Confession of an approval junkie

I’m a slave of mutabilitie, as Chaucer might have put it. One e-mail, and all of a sudden my attitude changes and the world looks brighter.

The e-mail to which I refer is one I got this afternoon, from a woman representing the local chapter of the Nordmanns Forbundet, a Norwegian-American friendship organization I once actually belonged to (though in Florida). They had a speaker cancellation for their April meeting, and she wondered if I could take the gig at short notice. She’d met me when I spoke to a Sons of Norway group in St. Paul last year.

Somebody needs me! I regard myself with scorn in my mind’s eye, saying, “You pathetic loser. Somebody shows you a little attention and you wag your tail like a dog.”

Yeah, I do. Having no self-esteem of my own, I depend entirely on outside reinforcement for my satisfaction.

I think my depression the last few days may have been a symptom of an unconscious feeling of closure. I’ve always considered my lecturing career a sort of dragging appendage of my novel writing, like a long tail. I’ve basically stopped advertising myself as a lecturer since I lost my publisher, so I’d figured the Owatonna gig on Monday was the final shot. The last gasp of the tail end of my life as an author.

But now it’s OK, at least until the middle of April. I’m not quite gone yet.

A second consideration is that it pays an honorarium, which will help with my ongoing financial crisis. It occurs to me that this is one of God’s methods of providing for me on a One Day At A Time basis, just like the Bible says.

I’m always hesitant to talk too loud about these manna deliveries. I don’t want to sound like one of those enthusiasts who gets a smile from a girl and decides it’s God’s will that he marry her, or has a cancer remission and loudly proclaims he’s been completely healed forever. Guh-lory!

So I sin in the opposite direction, denying God the praise He deserves.

But today I’m giving credit where credit is due.

Did I do good, God? Huh? Huh?

More reasons I don’t miss being a kid

It’s dark and rainy today, and it’s dark and rainy in my soul.

I went to bed early last night, really tired, and then couldn’t get to sleep. I woke up early and couldn’t get back to sleep. These are things that haven’t happened much since I started the CPAP, and I don’t know what to think of it. Maybe my body’s still adjusting to the new sleep patterns. Maybe it’s an emotional reaction to having to pretend to be normal and talk with people at my lecture the other night. Maybe my suppressed psychosis is finally manifesting itself.

In any case, I’ve been low all day.

Found this site by way of Townhall.com. People list the odd things they believed when they were kids.

I’ve got some of those.

I believed a pack of nasty, winged dogs lived under my bed (but only at night). It was very important never to dangle my hand down over the edge where they could bite it. They couldn’t reach far out from their hiding place, though. Why a dog that lived under a bed would need wings, I never wondered.

I believed that there were other dangerous things after me in the night, beyond the winged dogs. But they couldn’t hurt me if I kept my sheets and blankets up right under my chin. If my neck got uncovered while I slept, though, I was in trouble.

I believed (or suspected) that all objects had personalities and feelings, like in the cartoons. To this day I feel guilty about throwing anything away. I know the objects are hurt by the rejection.

I used to wonder about that animal they always showed drawings of on weather reports. You know, that animal with the small head, thin front leg, and big hindquarters. My father eventually explained that it was a map of America.

When they did the Emergency Broadcast System tests on TV, I believed I was expected to hide under a table, like we did under our desks in school, during the bomb drills.

I believed that the Revolutionary War Battle of Concord had been fought in West Concord, Minnesota, a town near where we lived.

My mom told me that babies came from a seed that passed from a husband to a wife. So I figured the seed passed through their hands when they held hands during the wedding and the pastor pronounced them man and wife.

Brother Moloch and I had fun with our little brother Baal when he was scheduled for his first dentist visit. We told him they’d give him a shot with a big, square needle, and we made up a bunch of other harrowing stuff. This was standard family humor—we like ridiculous exaggeration. We thought he got the joke. He didn’t. They literally had to drag him into the office, screaming—and it was only a check-up.

Why Read What You Don’t Have To?

