Writing

I Made This Film

All right, it’s more of a slide show, but I’m proud of it anyway:

Now go buy the book!

And read more about the book here.

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Categories: Humor, Writing | 2 Comments

Sixty-two Percent True

avid Sedaris claims he writes nonfiction. “I’ve always been a huge exaggerator, but when I write something, I put it on a scale,” he told Time magazine. “And if it’s 97% true, I think that’s true enough. I’m not going to call it fiction because 3% of it isn’t true.” In another interview, he said it was 96%. “That is an acceptable standard for ground beef. And it’s more than acceptable for cocaine and heroin. So I’m going to call it nonfiction. As my American Humorist license says on the back, “May exaggerate with wild abandon for comic effect.” I’m not a reporter. I would appreciate the truth when I read an article in The New York Times. But that’s not the kind of writing I do.” He then says his stories are “realish.” I’m thinking that’s like Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness.”

Three people have now asked me to post some of my short fiction. I have two concerns. First, I’m afraid that people will think they’re crap. (Of course, there is the even greater fear of people thinking they’re not crap, which will make me feel bad for not writing more fiction.) My second concern is that I say it’s fiction even though some people will clearly recognize themselves or others, or events I may have spoken of previously. While it is true that many, perhaps most, of my stories—I think I’ve written thirty-three of them so far—are based on real people or actual events, in each case I have used them as launching pads for great flights of fancy or, if you prefer, for the most damnable lies. In other cases, I have made things up out of whole cloth, though this will undoubtedly have some friends wondering if this is just something from my past that I haven’t revealed before. So I won’t be able to win, no matter what I do.

My greatest concern is that in an effort to get to the real nugget truth in something—an incident, an emotion, a thought, a relationship—I fear that I will hurt someone I care about. A book I read once—and I’m afraid I no longer remember the author—said that the first rule of being a writer is that one must be willing to kill one’s family, that is, to speak the truth no matter who it hurts. I am not sure I am that brave. I am not sure my truth is greater than another’s dignity or privacy or feelings.

So if you recognize something in my stories, take comfort in knowing that someone else will think it’s pure hokum, and I won’t be the one to disabuse them of the notion. And if you think, “This must be one of the completely fictional ones,” then it’s probably about 62% true.

This is the first one I wrote:

Under a Tree

My friends live in a tiny village in an old slate-mining town in Vermont. The quarry, long mined out, is now a swimming hole, though most people prefer to swim in the Mettawee River, the stream that snakes through town and runs through the General Store. I mean that literally: the store is built on top of the river, and there is a window in the floor through which you can watch the water rushing by.

I wander through town, finding wonderful little strangenesses, like an old woman selling handcrafted dinner plates featuring whimsical impressions in the clay created by small animals that have been flattened by cars and trucks; her business is called Roadkill Pottery.

Up the road, heading out of town, is a cemetery.  It’s perched on a hill, so one has to drive up a steep incline to get into it.

Some cemeteries I like, some I don’t. The one where my parents are buried is run by the Veteran’s Administration, and the only way to locate your loved one among all the identical headstones is with a map and a handy designation: East Quadrant, Row 37, Number 23. Flowers are allowed only for three days, after which they are removed, whether they are real or artificial: the government wants nothing to mar the sterility of the landscape.

But this one—ah, here’s a cemetery for you! The stones are old, and some are beginning to crumble. All shapes and sizes, though nothing ostentatious. A country graveyard for country people. I walk among the graves, noting how often the same family names appear. Whole generations of a family are buried here together. Parents and children, old people and infants. A groaning Thanksgiving table of the dead.

I catch a glimpse of the lettering on the wrought-iron archway leading into the graveyard: Mountain View Cemetery. How odd. As I stand looking at the great sweep of headstones, no mountain is visible. I decide it’s a Vermontism: just as everything in Florida is called Ocean View no matter how far inland one goes, everything in Vermont must be called Mountain View.

I walk on, and am startled by a large black headstone—a newer one, thicker than the others, more imposing. On it is my last name, in bold letters: MCINTYRE. For some reason this unsettles me more than it should. I walk up the hill a piece and sit down under a large and wonderfully shady elm. It’s summer, but it feels like a lovely spring day, and I try to collect myself after the tombstone’s memento mori, its Et In Arcadia Ego: Even in your pastoral Arcadian paradise, where you play and love without care, I—death—am there with you.

I settle back, close my eyes, and slow my breathing. When I open them again, in front of me is one of the most beautiful, peaceful mountains I have ever seen. The mountain view is not for the visitors to this cemetery, but for the residents.

Categories: Short Fiction | 4 Comments

Cobwebs

ou would think, after so long a silence, that I would have something more profound to say. I fear I must disappoint you. There are many reasons I have not been blogging, some of them trivial, some of them more compelling, but I don’t think any of them have produced in me any new wisdom or wit.

