter episode. Sorry but no blood spurting for me, thank you.)
  • The Walking Dead (I can’t deal with hanging eyeballs. Sorry.)

If you know of any other ones that are good let me know. I’m open to suggestion.

I love freedomLet’s see what I can remember off the top of my head about why we celebrate the 4th of July with barbecues, parades, flags, and fireworks. On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress of the American colonies voted to approve a document written by a tall red-haired guy named Thomas Jefferson. Four days later it was read publicly for the first time by an official named Colonel William Nixon at the Philadelphia State House Yard, now called Independence Square. The people were summoned by bells to hear it.

The most famous and important part of the Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” After that it goes on to list a bunch of grievances against the king of England.

These lofty courageous words were long in coming to fruition in human history. Jesus is the one who firmly planted the seed of human dignity in the ancient world, and then one philosopher stood on the shoulders on another until the idea gathered enough strength to stand on its own truth against the whole entrenched system of power domination based on force. Of course there was an ocean between the representatives of the power domination system and the philosophical words of truth and freedom, and that surely helped a bit with the courage thing.

Too bad we weren’t able to maintain the lofty ideals. We still stay the words of course, but in fact we have only created another branch of the power domination system. It’s like the human race catches the light every now and then for a few minutes and then gets sucked back under by a powerful undertow. Nevertheless, once a truth is out there it never goes away. As long as the idea remains in alive in the minds of a few living human beings, there is still hope that it may some day find a foothold again.

our enemySo in the spirit of keeping the hope of true freedom alive, I observed Independence Day 2015 by re-reading Our Enemy the State, a book by my favorite cultural critic, Albert Jay Nock (AJN). This book really helped me understand the problem with trying to maintain a free country. I read it for the first time a couple of years ago and summarized its contents on this blog. Today I will concentrate on discussing a particular concept the book introduced to me: the difference between government and the State. Government is an institution that originates in a society by the agreement of the people to protect the liberty and security of its citizens, just like that quote from the Declaration says. The State is an entirely different type of political organization. “This difference is not one of degree, but of kind,” says AJN. “It [The State] did not originate in the common understanding and agreement of society; it originated in conquest and confiscation.”

The purpose of government is to protect the safety and freedom of the people as they going about living their lives as they please, as long as they refrain from hurting anybody else. Government only involves itself in your life if you have harmed or are in the process of harming other people. The State, on the other hand, exists to exploit one class for the benefit of the other. Why? Because, explains AJN, to meet our needs we must either work really hard, applying effort to natural resources to produce food or products that can be traded or sold (AJN calls this the “economic means”) or we must live off the labors of others (the “political means”). Humans don’t like to work hard so we tend to gravitate to the political means whenever we can.

Albert Jay Nock

Albert Jay Nock

Concerning the State AJN says, “It’s primary function or exercise was not by way of Paine’s [as in Thomas] purely negative interventions upon the individual, but by way of innumerable and most onerous positive interventions, all of which were for the purpose of maintaining the stratification of society into an owning and exploiting class, and a property-less dependent class.” So the State and government are different species of birds, the State a vulture, government a goose.

Negative intervention means that the officials only intervene your life if you commit a crime. In a government, crime is defined as a deliberate act that harms one or more persons or their property. Positive intervention means the State has imposed external requirements on individuals and uses its power to punish individuals who fail to obey or fulfill the requirements. Under the dominion of the State, the concept of crime is expanded to include non-compliance with any number of these positive requirements (or regulations or executive orders or laws or whatever term they choose when they shove them down your throat).

This distinction between government and the State has rarely been clear in the minds and writings of even great thinkers such as Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson and this lack of clarity has led to undue trust in an institution that is hostile to the interests of people who simply wish to live industrious productive lives and enjoy the fruits of their labor in peace. Says AJN: “They are so different in theory that drawing a sharp distinction between them is now probably the most important duty civilization owes to its safety.” By “now” he means 1935. That’s when he wrote Our Enemy the State.

It’s amazing how clear language clarifies one’s thinking, and conversely, how the use of one word to mean different concepts clouds it. I was not aware of this distinction until I read the book, and once I did understand it I began to see political events and their coverage by the media so much more clearly. And yet it is so easy to forget because, as AJN points out, that State is like the air we are born into. He says the modern State fills the same role as that of the Church in 15th century Europe:

“The individual was born into the Church, as his ancestors had been for generations, in precisely the formal, documented fashion in which he is now born into the State. He was taxed for the Church’s support, as he now is for the State’s support. He was supposed to accept the official theory and doctrine of the Church, tyo conform to its discipline, and in a general way to do as it told him; again, precisely the sanctions that the State now lays upon him. If he were reluctant or recalcitrant, the Church made a satisfactory amount of trouble for him, as the State now does.”