Is reading overrated? I mean, do you have to read every page from cover to cover? There’s Frenchman who says don’t worry about reading a book for talking or even teaching about it. He may be full of hot air, but Lennard J. Davis says he may have a point or two:

Let’s remember that even one of the greatest readers of literature, Samuel Johnson, admitted that “Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and puts down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is.” In fact, Johnson seemed to have made quite a career of not reading. He once lamented to his friend Mrs. Thrale, “Alas, Madam! How few books are there of which one can ever possibly arrive at the last page.” And reacting to advice that once started, a book should be read all the way through, he opined, “A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?”

I agree with the last comment and wish I could practice it better.

Coming to the ends of things

I want to say thanks to the folks of Nor-Tonna Lodge of the Sons of Norway, Owatonna, Minnesota, for bearing up under the weight of my lecture last night. I did my “The Viking Sagas: Dead Men Tell Tales” PowerPoint presentation, probably my most popular. I’m not sure why that is, though I suspect it may be because I listed it first on my promotional brochure.

Anyway, they were a wonderful audience. They even laughed during my reading of “The Tale of Thorarin Nefjolfsson’s Feet” from Heimskringla, which some audiences aren’t smart enough to do. And they bought a pile of books, which is a blessing from God at just this moment in my economic history.

A lady told me a story she’d heard from another author. I wish I remembered the author’s name, because I’d like to give proper credit. If anybody knows the source, let me know.

The story goes like this:

A writer dies and arrives at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter says, “We offer a special deal to writers here. You can choose whether you go to Heaven or Hell. Let’s look at Hell first.”

He leads the author downstairs, and opens the door to a large room, where a number of writers toil away at word processors. They are scowling and sweating. Whenever they pause, a devil comes along and whacks them with a whip.

“This isn’t very pleasant,” says the writer. “Let’s see what Heaven looks like.”

St. Peter leads him up to Heaven, and opens a door to a large room precisely like the first one. Here also a large number of writers sit hunched over word processors, scowling and sweating. Whenever they pause, an angel comes along and whacks them with a whip.

“I don’t get it,” says the writer. “What’s the difference between Heaven and Hell?”

“The difference,” says St. Peter, “is that here you get published.”

Not hilarious. Lousy theology.

But about as accurate a description of the writing life as I’ve ever heard.

I finished The Lord of the Rings today. At last.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it.

It’s just that it took so long. Not only because of the length of the trilogy, but because with books I’ve already read several times, I find myself lacking motivation; lacking the need to find out what comes next. That makes for slow reading.

I know C.S. Lewis would be appalled to hear that I don’t enjoy good books as much on re-reading as first reading.

I guess I’m just a philistine.

I did cry a little at the end, though. For Frodo. Because I know now what it means to know you have a wound that will never be healed, this side of Numenor.

But all in all, I’m glad I’ll now be able to tackle the pile of books Dave Alpern sent me, a month or two ago.

Journal Linkage

The issue of Relief Journal is in the wild, and from what I’ve read, it’s a strong issue. If you have not taken a chance on this journal or recommended it to your book club or writing group, I encourage you to do it. It will be far better than watching the news. I look forward to their Daily Sacrament contest winner, which will be featured in the next issue.

Also, Relief is trying to nurture new writers with a writing network.

The journal storySouth is calling for nominations for the best online fiction. Last year’s winner was a sci-fi short called “There’s a Hole in the City” by Richard Bowes.

David Lynn talks about refusing stories for The Kenyon Review which have also been submitted to other journals.

And there’s a new monthly literary review, Open Letters. They claim to be “dedicated to the proposition that no writing which reviews the arts should be boring, back-patting, soft-pedaling, or personally compromised.”

Maybe Genres Should be Good, Better, Best?

Plenty of literary books are unreadable. Plenty of genre books are unthoughtful. So how do you distinguish the pearls of any theme from the hack work? You argue.

My fear – no, make that prediction – is that literary fiction will be increasingly marginalized as general interest publications focus on “books people actually read.”

J. Peder Zane is exaggerating on what people read, but it does hit close to the mark, doesn’t it? If few people want to read what we call literary fiction, why shouldn’t it be marginalized? If all the really good writing is actually in literary fiction, then it won’t suffer in the long-run and may suffer in the short-run if we continue teach our children not to value good writing.

How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place

How sweet and awe-some is the place

With Christ within the doors,

While everlasting love displays

The choicest of her stores.

Pity the nations, O our God!

