Don’t Write What You Do Know, Write What You Don’t Know

Even though N.C. Wyeth was born too late (1882) to know any actual pirates, his paintings and illustrations of these colorful characters still inspire viewers today.
Even though N.C. Wyeth was born too late (1882) to know any actual pirates, his paintings and illustrations of these colorful characters still inspire viewers today. This illustration was first published in Treasure Island.

You might say that writing memoir is like pirating your own life.

Quotation From Toni Morrison

“When I taught creative writing at Princeton, my students had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, “Don’t pay any attention to that.” First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends.”  by Toni Morrison

Good-bye To The Memoir

Everyone seems to start out writing memoir,  and perhaps…….the unfortunate ones get successful at it. Look at Jack Kerouac. His second novel On the Road was a smash hit. It even got him on national TV……but at age 47, Jack was dead, victim of severe alcohol abuse. Jack London didn’t fare much better after his series of successful fiction and non-fiction titles. I’m sure everyone has read the short story, To Build a Fire, but how many know that he died at a young age of 40 from a complication of various medical problems including alcoholism.

Now it’s also very possible that having the name of Jack may have lead to the early demise of these successful authors, but no matter how you feel about this premise, I still think that evolution beyond the first person narrative is a good thing for a writer. Just by looking at the lives of famous authors, you might postulate that writing the truth can be a difficult thing to outlive.

Recent picture of Toni Morrison
Recent picture of Toni Morrison

Say Hello To an Octogenarian Novelist and College Professor

Her name is Toni Morrison and she teaches fiction writing at Princeton University. She is also a Nobel Prize (1993 for Literature) recipient and her 11th novel, called God Help the Child, is due to be released this month and is probably already on the bookstands. (Sorry I haven’t been to a bookstore lately, so I can’t verify this.) In a recent interview with her old editor and collaborator, Alan Rinzler, Toni delves into how it is important for young writers to get away from the old concept of “write what you know” and venture into the brave new world of “write what you don’t know”. This may be an invaluable piece of advice for writers regardless of age or experience level.

Maybe It’s Better To Fib A Little

So, what’s the moral of the story here. Well, it goes like this. If you fib a little bit, then you might live longer. It’s kinda like eating hard candy and drinking red wine. That is when done in moderation these things, which are supposed to be bad for you actually relieve some of your stress, thus leading to a longer life.

A very imaginative painting by N.C. Wyeth, entitled Giant
A very imaginative painting by N.C. Wyeth, entitled Giant

This surreal painting is simply called Giant. It was done by the master illustrator and painter, N.C. Wyeth. Just in case you’ve never heard of Newell Convers Wyeth he is the first generation of that famous American triad, which also features Andrew and Jamie. If you ever get a chance to see this painting in person, go do it. You won’t regret it, for this is an impressive, large oil painting that will most likely completely take over any space where it is exhibited.

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A House Made of Sky

A high plains sunset in Sioux Falls, SD photo by author
A high plains sunset in Sioux Falls, SD photo by author

A Montana One-of-a-Kind Passes Away

Since noted Montana writer, Ivan Doig, passed away this pass week, I deciced to honor the famed author of This House of Sky with some comments and a series of sunset photographs from the West. Though Ivan spent most of his adult life in the Seattle area, he did grow-up in the shadow of the Montana Rockies and wrote extensively from that experience. One of his best known books was This House of Sky. It was a memoir of his Montana youth that became a finalist for the National Book Award.

Sunset with tree silouhettes in Taos, NM
Sunset with tree silouhettes in Taos, NM

Western Childhood

Ivan Doig was born in 1939 in White Sulfur Springs, not too far from the Big Belt Mountains and the state capitol at Helena. He grew up in a family of homesteaders and ranch hands. His mother died at age six, so after that tragic event, Ivan was raised by his father and grandmother. Soon thereafter they moved north to a different part of the state, where the family’s main occupation was sheepherding. Doig stayed in Montana until educational pursuits drew him away from the state, first to Northwestern University in Illinois and finally to the University of Washington, where he obtained an advanced degree in American history. Ivan would remain in Washington for the rest of his life.

Clouds above Billings, Montana, photo by author
Clouds above Billings, Montana, photo by author

Last Bus To Wisdom

Even though Ivan Doig just passed away, there still is one more book on the way. The novel is called Last Bus To Wisdom and it will not be officially released until August of this year. The publisher is Riverhead Books and this autobiographical story revolves around an eleven-year old boy from Montana, who is sent to the Midwest to stay with some friends of his caretaker, a middle-aged woman, who needs to undergo an emergency medical operation.

