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Clio's Temple


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Desperate prayers

Posted on May 25, 2017 at 4:48 PM Comments comments ()
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?

Tears in the darkness

Posted on May 22, 2017 at 12:51 PM Comments comments ()
Dealing with strong emotions is a problem for left-brain writers like me. I tell people, "I can do romance, but I can't write about it." Grief is another problem area, a lesson I've had to learn and relearn. Sometimes having a focus for grief makes me shudder inside, until I have to face it.

As my friends know, my wife and I are partial to cockatiels. We adopted our first one as a baby, naming him "Crockatiel Dundee," or "Crock" for short. His constant affection helped to sustain us through some hard times in our family. When he flew off to the Rainbow Bridge five years ago, it broke our hearts. He died from a stroke (who knew that little birds had cardiovascular accidents?) at around 2:30 in the morning. Until we could make arrangements to have him cremated, we put him on ice. When I had done that, I went outside to cry in the predawn darkness. Why did I hide my emotions? I guess it's because, ever seen my teen years, I've kept my tears out of sight of the public.

It was easier with our second cockatiel, "Bert," whom we took in when his owner could no longer care for him. He was only with us a couple of years before he, too, suffered a stroke and left us. What I remember of my reaction was not tears, but just angry words in the dark: "Damn it, Bert, you broke our hearts." Of course, anger can easily become a cover for grief. So it was with us. We're now on our third cockatiel, "Spike," a rescue bird from the Aiken County Animal Shelter. Love means accepting the possibility – or even the probability – of loss. We just try to give him as much love as we can while we have him.

One way of letting tears out in public is to write about them. My story "Bird in the Dark" in Tangled Woods and Dark Waters was done as a therapeutic exercise after "Crock" died. Tormented by guilt feelings (Did we do everything we could to save him?), I recalled a proverb which I heard from a clergyman years ago: "Faith is the bird that flies in the dark." Over millions of years of evolution, most birds (including cockatiels) have a healthy fear of darkness, which is the domain of predators. Small, with no defenses except their astonishing speed in flight, cockatiels hunker down in the hours of darkness in the safest places they can find. So what would make a cockatiel forget its conditioning and fly off into the darkness of a winter night? You can find out by reading the book.

The images that shape a story

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

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 Two

Posted on May 12, 2017 at 6:36 AM Comments comments ()
When my aunt read Tangled Woods and Dark Waters, she asked me, "Where do you get the names of all these people?" In contrast to my story ideas, that answer is easy: Over a forty-year professional career, I met thousands of people, many from other countries. When I need to name a character, I can dip into my basket of memories and scramble the names to create new personas. If you make the proper disclaimers, you can get away with a lot in these arena. Read any of Pat Conroy's novels and you'll see the names of his friends show up (coincidentally) in the names of his characters.

This brings me to the topic of connections. After all, as writers, our craft includes forging connections that may exist only in our minds. Still, there are times when the circumstances of real life suggest connections that can be adapted for purposes of my writing.
My father flew a B-17 in World War II. Very late in his life, I drove him to a reunion of his wartime unit in the Washington area. En route, he told me tales about his comrades-in-arms, stories that lay unsuspected until advanced age loosened his memory. There were people I'd met many years earlier, but who, in his recollections, took on a very different shape from what I'd previously learned about them. I have a novel on the writing schedule, working title Wings of the Storm, based on Dad's experiences. When we cleaned out the files in my parents' house, I inherited boxes of material, some of which he'd kept since the 1940s. I'm positive there are connections in those boxes that will emerge when I start working my way through them.

Still, the recollections of the elderly need to be handled with caution. My uncle ran a contract mail delivery business for thirty years. One of his colleagues got so accustomed to hearing his stories of his early life that he asked my uncle for permission to put these into a book. The book that resulted, From Marianna to Moosburg: One B-17 Crewman's Story of War, Redemption, and Family Reunion contains some fascinating tidbits. This is particularly the case for information about my paternal grandfather, who died years before I was born. But there are a couple of factual errors, pretty inconsequential, but still bothersome, that restrain me from using the book as a source without some cross-checking. It's probably unfair to present the memories of the very old as an unvarnished source of truth. The possibility of inadvertently doing an injustice to real people demands caution in mining these memories.

