Tag Archives: literature

Dust – Chapter 1

The first draft of my first novel, Dust, is very nearly done, clocking in at a hand aching 175,000-ish words. Yeah, this puppy is going to need some serious paring down. It’s been a hell of a learning experience though, and I’m already eager to get to work on the next one with all the strengths I’ve gained as a writer.

I recently went back to revise the first chapter for workshopping. What a difference two years makes! What I once though was an excellent introduction looked hopelessly stilted when I went back to begin revising. It’s humbling to think what this, the more or less final form of chapter one, will seem like two years from now.

In any case, I’m posting it here for your perusal. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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American Gilgamesh: Shoots with his Right, Heart on his Left.

Have you ever read Preacher? It’s one of those transcendent comics that ran for a few years in the mid-90s. They came in just ahead of the renaissance that brought to the fore the graphic novel, a format, in retrospect, far more natural for these odd ducks. Because they are novels, with all the literary power and capability to impel reflection that word implies; they just happen to have accompanying pictures.

Preacher is a brutal, beautiful, love letter to America, written by an Irishman and drawn by an Englishman. It’s all blood and sinew, the absolute most horrific violence and degradation a very creative pair of minds could conjure, paired without a hint of whiplash to moments so funny you’ll literally have to put the book down. Sometimes they’re even one and the same, and you’ll find yourself in that “I really shouldn’t be laughing at this but DAMN” mode. The characters are that perfect mix of mythic archetypes and detailed characterization that comics are so suited to. The villains are hate-able, the heroes stand tall, but no one is simple, and there’s some sympathy to be found in even the most hateful pieces of excrement (Of which there are plenty.)

More than any of that, though, Preacher is a meditation on America and on being an American. The hero and titular character is named Jesse Custer, a hard-drinking, hard fighting, Southern-born outlaw turned preacher turned outlaw (of a sort) again. Jesse is Clint Eastwood’s frame and laid back, predatory attitude combined with the unwavering justness of Atticus Finch. He’s that sort of violent that we would call psychopathic, if it wasn’t so unerringly directed at people who really–conveniently–deserve it. Jesse is every Western hero stereotype from Odysseus to Shane, rolled into one. He swears a lot, he’s a bit more than arrogant, and he’s always chivalrous to women, if a tad old-fashioned. His very literal Jiminy Cricket is even a spectral John Wayne.

I could spill gallons of virtual ink deconstructing Jesse Custer, or anyone else in the comic’s large, well written cast. What I want to talk about more broadly, however, is Jesse’s role as the dead center, bulls-eye ideal of the American hero. What a beautiful, contradictory, and completely unattainable idea that is.

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Progress report

Have to admit it looks as if not been very prolific lately. The short story section is a tad bare, and it’s been over a week since I darkened the feed here. The funny thing is I’ve actually been quite active in the word department, it’s just that my efforts have been focused on my first novel, tentatively titled “Dust”. It represents just over a year of effort, interspersed as it was with other work, but as I near the conclusion I’m picking up speed. Crossing the 150,000 word mark seemed a good time to come up for some air!

I anticipate being done with that first draft this summer. While my proof readers give it the once (Or twice) over, I’ll be reapplying myself towards shorter form work. As I’ve gotten better as a writer I’m definitely getting faster, and the short stories should come rapid and furious soon enough. I also have quite a few posts still in draft status for this feed.

In other news, I have the Meacham Writer’s Workshop to attend at the end of this month, where I’ll be getting feedback on my short story “The Divine Relation” from professional writers and fellow aspiring professionals alike.

In other, other news, thanks to the success of a certain once self-published, post-apocalyptic speculative fiction series, I should probably come up with a new name for my novel. For reasons that will become clear when I get a reasonably polished version of the first few thousand words up, I’m considering “Raleigh”.

Thanks for reading, and remember: words matter.


Why Harlan Ellison is America’s greatest living artist

Harlan Ellison

What, the picture isn’t reason enough for you? Alright then. Let’s try the anecdotal thousand words.