The visit to Minnesota does not go well and soon the boy from Montana is back on the bus home with a surprise companion. This posthumous traveler’s tale falls in line with a lot of the western tales that Ivan wrote during his lifetime and should consolidate his well-deserved reputation as one of the best Western storytellers of the 20th century. The book is definitely on my reading list for this year.

 

Sign for Empire Steel Manufactoring Co. in Billings, MT, photo by author
Sign for Empire Steel Manufactoring Co. in Billings, MT, photo by author

A Look Back at 2014

 

Star Formation in the Tadpole Nebula  Image Credit: WISE, IRSA, NASA; Processing & Copyright : Francesco Antonucci
Star Formation in the Tadpole Nebula
Image Credit: WISE, IRSA, NASA; Processing & Copyright : Francesco Antonucci

Good Riddance to 2014

Though 2014 has not been all that bad a year, I am more than glad to see it banished into the realms of past history. For me, as a writer, this past year has been one of great promises, all of which seem to have gone unfulfilled or turned into dead-end back alleys. All the good contacts and leads, which I had so painstakingly advanced, dissolved into nothing.

Then there was the closing of Yahoo Voices, a site which I had started to contribute to, way back when it was called Associated Content. Finally, as of this year, the site was beginning to produce some real revenue, but as soon as that begin to happen, YV closed it doors and took all articles off the web with just a 30 day warning…….2015 has to be better!

Important Literary Events of 2014

By far the most important literary event of 2014 was the ongoing feud between Amazon and Hachette. Although this dispute was settled last month, just in time for the Christmas sales, the ebook pricing agreement will affect all the large publishers, who wish to sell ebooks on Amazon.com. Another important Amazon action that will affect many self-publishing Indie authors is the introduction of Kindle Unlimited (commonly called KU) by Amazon. This decision will be especially detrimental to authors, who sell a large number of self-published ebooks  in the $2.99 to $7.99 range through Kindle Select. Stay tuned for there is more to come on this new development.

And finally there is the most recent success of The Interview, a recent Sony pictures release that depicts the death of the leader of North Korea. This is a complex story, where Sony originally eighty-sixed the movie after hacking repercussions, but later released the movie in an unique way that has made the dark comedy a smash hit around the globe.

In Passing

For me, the most notable passing has been the death of Maya Angelou, theaward-winning  African American writer, who penned such American favorites as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. Also gone are Thomas Berger (author of Little Big Man), Nadine Gordimer (July’s People), Graham Joyce, P.D. James and Ralph Giordano (a holocaust surviver and author).

2014 Success Story

One of the most amazing events of 2014 was the landing of a ESA spacecraft on a moving comet. On November 12, 2014 the Rosetta spacecraft successfully landed on the Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko and immediately started beaming back pictures, such as the one below. Unfortunately, a notably 20th century problem has now disconnected the adventurous, ESA spacecraft from the planet Earth. And that problem is low batteries, which is something many of us experience all the time.

The Cliffs of Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko  Image Credit & Licence (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO): ESA, Rosetta spacecraft, NAVCAM; Additional Processing: Stuart Atkinson
The Cliffs of Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko
Image Credit & Licence (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO): ESA, Rosetta spacecraft, NAVCAM; Additional Processing: Stuart Atkinson

What the Future Might Bring?

image from the Vimeo short film titled The Wanders
image from the Vimeo short film titled The Wanderers, which was created by Eric Wernquist and Christian Sandquist and features the words and voice of Carl Sagan.

To view The Wanderers go to the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day site, here.

 

“I’m not homeless, I’m just on a cheap vacation.”

The quote in the title comes from a sign held out by a young couple, while pan-handling in Salt Lake City. I guess it all goes to say that how you define your own experience might determine how others view your activity. Nonetheless, being without a home or being a tramp is nothing new. Here’s a small selection of words illustrating what writers have experienced along these lines in the past.

Hitching Toward_Los_Angeles,_CA_8b31801u_original
A depression era photo of two travelers walking towards Los Angeles, photo by Dorothea Lange

Tramps

Tramps, hobos, bums, vagabonds, drifters, homeless people….no matter what you call them, there has always been a certain amount of admiration and mystique mixed in with contempt for these people of the streets and highways. Among writers, the road or the highway has been the proving ground for many a talented author. Being on the road probably won’t make you write any better, but it give you that special “outsider” status, which will allow you to look into the heart and soul of modern society with a fresh perspective. Following are a few quotes that explore this reality.

1. “Actors really should be tramps”. by Martin Milner

2. “I modeled my looks on the town tramp.” by Dolly Parton

3. “I tramp a perpetual journey.” Walt Whitman Song of Myself

4. “A man can sleep around, no questions asked, but if a woman makes nineteen or twenty mistakes she’s a tramp.” by Joan Rivers

5. “He cut short my request for something to eat, snapping out, “I don’t believe you want to work.” Now this was irrelevant. I hadn’t said anything about work. The topic of conversation I had introduced was “food.” In fact, I didn’t want to work. I wanted to take the westbound overland that night.” by Jack LondonThe Road
6. “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” by Eleanor Roosevelt

7. “Tramps like us, Baby we were born to run” by Bruce Springstein

8. “Tramping is too easy with all this money . My days were more exciting when I was penniless and had to forage around for my next meal… I’ve decided that I’m going to live this life for some time to come. The freedom and simple beauty of it is just too good to pass up.” by Christopher McCandless,

9. “Travel has no longer any charm for me. I have seen all the foreign countries I want to except heaven & hell & I have only a vague curiosity about one of those.” by Mark Twain

10. “Perhaps the greatest charm of tramp-life is the absence of monotony……. The hobo never knows what is going to happen the next moment;” hence, he lives only in the present moment.”
by  Jack London, The Road

11. “Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but in their own sight they are sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but soon or late he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police.” by H.L. Mencken

12. “A tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow always hopeful of romance and adventure.” by Charlie Chaplin

13. “Girls who put out are tramps. Girls who don’t are ladies. This is, however, a rather archaic usage of the word. Should one of you boys happen upon a girl who doesn’t put out, do not jump to the conclusion that you have found a lady. What you have probably found is a lesbian.” by Fran Lebowitz

14. “We fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land. We were on the roof of America and all we could do was yell, I guess—across the night, eastward over the Plains, where somewhere an old man with white hair was probably walking toward us with the Word, and would arrive any minute and make us silent.” by Jack Kerouac, On the Road

15. “Only the large cities attempted anything in the way of identification. The Bertillion system was in the experimental stage and fingerprinting unknown in police work. We jumped from one state to another, kept away from the cities, lived almost entirely on the road except in the dead of winter, and spent our money in the jungles…” by Jack Black from You Can’t Win

Old Route 66 in Albuquerque, NM...photo by author
Old Route 66 in Albuquerque, NM…photo by author

Why a Great American Novel Does Not Make for a Great American Movie

great Gatsby
The most recent version of the Great Gatsby featured Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby

Number Five Entertains

Last week I had a chance to view this year’s release of The Great Gatsby. Overall, it is Hollywood’s fifth attempt at making a great movie out of a great book and who knows whether it will be the last. First of all, let me say I did enjoy the movie. I usually don’t go for films that rely heavily on the new digital technology for special effects, but in the case of this Gatsby version, I found that they added to the story by helping visualize turning back the clock to the roaring twenties. The atmospheric effects obtained through digital manipulation were very good, making you feel that you had been transported back into time.

Nick Caraway and Daisy from
Nick Caraway (Tobey Maguire) and Daisy (Carey Mulligan) from the Great Gatsby

Revisiting F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is not the only piece of Fitzgerald’s fiction that has produced as a feature length film. The other cinematic effort comes from a short story that Fitzgerald wrote, called The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The story was first published by Collier’s magazine in 1922 and then was featured in Tales from the Jazz Age, a collcetion of short stories that was published in the same year. Since this weird and fantastic tale revolves a main character, who was born as an old man and died as a baby, it can be easily placed in the catch-all category of speculative fiction. The 2008 movie featured Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the leading rolls. It did quite well at the box office and has continued to sell as a popular DVD ever since it closed at the movie houses.

Today, this film probably has a larger following than Fitzgerald’s super popular novel, which goes to show that a successful novel does not guarantee a box office smash hit.

Is The Great Gatsby the Quinessential “Great American Novel?

Gatsby_1925_jacket
The “Great American Novel”
Many writers have toyed with the idea of writing a great American novel.  Perhaps after a lifetime of  hard work, some bestselling writers may produce one work, which is the epidemy of what they trying to say during their lifetime of literary endeavors. For example, William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest and Anne Rice’s Interviews With A Vampire may be very popular works of fiction, but in all likelihood, these works are generally not classified as A Great American Novel.  Usually, The Great American Novel is a laudable phrase applied to a piece of literature that presents the most accurate and representative portrait of American life during a specific period of time. Many contemporary literary critics look at Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and see in this very short novel, a marvelous recreation of life during the “Roaring Twenties.
427px-Francis_Scott_Fitzgerald_1937_June_4_(1)_(photo_by_Carl_van_Vechten)
The Great Gatsby
During his literary career, F. Scott Fitzgerald authored five novels, ten short story collections and also coined the term, “The Jazz Age”. Undoubtedly his most highly-regarded novel today is The Great Gatsby. This melancholy story from the “Roaring Twenties” was first published in 1925 to moderate commercial success and mediocre literary acclaim. Set in 1922 within the fictional Long Island town of West Egg, this story revolves around a young self-made millionaire, named Jay Gatsby. Next to Gatsby’s sprawling estate, lives the narrator, Nick Carraway. Nick works in nearby New York City selling stocks and bonds, but often attends Gatsby’s lavish alcohol-laden parties, which are the hit of the town during that peculiar period of American history known as “Prohibition”.
But unfortunately, Jay Gatsby’s new found wealth does not bring him happiness. Not surprisingly, Gatsby’s unhappiness derives from a young woman, who he once romanced at the beginning of WWI. Her name is Daisy and at the time Gatsby was madly in love with her and vica versa. But the war is over and Daisy is married to another man. She is also related to the narrator.
TheGreatGatsby2012Poster
 
On Screen
All total The Great Gatsby has the makings of a great “Roaring Twenties” story. The book has fast women, faster cars, bathtub gin, nouveau riche, lavish parties, flappers and a love triangle. All told, this classic story has been made into film five times with a sixth production scheduled for release in early May (2013). However, before you rush out to see the 120 million dollar movie that stars Leornordo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire, you you might want to read this classic American tale. It’s very short (less than 200 pages) and features the use of long, beautifully-crafted, lyrical sentences that still succeed to entertain and amaze the reader. Perhaps it can be said, that Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is the last example of the flowery, descriptive writing that was so prevalent before Hemingway forever changed the playing field with his skilled use of dynamic dialogue and terse prose.

Update On the End of the World

Black Hole Outflows from Centaurus A
Black Hole Outflows from Centaurus A
Source: ESO/WFI (Optical); MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. (Submillimetre); NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al. (X-ray)

End of the Mayan Calendar

On December 21 during the winter solstice the Mayan calendar comes to an end. Reaction to this long-awaited event varies greatly. Some would say so what, while others might ask what’s a solstice. Not surprisingly, the actual number of people who believe that the world will come to an end are actually pretty small.

Palenque, Temple_of_the_Inscriptions
The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, Mexico, from Wikipedia, photo by Ricraider

A Strange Encounter

It was a chance encounter in a Santa Fe coffeehouse. The 30-something year old male was planning to be in Mexico for the upcoming solstice to witness the shortest day of the year from a Mayan temple; and have a good time with other observers of the annual celestial event. The prospective traveler did not really expect the world to end, but he did seem susceptible to the New Age idea that this ancient date might usher in a new era of peace and understanding among the human population that now is believed to number around 7 billion. Also, he was reading a book called, Phobos by Steve Alten.

Steve Alten’s Mayan Trilogy Series

Steve Alten is an interesting, if not unusual writer. He is probably best known for his Meg series, a collection of four novels about a giant prehistoric shark found in the deep waters of the Pacific. Steve began his career in college sports medicine, then he decided to write a novel in his spare time. Writing the novel was easy, but selling the manuscript was more difficult. By the time he nailed down a two book deal, he had quit his sports job, gone through his life savings and was barely getting by. His more recently relesed Domain Trilogy uses the Mayan Temples for a backdrop to a fantastic sci-fi complete with time travelers and extra-terrestrial aliens. The three novels in this series are called Domain, Resurrection and Phobos: Mayan Fear.

Solar and Lunar Eclipse

A Solar eclipse from 1999, from Wikipedia, photo by Luc Viatour
A Solar eclipse from 1999, from Wikipedia, photo by Luc Viatour

Recently a small lunar eclipse was observed in the Northern Hemisphere. However, not too far in the recent past a much more pronounced solar eclipse occurred in Australia and the South Pacific. Even though these two events have occurred close to the End of the Mayan Calendar, there is no evidence that they are related. In fact, most scientists do not attribute any special significance to the End of the Mayan Calendar. It is no different from our annual Roman calendar, which ends every 12 months, except there is a much longer time frame involved with the Central American document.

The sun as seen from a NASA space probe
The sun as seen from a NASA space probe

NASA and December 21, 2012

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, our 4 billion year old planet will not come to an end on December 21, 2012. The alignment of the planets will have a negligible effect on our planet, nor will the planet, Nibiru, crash into the third planet back from the sun. The experts say that if a tenth planet was headed our way, it would show up in the night sky as a very bright object for many weeks before impact. And furthermore, solar activity is expected to remain at its’ current normal levels for the next several years.

Ah shucks, looks like I’m going to have to do my Christmas shopping after all.