My job has me writing a lot each week: weekly newsletters, press releases, editorials, forwards and introductions to books—that sort of thing. I’ve also been participating in a weekly short fiction writing group (500 words max, on an assigned topic, in a very short time limit); a couple of the pieces have been recorded and aired on a public radio station in Kentucky, though I feel shy about posting any of them here. I’m not entirely sure why.

However, all this writing, coupled with an over-eager participation on Facebook, means my urge to simply write found other outlets; and as I was not moved by any great need to expound at length on any subject, the blog languished. Since May of 2010, I have written only five blog posts.

The big event last year was of course the illness and death of my friend Lee, my dear friend Adam’s wife. I am not sure what to say about it just now—a few sentences couldn’t begin to express how it affected me; I doubt that a few hundred pages could do much better. What shocked me, though, was the depth of the grief I experienced. Even though I could understand and rationally explain what her death was touching in me, on an emotional and spiritual level I found myself quite unable to cope with the intensity of the pain and loss I was experiencing. And it set off a recurrence of the terrible depression that nearly took my life a decade ago; the only difference is that now it is more dangerous, since I am far less willing, or perhaps able, to tolerate it: It must stop, I told myself, and stop soon, one way or another. There is no longer any thought of living with it chronically.

In the 1920s, Carl Jung coined the word synchronicity, which he described as “meaningful coincidences” and as the “acausal connecting principle.” In rapid succession I had my spiritual worldview rocked, ran painfully into walls where I had previously experienced open vistas, discovered some remarkable Chinese herbs that work far better than any antidepressant I have ever encountered, began questioning my purpose in life, and found myself in the office of an astonishingly gifted psychotherapist pouring as much of my life’s story as I could into a fifty-minute session. Meaningful coincidences indeed! In the space of two months it feels as if much has changed in me forever.

I am eager to see what this next phase of my life brings. And I thought it might be useful to start blogging again, not only to keep you all in the loop, as it were, but also to help me clarify my ideas. As E.M. Forster put it so succinctly, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?”

You may have noticed that the blog has a new design. From the first I’ve called it “Notes from the Dreamtime,” but I’ve never really talked about where the name came from.

The term “Dreamtime” is a translation of Altjeringa or Altcheringa (it may also be translated “the Dreaming”). Altjeringa is a word in the Arrente language spoken by aboriginal Australian tribes living in the Northern Territory, around Alice Springs. The traditions and lore of Australia’s indigenous peoples belong to what may be the oldest continuous culture on Earth—around 50,000 years.

The Altjeringa is both a sacred “once upon a time,” a time out of time when ancestral totemic spirit beings formed all of creation, and the spiritual realm itself. Anthropologist and historian W.E. H. Stanner rather saliently called it “the Everywhen,” since it is experienced as a confluence of past, present, and future. Indigenous Australians consider the Everywhen of the Dreaming to be objective, while linear time was considered a subjective construction of waking consciousness of one’s own lifetime—the precise opposite of our usual way of looking at things. The Dreaming is the sacred, timeless, creative ground of being—and the continual source of all things that are manifest in our world.

So that’s what I hope to write about. There are great cobwebs in my brain, and heart, and I hope to use these pages to help sweep them away and create room for new things to come forth. My great error has been in thinking that I needed to have Something Important to Say; the truth is, all I need is to tap into the Dreamtime, and talk about what I find there.

Categories: Depression, Dreams, Earth-based Religions, First Nations, Shamanism, Writing | 3 Comments

Beginning

The first and foremost question a writer, public or intimate, must ask is, What must I say? To begin to know the answer to this question is to begin to know the essential self.

What must I say? What must I say? What must I say? What must I say? And finally, What must I say to you?

The beginning. Something wants to be said. We don’t know what it is or what shape it desires. An inchoate feeling. A pressure around the heart, perhaps, asking it to open. We pick up a pen or sit down at the computer.

This is the moment. Write. No matter what. Write. Don’t try to name it in advance, don’t call it play, or journal writing, or poem. Don’t ask it to have a form, or to be spelled correctly, or to appear in sentences. But write in pen so that you can’t erase it, and promise, as a way of showing respect, that it will not be thrown away.

The beginning. A blank page. It feels as if we will sit before it forever. Then let us sit before it forever. Let us sit before it until we can no longer resist writing.

The beginning is important. It is a wraith we are trying to catch, a swirl of smoke, an inspiration, just the barest breath of something coming into ourselves or going out.

—Deena Metzger, Writing for Your Life: Discovering the Story of Your Life’s Journey

Categories: Writing | 3 Comments

What I Do During the Day

The past few days have been pretty hectic, job-wise. In between editing a couple of books, supervising the other designers, writing sample advocacy letters for people to contact their members of Congress, and shepherding the first book of a new imprint through the printing process, my boss told me about a major new lobbying campaign that was suddenly on the front burner because the legislation in question (a) is on a fast track to passage, and (b) is pretty damaging to health freedom advocates.

Quick background: For many years I’ve been working for a great guy named Hunter Lewis. He co-founded Cambridge Associates, a global investment firm whose clients include many research universities and charitable organizations. He serves on boards and committees of fifteen non-profit organizations—not to mention the World Bank. And he casually drops bits of information about phone conversations he had with the Vice President, totally without any pretension. He’s written books on the related fields of economics and values, as well as numerous magazine and newspaper articles.

Most of the work my work for Hunter over the years has been for his publishing company, Axios Press, which publishes an interesting mix of economics, travel, history, philosophy (including religious philosophy), and ethics. He’s recently started Praktikos Books, which will all be on natural health or how the FDA is a horrible agency that needs to be restructured from the bottom up. The book we just got off to the printer was our first in the Praktikos imprint. Continue reading

Categories: Politics, Writing | 5 Comments

An Unwriterly Life

The novel is progressing nicely, thanks for asking. At least, it seems to be. May be too close to it to tell for sure. On top of that, I’ve been editing two books for work, and my boss has suggested I write a book for him in a new series of volumes we’re creating, The Accessible _________ (some great but difficult classic that needs “unpacking,” explaining, annotating; he’s doing The Accessible Wealth of Nations, an annotated version of the magnum opus of the Scottish economist Adam Smith; I’ll probably do some work of philosophy or religion, but that hasn’t been decided yet). I’ve got several non-fiction irons in the fire, and we want to issue reprints of some of Adam’s books that haven’t received the audience they deserve, and move a couple of his new projects to the front burner. I’ve even been thinking about starting a new work of fiction that I haven’t told a single soul about yet.

But because I haven’t been attending to my blog, I’ve told myself that I haven’t been writing much lately.

I remember when I friend challenged me to list everything I had published. I was astounded at how much there was; I still felt like a rank beginner who had never achieved anything. Somehow I expected to become a writer who woke early to tap-tap-tap away for a few hours over a cup of tea, then stop to have a nice breakfast and exercise, then do some more writing—profound, moving, and well-paying—in a quiet house, uninterruptible. Or, if my life turned out darker, I might be one of those people who kept a bottle of Scotch in a file cabinet drawer and wrote only in fits of depression and drunkenness. You know, the two basic writerly stereotypes. Continue reading

Categories: Words, Writing | 8 Comments

Writing Like a Doctor

If graduate students in the humanities are not being taught how to write, how can we expect those in the sciences to do any better?

by Rachel Toor, Chronicle of Higher Education

I once asked my friend “Joe,” a distinguished professor of history, how he taught his graduate students to write. He reminded me that I had sat in on his mini-lecture about the three different ways to begin an article or a book. Then he stopped talking and looked kind of pleased with himself.

“That’s it?” I said.

Well, he stammered, he figured graduate students learned in some kind of osmotic process. They read a lot; surely while they did that they were picking up tips on how to write.

There were so many problems with that assumption that I think I probably started sputtering at that point. Having been an acquisitions editor of history books, I know as well as anyone that sometimes (often?) groundbreaking books with important arguments and exquisite research — field-changing books — are horrible examples of how to write. They end up being published, and read, but they should not serve as models.

The mere act of reading good books, if you are not stopping to scrutinize the moves and tools used by the writers, examining and dissecting the choices they have made and why they work, will do nothing for you when you sit down to write. If reading good literature was enough, I would have written the Great American Novel years ago.

A couple of summers ago, another friend of mine — let’s call him “Godfrey” — an academic physician, had volunteered to drive with me from Spokane to Chicago, where he had to give a talk. I was en route to Upstate New York for the summer. Godfrey is a good friend. He is a fantastic conversationalist, a terrific athlete, and the best, smartest reader of my work. He is not, however, a great driver. When he gets wrapped up in talking, he forgets about driving and tends to slow to a traffic-jamming crawl.

Godfrey realized that he had three journal articles to finish. So after we’d done enough sightseeing through Montana and Wyoming and had a couple of small spats about where to get gas, we got to work. He drove. I had his computer on my lap. There was a half-eaten bag of Kettle Korn between us. Continue reading

Categories: Words, Writing | 1 Comment

This Is What You Shall Do

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

—Walt Whitman, preface to Leaves of Grass, 1855

Categories: Great Quotes, Spirituality, Writing | 6 Comments

Peruse This

Over coffee this morning (Raven’s Brew‘s delicious Resurrection Blend, which I highly recommend), Adam, newly graduated from massage school, read me part of a magazine article written by an expert in the field. It may have been chock full of good information, but I couldn’t get past the truly awful writing. Egregiously awful. With poor grammar to boot.

One error the writer did not make, mainly because I doubt that she’s ever heard the word (OK, that was unfair; I’m sure she’s heard the word, even if she’s never uttered it), is the misuse of the word “peruse.”

Peruse does not, as is popularly thought, mean “browse, glance over, skim.” It means “to read through with thoroughness or care; to examine in detail.” It was used as early as 1479 to mean “use up, wear out, go through,” from the Middle English per- “completely” + use. Its meaning of “to read carefully” is first recorded in 1532. Continue reading

Categories: Language, Words, Writing | 8 Comments

Pen and Paper

Now that I’ve finished reading Sedaris’s thoroughly enjoyable When You Are Engulfed in Flames, I’ve moved on to Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away, about the practice of writing memoir. Here’s page 1:

Writing is an athletic activity. It comes from the whole body, your knees and arms, kidneys, liver, fingers, teeth, lungs, spine—all organs and body parts leaning in with you, hovering in concentration over the page. And just like any other sport, it takes practice. Behind the football we see on TV, the players have put in hundreds of hours before the big game. The muscles of writing are not so visible, but they are just as powerful: determination, attention, curiosity, a passionate heart.

Begin to work those muscles. . . . Continue reading

Categories: Brain, Writing | 5 Comments

Stepping In

A frequent motif in my dreams is where I step into a life I am (or someone else is) currently living elsewhere, to taste what that life is like. It’s the experience of that “stepping in” that has made me consider that the notion of alternate realities or parallel universes might not be such a crackpot idea.

In these dreams, I visit an ongoing life. Sometimes the person is me, but a few of the circumstances of my life are different (Mom is healthy, Dad is alive, I’m in a different profession, I live someplace else). At other times I seem to be visiting someone else’s life, and the dream is peopled with characters I’ve never met before.

What distinguishes this type of dream for me is that nothing that happens in them seems remotely dreamlike. Nothing happens out of normal time, scenes don’t shift suddenly, no one can fly, the sky isn’t green, there’s nothing that would say, “This is a dream.” It feels very much like waking reality, everyday life, a few normal hours—in someone else’s world, or in a parallel reality. Continue reading

Categories: Brain, Dreams, Writing | Leave a comment

America’s Educational System Is in Better Shape than I Thought

Every year, English teachers from across the country can submit their collections of actual analogies and metaphors found in high school essays. The best are published each year. Here are last year’s winners.

1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

3. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef. Continue reading

Categories: Humor, Writing | 2 Comments

If It’s December, This Must Be Sedaris

In years past, I’ve circulated among my email friends and acquaintances—or rather, re-circulated—one of my favorite holiday essays, David Sedaris’s “Six to Eight Black Men,” which was originally written for Esquire Magazine. Last year I posted it here.

This year I found that someone made a YouTube video of it, sort of. The soundtrack is Sedaris doing a live reading of the story (slightly updated from the print version, which is interesting for editor-types like me who like to see how essays can be improved with a little judicious snipping or amplification or the change of a single word here or there), while the video is a compilation of rather interesting stills and film snippets that quite nicely illustrate Sedaris’s narrative. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Holidays, Humor, Worthwhile Reading, Writing | 1 Comment

Madeleine L’Engle, Children’s Writer, Is Dead

By DOUGLAS MARTIN, The New York Times
Published: September 8, 2007

Madeleine L’Engle, who in writing more than 60 books, including childhood fables, religious meditations and science fiction, weaved emotional tapestries transcending genre and generation, died Thursday in Connecticut. She was 88.

Her death, of natural causes, was announced today by her publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Ms. L’Engle (pronounced LENG-el) was best known for her children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time, which won the John Newbery Award as the best children’s book of 1963. By 2004, it had sold more than 6 million copies, was in its 67th printing and was still selling 15,000 copies a year.

Her works — poetry, plays, autobiography, and books on prayer — were deeply, quixotically personal. But it was in her vivid children’s characters that readers most clearly glimpsed her passionate search for the questions that mattered most. She sometimes spoke of her writing as if she were taking dictation from her subconscious.

“Of course I’m Meg,” Ms. L’Engle said about the beloved protagonist of A Wrinkle in Time.

The St. James Guide to Children’s Writers called Ms. L’Engle “one of the truly important writers of juvenile fiction in recent decades.” Such accolades did not come from pulling punches: Wrinkle is one of the most banned books because of its treatment of the deity. Continue reading

Categories: Spirituality, Writing | 3 Comments

Linguistic Annoyances

Shouldn’t “onomotopeia” actually be an onomotopeia? And shouldn’t “palindrome” be a palindrome? I think it should be “palinilap” instead. Or maybe “emordrome.”

Categories: Humor, Writing | 3 Comments

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