So what does this mean to me and my life? It means as I understand reality better I encourage my children to find a way to make a living by producing something useful and honest and to avoid unnecessary entanglements to the extent possible. Even if it means they may have to work harder for less money than their neighbors. So far I am glad they both seem to agree that freedom is worth a little sacrifice. As for me it has taken years to become as entangled as I am, and as with any complex knot, it will take some time to pry loose the strands. Meanwhile I will continue to write and study, always with the objective to increase my understanding of and ability to express truth. To me truth and freedom are closely related concepts. Jesus said ,“Ye shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.” Those words, though they are both true and free, are not easy.

Entanglements. Steel wool swirlies. Photo by Aaron Apple, July 2015.

Entanglements. Steel wool swirlies. Photo by Aaron Apple, July 2015.

“All I could do was to offer you an Opinion upon one minor point – A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction….”

room_of_ones_own.largeVirginia Woolf comes out right up front with her famous premise in A Room of One’s Own: In my Kindle edition (published by Penguin Books), this quote appears two and a half pages into the narrative, right after the narrator explains that she has been asked to speak on the topic of “women and fiction” and has given us a few thoughts on the complexity of the topic. She explains that she is going to share the thought process that led her to make this statement about the room and the money.

The narrator is and is not Virginia Woolf. She is an independent erudite woman who has been asked to give a lecture at a women’s college – and Woolf did in fact deliver a series of lectures at two women’s colleges at Cambridge in 1928. A Room of One’s Own was published in October 1929. She tells the reader that “I” is merely a convenient term for a person with no real existence. “Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please – it is not a matter of any importance) sitting on the banks of a river a week or two ago in fine October weather, lost in thought.” The thought in which she is lost turns out to be a fascinating dialog about the problems women throughout history might have faced if they ever had the notion to write.

I love the voice and tone of this book as the narrator goes about her daily business while thinking and researching her topic: “The clock struck. It was time to find one’s way to luncheon.” In the middle of the narrator’s contemplations we are gently reminded that she is not merely a free floating mind but a person with shoes tapping on the stair of the library, fingers reaching for the tomes on the shelf, a person swallowing glasses of wine and basking in the glow of intelligent luncheon conversation. She loves her life and being financially secure enables her to consider the unfair situation of female writers without getting all emotional about it and feeling like a resentful victim. Even when barred from the library at “Oxbridge” because she is a lady without a male escort, she does not let it ruin her day. This happy situation, she tells us, is because her aunt died in a riding accident and left her an independent income of 500 pounds per year:

“No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever. Therefore not merely do effort and labor cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me.”

This is the quote that struck me most forcefully, especially when she compares her current situation with her life before she inherited the money. (Woolf did really inherit money from an aunt that gave her this exact annual income. I had to fact-check that because to me this is the crux of the thesis.)

“The news of my legacy reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed gave votes to women. A solicitor’s letter fell into the post-box and when I opened it I found that she has left me five hundred pounds a year for ever. Of the two – the vote and the money – the money, I own seemed infinitely the more important. Before that I had make my living by cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show her or a wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in kindergarten. Such were the chief occupations that were open to women before 1918. I need not, I am afraid, describe in any detail the hardness of the work, for you know perhaps women who have done it; nor the difficulty of living on the money when it was earned, for you may have tried.”

No you need not describe it in any detail to me, even though I live nearly 100 years in the future, because women still have to work hard and live on tight budgets, me included. Not that these problems don’t also apply to men, but it does seem that the lot of poverty and tight budgets continues to fall more heavily on women. The book does not go deeply into the issue of childcare and how having babies affects one’s economic status, but the fact does have some bearing on why women tend to have less money and less privacy. The narrator does observe that in her time men had institutions – such as the fictional Oxbridge – that are built on piles of money poured into their grounds and buildings and libraries throughout the centuries for the intellectual and financial benefit of men, and women sort of get the leavings.

