The Magic of Reading

We’ve all heard that reading is a magical act—that it has the ability to both transport us and transform us.

If you’ve ever dipped your toe into the writing world you’ve heard that in order to write you must read. It’s a truth so deep that any writer feels it instinctively.

Reading fuels us.

There are some works that trigger a response so profound I must create. This trigger, this deeply sonorous knell, isn’t a subject or a setting. It isn’t a character. It is an alchemical mix of words and rhythms that calls forth my own music and I must come to the page, my inner song rising up in concert with those who came before me.

When I come to the page with this musicality resonating through me the words pour forth unstoppered. Each word is a note, each period a rest, a sentence a stanza, a paragraph a movement. I am no longer writing, but composing

When this happens I want to take the experience, the story, and hold it close, experience it again and again. And luckily, because of the printed word, I can. It’s all there, unfurling between the pages.

And the most amazing thing is that we each resonate to a different frequency, each of us a part of a greater whole, a broad range of work, each story is as unique as the person who created it.

This is the magic of reading.

What’s resonating with me right now? Try “Rust and Bone” by Craig Davidson in The New Black and All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones.

The Courage to Create

Since my last post I’ve been busy writing, and studying, and thinking… good grief the thinking. Things are changing. Hopefully, I’m changing. I’m treating this as a business now, devoting my time not just to writing, but to educating myself about the craft and the business. I’m researching markets, and really studying the work of those I admire. I’m setting goals and deadlines. It’s not only been illuminating, but necessary.

I write a lot, but up until this point I haven’t really been putting my work on the market. A large part of that is that I have been protective of my work, sheltering it, coddling it… smothering it. That’s right. Call me the overprotective parent. As a result my work has shown a failure to thrive.

As Tennessee Williams—one of my most beloved saints—said, “Art takes courage. Talent is there, of course, but it’s courage that picks it up and allows it to walk—through fires and meadows and right into someone’s heart.”

I haven’t been very courageous.

I’m an opinionated person. I’ve been told repeatedly that I have a strong personality. But when it comes to sharing my writing I’ve been very shy. Art is a deeply personal thing. It gets beyond the opinions and machismo to the heart of a person. When I write I don’t insert myself into the piece, nothing I write is autobiographical, but there will be pieces of things, a piece here, a truth there, that hits deeply home for me. The themes—being trapped, losing oneself, illness, famine—all these are motifs that appear in my work, and they’re all things I have personal experience with. They’re what gives my writing its truth. Sometimes we feel like our truths are fragile things because they’re so personal. But they’re also universal truths. By peeling back the layers we expose the universal truth at the heart of personal experience, making these truths readily available to all.

It takes courage to put yourself out there, to be vulnerable and share a part of yourself with others. But art demands nothing less. Vulnerability can be a gift. It allows us to be human, to acknowledge our mistakes, our desires and needs.

If you’re an artist, whatever your medium, I encourage you to take chances. Put yourself out there. I’m reminding myself of this every day, fighting with my natural inclination to hold it close and keep it secret. But by opening myself I am also gaining so many rewards, new friends, new business contacts, and new opportunities.

Take chances. Give yourself the opportunity to be brave, and learn from whatever comes along.

If you’d like to read more about the power of vulnerability I recommend Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly.

And if you’re just looking for a great read, I recommend Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation.

Welcome Home

Well, this blog has been defunct a while. Illness, family’s as well as my own, has led me to take some time off from writing. I’ve made some adjustments, and I’m getting back into writing, slowly but surely. I’ll get there.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about circles lately as there’s a major circle going on in my life right now. Shortly before my life fell apart I wrote a sweet little story called Abandoned Places. This piece is about to be published in the forthcoming St. Louis Noir by Akashic books. This time between writing and publication, this circle, encapsulates a very dark time in my life. Perhaps it will contain it, and I can move forward, looking back at this as a learning experience, as fuel for the machine. Maybe it is this forthcoming publication that has gotten me to sit back down at the computer. No doubt it has helped, but I think it’s more than that.

In the past year, since my illness hit me full force, I’ve felt like I’ve lost myself. Writing is such a large part of who I am that without it I don’t feel normal. Much of this time has been spent in despair. Depression and anxiety has been the order of the day, and I suppose that’s normal. There’s the fear of death, but even worse is the fear and despair that you’re not going to die, and you’re not going to get better either. There’s just this long stretch of pain and misery. When your body isn’t working well, you’re uncomfortable and hurting, it can be hard to find the stillness of mind, much less the drive, to sit down and write.