Artist as iconoclast is a trope that dates back to probably the first time a caveman took a burned stick to a rock and could devise no answer to the “what is it? question — grunted, obviously —  better than a dismissive sniff. An artist is ultimately an observer —  of people, places, actions, everything — and it’s not a far hop from looking straight on at someone/something to looking down upon it. At best this can result in an early and lonely voice of dissent against some of the worst tendencies of humanity,  from simple cultural and intellectual stagnation to those dangerous points where the “common view” of society morphs into hatred and justifications for atrocity. At worst this capability to for distant observation can become contempt, and itself become the justification for those same worst human traits. It’s not a coincidence that artists were the earliest critics of the Third Reich and composed an inordinate amount of its leadership.

The tolerance for iconoclasm amongst the artistic community in human societies has varied widely with time and place, and despite what many a Facebook philosopher might opine cynicism is not interchangeable with intellectual worth. Philosophers and artists of all stripes have produced timelessly optimistic work that only the foolish hold in contempt. Witness the bright colors and perfectly formed human forms of most Renaissance era art, or the ‘government as capable protector of natural rights’ philosophies of early liberals. Even R.E.M., a band whose output is notoriously minor key, displayed not an ounce of irony in naming one of their early album’s “Life’s Rich Pageant”, and a  later song “Shiny Happy People”. But there’s a counterpoint to all of this, a responsibility by society to recognize and respect the tendency of its artists to wallow in the darkness, and the best capture this in their work. The Renaissance had Caravaggio‘s negative space and tortured forms, and the aforementioned R.E.M. album has the mournful “The Flowers of Guatemala” smack dab in the middle of all the major chords and rapid tempos. Also, “Shiny Happy People” features guest vocals by both female singer’s from the B52’s, whose shrill, contorted vocals shall surely feature prominently in the rise of dread lord C’thulu from the waters of R’lyeh.

Frightening times arise — C’thulu like — when society becomes deaf to the outsider’s perspective, valuing only the bright, the cheery, and the comfortable. We’re living in one of those times now. The world comes to the average American in the form of a personalized stream, a pill of concentrated information hand packed by algorithms who vet it only to insure maximum marketable impact upon the viewer. Perceived negativity is profoundly out of fashion. It’s times like these where the iconoclastic role of the artist is elevated to a duty, to be the doctor explaining to an ungrateful patient that their daily dose of information delivered via a smiley face printed vitamin is in fact a poison pill.

And it is there, in the curmudgeon’s chair I have just laid out for him, where we we find Harlan Ellison, America’s greatest living artist.

Not America’s greatest living writer, a point he himself is quick to make and that I’m more likely to dispute than he is. He is a great writer, to be sure. In a hypothetical hellscape of a world where literary talent is measured entirely in heavy-handed Romeo and Juliet metaphors and how worn the entry for “sparkle” is in an author’s thesaurus, today’s crop of popular authors would still, as a group, display less talent in the breadth of their entire catalogs than Ellison did in a single run on sentence about jelly beans in his short story “”Repent Harlequin!”, said the Ticktockman”, a sentence which it is probably now becoming clear to you I am paying direct homage to. Jelly beans!

In all seriouness, go read that story. It’s short, not even 4500 words. It’s not his best, but it gives a great impression of why he’s great, both as a writer and an artist of the definition I’m using.

I love that story. It’s angry, yet funny; bitter, yet sweet in its way. That’s not a bad definition of the man himself. Ellison is about as old school a writer as American literature has right now, with a career spanning over 60 years, and in that time he has hurled invective in every format you can possibly imagine: long, short, teleplays, essays, fiction, non-fiction, even YouTube videos of late. God help us if he ever decides to bother with Twitter.

Ellison is famous as a profoundly cynical writer. His short story collections bear titles like “Approaching Oblivion”, “The Deadly Streets”, and “Stalking the Nightmare”. Of the millions of words I’ve read by tens of thousands of authors, no one has ever arranged the same twenty-six letters in a way so chilling as he did in his short story, “Knox”. His worlds contain an endless string of fascist government/corporate controllers, antagonists who often emerge victorious, and the sort of dark-souled protagonists more often associated with Southern lit than science fiction.

Many would claim the author is the darkest soul of all. Ellison is well known to be difficult to work with, and he’s litigious as all hell. There’s an informal maxim in the publishing world that “you’re not anybody until Harlan Ellison has sued you.” If he’s a genius — a label I consider irrefutable in no less measure than many find it a nice way of saying ‘asshole’ — than he’s the mad kind, the sort of person so utterly convinced of his gifts that he won’t tolerate in the most minuscule way those who don’t. His ego is massive, his temper legendary, and he’s not shy about wielding his prodigious intellect and vocabulary as twin razors, slicing to tatters those he feels have wronged him.

I love Ellison, along with the majority of his work, though certainly not all of it. Many of his short stories seem to have no real interest in readability, and at his worst he can be practically nonsensical, writing from the perspective of narrators who can, charitably, be called disembodied consciousnesses more than true character. You often get a sense reading Ellison that he’s writing for himself, not an audience. He certainly doesn’t write down. He’s one of those authors who, in the course of a single collection of short stories, can have you saying , “I could do that,” through one story, followed by “How the hell could anyone do that?” with the next.  If all American writers are working in either imitation of or opposition to the sparse, elegant prose of Hemingway, than Ellison gleefully dances between the most extreme poles of both, flipping the rest of us double birds all the while. This is a man who might overwrite one passage, underwrite another, and never seems to give a fig how you feel about it either way.

One of the most difficult skills to learn as a writer — and this is worse the more naturally talented you are — is not to let your skill for observing mankind curdle into contempt. Cynicism is a key component in the artistic toolbox, but try to build a house with only one tool and all you’ll end up with is a whole lot of walls. It’s a balancing act, putting to paper what’s inside of you that’s demanding to come out while simultaneously respecting your audience enough not to make it a screed. Art is about expression, and if the only person we’re expressing to is ourselves then sentences become leaner, nothing more than a shorthand to stir the sense memory of the emotional state we were in at the time we wrote them. That’s called journaling. Writing, real writing, is for an audience, and a good writer is a fool to simply assume that an audience will be able to keep up with him if he’s racing along at full speed, red lining his mental engine from introductory sentence to closing. If he’s a good writer than he is, by definition, exceptional; if his audience shares the full breadth of his gifts, should they not be doing his job?

It can be frustrating for the writer. It can feel as if you’re deliberately slowing yourself. Too easily, it can become resentment.

And that’s why Harlan Ellison is America’s greatest artist. You read his work and, love it or hate it, you get the sense that he is firing on all cylinders the entire time, and whether you keep up or not, he doesn’t much care. He’s breaking some of the hardest rules you had to learn, indulging in naked, oppressive cynicism and using big, thesaurus reaching words to do it, and for whatever reason he’s allowed to do it. 

Why does he get to do it and not I? you might ask yourself, and it’s a worthy question. The best answer, the only real answer, is because he’s Harlan Ellison. He started doing this a hell of a long time before you did and, for whatever reason, he found success at it. Ellison is as predictably curmudgeonly as the monsoon season is wet; the people who publish him, hire him, or consult him, know he’ll be hard to work with, know there’s a fair chance of some kind of litigation. They also know he’ll do the work, and he’ll put his everything into it. They know what they’ll get from Ellison, and there’s a kind of value in that.

Perhaps then it’s Ellison’s role to be the observer of other observers, the guy who pisses us off by doing what he wants and getting paid for it. Maybe he’s there to keep us honest, the last, mad-eyed gunslinger standing between us and the desert of hypocrisy. Maybe he’s just a lucky asshole.

Whatever else he is, he’s a genius; even when he sucks at being a writer, he’s always great at being a genius.

Now maybe I’ll get lucky, and he’ll sue me for slander.


The Box

Elaborate wood box Tom Tanaka

In the third season of American television show Breaking Bad, the character of Jesse Pinkman describes a memory of making several boxes in shop class, roughly a decade before. It is a beautiful, understated scene, one of the most well-written in the five year run of a show justly renowned for its writing. It’s so good, in fact, that I feel it properly belongs in literary discussion. Bluntly stated; I have never read, heard, nor otherwise observed, a more perfect metaphor of the self imposed barriers we must overcome to find success as writers. I’d be willing to wager it accurately represents the true toil of any creative field.

Here’s a transcript of the scene. Jesse is in an addiction support group and the group leader asks him what he would do with his life if he could do anything. Jesse initially gives a blase answer about making more money, but the group leader (A recurring, yet never named character; how Poe is that?) pushes him. “Assume money isn’t an issue”, he says, and how many of us have started our own fantasies about passion becoming vocation with those very words?

Jesse: I guess I would make something.
Group Leader: Like what?
Jesse: I don’t know if it even matters, but work with my hands, I guess. Building things, like carpentry, or bricklaying, or something? I took this vo-tech class in high school; woodworking. I took a lot of vo-tech classes, because it was just a big jerk-off. [laughs] But this one time, I had this teacher by the name of Mr. Pike. I guess he was like a Marine or something before he got old. He was hard of hearing. My project for his class was to make this wooden box. You know, like a small… just like a… like a box, you know, to put stuff in. So I wanted to get the thing done as fast as possible. I figured I could cut classes for the rest of the semester and he couldn’t flunk me as long as I, you know, made the thing. So I finished it in a couple days. And it looked pretty lame, but it worked, you know, for putting stuff in or whatnot. So when I showed it to Mr. Pike for my grade he looked at it and said: “Is that the best you can do?” At first I thought to myself, “Hell yeah, bitch. Now give me a D and shut up so I can go blaze one with my boys.” [laughter] I don’t know. Maybe it was the way he said it, but It was like he wasn’t exactly saying it sucked. He was just asking me honestly, “Is that all you got?” And for some reason, I thought to myself: “Yeah, man, I can do better,” so I started from scratch. I made another, then another. And by the end of the semester, by like box number five, I had built this thing. You should have seen it. It was insane. I mean, I built it out of Peruvian walnut with inlaid zebrawood. It was fitted with pegs; no screws. I sanded it for days until it was smooth as glass. Then I rubbed all the wood with tung oil so it was rich and dark. It even smelled good. You know, you put your nose in it and breathed in; it was… it was perfect. Group Leader: What happened to the box?
Jesse: I gave it to my mom.
Group Leader: Nice. You know what I’m gonna say, don’t you? It’s never too late. They have art co-ops that offer classes adult extension programs at the university.
Jesse: You know, I didn’t give the box to my mom. I traded it for an ounce of weed.

[Standard legal stuff: Jesse Pinkman, the group leader, and everything related to Breaking Bad are not in any way mine. This transcript is presented under the fair use doctrine, as material for discussion and analysis.]

What consistently amazes me about this scene, easily my favorite in the show’s entire run, is how succinctly it condenses every single step of not simply the creative process, but also the greater cycle of actually bringing ourselves to engage in any long term creative field. It’s all there: The utter confidence in our own capability to get by with minimal effort. The realization that natural talent doesn’t supersede hard work. The anger at a perceived challenge to our capability, followed later by an existential realization of the challenge actually being what spurred us to excel. It even manages to capture that peculiar feeling of post-partum tragedy, as we come to realize that the work is done and there’s nothing greater to it than what is simply there, nor will there ever be. We sell it for an ounce of weed, as it were. Ideally, that’s when we move on to a new project, but it’s rarely that easy. It’s a predictable, tiered process of emotional highs and lows, and I doubt it’s a coincidence the whole narration is set against the backdrop of a twelve step support group.

It’s also an extremely literary scene. The room these characters occupy is banal, the basement of a never named church. The colors are muted. There’s no real action to speak of, just a group of people sitting in a circle. Even the camerawork is restrained, little more than medium range shots of the performers sitting in their chairs, with the occasional isolated shot of Jesse, emphasizing how distant he has become from the rest of humanity at this point in the show’s run. The actors all do terrific work, but their performances are as low key as the camera’s movement. In the calculus of entertainment this scene literally only has its words to thrive on.

I just deleted nearly half this post, several paragraphs of diversion into the implications of this scene and its accompanying emotional resonance being on television rather than on a page. It was, I realized only in the reading, all written from a defensive posture. Perhaps with a bit of reworking those sorry paragraphs may find new life as a different post, but they’ve no place here. Great work speaks for itself; it doesn’t need any help raising its voice.

Is the scene literature? I don’t know. Compared to the written word, television is an art form in its infancy. We could certainly argue it qualifies as visual literature, but that distinction smacks to me of evasion. It either works, or it does not. It stirs something within you, or it fails to. To me this scene, then, is absolutely literature; even divorced from its accompanying visual element it still bestirs something in me, tapping into a fundamental truth about artistry and craft, and the how the emotional toll of investing all of yourself into something can be worth it only in comparison to the cost to your soul of not doing it.

I consciously chose not to include a video of the scene, because I wanted it judged, as much as possible, solely on its words. ”Sit down at the typewriter and bleed”, exhorted Hemingway, and to me this scene is an arterial spray, saturating the brain and seeping into the bones, even, especially, divorced from its visuals.

So, what do you think?