A portrait of Woolf by Roger Fry c. 1917

A portrait of Woolf by Roger Fry c. 1917

I like her point about the money being more exciting than the vote. Of course. No matter what is going on the world – war, lack of rights, police states, terrorism, discrimination, crime – whatever – it’s always better to have lots of money than little money. Money buys protection, lawyers, and plane tickets to somewhere else. Having no money means you are more vulnerable to whatever unfortunate things are going on in the world. In 1918 I too would have preferred to be a rich woman without the vote than a poor woman who could now cast a ballot. No matter who I cast my vote for, the politician was not going to get “me” (a convenient term for any poor woman) out of my squalid flat and into a nice room with a beach view.

Just the title of this book strikes my heart with a sharp longing. I have often felt the importance of privacy, having a place to think, write, create, and have known how difficult it can be to come by so simple a thing as a room with a door to close. Also there is that annoyingly persistent voice that says “In a world full of people with needs it is selfish and unnatural to want to close yourself off to others. Who do you think you are, trying to be your own goddess even if your kingdom is only an 8 x 10 closet?”

That voice says I owe the world my constant presence. Despite the voice, I have always had just enough resources to make a time/space grab and write furiously, all the time looking over my shoulder in case the world should invade. A lot of what the world seems to want from me is money, so if I can just pay it enough, it will back off for a while. But even the woman with a healthy bank account and an office may have some internal issues to overcome when she writes.

Woolf also contemplates some of the psychological obstacles women face when trying to write as well as the many cultural obstacles, particularly the pervasive negative messages that used to be spouted by leading male writers about all the ways women were supposed to be inferior to themselves. A woman who wanted to write in past centuries not only received zero encouragement but everything possible was done to prevent her from trying, including ridiculing the very mention of writing. Woolf’s narrator imagines that William Shakespeare has a sister named Judith who was equally as adventurous, talented, and intelligent. However Judith is not sent to school. She doesn’t get to go hang out in London and get involved with the theater crowd. In fact she is informed at age 17 that she has to marry a man of her father’s choosing. When she runs away and knocks at the theater door she is ridiculed and rejected, ends up on the streets, and kills herself. So ends the career of the female Shakespeare and it’s hard to imagine a different outcome for a creative female artist in the 16th century, or in fact, most centuries.

Beginning in the later 18th century a few female authors began to emerge. But even Jane Austen apparently didn’t have a room of her own. She had to write in drawing room with people coming and going. I suppose Emily Dickinson did have her own room, and did not have to work for her keep. And Emily Dickinson was a a very prolific writer. There has been some of criticism of A Room of One’s Own for being elitist. Because, as some have pointed out, there have in fact been women writers who did not have money or a room of their own. But not many. I think the statement is true enough in sense Woolf meant it: by and large. She does take a look at a list of famous male writers and finds that by and large they are all educated men of independent means and had a peaceful place in which to work.

The narrator’s stream of consciousness voice does not always stay completely on topic. In one section she ruminates on the subtle difference in the social atmosphere of luncheons from how it used to be before the war. It seems there was a sense of romance and optimism before August 1914, a certain background “hum” that is gone now that shock and flash of the war has blown away all illusions. She keeps repeating lines of a Christina Rossetti poem – “My heart is like a singing bird…”

It’s difficult to see how this episode relates to the immediate topic of women and fiction and having one’s own room, but after all, why should it? Why should the mind of an independent financially secure woman who owns her own publishing company have to slavishly adhere to one line of thought? A creative woman needs to let her mind wander where it will. If our hypothetical narrator’s heart wants to sing like an illusory bird, I for one don’t mind going with her down the side path, especially one written with such lyric beauty. Although A Room of One’s Own is more direct than her novels, readers will always enjoy Virginia Woolf more if they approach her work as poetry. There is always a point of course, but perhaps the way the point is delivered is more important than the point.

“For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for some one like Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed; but it was over; thank Heaven — over. It was June.” – Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

I chose to feature the passage above because I happen to be writing this review in June and I love when it happens that what I am reading corresponds to the moment am living. It makes me feel connected with the invisible story of the human mind. Maybe there really is some collective mind or database that connects the thoughts of the entire human species, past and present, even the fictional past and the real present. If it happened in somebody’s mind and was vividly imagined enough to take form in art, it counts as an energy unit that can be preserved and passed down the line thought the generations. I will explore that bizarre thought in a future post.

