This is a Really Hard Book to Write

While I’m out here in the wilds of rural France. I hope to complete another two chapters of my novel, working title – There is Always a Price. The book takes the form of a memoir and it follows the lives of three friends, two white guys and an African-American woman from their college days in the late 60s/early 70s up to the middle of the Obama administration. All three are involved in Democratic politics in one form or another, and all of them come to Washington, DC. I’ve written around 400 pages and I’m only in the middle of the Carter Administration. Still to come is Reagan, two Bushs, Clinton and a bit of Obama. I can’t just skip one of them. Some readers would notice. This is taking a lot longer than I expected, and I assume that after I’m done with this first draft I will have to do a lot of trimming.

The book originates with an idea that’s been bouncing around in my head for years: The 60s were enormous fun but also a bad influence on American politics. Beginning with the McGovern campaign, and culminating in the Carter and Clinton administrations, the Democratic Party has fallen under the sway of politicians and their political consultant minions who are anti-union and who identify with the professional classes and the new rich whose fortunes have been made in fields like law, information technology and finance. These college educated neo-liberal Democrats are heirs of the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s, which means they are open-minded about things that made their parents nervous like drug use, sex, marriage and divorce. Unfortunately, it also means that the majority of them don’t care in the least about inequality. Economic success is a matter of merit. Those who can pass tests, notably the bar exam, or master certain skills such as computer programming deserve their high salaries and social status. Obama summarized the attitude nicely when he called on the poor to learn computer programming in order to improve their lives.

All three of my main characters are corrupted in varying degrees by their involvement in politics. This is a political novel, but I want the characters to be more than just stick figures who exist only to make a political point. I also want to write a funny book. The 60s were funny and political consultants are ridiculous in addition to being generally evil, so it should be possible to write a funny book that still has some political punch. The humor is the hardest part of all.

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We have retreated to France

We’ve settled in at the writer’s retreat, La Muse, in southwest France near Carcassonne. Been here since June 7 and staying until the 26th. The trip from the States included three days in the Azores, which I think is the most beautiful place in the world: Hawaii without tourists and calmer volcanoes. After the Azores, we took the foolhardy step of flying to Toulouse and attempting to drive a rental car from the airport to La Muse. Strangely, our GPS device declared that there was no navigation satellite in the French sky, so we tried navigating by map and headed off in the wrong direction. French highways are as randomly marked as those back home on the East coast. California is really the only place I know of where road signage is not under the control of directionally impaired idiots. After an hour of driving aimlessly through the suburbs of Toulouse, the GPS suddenly switched itself on with the news that there was a French navigational satellite after all. It took us to within 5 miles of La Muse before its valiant little battery died.

The rental car itself is a pain in the ass. The last car I owned was a 1999 Subaru. In those days cars still had keys and didn’t have video cameras; radar, and computers that tell you when the tire pressure is not optimal and threaten to shut the engine off. Still, having the pain in the ass car means we can drive to the local Carrefour grocery store whenever we want. Carrefour, I am told, is a big multi-national corporation, but all I know for sure is they run an amazing grocery store near the Midi Canal on the fringes of Carcassonne. It’s an enormous place, like one of those discount monstrosities we have in the US, but unlike them our Carrefour is not stacked full of 20-roll packs of toilet paper and jumbo size bags of Doritos. The Carrefour store is big in order to have room for all 200 (my estimate) kinds of cheese, access to which is a French person’s birthright. It also has to accommodate maybe 100 kinds of sausage, and offer a tastefully huge selection of duck products located in a sub-region of the store named Duck City (“Ville de Canard” my translation). I don’t have time or space to describe all the nooks and by-ways of the Carrefour with their wines and spirits, where Jack Daniels sits peaceably between Calvados and Armagnac; precious olive oils; artichokes; mustards; pastries; and phalanx of butchers.

Now that we’re over the drive from the airport and the grocery store no longer provokes a shopping frenzy, we’re settling into our writers’ mode. I’ll need to save that for another posting.

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Have Gun Will Travel

Every couple of months, somebody asks me for a business card, and I don’t have one. So, after years of doing without, I’m making a new one. The only information on it will be my name, email address and blog address.  It won’t be as cool as Paladin’s card in that ancient western, Have gun Will Travel.  I couldn’t come up with an evocative logo. Also, I didn’t add “Writer” to the card since I figured I ought to have more than a couple of published stories to my credit. Even one published novel would be enough.

Actually, the new card inspired me to write this blog entry.  If I’m going to give anyone the address, I ought to have a recent entry. The last one is dated January 20, 2017, inauguration day. Maybe that should inspire me to write something about Trump, but I’ve got nothing.  The Colbert Report says most of what I am thinking, and their delivery is more fun to listen to.  I would probably sound whiny. The Daily show performed the same function for me and my partner, Judith, during the last Bush administration.

Lest we forget that Trump and his team are not the only horses asses in our nation’s capitol, I refer you to the reaction of the press corps to the comedy routine of Michelle Wolf  at the recent correspondents dinner. By press corps I refer to that slice of journalists who are willing once a year to attend a soul-sucking event which allows them the opportunity to grovel before “those who must be obeyed” in the  White House and Congress and on Wall Street.

Ms. Wolf was invited to entertain the crowd of self-important pomposities by  Margaret Talev, president of the association that hosts the event.  Afterwards, Talev and a line-up of fellow pundit/quislings slammed the comic because her jokes didn’t reflect the group’s “spirit”.  The spirit that the comic offended is the spirit of sycophancy rife among much of the Washington press corps.  You can imagine the audience squirming when Wolf said, “You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him?” and “… if you’re gonna profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money because he doesn’t have any.”

Wolf is not the first comic hired for one of these events who has dared make fun of the craven press corps and their annual public kow-towing disguised as humor.  Steven Colbert  was pilloried for picking on Bush Junior with his “re-arranging deck chairs on the Hindenburg” joke during the 2006 dinner. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post is a good stand-in for the type of pissant who attends these dinners and suffers when someone says unkind things about the President. In his critique of Colbert’s performance, Cohen first assured the reader that he, Cohen, was a funny guy, which he said qualified him to judge Colbert as not funny. Cohen seemed to feel insulting the president would merit retribution in a just world.  As he said in the column, “The sort of stuff that would get you punched in a bar can be said on a dais with impunity. This is why Colbert was more than rude. He was a bully.” With these words, Cohen is telling the world that he is more than just a suck-up like all the other suck-ups in that ballroom, he is a macho guy willing to settle it mano a mano with anyone making fun of the leader of the free world. Comic Larry Wilmore also caused outrage at the 2016 event with his Obama jokes; cruel, but very funny, comments about cable news racism; and shout-outs to the corrupt audience with zingers like: “But I’m impressed with the people in this room. There are so many rich, powerful people in this room. You know, it’s nice to finally match the names to the faces in the Panama Papers. It’s very nice.”

Somebody should clue the correspondents association in that they can’t invite legitimate comedians to their little event, if they don’t want hurt feelings.  They and those they serve offer a rich target that it is the duty of every legitimate American comic to take a poke at.

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Happy Inauguration Day

About time for another blog entry. It’s been over a year and a half since my last one. Strangely, that sentence reminded me of the opening line of Catholic confession, or what used to be the opening line: “Bless me Father for I have sinned. It has been X days, weeks etc. since my last confession”. If I ever went to confession again, the time span would be measured in decades. It might be that I’ve got religion on my mind as a result of the possibly apocalyptic times we live in. Christianity is good for fiery visions of the end.

I was down by the presidential inauguration area at 4 this morning to drop my oldest daughter off for work (She’s a Capitol Hill cop). It’s very busy down there, and it looks like they are really going to make Trump President. Then I came home and read an article in the Washington Post about Robert Spencer, the Great White Hope of neo-Nazis, moving to the DC suburbs. He was the guy leading the “Heil Trump” salutes on TV last month at a fascist meeting. He says he expects his cause to do a lot better now that Trump is President.

Tomorrow is the anti-inauguration. That will help improve my mood.

For the record, I completed my MFA program and my first novel. I hear from agents, little magazines and small presses all the time, but the answer is always the same. I did get one from Bomb last week regarding a short story, and it was the nicest, most encouraging rejection notice I ever received. Thank you Bomb.

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Almost a Dropout

I’ve finished three semesters of Lesley University’s four semester MFA program. I considered quitting the program, primarily for the money I’d save. I’m not interested in teaching, so the degree is less useful than would be if I had any desire to work as an adjunct. For me, the primary benefit of an MFA is access to good writers who can help me sharpen my skills. Lesley gave me that.

What I need now is a first-rate writer/editor to work with me as I make the final revision on my novel. I could get this done at Lesley. The novel would be my graduating thesis. Or I could pay a writer friend to do it which would cost a lot less than a semester in grad school.

My partner pointed out that the MFA is useful when applying for grants and hard to get into writers’ colonies. I guess her argument tipped the balance in favor of academia. I’m going back. And I am looking forward to the residency coming up this month. There is some value in craft workshops and they are immensely satisfying exercises. Reading and talking about Chekhov and Carver has got to be good for you.

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Memoir can bring you down

I’m doing a special studies MFA project on the art of memoir. I don’t see myself writing a memoir for publication but I figured it might help dredge up useful material I could use in my fiction. It also seemed like it would be a good opportunity to complain and feel sorry for myself, and it is. But when I look at what comes out, I see that alongside my grievances, I am turning up evidence that I was a shit when I was a kid. Whatever crap my parents dealt me, I passed it right on to my younger siblings. Of course this isn’t a complete surprise, but putting it in writing does seem to make my sins look bigger and my grievances smaller.

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“Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” ― Pauline Kael

Last semester, I wrote an adaptation of my first novel as a screenplay for an interdisciplinary studies project at Lesley. The novel needed revision, and I figured re-imagining it as a screenplay would help in that process. It was an interesting exercise, and it gave me some practical understanding of the difference between narration in literature and in film. There is a fundamental problem in adapting a novel for the screen – the written word can quite effectively convey the mental activity of a character, his or her thoughts, memories, desires, emotions etc., while film can only imply this inner life. To quote the cinema studies pioneer, George Bluestone, “The film by arranging external signs for our visual perception, or by presenting us with dialogue, can lead us to infer thought…but it cannot show us thoughts and feelings.” (Novels into Film).

After the completion of the project, my advisor suggested I enter the script in a contest. It turns out there are a lot of these. Every little film festival usually has an associated screenplay competition. I’ve entered a few now, and I’ll continue until I get disgusted with the process as I usually do with novel and short fiction contests. Here’s a link to a site that lists over 300 film festivals. It also has information on how to structure and format your script.

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My yearly blog entry is way overdue.

To bring my many readers up to date, I’m still working on my MFA, and I’m still dicking around with various “Little Magazines” trying to get something published. I haven’t been able to kick the habit totally. To quote Silvio quoting Michael Corleone, “I tried to get out but they drug me back.” Every time I write a new story, I can’t resist trying it out on some contest or other.

The MFA experience has been useful on the whole. I have picked up some new skills and read a lot of great stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise read. Nevertheless, the point of investing this much time and money hangs on whether or not I start getting stuff into print. Actually, aside from publication, what would be lovely is for the workshop leader to simply say, “This story is magnificent. I wouldn’t change a thing.” I learn from the workshops, but the learning comes from being introduced to my blunders. That’s helpful. I can usually avoid those specific blunders in the future. For instance, I am much less likely to bore a reader with long passages of dialogue that is really disguised exposition. But there are always other mistakes to make, and I never hear, “By God! You’ve done it!”

I’m reading How to Build a Girl by Caitlan Moran. It’s wonderful. I can’t imagine Caitlan Moran ever hearing discouraging words from workshop leaders. The novel’s heroine, Dolly Wilde, is a desperately poor, desperately horny 16 year old girl living in public housing and trying to break into rock-and-roll journalism in London. She explains that writing is one of the few activities poor people can engage in because “…writing, unlike choreography, architecture, or conquering kingdoms – is a thing you can do when you’re lonely and poor, and have no infrastructure, i.e. a ballet troupe or some cannons.” I am reminded of Catcher in the Rye only because Dolly is young like Holden Caulfield and also a seeker of truth. That’s where the resemblance ends. She is so much smarter and funnier than that irritating little pill.

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Now for Something Completely Different

It’s been a year since my last blog entry, but that isn’t to say I haven’t been writing. I’ve forged ahead with my Lebanon novel, the plot becoming more and more convoluted. My slightly chicken-hearted protagonist is now involved in selling hijacked oil from Yemen and there are plans to send him to Iraq to check out war profiteering opportunities (in my novel, the year is 2005 and the Bush Administration is flooding Baghdad with shrink-wrapped bundles of 100 dollar bills, many of which are promptly stolen.) When I tried to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the story, I had to stop myself. That really would have been jumping the shark. Maybe I can turn that abandoned chapter into a short story someday

I no longer enter those damned literary contests. I can buy a lottery ticket downstairs at the liquor store if I feel the need to hand money over to uncaring strangers, and, by most calculations, the odds are better with the lottery.

The writing is going okay in terms of content, but in this past year, I’ve begun asking myself those old questions – Am I getting any better? Is there hope? Why would anyone want to read this? I was in a rut. I was churning out the pages, but where was the passion?

I needed to do something to shake up my process and sharpen my skills. I figured going back to school might do the trick, so I signed up for a low-residency MFA program at Lesley University in Cambridge. I had never heard of the place, but Poets and Writers ranked the program in the top 10 nationwide, and Lesley is right next door to Harvard, so it must be a serious institution.

I just completed my first 10-day residency (shortened by one day due to the Polar Vortex). It was an interesting and at times sobering experience. I figured I had half a novel and I would use the MFA to finish it. I discovered that I didn’t really have the first half yet. There are a lot of things to fix and maybe a first chapter to totally eliminate. The problems seem obvious now. I think I can fix them but I’m not so sure I can learn to avoid making them again in the future. We’ll see. Getting the MFA is a two-year process.

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Maybe not a contender anymore

The winner of Boaz Publishing’s Fabri Prize was supposed to be announced at the end of September. I don’t think I’m going to hear from them. Funny thing is, no one has heard from them as far as I can tell. The web site announcing the June 15, 2012 deadline hasn’t been updated. I guess this is a bit better than outright rejection.

Fortunately I’ve entered a dozen other contests – novels, short stories, short-shorts. Hope springs for a little while longer.

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