This is why writers need at least four cats. And, they don't need to be walked.
In 1887, Jules Renard wrote the following in his journal:
"Talent is a question of quantity. Talent does not write one page: it writes three hundred. No novel exists which an ordinary intelligence could not conceive; there is no sentence, no matter how lovely, that a beginner could not construct. What remains is to pick up the pen, to rule the paper, patiently to fill it up. The strong do not hesitate. They settle down, they swear, they go on to the end. They exhaust the ink, they use up the paper. This is the only difference between men of talent and cowards who will never make a start. In literature, there are only oxen. The biggest ones are the geniuses--the ones who toil eighteen hours a day without tiring. Fame is a constant effort."
It is amazing to me that the book, the written word remains as powerful as ever, as does the draw of being a writer, and yet the advice of how to succeed has not changed in one hundred thirty years. It is a matter of doing the work. Just do the work.
I am not writing about the meaning of the short story Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian published in The New Yorker. Nor will I discuss its quality of story or writing.
I haven't read it yet. I will tonight and then probably write something tomorrow.
So, why write something now?
Because for the first time in a long while a short story has demonstrated what for too long has been the dormant power of the short story. Go to just about any writers retreat or conference and invariably some grizzled elder or a young, soon-to-be-something writer will attempt to answer the question: Is the novel dead?
Rarely, does anyone seem to want to ask about the short story.
This is why I call its power dormant. There are many good short stories out there. And some great ones, too. But the power to spark debate, thought, conversation, argument as well as to touch on the truth of what it means to be alive at this time is often missed. There is a problem of relevancy, not always, but often, and so the chance that a story can affect the world beyond the smallish subset of short story readers is diminished.
And by relevancy, I mean that the writer is not able to authentically hit the nail on the head. Too much MFA influence. Too much floating, not enough struggling to reach the surface for air in the life of the writer.
And so, the power of short stories to move people and create a reflection of their lives--fears to joys--that helps all of us understand not just ourselves, but each other, remains dormant.
So, we now have the Cat Person moment, which comes to us during a reckoning of male elites and their abuse of power and leverage for sex (or dominance) of one form or another. It is a reckoning that is long overdue, and into it comes this story that hits a nerve because through the experience of two characters, the protagonist in particular, there is something to learn. And with that, to dislike or appreciate.
No matter what your opinion of this story, it is relevant and because of that it has a life in the culture, well beyond the pages of The New Yorker.
Literary journal editors should take note.
Last, I do note a bit of incongruity in the above. After reading a brief interview of Roupenian and a bit of her bio, she is someone who I'm sure has worked hard, but has lived a life without much struggling to reach the surface for air. However, she has written a hotly relevant story and it's touched a serious nerve, because she writes about a personal experience (the story is based on that experience) that many women can relate to as well as many men.
Through a coincidence of marriage (my brother's) I happily got to know and occasionally play tennis with George Witte, Editor-in-Chief of St. Martin's Press and established poet.
He was a generous and invaluable font of advice and insight and I am forever grateful for that. For a variety of reasons I have not seen him in quite a while, but I did recently see an interview of him.
The interview can be found here. I found this interesting:
"When I’m reading, I’m really listening…for a voice, a sense of urgency, a passion for the subject that excites me even if I have no previous knowledge of or interest in the subject at hand. Yes, other things are important: how many books on this subject have been published recently, how have they sold, and how is this proposed book different? Does the author have a “platform,” which can mean anything from he/she is a journalist who has published widely on the subject, or is an academic writing for a general audience, or is an expert for some other reason, or has contacts with individuals, groups, organizations, and media that can help the publisher sell, market, and publicize the book. But the key thing is the author’s voice, which no amount of proposal-laundering and packaging can supply. The best books have a distinctive sound and it’s audible from the very first encounter."
Obviously, to get in his reading pile, you need an agent, but what the above hints at is there are considerations that outweigh the platform and that a platform can be many things.
Think different. Innovate. Be authentic. Be true. Be unique.
Or, as Saint Pio said, "Pray, hope, and don't worry." And focus on writing a damned good manuscript.