Original cover design by  Vanessa Bell, pub. 14 May 1925, Hogarth Press

Original cover design by Vanessa Bell, pub. 14 May 1925, Hogarth Press

By the time we get to this passage about it being June we already know what kind of person Clarissa Dalloway is. We know she is an upper class lady planning a party for that evening, is walking through her Westminster neighborhood to buy flowers, is thoughtful enough to consider the workload of her maids, loves the hubbub of life in London, has friends who are suffering due to losses of the late war, and constantly thinks of Peter Walsh, an old flame who she has not seen in 30 years. We also know she is over 50 and has had a bout with influenza that might have affected her heart and the narrative has already flitted briefly from her consciousness to that of her next-door neighbor Stoke Purvis, who she is not even aware is watching her. And we are only on page 2! If it is true that one of the pleasures of fiction is that you get to get inside other peoples’ heads, then Mrs. Dalloway is one big lavish pleasure.

I tried reading Mrs. Dalloway about a year ago and just couldn’t get into it. This time I loved it. I caught the wave immediately and was swept into the beautiful river of words so quickly and effortlessly that it is hard to believe I could ever have put the book down. As I walked about my daily life, I began feeling like a character in a Virginia Woolf novel, aware of my own internal dialogue in a new way. What amazes me most is how the story seamlessly flits from the consciousness of one character to another and yet you never have any trouble figuring out who is thinking. You know what is happening in the present and you know when the character is thinking “off topic” — remembering the past and fantasizing about what might have been, engaging in a mental argument with herself or someone else, justifying his actions or criticizing his own behavior, or some other thing entirely. Clarissa Dalloway is of course the central character but we soon leave her consciousness and pass through the minds of a great number of characters: Peter Walsh (who is usually thinking about Clarissa), her husband Richard, their daughter Elizabeth, a shell-shocked war veteran named Septimus Warren Smith, Septimus’ Italian wife Lucrezia, Elizabeth’s poor dowdy friend Miss Kilman, the arrogant psychologist Sir William Bradshaw, and various servants, neighbors, merchants, and friends, some just for a line or two.

The day progresses from Clarissa’s morning walk to Peter Walsh’s surprise visit, to the difficult situation of Septimus and Lucrezia Smith. If you are going to pick one day to portray in the life of your characters, it’s good to choose one in which you are giving a party that will gather most of the characters into one room at the end of novel, a long lost love appears in the flesh, and one of your characters makes a deadly decision.The only connections between Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith are that they are geographically close in to each other in London and that Septimus’ doctor William Bradshaw and his wife are to be guests at the party. Septimus’ presence in the story is the physical embodiment of the an awareness of the war that hovers in the London air. Clarissa’s thoughts about the war are somewhat abstract and in the background while Septimus makes brings its lingering horror into solid relief.

Writing a stream of consciousness novel is not just a matter of recording thoughts randomly. The novel comes complete with a villain in the form of mean old Dr. Bradshaw, and a climax, having to do with the parallel story of Septimus Smith. The genius of Mrs. Dalloway is that it succeeds in telling a specific story with a beginning, a middle, and end. Woolf gives the illusion of letting the characters’ internal dialogue flow naturally, flitting from subject to subject at the speed of thought, while arousing the reader’s curiosity. You really want to know what comes next. How will the party go? Will Peter and Clarissa resolve the the loose ends of their 30-year old argument and abrupt separation? Will the novel resolve in equilibrium or indecision?

I especially liked getting to see the same scenes and and themes through the prism of multiple points of view. This is also a novel of many themes but for me the prominent theme was that the value of life itself is very much in question in the wake of the devastating war. Mrs. Dalloway seems to have found her footing on the solid ground of traditional society but even she questions whether that tradition is anything more than an illusion. Giving parties is her way reassuring herself and others that our lives exist as solid reality:

“But to go deeper, beneath what people said (and these judgments, how superficial, how fragmentary they are!) in her own mind now, what did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quiet continuously a sense of their existence and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it.”

You could take any passage from the book and analyze the heck out of it. I love how Woolf gives the reader the illusion that the character is thinking several things at once, as we all do. In the passage that follows Clarissa thinks one thing and then is annoyed with herself for the way she thinks, compares herself to other people such as her husband, and we never forget that she is walking on a London street. See how the policeman and the pavement are gracefully worked into the text.