How many connections are available for our use? We've all heard of "six degrees of separation," i.e., that moving through six levels of connections puts us in touch with a large portion of the human race. I used to tell my students, "If your family has been in this country for a hundred years, you're probably related to someone famous. If your family has been in this country for two hundred years, it's a lead pipe cinch." I gave one class an assignment to locate someone famous among their ancestors and the results were gratifying; two of my students could trace a clear path back to those who arrived aboard the Mayflower. Consider yourself. Think of five people you know, or knew, and for whom you have some knowledge of their lives. When you work outward from those five people, you will find that you have something like 5 connections, or between fifteen and sixteen thousand individuals. Obviously, you can't locate any information about all of them, or even a small fraction of them. But there are still plenty of starting points.

Just one example: the head usher (now deceased) at a church I attended was a midshipman about the U.S.S. Augusta in 1941. He was an aide to Admiral King, then commander of the Atlantic Fleet, later Chief of Naval Operations. In this role, he accompanied King to the Argentia Conference, where FDR and Churchill framed the Atlantic Charter. He personally met all the American Chiefs of Staff, as well as several members of the British high command. From just the contacts on this one occasion, he was connected to movers and shakers whose influence on the world stretches back many generations into the past. Had he lived to be 200, I could never have exhausted the flow of stories that ran through his connections.

Where do your connections lead you?

A Disordered Imagination, Part One

Posted on May 4, 2017 at 4:06 PM Comments comments ()
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 ()
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?

The things we remember

Posted on July 1, 2016 at 3:06 PM Comments comments ()
It's probably inevitable, given the fact that we are in the midst of the centennial of World War I, that a number of highlights or lowlights of that epic slaughter get special mention. Today, at the midpoint of 2016, Europe observes the 100th anniversary of the First Day at the Somme.

In a war that saw many days of horror, July 1 is particularly infamous in the English-speaking world. Two hundred thousand men from Britain and the British Empire went over the top. Sixty thousand of them were struck down; over nineteen thousand of them were dead or missing. Casualties were especially heavy among men from Ulster and Newfoundland. In both those places, this day has a special bitterness.

By nightfall on July 1, it was becoming apparent to even the most diehard believers in victory that its cost might be more than modern nations could tolerate. Yet that was only the First Day. Before the battle of the Somme dragged to its ghastly conclusion, the British had lost over six hundred thousand men; Germany lost around four hundred fifty thousand. All the devil's tools which the Industrial Revolution had created - barbed wire, poison gas, machine guns, long-range artillery - contributed to the death of the belief that human progress was foreordained (at least in the western world).

One reason why this date has a fascination for me is that it provides another example of Six Degrees of Separation. An English farmer named Martin Middlebrook was so moved by a visit to the military cemeteries from World War I that he wrote a book, First Day at the Somme, which captured the stories of hundreds of men whose youth died on that battlefield. Some years later, he came to the United States to interview flyers who had participated in the massive bombings that destroyed Hamburg in July, 1943. One of the men he interviewed was my father, whose story is told in The Battle of Hamburg. To the end of his life, Dad remembered the time he spent with a foreigner who came a long way to hear his story.

I tell my students, "History isn't something far off. It's all around us." World War I was enormously consequential for the world, with its destruction of empires, its battles, revolutions, and epidemics. Because it was fought far from our shores, few of us Americans have or have ever had a living connection to July 1, 1916. The unending sequence of ironies that the flow of history drags along with it, though, spins a web of connections that, over time, will entangle even those a long way from major events. On that very same day, a young Army lieutenant named Dwight Eisenhower married Mary Geneva Doud, their happiness unclouded by the horrors of a few hours earlier. Of course, decades later, that same young lieutenant commanded millions of Americans, British, Canadians, French, and Poles in desperate battles fought not far from the Somme.

Who knows what historians will say about us a hundred years from today? Perhaps it's better that we can't know. Foreknowledge might drive us all insane.

Wish fulfillment?

Posted on June 28, 2016 at 2:17 PM Comments comments ()
I will confess: I didn't see it coming. Of course, I'm referring to the vote in favor of Brexit. To my American eyes, it seems like a raspberry toward the outside world, a world that had come to seem heedless of English wishes.

Therein lies the problem: The pro-Brexit vote was drawn heavily from England outside Greater London. Londoners voted to stay in the EU, as did residents of Scotland and Northern Ireland. There have already been rumbles in the latter two regions about a possible breakaway from the United Kingdom.

