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Clio's Temple


When is it enough?

Posted on May 30, 2017 at 6:25 AM Comments comments (1)
I once heard a story in which two well-known writers were invited to a party in The Hamptons, given by some ludicrously-wealthy Wall Street whiz kid. If memory serves, they were Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. As they toured the house and listened to the host brag about all the costly architectural details and furnishings, Kurt turned to Joseph and asked, "You wrote Catch-22. Why is this guy bragging about how successful he is?" Joseph said, "Unlike him, I know when I have enough."

Most of us have some level of intuitive understanding of human motivation, whether or not we believe in Maslow's hierarchy or some other theory of motivation. It seems to be a universal truth that we don't truly know when we have "enough." For 2015, government statistics give us a median U.S. household income of just over $ 55,000; whether such an income makes us feel "satisfied" is a question that can't be answered "Yes" or "No." In some less fortunate parts of this country, the median income would seem like a small fortune. Trying to live on the median income in Manhattan or Silicon Valley would most likely be a source of extreme discontent.

Of course, it isn't about just wealth. However, wealth or income is such a strong motivator that, probably, few of us would decline a monthly income twice what we make. At some point, if we've been successful enough, we may accumulate such wealth that it can immobilize us with the fear that it may go away. Alternatively, a certain level of affluence may just cause us to say, "I could be worth a lot more, if only . . ." My short story "Vulture Capitalist," in Tangled Woods and Dark Waters, looks at success from the standpoint of what can happen when we don't say, "This is enough." Perhaps we humans aren't quite as rational as we imagine.

Desperate prayers

Posted on May 25, 2017 at 4:48 PM Comments comments (94)
There's an old wisecrack that goes, "Be careful what you pray for. You may get it." But what about those things we pray, or yearn, for that never move any closer to realization? Sometimes the praying or yearning isn't followed by any positive steps to get us closer to where we want to go. Sometimes the answer is that what we want isn't possible.

Most of us, I suspect, have had at least one relationship in our lives that somehow got lost. After the fact, we wonder what happened. Did we fail to keep in contact when doing so would have been possible? Did we say or do something that drove another person away? Or was it that someone else decided that keeping the relationship simply wasn't worth the bother? This last possibility has the virtue of relieving us of the responsibility for what we did or didn't do, but it also leads to reappraisal (sometimes humiliating) of our impact on the relationships we have with others.

How we handle life's losses is never (I suspect) quite as rational or mature as we would like it to be. Even today, I sometimes think about someone I knew in college or graduate school who is no longer in my life. I can rationalization the loss away by saying, "I have enough friends," or "I don't have time for any additional deep relationships," but this exercise is a bit like drinking a cup of coffee that's sat on my desk for two hours. The caffeine may still jolt me, but the pleasure is gone. In my last post, I spoke about the impact of losing two of our pet cockatiels in recent years. The oldest, "Crock" loved to nibble holes in my shirts, forcing a significant part of my wardrobe into early retirement. After he died, I looked at a T-shirt he'd ventilated. At that moment, I said to myself, "Crock, if I could have you back, you could nibble holes in every shirt I own and I wouldn't complain." That's a prayer of desperation, getting consolation by reconciling ourselves to an irretrievable loss.

In Tangled Woods and Dark Waters, there is a story called "Marsh Gods." It's a piece of flash fiction (telling a story in no more than 500 or 1,000 words) which I wrote several years ago as an entry into a flash fiction contest sponsored by Writer's Digest magazine. At the center of the story is a young man named Nick. As the story opens, he is holding a strange ceremony in the parking lot of a marina in the Carolina Low Country. His prayer is answered in an unexpected way, but only at the end of the story do we learn what drove him to such desperate prayers.

Have you ever prayed a desperate prayer in your life? What did you pray for and why?

The images that shape a story

Posted on May 18, 2017 at 12:19 PM Comments comments (11)

We've all heard, "A picture is worth a thousand words." In the age of Photoshop, that probably understates the case. Nowadays, even amateurs can alter photos to present a very different impression from the impression the image creator intended. A photo can speed a lie on its way faster than the human brain can respond.

As writers, though, it's more interesting to consider how a photograph can convey a truth with an indelible intensity. As a former history teacher, when I have the chance to visit a historic site, my minds runs through my stored collection of images. It requires mental discipline to say to myself, "What would an observer, looking out over _____ on the day of _____, have seen?" This is tougher than it sounds. I had the chance to visit the Normandy invasion beaches two years ago, on a beautiful midsummer day that bore scant resemblance to the actual weather conditions on D-Day. What I saw, looking out over Omaha Beach is not what any soldier – American or German – would've seen on that day. I think many of my fellow writers of historical fiction can testify to how tough it is to make such efforts.

I'm working on a story set in Washington, DC, on the day of JFK's funeral. I'm familiar enough with this urban landscape that I don't require a lot of memory refreshment, but I'm grappling with how to translate the black-and-white images from that memorable day into the colors that bring written words to life.

Sometimes a photograph can do something unexpected, by acting as a writing prompt. Such was the case for a photograph distributed to all e-mail account at a former workplace. The photo showed a full-grown constrictor that met an untimely end when it got caught in the fan belt of a car. How did it get into this predicament? I've never tracked down an explanation, but I think it's likely that the snake was a household pet who escaped captivity during cold weather, crawled into the engine compartment in search of warmth, and there met its demise.

This single served as the launching print for my story "Public Serpent," recently republished. Neuroscientists have spent decades studying how human biochemical reactions can impel us to take one action or another. I doubt there'll every be enough funds to do many large-scale studies of animal behavior. But I got a prompt from considering how a reptile with a human brain might respond to such a situation.

Have you ever seen a photo that cried out to be translated into words? Collections of images can be a great antidote for writer's block. #tangledwoodsanddarkwaters

A Disordered Imagination, Part One

Posted on May 4, 2017 at 4:06 PM Comments comments (25)
Probably every serious writer has had the experience of fielding the question, "Where do you get your ideas from?" If I have to answer that question off the cuff, I generally say, "Out of the woodwork" or perhaps, "Out of the ether." Over the next few weeks, I'll be going into some background of the tales in Tangled Woods and Dark Waters. Let me just kick off this discussion with some general thoughts. For those who'd rather read their own meanings into these stories, fine. Your interpretation is probably as good as mine.
Sometimes the stimulus is so overt that I can put my finger on it – a photo, a song, a poem, short story or novel. I remember reading, as a teenager, a poem titled "Psalm" in a collection of science fiction pieces. This was a sarcastic updating of Psalm 23 for the age of nuclear weapons. The writer's challenge is to recast the old and make it seem new. Those who read Julius Caesar may not recognize that they're paying tribute to Shakespeare's appropriation of Plutarch's biography of the great man. The truly masterful can do this with the (apparent) effortlessness of Garry Kasparov winning a game of chess. Several of the pieces in Tangled Woods are of this type. Alas, I can only dream of reaching such a level of skill.

Dreams are another obvious contributor. If I were to submit myself to the care of a Freudian psychoanalyst, that person would quickly ascertain that I'm obsessed with preparation, deadlines, and schedules. That makes me anal-retentive, or perhaps I suffer from mild OCD. One variant that has popped up repeatedly in my dreams is the theme of arriving at an airport for an international trip, only to remember at the last minute that I've forgotten something essential – passport, luggage, or money. I think there may be a story there but I'm still digging for it.

There are times when a stimulus comes in the form of a title for a story, not the story itself. When I get into it, the plot line follows from the title. Case in point: I was driving through town one morning five years ago when the radio played Helen Reddy singing "Angie Baby." Some of you may remember that "Angie" is a mentally challenged girl, who nonetheless has an extraordinary power. I reworked that idea into a story in the anthology Nights of Horseplay, in which "Angie baby" is a girl with Asperger's syndrome.

Then there are people, a source which presents the challenge (even for fiction writers) of stering clear of writing things that could be considered defamatory. Hence, the usual disclaimer, "This story and all the characters in it are fictional," or words to that effect. Yet people can still creep into what we write, despite our best efforts to exclude them. When my wife read the first chapter of my unfinished novel Kilroy's Shadow, she remarked that the protagonist was a dead-on rendition of my father. Among the host of those now departed – parents, grandparents, in-laws, cousins – are many memorable tales. Alas, I think that a literary rendition of their lives and experiences that would do them justice is beyond my abilities.

In my next post, I'll talk about the connections that form the framework of our stories.

Life behind the dikes (or dams)

Posted on July 15, 2016 at 11:31 AM Comments comments (100)
The late J.M. Juran, industrial quality guru, referred to "life behind the quality dikes" as a way of denoting how dependent we are on the things which stand between us and disaster. Yesterday's terrorist outrage in Nice is but one example of how we normally expect to go about our daily business, free from danger.

It doesn't take a terrorist attack, though, to bring home the force of Juran's words. My home state of South Carolina suffered an inundation of Biblical dimensions last October. One of the lessons learned from that disaster was that the many dams in the Columbia area, which in normal times impound ponds or lakes that add joy to living and value to real estate, can turn on us. A cascading series of dam failures, particularly on the east side of Columbia, have left many homeowners and businesses to wonder about when the dams will be rebuilt, and who will pay for the rebuilding.

"The creek was there long before the town whose life it came to dominate. Rising in the hills of northeast Georgia, it wended its way southeastward, gravity drawing it toward the Atlantic some three hundred miles distant." These are the opening lines from my novella A Dirge for Maxwell, which will be published in October as part of a Kindle e-book titled Tangled Woods and Dark Waters.

The overall theme of Dirge is how the stable, safe world of a textile town comes apart under the pressure of forces beyond its control. When a flooding creek inflicts lethal damage on the town, it is only the last straw, but the camel's back breaks nonetheless.

I'm not the sort of person to impress people with scare tactics, but the fabric of life may come unraveled despite our best efforts to preserve it. What are the dikes or dams in our lives on which we depend for protection?