One of the more challenging and vexing aspects of selling a book and gaining an agent is the requirement of an author's platform. You want to hint at it in your query and then hammer away at it in the book proposal.
The idea: I have so many blog followers and newsletter lovers and access to the morning news shows that I can guarantee this book will sell and sell big.
Translation: My platform is so big and strong and committed that you (agent/publisher) will barely have to lift a finger to get paid.
Whether you think this is bullshit or common business sense does not matter. Agents and publishers want to see your platform and if you don't have one, you will have a difficult time finding either.
There are ways to establish yourself as a credible marketer of your book, but in this day and age there are soooooo many people trying to create a platform that what used to work no longer really does.
Think of it this way: You go onto a new website or blog and instantly a popup appears pleading with you to join their mailing list. Something like: If you care about your wife and children then you better give me your email address. Even when they don't make threats, the insistence of the popup is annoying and cloying.
So, don't be like that. Just stop. Now. And recognize that everyo9ne, and I mean everyone from yoga instructors to plumbers to wanna be self helpers to every other author is trying to use social media and their blog to build a platform/following/network.
Think different. Find a counter-intuitive and more effective way to demonstrate your ability to speak to your audience. Don't be the person constantly staring at their blog counter and Twitter following wondering why you can't get above five-hundred.
Write what you want to read is a fairly common bit of writing advice. On its face, it seems to make sense. Be excited about what you are writing because you are creating the book you've been looking for in the bookstore.
There is some truth to it, but what if no one really wants to read what you want to read?
Don't worry, the Internet has another piece of advice. Study the market for your genre or topic to see what people are buying before you start writing.
And with that, we have two opposing pieces of advice that often pose as rules and are often promoted simultaneously on the same website of some hard working writer trying to build their platform.
What's the truth, or at least the correct path? I don't know. I've written stories that I would want to read and have not found anyone to publish them. And I've written stories that come from my heart and I find people to publish them.
I've studied the market for ghostwriting clients--a good thing to do in that scenario--but not for my own writing. I have to feel something for what I am writing, which is often an emotional connection or an artistic desire. Sometimes, others get it and like it so they publish it, but not always.
So the rule, if you could call it that, is to write what I want to write and always write from the heart or as an artist seeking to broaden my palette.
John Hodgman has done something quite nice in his new book Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches: he's infused memoir and humor together to create an affecting piece of writing that centers on the idea that all anyone is trying to do is their best.
He doesn't say this explicitly in the book, but it comes through in numerous scenes. He spends an afternoon with a friend, stoned, at a river in western Massachusetts (a lovely area) building rock stacks. He discusses his mother's death in a way that is touching and vulnerable as well as authentic and flavored by the notion that his mother, like he, did her best to be a good parent.
There is also his humble ownership of his life as a minor celebrity and the wealth and ease of life it's brought him--not to mention his father sold him a house in the Berkshires for a dollar. He does not claim to have been masterful and strategic. He only claims to have worked at his craft--writing and being funny--and being lucky to have been called by Jon Stewart to appear on The Daily Show, which gave his career a huge assist. And then the Apple commercials didn't hurt his bottom line. In all, he just says he did his best and with some luck (which is the intersection of preparedness and opportunity) he's built a nice life.
It is hard not to at least be a little envious of his life. Aspiring and striving writers (I place myself among the striving) will see a path that could open to them and hopefully someday will. With this may come a little why him and not me. Few of us can buy a house for a dollar.
But he does have talent--Vacationland proves that--and he does have humility.
He only claims to be doing his best, which is what we all are doing.
So, please read his book and enjoy it as I'm sure you will.
I've put together a succinct little guide to writing and living a writer's life I call Things Writers Do. Basically, we live life as an artist, we read good writers, we break the rules of writing except the ones that should not be broken, and we write sharp dialogue.
Oh, and most important, we don't listen to crap advice (I state this a few times). This, I know, sets me up to be a hypocrite and fraud, but I tried to include things that would be new and of value to writers. No lists. I promise.
It's cheap (less than five dollars by one penny) and easy to get (just go here).
The online magazine Slate ran a story this morning that does a good job of dissecting book sales over the past year. In it, Laura Miller explains how the New York Times
compiles its best sellers lists (it isn't broadly based on sales, but a survey of certain, secret bookstores), how it was gamed this year, and then examines subsets of fiction and nonfiction to see what has sold well.
In the midst of it, she explains some of the why these books did well, or not.
It is worth reading this story--I have to confess, I am not a huge fan of Slate--because Miller sums the year up well and as artists, we need to also have part of our brain in the business of our art.
There are a couple of pullouts I noticed in Miller's report. The first is that books are not movies. Movies must make money right away in order to be viewed as a success. Unless it is from a well-known author (Dan Brown, Danielle Steele, JK Rowling, etc.) books rarely are breakout hits in their first week much less first year or even two.
Instead, most books that end up doing well from new or moderately known authors require a period of intensive selling. This can be months and even years.
So the takeaway is that we cannot and should not view book sales within the frame of a calendar year. Publishers should because they need to keep track of the bottom line, but everyone else should realize that books have lifespans and require effort.
The second piece is that Miller notes agents and publishers are sick of a genre related to the book Gone Girl. Yet, these books are selling well. If you write in this genre--intentionally or by happenstance--are you going to be rejected because the publishing establishment is sick of a genre that sells well? Or will you get short shrift because they are bored?
Last, the vaunted author's platform is getting harder and harder to create. In past posts I've written about the proliferation of insipid writing advice the often comes in the form of top ten lists, such as for dialogue, plot, etc. They are generally crap because the tips are obvious and bring nothing new to the conversation or understanding of how to write.
What they are designed to do is help a writer build a platform. Amazingly, it works for some and they have fairly healthy followings. However, because SO MANY ARE DOING THIS NOW, the competition for that audience is intense and I believe the wave has crested. The audience is looking for something better, more authentic, and that is new.
Further, the media is fractured. There are few media outlets (and social network sites) that can draw a large audience to what you've written or that can help you build a platform.
My advice is rather than build your own platform and drive yourself crazy watching your blog, Twitter, etc. followers never grow beyond about 500, leverage someone else's audience. There's ways to do this and you're welcome to give me a call or send an email and ask.
It is something when the message of a book can last well beyond its reading.
Today, I am thinking of Karen Armstrong's take on The Golden Rule as she explains it in The Spiral Staircase. It's a beautiful book that everyone should read.
In it, she discusses leaving the convent she spent seven years living in when she questioned her faith. She goes through some difficult times and through much of it seems to believe that God does not exist. However, by the end she comes to the conclusion that God is unknowable and that religions that say with certitude that God exists and thinks in a certain way are ignoring the history of the Bible and reality.
So if God exists, but is unknowable, what is the role of religion? Armstrong says it boils down to teaching and constantly seeking to live The Golden Rule, which she states as: “Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you.”
She adds, "One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect; yet religion, which should be making a major contribution, is seen as part of the problem. All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule. Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody — even your enemies."
The Golden Rule, is a universal archetype and one that is as powerful as it is simple. Be kind and forgiving.
And, she restates the rule in a way that does not require action other than to be respectful;. It isn't do unto others but don't do to others what you don't want them to do to you.
To simplify again, don't do anything that could hurt another person. The examples in the current day where this lesson is lost abound and begin with the cancer that is our current president. Never has there been someone more dead set against The Golden Rule than Trump. He daily does unto others what he doesn't want them doing to him. And his reasoning is that he harms them to protect himself and his people.
And yet, the religious right applauds this man. They applaud abandoning The Golden Rule and everything Jesus taught.
How do we heal? We practice The Golden Rule.
The lesson to writers in this? As should all people, walk through this world with the wisdom to not treat anyone in a way you don't want to be treated. This is how a writer lives his or her life.
So, I read Other Men's Daughters by Richard G. Stern and though it was certainly consistent with the time it was released (1973) I enjoyed it. It reminded me of some of people my parents knew when I was very young. Not that they fiddled with students, but intellectuals living a thinking life in a culture that was changing, but still male dominated.
The forward to the book was by Philip Roth. A person I'd always assumed was something of an egomaniac and intellectual elitist. However, in his forward he fondly remembered his friend Stern and wrote with kindness.
I was in a nostalgic mood and had never read any of Roth's work, so I picked up Portnoy's Complaint.
- It is very good.
- It is relentless and persistent in its obscenity.
- It takes Jewish family angst to an extreme level.
- It explores a view of women as object that is also relentless.
It is not written for feminists or necessarily women. I imagine it has angered women, especially feminist women. In fact, given the context of the current day when a number of well-deserving men are being held accountable for horrible behavior that is clearly, inexcusably horrible, reading Portnoy's Complaint couldn't help but spark some thought.
Roth wants to tell a truth and comment on contemporary culture in 1968 through an extremely toxic protagonist. It is well-written, but is it moral and ethical or should it be avoided? Does it or does it not have a place the American literary mainstream? Not sure. Still digesting.
What I will offer is that his book is sometimes (often?) presented to male audiences as something of a must read for men. Most of the time there is a responsibility taken to say that the representations in the book are extreme, but cut to meaningful truths. The protagonist's actions are ugly and wrong, but they are used to make a valid comment.
However, sometimes the book is represented as a strictly masculine form of writing and storytelling.
There is a line that gets crossed where the writing and meaning behind it is conflated with what some believe it means to be male. An attitude of take what you want from women.
This is not Roth's point. His point is to use an extreme example to comment on the conflict Jewish men felt between a more sexually free society and what their parents wanted from them in 1968. This was true for a lot of people--men and women--who were freed to explore desire, but constraint by their upbringings.
Today, it is obvious that a number of men have used wealth and power to adopt an attitude of I can take what I want from women. They are a thing and like all things, they can be used, taken, possessed, etc. There is Trump the master liar and bigot followed by Harvey Weinstein, even a ranking member of NPR news. These people point to an illness in our culture in the same way that so many mass shootings and adoration and veneration of guns and violence is a sickness.
Not everyone is ill, but these are uniquely male illnesses. They are cancers eating away at the fabric and qualities of good that Americans have relied on even during some very ugly times. Unfortunately, with Trump and Republicans acting as amoral, greedy, power mad autocrats, we are also losing a lot of what was good in our culture and protected us from people such as Trump and the Republican leaders.
We live in a time where the defining political goal of forty percent of the country is greed through tax cuts and wealthfare AND to piss off the other sixty percent as much as possible. If a policy and/or statement is so ugly and dishonest it gets a rise out of the other half of the country (coastal elites and the rest of that bullshit) then they have accomplished their goal. It's not a bug, it's the feature.
And, as these men (and many women) work for anger and greed, there are men who are liberal, supposedly supportive of equality, etc. who are using their station in life as a weapon to take from women and others. They may have a different political philosophy from Trump and Republicans, but they share an attitude of greed and selfishness that enables harming others (women).
Where does Roth and Portnoy fit into all of this? There is a large number of men who I believe are not able to figure out that Roth is making a valid comment as opposed to displaying a valid attitude. And this is a book from 1968. What about music, movies, magazines, websites, and on and on that today lead people to very dark destinations? people (mostly men, but many, many women too) to willingly accept and allow themselves to toss their own intellect aside to fall for destructive and idiotic ways of thinking.
Have we reached a point where saying you are presenting art or argument to make a valid point is irresponsible if the art or argument is meant to provoke? The reason being, in this day and age, too many people can't distinguish between the point and the ugliness in the art or argument? Or maybe, you just want to piss people off and sow even more division and toxin?
I think musicians and other performance artists set for themselves the ideal place to play such as Carnegie Hall or some well known club where they've seen their favorite musicians and dreamed of some day.
For writers, or at least for me, it's bookstores. There are a few I would like to find my books in and do a reading at such as Shakespeare and Company in Paris. The other would be Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge. I have spent many a lovely afternoon picking through their books and believe it to be a true gem and worth my drive south from New Hampshire.
This is not to say that we don't have wonderful bookstores here. There is Water Street Bookstore here in Exeter:
And Book & Bar in Portsmouth:
But sometimes a heart wanders and finds the exotic in the new-ish.
Anyway, the whole point is to love bookstores and see them as future stops on your path as an author.
For some reason while looking through all of the lovely new fall books for one to read, I was overtaken by a sense of ennui. All I could think was, "Meh." Maybe there are some good ones or even great ones, but, "Meh."
And then I noticed what looked like a retro cover design (it was, those crafty publishers) and picked it up. Wouldn't you know, it was Other Men's Daughters by Richard G. Stern. The NY Times Review of Books calls is the equivalent of the Great Gatsby to the sixties. It was published in 1973, so, whatever.
The introduction is written by Philip Roth--a man I think looks like such an asshat that I haven't read any of his books--and he speaks of his friend Richard Stern in such a kind and respectful way that I then went out and bought Portnoy's Complaint.
I suppose I am going through something of a 1970s retrospective. Maybe the next will be Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Other Men's Daughters has captivated me in a combination of nostalgia (I was eight when the book came out) and respect for the quality of the writing. [Sometimes I have a sense of amazement that I hate and regret with regard to the fact that books prior to the 1990s were written on typewriters. Typewriters!? Can you imagine?]. The story takes place in Cambridge and its protagonist is a man who has a life many would envy. Harvard professor, beautiful Cambridge house, beautiful family, etc., etc. And yet, he is unhappy with his wife whom he casts as nearly a shrew. When a young summer student (21-years to his 40-something) shows a shine toward him, he melts.
I find it incredible how open he is about this affair. He takes her out and runs into friends and parades his young love like a rare piece of arm jewelry. In return, some admire, others warn, and there is some jealousy. I'm not through the book, but I really do find it to be a phenomenal document that brings me back and sheds light on a time where my parents were the same age as the protagonist and I the same age as his kids.
So the point, I guess, is not to always be retro, but to keep an open eye for gems you may not have heard of.
Last summer, not this past one, I went to Tanglewood in Massachusetts to see Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor for the first time, ever. It would also be the last because soon after he retired from the show.
It was a beautiful early summer evening and the grounds are up on a hillside with huge, wide old trees and a simply stunning view of the setting sun. The whole experience was one that I'd love to create.
And so, a deep regret formed that I had waited so long to see something so good. I felt as if I'd wasted too much time in my life and missed these sorts of moments where we are able to stop the merry-go-round that is life and breath.
Then I heard Keillor was coming to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, (I live down the road) with Robin and Linda Williams. The show was in the smallish Portsmouth Music Hall and we sat in the front row middle of the balcony.
It wasn't Prairie Home Companion, but it was nonetheless wonderful. Keillor came out and did a monologue that was funny and touching for about thirty minutes and then sang with the Williams and then sang with the audience (he had the lights turned up and asked the audience to face each other), and then an extended monologue and a few more songs. The show lasted for three hours and never once did Keillor do more than take a seat for a few moments.
His stamina and ability to create stories without notes is incredible. When I got home I looked him up on Wikipedia (not the fullest or absolute most trustworthy, but good despite it) and discovered that he considers himself to have Asperger's, which my son has.
For years now, I have told my son that Asperger's is a gift and challenge. It gives most who have it a gift, but it also gives numerous deficits. If you can find your gift and work through the deficits, you will have a good life. My son is struggling with the deficits side of the equation right now. His grades at his beloved college have got him into trouble and now he is fighting to remainthere. He loves his school, has wonderful friends, and is brilliant at his major, but he struggles with tests, has huge anxiety around speaking with professors who give vague guidance on projects, and has trouble understanding when he needs help and how to get the right help. He has a lovely woman helping him, but one professor seems to refuse to grade my son's work in a timely fashion (assignments linger from the beginning of the semester), which adds to my son's anxiety and makes it infinitely harder for him to follow through on his strategies for succeeding at college.
In short, he is a brilliant kid who has found his gift, but he is being tripped up by his deficits, a professor, and a college program where what you know and your abilities matter less than how you test. I suppose these are things we have all dealt with, but like many kids, he is not like most of us.
Seeing Garrison Keillor reminded me that it is possible to overcome long odds and do well with Asperger's and that my son is working very hard to succeed. But if he does not, another path will open.
To separate thoughts on parallel lines.
First, I love movies. I love them for the same reason I love books. Documentary/nonfiction or fiction/feature they have the power to slow time, to give a respite to a world that often feels as if it moves too fast. I used to drink so that I could slow the merry-go-round down enough that I could hop it for a while, but that was not a great strategy.
Movies, books, guitar, writing have become my coping mechanisms. They work, though I do miss having an occasional drink, especially wine. But c'est la vie. And I'm happier now.
Second thought, I want to toss, no throw my cellphone into a very deep lake and never look back (of course this is more a rhetorical throwing and pond since it would be irresponsible to pollute). For me, and I believe our world, the cellphone is the one device of modernity that makes the merry-go-round spin faster and faster. I do not use it like some people--my list of downloaded apps is small and I am the slowest text-typer there is--but it must go everywhere with me. People expect this of others and it is a fact of life now.
So to bring these thoughts together: The movie theater is the only place I can think of where we are required by the theater and the laws of politeness to turn our cellphones off. Not only do we get to escape into a movie for about two hours, but we are incommunicado. And if someone tries to communicate with us, we explain, "I was in a movie" and all is well.
But this amount of time is too brief. Plus, I've noticed that some people--I'm look right at you group of older women in the Portsmouth Music Hall who talk incessantly through each movie I've been to as of late--talk through the movie as if they are in their own living room.
How to reasonably lengthen this time? In New York Magazine (great crossword puzzle and as of late a better read than The New Yorker) they had a small piece on ÖÖD houses. These are prefab houses that can be dropped down just about anywhere (https://www.oodhouse.com). I can envision areas where one stays at an ÖÖD house in some quiet field or forest as a respite from the spinning merry-go-round. I also see Millennials latching onto this in a big way. They are the first generation to have their lives dominated by technology and have parents who remember dial phones and writing letters.
It is impossible to avoid technology completely and be part of the gig economy, but it is also possible to make a bundle of money offering respites from technology.
I just finished the book Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami last night. There is another book with the same title written by Hemingway and published in 1927. Not sure if Murakami intended the connection between the two books or between him and Hemingway, though I hope not.
Murakami is most certainly a master writer and I've previously read his What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and enjoyed it (I love to run, slowly and badly), but this collection of stories is uneven at best. There are a few stories in here that rise to a higher level, but there are others that feel forced and cliche.
One in particular concerns two high school aged boys. I couldn't get through it because the dialogue of the boys just doesn't work. Since this is a translation I suppose I should lay at least some blame on the translators. After all, what is cool in Tokyo may not play well in NYC so the translation needs to make sure that the intent behind the writing, well, translates.
I do wish more short story collections would get published, but o0ne of my worries is that with so many literary journals publishing boring, un-relatable, slow-paced stories that agents would simply replicate what the journals do. Especially since it seems that so many agents (many, but not all) are disconnected from the lives of readers and people in general. I recently read Raymond Carver's Will You Please Be Quiet, Please, which was wonderful, but I couldn't imagine something like it being published today.
Maybe I'm wrong. I hope so. I'd love to hear from folks who have great recommendations for good short story and narrative nonfiction collections.
Mary Karr once said in reference to memoirs (same holds true for any piece of writing) something to the effect of: No change, no story.
While many writers ignore this truth and it reflects in the quality of the story they tell (coincidentally, a book can be very well written, but not tell a story worth reading), Karen Armstrong seems to have taken this bit of advice to heart.
Her book, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness is a magnificent example of how to write about profound, multi-layered change. She begins the story as a nun hoping to have a personal relationship with God. Despite her best efforts and constant admonishment from the other sisters, she does not have the transcendent moment she desired and was told she would have. Disillusioned, she leaves the convent and enters Oxford with the desire to study literature, earn a doctorate, and teach.
Along the way, she cannot escape the convent's cloistering of her ability to think critically and independently, meets numerous characters, suffers what she believes is severe mental illness, is screwed out of her doctorate, becomes agnostic (closer to atheist), and suffers setback after setback. And yet, she perseveres to find not only a satisfying life and career writing about God, religion, and spirituality, but a better and deeper understanding of the true relationship of God, religion, and spirituality.
This is a book that my friends who take the Bible as literal truth would struggle with, but one that people who struggle with religion and faith would find immensely satisfying. Long story short: Religion's true--as it was founded--role and relationship with God is not to establish an untenable truth that God is a being with human traits, but that He does not exist in any form or way that humans could ever have words to fully describe.
Religion and the Bible--she includes other texts of faith--should be a means to commune with that spiritual entity that is beyond understanding. Therefore, faith is not about believing specific Biblical stories as literal truth. It is about seeing them as attempts by those of the distant past to explain what was un-explainable, create a historical record (primarily of Jesus), and basically foster a debate and questioning of the world and the nature and meaning of God.
As her core point of what role religion and faith should play in our lives and the world is her take on the Golden Rule, which goes back to Confucious (well before Christ). As she says, "Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you. Look into your own heart, discover what it is that gives you pain, and then refuse under any circumstance to inflict that pain on anybody else... This is civilization."
So rather than the liars, hucksters, and Elmer Gantrys who argue for wealth as a sign of godliness and use God to advocate for war and violence (currently we see a profane few doing this in all religions), the ideal of God, faith, and religion is compassion and to deliver kindness to ourselves and others.
Raymond Carver is without a doubt the master of the short story. I'm not sure how long I've been reading his work, but I read for the first time the other night a story that touched me deeply and reminded me in the fullest way possible why I read and why I write and love short stories.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Pleas? tells the story of a man who in a weakened, vulnerable state forces his wife to tell him the truth of a one-night affair that she had. The title characters, Ralph and Marion, met as students years before, fell in love, married, and as the story takes place have two kids. Their love is true and Carver shows this by describing the fealty each had to their own studies and intellectual lives as students, that would only be set aside for the other.
But, one night, at a friend's party with heavy drinking, Marion went out with one of the male friends to purchase more booze and the two ended up having sex in his car. They were gone from the party for three hours.
The pain that passes through the couple as she bit by bit lets details escape until it is all laid out is so expertly done that I shivered as I read it. In my own life I was deeply in love with a woman who on her birthday, during her party, went off with a mutual friend and had sex with him. Months later, I drew it out of her and the pain it caused was and remains excruciating. As it would turn out, I would learn after we broke up that for most of our five year relationship, four of which we lived together, she was continually unfaithful to me with a string of other men. Most were drunken encounters and one where I was left asleep while she went to have sex with another man.
As one friend said after I found all of this out, "It's not like she broke up with you. You just lost your turn."
In Carver's story I saw myself in Ralph. I felt his pain, really agony that someone so close, so intimately connected to you, whom you trusted beyond doubt, and whom you loved like you never thought possible, could betray all of that love and trust. The story was moving beyond words and helped give me a bit more perspective on my own experience, which I think is probably not that uncommon.
And there, is the power of the short story. It can transport you to a place never before known or experienced and bring it to life. Or, it can hit very, very close to home in unexpected and emotionally taut ways.
Generally, I'm not a big fan of writing exercises. I would rather be writing something I plan on doing something with than performing the writerly equivalent of navel gazing. Probably the worst of these is the writer's prompt. Search for writer or writing on Pinterest and you will be spoon fed numerous prompts that are supposed to inspire or give practice. But really. I don't want to practice writing another person's idea.
But, there are things that writers can do that will lead to bigger and better things. I call it sketching because it is essentially what an artist does. Head out with pen/pencil and paper and find things to sketch.
One thing that I like to do is head out to a cafe or park or some other place where people meet up with friends and find a couple of group of friends and sketch out the conversation they are having. I don't eavesdrop, though sometimes I will hear a bit here or there. What I do is watch them for a minute or two. I look at how they use their hands, hold their heads, their lips move, and the way they carry their bodies and dress. Then I sketch out their conversation or the hidden thoughts that each is thinking to create a little scene. It doesn't have to be much, certainly not pages, just a little bit on how I interpret the scene.
This makes great practice for characterization. All the details of the colors of their clothes, gestures, and especially what they do when listening help improve scenes that I intend to write. It creates a catalogue of reference scenes, I suppose.