Constrain the earth to come;

Send Thy victorious Word abroad,

And bring the strangers home.

We long to see Thy churches full,

That all the chosen race

May with one voice, and heart and soul,

Sing Thy redeeming grace.

by Issac Watts

Music Embodied in Words

The best poems express something that cannot be expressed in other words. Change a word, a syllable, and you’ve changed the expression. If I can read a poem with the same ease and certainty as I do a billboard or newspaper, it’s probably not a poem, though it may be propaganda.”

Thus spoke Anecdotal Evidence, giving us a good reason for accepting difficulty in poetry and persevering to understand it. The fundamental problem with this is that modern readers don’t know if a poem is worth trying to understand. Are there not plenty of poems written by pretentious post-grads who draw inspirations from personal experiences which outside readers cannot possible understand, like Bilbo riddling with the dragon on his adventures outside the Shire? What helps a reader persevere through a poem? For me, it’s the confidence or hope that I’m reading a great poet. So I will work to enjoy Yeats and Eliot, but P.J. Smithe?

Tar Baby: An Unusable Term?

What do you think about the term ‘tar baby’? In this AP story (link defunct), two presidential hopefuls have said of a difficult–dare we say ‘sticky’–situation that it is or would be a ‘tar baby’ for those involved. Both men apologized for using the term, but I don’t get it. Are the Uncle Remus stories anathema in our sensitive age? Or is this a return of the idiocy that cried out a few years ago when a politician who labeled someone as ‘niggardly’ was rebuked for his racist remark? That’s about as smart as trying to take the ‘hell’ out of ‘hello’ by saying ‘heaveno.’

Can I make this title shorter? Part 2

I have more to say about last night’s subject, come to think of it. The importance of fewer words. Like white space in graphics. Like pauses in music.

I know a pastor who’s a very effective preacher, but hopeless with words. He actually has, I think, a phobia about words (like my own phobia about numbers). Faced with a word choice, he grabs the first word that enters his mind and throws it against his meaning to see if it sticks. If it doesn’t, he throws another, and another, in the hope that the aggregate of all those words will be somewhere close to what he wants to communicate. If he weren’t good with gestures and facial expressions, nobody would ever know what he meant. But because he adds a lot of physical clues, he makes it work.

A lot of people try the same sort of thing with writing. They write a sentence and then think, “That’s not exactly what I meant.” So they add another sentence, or a lot of modifiers—adjectives and adverbs. In the end they walk away from the steaming pile of verbiage, hoping the meaning they intended is in there, somewhere.

That’s not readable writing.

I made a reference to Westerns last night. Think of all the Westerns you’ve ever watched. You’ll probably recognize the following scenario.

The bad guys ride into town, yahooing. They ride their horses on the boardwalks and into the saloons. They fire their pistols again and again, indiscriminately. Mothers snatch their babies up and run away, terrified of a stray bullet or ricochet.

Enter the hero. He doesn’t say much. He goes into the saloon and orders his drink. He refuses to talk to the rowdies.

They get angry. They taunt him.

He does nothing but drink his drink.

They shoot at the floor at his feet, to make him “dance.”

He doesn’t take the bait.

Finally they do (or say) something unforgivable.

Suddenly the hero is all action. But it’s limited, deliberate action. He draws his pistol. He may not even be fast with it. But his shooting isn’t indiscriminate. He fires three times. Three men fall, each of them shot dead center.

The hero has his weapon under control. He doesn’t use it more than necessary, but when he uses it he uses it with precision.

The writer’s weapon is his vocabulary. He doesn’t show it off. He doesn’t try to impress the reader with his fancy style. He uses the minimum number of words he needs to, but they’re precisely the words he wants.

(I know there are good writers who use a more flowery style. But even they, I think, need to learn to cut words first, before they can move on to an idiom of their own.)

“But how do I know the precise, right word?” you ask (using a redundancy you’ll need to work on).

There’s no royal road. Do what you need to do to expand your vocabulary. Read thesauri in your spare time. Do word puzzles in the newspaper. Read books above your reading level with a dictionary at your elbow.

Whatever you need to do, do it. Learn more words so you can use fewer of them. These are your tools. If you want to be a master, you need to control them and their uses.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture