Friday, March 13, 2015

Announcement: grieving, back April 1

My mother passed away this past Tuesday after an extended battle with heart issues. She was 68 years old.

Even though my mother was not in the best of health, this was something of shock. She had open-heart surgery last spring, and for a brief while things looked hopeful. But in the end her heart problems overcame her.

I am going to suspend the blog until the end of March. I need some time to mourn, to get my head on straight.

For a briefly while I had planned to keep the blog going by reposting old content, but I think it would be better to suspend operations for a few weeks instead.

I realize that many of you have also lost loved ones, and I wish you the best in overcoming your own challenges, even as I work to overcome this. Each person—and each person’s love and grieving—is unique.

I had a good relationship with my mother, and there is no major guilt or regret regarding anything I wish I had (or hadn’t) done while she was alive. During her final days, I was at her side for much of the time. I am grateful that I was able to do this. My mother knew how much I loved her.

My only advice to you in this editorial is as follows: Appreciate those who are close to you while they are alive. None of us—or them—is here forever. 

May God (in whatever way you conceive that term) bless all of you—and I’ll see you again on April 1.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The eleven year-old who critiqued Charles Dickens

British author Charles Dickens adapted many of his works for public readings. In an age before television or radio, Dickens’ dramatic performances attracted huge crowds.

Dickens gave readings not only in his native England, but also in America. During once such American reading tour in 1867, Dickens fell into conversation with a young girl while aboard a train near Portland, Maine.

The eleven-year-old girl was extremely precocious. Not only was she familiar with Dickens’ books—she had no qualms about giving Dickens (by this time an internationally famous literary figure) frank feedback as a reader. While giving novels like David Copperfield and Great Expectations overall positive assessments, the young girl also informed Dickens of a few passages that were “boring”.

Far from being insulted or threatened, Dickens was delighted. He made notes of the girl’s comments. At the end of the train ride, Dickens took the young girl by the hand and escorted her to her parents—who were surprised to find their daughter on such familiar terms with the famous author.

The young girl was Kate Douglas Wiggin. In later life, she would become the author of a number of books, including the classic Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903).

Wiggin also wrote a memoir of her long conversation with the British author who was known as “the Inimitable”. Published in 1912, Wiggin’s memoir was entitled A Child's Journey with Dickens.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Robert Olen Butler on fiction writing

Robert Olen Butler has always appealed to me for a variety of reasons.

First of all, as some of you may know, a few years ago I wrote a book on the importance of learning a foreign language. I am a language aficionado. Olen is also an accomplished language learner. He learned Vietnamese during the war years. (Olen's experiences in Vietnam color much of his fiction--especially his short stories.)

Butler also has some interesting things to say about the nature of fiction. For those who are intricately focused on the logical process of writing, some of his references to "the white-hot center" of a story, etc. may be a bit off-putting. Butler's central thesis is that you can't write from your consciousness---that fiction comes "from the place where we dream."  

Within the crowded field of the advice-to-aspiring-authors genre, Butler is less accessible than many others. He doesn't, for example, have much to say about the mechanics of outlining, plotting, etc.---all the things that standard fiction writing primers include as standard material. 

Nevertheless, Butler will give you some fresh insights regarding what fiction is---and how the idea for a new story should be discovered. If you haven't heard him before, your concepts of what fiction can accomplish will be expanded by what he has to say---- whether you are a writer or an avid reader (or both). 

I actually had my own Robert Olen Butler moment in 2010---when I discovered the grain of a story idea that eventually became Blood Flats

I was on a business trip, driving back from Alabama. The drive took me through Louisville, and the surrounding countryside of Kentucky. I looked out the window at some of the grittier parts of downtown Louisville, then later at the knob hill region around Bardstown. 

I had recently seen a documentary about the increase in meth trafficking in the American South. I imagined a conflict that involved meth trafficking, set in a little town among those knob hills. I also saw how some elements of such a story could take place in Louisville.

No---I didn't get the whole 184,000-word novel mentally completed on that trip; but I got the key ingredients of it: a recently discharged U.S. marine who comes home to rural Kentucky, only to find that his hometown has been taken over by meth traffickers.  The ex-marine (Lee McCabe) struggles not only with the criminals--but also with a sheriff who hates him, all because of a failed romantic relationship that took place more than two decades ago--before Lee McCabe was even born. 

Anyway, back to Robert Olen Butler: This video from YouTube is a long one; but it is worth your time. (Watch it in several sittings if you need to.)