“How much she wanted it — that people should look pleased as she came in, Clarissa thought and turned and walked back towards Bond Street, annoyed, because it was silly to have other reasons for doing things. Much rather would she have been one of those people like Richard who did things for themselves, whereas, she thought, waiting to cross, half the time she did things not simply, not for themselves; but to make people think this or that; perfect idiocy she knew (and now the policeman held up his hand) for no one was ever for a second taken in. Oh if she could have had her life over again! she thought, stepping on to the pavement, could have looked even differently!”

I just want to share hundreds of passages from the book just to appreciate the beauty of the language; but I will choose just one more:

“She would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or were that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. Not that she thought herself clever, or much out of the ordinary. How she had got through life on the few twigs of knowledge Fräulein Daniels gave them she could not think. She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed; and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing; and she would not say of Peter, she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that.”

I love passage this because for the first half I felt like it could have been me speaking. I have just recently had a new epiphany about not judging and just accepting what is. Of course, I’ve had that same epiphany before but sometimes these epiphanies have to happen multiple times on increasingly intense levels to get the concept through your head and make it part of your character. Around the time Clarissa gets to Fräulein Daniels we part company. I do read a lot of books of all kinds. And yet, like Clarissa, I still feel like I know nothing.

Because Mrs. Dalloway considered a high point of modernist literature, there are reams of commentary written about it, so if you are interested in further analysis and background you will have no trouble finding it. Schmoop has an excellent if slightly snarky study guide. I listened to an audio version narrated with beautiful intelligence  by Juliet Stevenson and also read a free e-book version which you can find here. I confess that until now I have sort of avoided Virginia Woolf, thinking I did not have the patience for the stream consciousness style. But I am now a newly converted fan and can’t wait to read To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own. I have to say that Woolf’s 1941 suicide does cast a shadow on her brilliant writing: Clarissa’s primary love, she tells us, is life.

“Even if I knew for certain that I would never have anything published again, and would never make another cent from it, I would still keep on writing.” – Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write

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I have certain life goals that involve writing and art. It’s possible I may never reach some of these goals, or even any of them, but they are important enough to me that I won’t give up even if I die trying. However working toward these goals means I have to fight the powerful pull of other people’s expectations, the world’s obligations, and most daunting, the feeling I am being selfish whenever I work on my own goals rather than working on behalf of somebody else’s agenda. I know this is a common scenario for writers, artists, and people in general who want to do wonderful creative or intellectual things that the current market is not necessarily asking for. There are occupations that people want to do out of love – like acting or writing screen plays or doing historical research. The problem is more people want to do these occupations than the market wants to pay for. I know, for example, a guy with a graduate degree in history who has successfully managed a historical sites for 25 years, won an Emmy for directing a historical film, and published many articles in his field. He recently applied for a new job at a historical site and is happy to be one of 21 finalists for the job. Which pays about 40k.

At Norfolk Botanical Gardens, May 2015. Photo by me.

At Norfolk Botanical Gardens, May 2015. Photo by me.

I do not mean to imply that my immediate family is not supportive because they could hardly be more so. Most often the battle is with my own internal expectations. I am so happy my sons have now safely reached adulthood and I have been able to retrieve some of my mental real estate. But still it’s a constant battle. If I separated myself from the world and had the perfect writing studio isolated in the middle of the forest it would still be a battle. Lately I have felt the strain of swimming against the tide and started to feel like I am running out of time and strength, losing the battle. Every time I think I am making progress the surf comes in and washes me back to shore. The surf may be pleasant and the journey back to shore may be a lot of fun; but there I am, on the warm sand, no closer to that distant speck, the Isle of Publication.

Lifting off. Photo by Aaron Apple. April 2015.

Lifting off. Photo by Aaron Apple. April 2015.

So I’ve had to bring in reinforcements: a small army of books on personal inspiration and motivation. In the past few weeks I have reading or listening to these books so much, sometimes multiple times, that at times I fear I am using my motivational reading as another way to procrastinate. But on balance the time invested reading these books is already paying off on the side of productivity.

For instance, from Write. Publish. Repeat by Johnny B. Truant and David Wright I have taken the advice to start using Scrivener software for my writing projects. I am still using the 30-day trial period, but I think like it and will probably pay the $45.00 or whatever it is to keep it. I’ve used Microsoft Word for years but what sells me on the Scrivener is that it doesn’t insert a bunch of indecipherable code behind your writing and eventually, when I complete something I want to self publish, it will theoretically transfer into e-book format with fewer problems. I find technical problems are discouraging and a huge obstacle to getting things done so if $45.00 will prevent them from happening that is money well spent.