True to form, Donald Trump managed to start a visit to Scotland on the wrong foot. While it may seem scandalous, Americans putting their feet in their mouths abroad is nothing unusual. This is largely because those who come to the U.S. are much likelier to have learned something about the U.S., whereas many Americans don't feel the need to return the favor for their foreign travels. Since both my wife and I have resided abroad (at different times), we both wince the different ways in which Americans seem naturally to fall into the role of innocents abroad.

To many foreigners, though, we aren't innocents abroad. Rather,we give the impression of being overbearing in our attempts to deal with foreign ways. My wife and I remember the tempest caused on a river cruise in Russia a few years by some of our fellow Americans who expected to be served American cuisine aboard the vessel.

What does this have to do with the Brexit vote? I suspect that, over time, a fair number of pro-Brexit voters may come to believe that their votes were a wish that might have better gone unfulfilled. That's an optimistic reading of the situation. Still, those things that drive people and nations apart are generally not good things, particularly when it comes down to us standing on the sidelines and cheering one side or another in foreign disputes.

Swimming in history, or drowning?

Posted on June 16, 2016 at 5:19 PM Comments comments ()
Mark Twain once said, "History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes." Looking at the shape of American politics this year, I think he was onto something important. Namely, that the hopes (fears) with which we invest our candidates are cyclical, except that we often don't recognize what's happening.

What do I mean? Just this: there is very little about Donald Trump that's surprising. Anyone who looks at the less-than-golden past of our elections can pick up echoes of things Huey Long might have said, or Father Coughlin, or George Wallace. By contrast to this strain of "populism," Ross Perot looks positively quaint.

This is not to let Hillary Clinton off the hook. The strength of her appeal is, I think, that we can replay the economic glories of the '90s, but extend their reach to segments of the American population who have traditionally been left out. She's already hinted that her First Dude will take on that challenge as part of his responsibilities.

Now seriously, folks, are we that stupid? Do we really think our leaders have the alchemy to override the powerful counter-currents which are part of our world: international economic queasiness; fears of terrorism; distrust among nations who have traditionally acted as though they had interests in common?

We'd better fasten our seat belts and hang on for a rough ride. To my jaundiced eyes, 2016 looks more like 1968 than anything that's happened since.

The day of, the days after

Posted on September 12, 2014 at 3:25 PM Comments comments ()
We always remember "the day of," don't we? In my parents' generation, there were the obvious dates - December 7, 1941 being the perhaps the first . Perhaps more significant are those more personal - wedding days, the birth of children, anniversaries, retirement parties, funerals. For my generation (I'm giving my age away), November 22, 1963 was the first great national trauma. Perhaps our children remember January 28, 1986 (Challenger disaster), but for most of them, September 11, 2001 is the one always burned into the memory circuits.

This is a shot of the new 1 World Trade Center in Manhattan, taken as my wife and I emerged from a subway station. On a fine midsummer morning, it reminded me of nothing so much as a one-finger salute to those who educated our nation about terrorism and mass murder. Of course, it took a lot of "days after" 9/11 to raise this from the rubble of the old World Trade Center, but that's the nature of all "days after." Those are the days when we live with the consequences of what happened on the "days of."

It's always easier to remember "the day of." We just had the commemorations of 9/11 and the focus was - rightly - those who lost their lives on that day of horror. In the long run, it was the things that happened on the days after that changed us more profoundly. To use one obvious example, the idea of an agency such as TSA subjecting us to intrusive searches of our bags and our persons would have seemed inconceivable before 9/11. Nowadays, we're so accustomed to it, we've forgotten that it wasn't always this way.

It's the same in our ordinary lives. When my wife and I said "I do" on June 16, 1979, we weren't thinking thirty-years into the future. We were too much enraptured with the joy of being man and wife. Because our wedding was small-scale and (by today's standards) inexpensive, the reality of "the day of" slips further and further into the dim recesses of memory. We didn't hire a videographer. When we look at our wedding pictures, we're looking at another couple.

Heraclitus is famous for having said that a man never steps twice into the same river; the river has changed and so has the man. In our lives, "the day of" always remains with us. "The days after" shape the reality that we deal with every day. While we will never again step into the same river, we are different persons for having stepped once into it.

In all "the days after" of our lives, we need to remember that we bear with us always the legacies of "the days of."