The Big Countdown

My life expectancy this year has dropped five years to 83 from 88. I’m not entirely sure what led to my precipitous drop in my expected life span, but it appears the grave looms closer than I thought.

Salinger Revisited: The Laughing Man

InIMG 1414 “The Laughing Man,” Salinger is telling his story while ostensibly telling a different one. It’s a great use of a narrative frame to illuminate his story in ways that wouldn’t be possible directly. We have a narrator relating memories of his nine-year-old self and not employing the understanding that the older self would have gained through adult experience. 

Salinger spends six pages before Mary Hudson, the true subject of “The Laughing Man” makes any kind of appearance and that only as a picture in the bus. Her eventual arrival sparks one of those great Salinger bits of prose:

Offhand, I can remember seeing just three girls in my life who struck me as having unclassifiably great beauty at first sight. One was a thin girl in a black bathing suit who was having a lot of trouble putting up an orange umbrella at Jones Beach, circa 1936. The second was a girl aboard a Caribbean cruise ship in 1939, who threw her cigarette lighter at a porpoise. And the third was the Chief’s girl, Mary Hudson.


Salinger Revisited: Just Before the War with the Eskimos

ThisIMG 1414 is one of those Salinger stories that left me feeling, “huh?” There is the usual Salinger wit and sharp prose (certainly, this is one of my favorite titles for a Salinger story, even if the story itself is not completely satisfying). Wikipedia informs me that, “At the time of its publication, it confused yet nevertheless delighted its audience.” which is certainly a sentiment with which I can identify. 

I’ll close these comments with my favorite sentence from the story:

Very probably, it was not part o the sofa vaudeville of a showoff but, rather, the private, exposed achievement of a young man who, at one time or another, might have tried shaving himself left-handed.


Salinger Revisited: Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut

The story whose film adaptation is (at least nominally)IMG 1414 the reason that there are no other films of Salinger works. The second of the Glass family stories, in this case with Walt Glass who appears only in recollection. Told almost entirely through dialog, it’s a good example of telling a story through indirection and omission. Again, Salinger shows a great knack for the excellent turn of phrase: “[They] were talking in the manner peculiar, probably limited, to former college roommates.”

Where the story felt awkward to me is in the inherent sexism of the situation. Not merely in that the female characters were tied into the roles dictated by 1950s American society, but that Salinger’s imagination cannot really have them push very hard against those limitations. Eloise’s life exists only through her relationships with her husband Lew and the haunting specter of Walt Glass who has Eloise metaphorically sleeping to one side of her bed just as her daughter left room for her imaginary friend.


Salinger Revisited: A Perfect Day for Bananafish

This was the first story I ever taught, in a class on Zen BuddhismIMG 1414 I took as an undergrad (everybody in the class taught some topic for half an hour). It’s been twenty-six years, at least, so I don’t really remember the details although I think I only assigned the middle section, the interaction between Seymour and Sybil. Coming back at the story, I find myself drawn into some of the masterful elements of craft in the story, particularly the first section which I’m pretty sure I did not teach all those years ago. The remarkable specificity of the opening paragraph with its “Ninety-seven New York advertising men” and the complete record of everything Muriel did while waiting for a long distance line to open so she could call her parents. The remarkable sentence, “She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing.” The oblique references to an earlier suicide attempt by Seymour which might have taken place with Muriel in the car with him, given her parents’ concern about “that funny business with the trees.” The whole thing is a beautiful piece of art.

I wonder about my idea back then that the story was to be read as a sort of Zen koan. The fact that Nine Stories itself employs the koan about one hand clapping as its epigram might seem like support to this idea, but I had my doubts even when I was teaching the story to my classmates and they continue now. It feels, in some ways, as if Seymour is almost a slightly more sophisticated version of Kevin Kline’s character in A Fish Called Wanda who employs Eastern mysticism as a sort of justification and explanation for his own depression, but who most likely has not reached the level of satori that he believes he has. 

This is Salinger’s second story to appear in The New Yorker, following by a bit over a year, the uncollected “A Slight Rebellion Off Madison” which was incorporated into The Catcher in the Rye


Salinger revisited: The Catcher in the Rye

I stopped reading Salinger over twenty years ago because I found myself being overly influenced by IMG 1289 is voice. I’ve decided that I’ve developed a sufficiently strong voice of my own as a writer that I can allow myself a chance to re-read Salinger. My plan is to read the published books from Catcher to Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters/Seymour an Introduction before revisiting the uncollected stories from “The Young Folks” to “Hapworth 16, 1924.” 

I first read The Catcher in the Rye in one day on a Saturday suspension at the end of my senior year of high school in 1986. Along with reading the book, I wrote a short essay reflecting on the book, my experience of the Saturday suspension and a version of the facts (not especially accurately recounted) around the ditching the field trip that led to my suspension. High on Salinger’s prose, the prose I generated led the teacher for whom this was a final assignment declared it “the best piece of student writing he’d ever read.” This fine piece of writing is, of course, now lost to the ages.

I re-read the book a few times in the following decade as I became increasingly enthralled by Salinger’s writing, especially in my undergraduate years and my copy of the book with the maroon and yellow assassin cover has grown a bit fragile as a result, but this is the copy that I re-read (I was tempted to purchase a new copy before a recent vacation and gift it to my oldest nephew after a quick re-read, but I ended up sticking with my battered copy for the re-read, hoping that the trips to the playground with my kids and a book wouldn’t end with the book falling apart.

There’s a special pleasure in re-reading a book, hitting the familiar beats that memory is ready to serve back to you along with the surprises of forgotten corners of the book. I’d forgotten how long the book stayed at Pencey Prep and found myself impatient for the story to get to the New York chapters which had been the meat of the book for me in all my earlier reads. Everything carries a host of additional associations in my mind now. Ackley will be forever associated with one of my college English profs who, in a conversation in his office, made a strong point of the assonance between  “Ackley” and “acne” which I took at the time as a bit of an insult aimed in my direction because of my own poor complexion. 

I did find that the book’s rather abrupt termination was less satisfying to me now than it had been in the past. Catcher doesn’t really have much of a plot to begin with, being more a series of scenes and the pleasure in the book is in the voice more than anything else, but it still felt as if Salinger might have just run out of gas at book’s end and decided to just let it go.


“Our Lady of the Freeway”: The Story Behind the Story


You can purchase a copy of Headland Journal No. 6 here to read “Our Lady of the Freeway.”

This is a story I’ve been trying to write for almost thirty years. Preparing to write this post, I spent a bunch of time digging through my notebook covering 1988–1991 but didn’t find any trace of this, although I can remember working on an early version of the story set in Germany with a lot of details copped from the Hotel Grillparzer sections of The World According to Garp. I’m sure if I dug through my notebooks and scraps of hard drive from days gone by, I might turn up some of those early attempts. Later, I read John Biguenet’s “The Vile Soul” in Granta and found myself despairing because Biguenet succeeded in doing what I wanted to do with my story and much better than I was capable of doing that.

During my MFA, I needed to generate some new material for workshop during my second residency and I decided to resurrect this idea and see where it led me. I chose to re-set the story in Los Angeles as it’s a city that I know well (all the locations in the story are real). I had a rough idea of the story having attempted to write it before, but this time, I had a second character appear besides the narrator and with his appearance, the story developed new life beyond the question of the apparitions at the center of the story.

I tend to choose character names with some indirect significance if only to help me keep them straight in my mind In this instance, the two main characters, Henry and Arthur derive their names from the unused first names of the English Catholic novelists Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, respectively, The characters take their attitude toward Catholicism loosely on the personalities of those two writers as well.

Before its eventual acceptance, this story received 26 rejections including nine “encouraging” rejections. On the final round of submissions, one journal accepted it on the day it was sent. I’m not sure how they ended up in my submission list, but I think it was a case of the journal doing a follow-unfollow on Twitter in hopes of dredging up followers. I decided to decline the acceptance, figuring that I’d rather have it go some place with high enough standards to spend more than a day to accept a piece and that if the story was so good that it’d merit a one-day acceptance, it would be accepted elsewhere as well. It was.

The workshop group who gave me input on the earlier draft of this story was composed of Tibor Fischer, Kat Grilli, Steven Paul Lanski, Kossiwa Logan and Ryan McConkey,

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Dewey Decimal Project: 226 BIR The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus

The Gospel of the LordThere is a tendency for writing about the Bible to fall into two disjoint camps: there are the literalists who take the naïve view that the text is to be read without concern for its original context or creation, who end up reducing Biblical studies to an absurdity since the literal reading is untenable, not just in reading the creation account, but in dealing with the frequent inconsistencies that have resulted from the texts having been compiled from a variety of traditions and intentions. On the other side of the coin, the textual critics will consider the origins and context of the Biblical texts, but seem to have forgotten that this is the foundational text of much Western religion. One pole of this can be found in the Jesus Seminar which denied the historicity of the eschatalogical in the Gospels and was skeptical of the miracles.

Bird takes a different tack here, looking to understand the Gospels in context, but at the same time never forgetting their religious significance. Bird supplements the historical-critical perspective of the Gospels that I’d encountered elsewhere with information from the early Church Fathers do help provide full understanding and context for how the canon was formed and why we ended up with the four Gospels that we have. Perhaps had I had a less eclectic education in matters theological, this would be familiar ground, but this served as an excellent introduction to being able to better understand how to approach the Gospels.


Dewey Decimal Project: 211 ARM The Case For God

I’d heard of Karen Armstrong here and there and about this book, so I was curious to read a bit more about what she had to say. Alas, what I found was a lot of squishy theology of the all-religions-are-one variety. Having read God is not One a couple years ago, it’s clear that not only are all religions not one, but they really aren’t even asking the same questions (even the three Abrahamic faiths have dramatically different concerns underpinning their basic foundations). Add in that it’s been more than a few months between reading the book and writing this paragraph and I don’t really have much more to offer about it.


An introvert at #AWP16—Day 3

Invisible to Whom?: Black Fiction Writers on Craft and the White Gaze

Cole LavalaisI had a long list of potential Saturday at 9a panels and realized that part of the reason that it was so long was that I wasn’t really excited about any of the options so I decided that this would be a good day for a late start to the day.

I woke up half an hour before my alarm was set and ended up getting to the convention center a bit before 9a anyway, so I took the time to rest a bit before my first real panel of the day.

We had a mix of discussion of general concerns surrounding the idea of African-American literature and readings by some of the panel members. Of these, by far the standout piece was by Cole Lavalais (pictured to the right. It was just a coincidence she was photographed on her own—I took pictures at the start of the panel and she didn’t fit into the frame for a group photo), who read her story, “A Lost Lesson in Evolution on the 3:16p from Chicago to Blue Island; Or Adaptation.” She is definitely an author to watch and her debut novel will be out later this year.

There was an observation made that often diversity panels such as these generally attract a completely or almost completely non-white audience but in this instance, they managed to avoid that problem. While the audience looked majority minority at least from my seat near the front, their were still a fair number of white faces in the audience.

I do think that there was a cultural thing happening when during audience question time, one person stood up and entered into a somewhat lengthy monolog that seemed to be mostly about his own writing (this is apparently a not uncommon occurrence at AWP panels) and another audience member interjected by saying, “is there a question here?” Thumbs up on that one.

Also, this ended up being a chance for some cultural education for me (and likely other white audience members). Andy Johnson talked about Sarah Bartmaan and said, that we would all know who she was (I, at least did not). I picked up a bit from his further remarks, and a bit more from wikipedia. The fact that this was someone well known to the African-American members of the audience and (I’m guessing) not so much to the others is itself its own interesting cultural commentary.

The other thing I learned was the use of “woke” as an adjective (along with assorted adjectival derivatives, such as the noun “wokeness”) meaning a state of awakening with respect to racial issues. I’m guessing that after this panel, I was a little bit more woke (although I’d like to think that I wasn’t completely unwoke beforehand).

It was also fascinating to hear about Dianca London’s experiences with workshop which would have been comical if they weren’t so tragic. With regard to one piece she had written about an albino black woman in the late eighteenth century, the comments included: “is this about white slavery?” “Can black people have albinism?” “Is this sci-fi?” Other workshop comments included a white professor (while dressed in an “ethnic” outfit), saying, “You don’t understand the implications of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” Another student saying, “We get it. Slavery happened. Get over it.” In one discussion where a white student’s story used the N-word extensively, “Chill out. It’s the character’s conceit.” And then the general feedback of “too black, not black enough, pulling the race card.” London’s attitude was summarized well when she said that she wasn’t there to ease the discomfort of white literary privilege, “God grant me the privilege of a mediocre white straight man.” As one of said mediocre white straight men, I have to say that I recognize my privilege which includes among other things, having the freedom to write from other perspectives without being told that I need to stay in my own little box because that’s where I belong.  

There’s a lot more that I have in my notes, but I’ll leave it at any of the writers on this panel are definitely worth reading (and if by some strange chance an editor were to read this blog post, for God’s sake, publish these amazing writers and don’t shove them into a box not recognizing the complexities of the African-American experience).

Renee Simms, Andy Johnson, Dianca London

Applying for an Individual Creative Writing Fellowship

I had some high hopes for this panel that were quickly dashed as I began to feel like the presenters were telling us things that were also on the website. Add in some accessibility problems, viz, inconsistent mic usage, small print on the powerpoint slides, etc. and I was getting discouraged before it became clear that the “secret” to getting an NEA grant is pretty much the same as the secret to getting out of the slush pile: write good shit. The only notable thing was that it was clear that the writing sample was, at bottom, the only significant factor in the selection process.

Jessica Flynn, Amy Stolis, Mohamed Sheriff

Wild Equations: A Math Poetry Reading

Finally, the last panel I attended was a reading of “math poetry” which consisted of the contributors to a special math poetry issue of Talking Writing. The poems dealt with the mathematical content at differing levels of sophistication (two of the panelists are either current or former math teachers in edition to being poets). 

Carol Dorf, Katie Manning, Amy Uyematsu

Alice Major, Stephanie Strickland, Jennifer Jean

Odds and ends

Between panels, I skulked the floor of the bookfair like a vulture in search of carrion as I picked up free copies of journals that the day before would have cost money. My final loot (including one journal I paid my hard earned dollars for is pictured below.

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And I would be remiss if I were to omit the fact that my sojourn was partially underwritten (as in, they gave me my admission) by the MFA program from which I graduated at the University of Tampa, who had plenty of admissions to distribute thanks to their being the official lanyard of AWP2016.

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