You could open a book store that sold only books on writing (if you wanted to compete with Amazon….). I found a list of 499 books on Goodreads called Best Books on Writing. I went through the list and took inventory: I have read 21, own three more that I plan to read, and am in the process of reading another. I also have a bunch of writing books on my shelf that are not on this particular list. The list, for some reason, includes several novels such as Lolita and Little Women as well as a collection of Wallace Stevens’ poems. There are also several reference books such as dictionaries and style guides. But the vast majority of the books are how-to guides: novels, screen plays, poetry, business writing, etc. Steven King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft appears three times, but I did not notice any other duplicates. On Writing is such a great book that maybe it deserves to be on the list three times.

It makes perfect sense that books on how to write should be so numerous. In order to write a book you have to be a writer, and what subject do writers know best? The books I list below are the ones I have read just in the past three weeks or so.

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The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I love Pressfield’s metaphor of the creative life as an internal war. Because it’s not only a metaphor – it’s true. The birth of anything new is always a struggle. There are forces that want to bring new creation into being and there are equally strong forces that want to maintain the status quo or tear it down. The book helps you realize what you’re up against when you blithely decide you’re going to sit down and create something, whether the something is a story, a work of art, a musical composition, or a small business.

Do the Work by Steven Pressfield. This book is basically a concentrated lecture based on Pressfield’s approach to art described in The War of Art. It is a nice short motivating lecture about getting to work and bypassing all the excuses. The audio version is only an hour and 25 minutes long, so you could listen to it every morning or every night before bed. For someone like me, whose best intentions need constant reinforcement, this wouldn’t be a bad idea.

“The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life by Thomas M. Sterner. Among these books this was my absolute favorite, and it’s not even about writing. Sterner is a musician and has a successful business restoring pianos. But the techniques he delivers have been a great help to me: how to focus on the present and if you can’t, how to train yourself into the habit of focusing on the present. It is the way to doing high quality work without stressing out and is exactly the medicine I need at this time in my life. I am on my second reading of this book and may print out parts of it to hang at my desk.

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. This is an oldie and a classic of writing inspiration that I first read it many years ago.  Then last weekend I suddenly experienced a strong urge to read it again, one of those urges that makes you get up in the middle of the night and look for the book on your shelf where it has been sitting for years, between Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Crafting the Personal Essay by Dinty W. Moore. Ms. Ueland is the wise old guru of writing, understanding, sympathetic, non-judgmental, and a fierce champion of the creative soul, giving no quarter to the naysayers and collaborators with the world of prudence. She invokes the spirits of William Blake, the eccentric writer and an artist who ignored the prudent voices of reason of his day, and Leo Tolstoy, one of my own pillars of inspiration.  Recently at my company we had to do this survey about their potential new mentoring program. In the space where they asked you to name your ideal mentor I typed Leo Tolstoy.

The Portable MFA by Members of the New York Writers Workshop. While helping my son sign up for his first community college classes I started to consider going back to finish my Masters degree. For about five minutes. During those five minutes I discovered this book. It is full of great exercises for improving your writing and claims that if you do the work, you will have learned what you would learn if you enrolled in an MFA program for creative writing. I am still reading and doing the exercises, but so far I find it good stuff.

Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content by Mark Levy. Despite my hatred for the word “content” I have to say this book is pretty inspiring. It is not the usual book about writing marketable products but focuses on techniques for using free writing as an engine for problem solving. Whether your object is an advertising campaign or a novel, you can benefit from the techniques presented in this book.

Take Off Your Pants: Outline Your Books For Faster, Better, Writing by Libbie Hawker. I found this recently published e-book while browsing Kindle deals. Free-writing and writing from the heart is great, but when you’ve been doing that for the better part of a lifetime like I have, sometimes you need a definite approach to shaping all that brilliant free writing into something you might be able to publish. The title refers to the popular “pantsing” versus “plotting” debate among writers. Hawker maintains that if you want to actually make a living in writing in today’s market, you really need to embrace the need for efficient outlining. Her technique leaves plenty of room for creativity within a framework. I found the book well written, refreshing, and helpful.

Write Publish Repeat (The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success) by Johnny b. Truant and David Wright. Still reading this. It is a treasure trove of practical information if what you want is an income-producing self publishing business. Not entirely sure that is what I want but I like thinking about the idea.

* * * * * * * *

Some of these are about being true to yourself and your art and ignoring outside voices. Others are about the realities of making an actual living at writing: what you really need to do if you want income. Yes, these are two opposing philosophies and I am torn between them. My heart is with being true to my art but my need for a food and shelter is with the practical school of thought. I am still idealistic enough to think I will find a way to combine the two. Ernest Hemingway did right? So there – it’s not impossible.

Well we are now post Memorial Day. The year is flying by fast. I spent all of Memorial Day weekend trying to catch my breath, and I suppose I finally caught it. It was a pleasant productive weekend. I didn’t do anything particularly patriotic but I did think about the sadness of it all, and I drew and painted several pictures involving poppies. I have never had any set routine or tradition for how to spend a Memorial day. No shopping, no stockings, not even cards. It was many years before I even became aware of what Memorial Day was all about. My parents or my teachers never explained it. At some point I began to notice people selling cheesy bouquets with tawdry ribbons on the side of the road and when I asked Mom about them she said they to put on graves but I don’t remember us having much further discussion on the matter. We were lucky enough not to have a dead soldier in the family.

Only in my adult years, between having military friends and neighbors and the old men passing out nylon poppies at the grocery store, did I become fully cognizant that Memorial Day was not just a day off from work and maybe a cookout on the deck. Only last year did I even look into the significance of the poppy. That’s when I found John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Field.” McCrae, a Canadian doctor, first served as Brigade Surgeon and Major and was wounded in 1915. He wrote the famous poem during his recovery.

Sad as it is, the poem was perceived as pro-war, glorifying the honor and valor of it all. The more I find out about the first world war the less I can get my head around it.The thing that is most stunning and most disturbing to me, it how, even after they saw the unthinkable carnage and waste of their fellows falling dead by the thousands, these young men continued to march to their own likely deaths. It is not rational behavior. It is like those herds of animals that jump off cliffs or moths that fly into the burning lights.  McCrae himself died of pneumonia in 1918 while serving in a war hospital.

poppy watercolor

“In Flanders Field”  is a potent poem that made the poppy the symbol of remembrance for war dead. McCrae was a true poet because he was able to pull the perfect symbol from the collective muse, one that is both simple and deep, easily called to mind. It is red, like blood. It is a wildflower that spreads and is able to cover whole meadows, like battles. Since it renews itself every year, it symbolizes hope. This particular flower is also associated with sleep. Think of Dorothy and her friends in The Wizard of Oz….  And although neither John McCrae or the grocery store veterans probably thought of it this way, the poppy is the source of a drug that takes over your mind and gives you beautiful hallucinations, like the fantasy that war is glorious. 

I always marvel at the interplay between nature and symbolism, how the imaginative human can never look at a flower as just a flower or a bird as just a bird. We humans are incorrigible about attaching meaning to everything. That is why we do poems and art. Poetry and art are the nature of being human.

Over Memorial Day weekend I cleaned house. We are moving things around so everyone can use our little bit of real estate for what is really important to each of us. For me this means transforming the living room to a creative studio. It is the room with the most light. My oldest son is getting ready to move out on his own and one of our dogs has recently passed away, so the whole house has a feeling of transition. The living room has a long way to go before it qualifies as my dream studio, but I got out some of my art supplies and tested it out anyway.

I wanted to experiment some mental approaches to art that I read about it this great book called The Practicing Mind by Thomas M. Sterner. I am on my second reading of this wonderful book. It is about concentrating on the present and not the goal. I know. It’s an old concept – ancient. But Sterner actually offers some techniques for doing it that I find inspiring and useful. You don’t worry about how good it’s going to be. You just put all your thought onto what you are doing at the moment. And I read this other very short book recently called Do the Work by Steven Pressfield and also The War of Art by the same author. These books helped me see some of the pitfalls, like getting distracted by research. The most important thing is to work at your work. After you put in your time, then and only then, do you have permission to research, revise, and edit.

All of these books are equally relevant to my writing and doing art. I was becoming distracted and lost in my creative life, and I guess I needed some creative intervention. So I started reading these books and they seem to have given me the push and the lift I needed. At least I have started working on creative things again. In addition to the watercolor above, here are a couple more of this weekend’s poppy-themed efforts.

Poppy girl

Poppy girl

Poppy in wildflower meadow - Color pencil

Poppy in wildflower meadow – Color pencil