Things have changed though. I’m still sick, and some days still might include a trip to the hospital, but I’m having more good days now and my mind has settled some. I still hope I’ll get better, but I’ve accepted that, for now, this is my life. With that acceptance comes some peace, and I find myself able to dedicate some time in front of the computer again. I’ve even found a little encouragement along the way.

I recently read Stephen King’s book, On Writing. I enjoyed it, but it was the part where he talks about writing after his accident that really struck home with me. Mr. King speaks about writing as a way to thumb your nose at despair, as a way of getting back to life. Yes, Mr. King, that is exactly what I’m doing. I’m fighting now. I mean to reclaim as much of me as possible, and that means writing.

It’s hard. My writing muscles have gone mostly unused this past year. That’s the longest I’ve gone without writing since I was ten, when I first sat down in front of that old electric typewriter of my mother’s. That internal movie screen seems farther away now, like the prescription on my glasses needs changing or I’m watching it in a drive-in movie theater during a snow storm, but I have faith that if I keep coming to the computer and giving my mind the opportunity to play it’ll get clearer.

For those interested in St. Louis Noir it’ll be out in August. You can order it from bookstores or Amazon, though I’d encourage you to support your bookstores, especially those of the independent variety. There is also going to be a Noir at the Bar St. Louis Noir edition/launch party on August 30th, 7:00 pm, at Meshuggah Café in the Delmar Loop. Come out, drink, listen, debauch.

Thanks for reading, and hopefully there will be more to come.

Peace.

Noir at the Bar 2

Well, it took a lot of hard work, but I finally have my first publication. My short story “Dead by Dawn”appears in the Noir at the Bar Volume 2. It’s a sweet little tale about neuroticism and guilty secrets. Plus, it’s such an honor to be published alongside such great authors. (See contributor list below.) The editors Jedidiah Ayres (A F*ckload of Shorts) and Scott Phillips (The Ice Harvest) also have stories in the volume. There’s so much talent in this anthology it’s bursting at the binding.

Sales of the book go to support Subterranean Books, one of the great independent bookstores in St. Louis so it’s for a great cause as well. You can purchase the book by stopping in at Subterranean books located on the Delmar Loop in University City, or you can get it online at http://store.subbooks.com/product/noir-bar-volume-2

Look at this list of talent:

Erik Lundy
John Rector
Caleb J. Ross
Hilary Davidson
Aaron Michael Morales
Matthew C. Funk
Kevin Lynn Helmick
John Hornor Jacobs
Jane Bradley
Matthew McBride
Cortright McMeel
Fred Venturini
Gordon Highland
David James Keaton
Nic Young
Jason Makansi
Robert J. Randisi & Christine Matthews
Jesus Angel Garcia
Tim Lane
Nate Flexer
Glenn Gray
Duane Swierczynski
Jon McGoran
Les Edgerton
Frank Bill
Mark W. Tiedemann
Benjamin Whitmer

With that lineup you’re bound to find something to shock and horrify you.

There’s also a great book trailer to feast your eyes on:

To Be Loved

La parabola del Buon Samaritano Messina Chiesa...

La parabola del Buon Samaritano Messina Chiesa della Medaglia Miracolosa Casa di Ospitalità Collereale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For two days I have sat at my computer and stared at this post, the cursor blinking on the screen. I’ve wanted to publish it because I believe in what it says. I believe other people should hear it. But I’ve paused because it is also deeply personal.

In the end, I’ve decided that I must post this. I hope you will bear with me. What I have to say has nothing to do with literature or writing, but it has everything to do with life.

To be loved you must love.

This world scares me. There is outright hate and terrorism committed against other people just for being different. Beyond that there is a greater lack of compassion toward our fellow human beings. To me, the last is more terrifying than the outright hate because it is this lack of compassion that leaves people marginalized on the edges of society. Indifference is one of the cruelest acts we can portray on others.

As a child I had a lot of love for people. I think most children do until they’re taught to hate by their parents, their peers, or their religion. I grew up with conservative relatives. I remember being introduced to Fire and Brimstone Christianity at a young age. Sitting there on that hard wood pew, I was convinced the red faced preacher up in the pulpit was going to hang some poor sinner in the back of the church. I soon developed the attitude that if nothing I could ever do was good enough for God then why should I even try?

Luckily, that attitude never took a deep rooted hold. I didn’t go to church often, and when I did I spent more time staring at a huge painting of Jesus on the back wall and trying to determine what lay beyond the next hill. I’ve always had a great imagination and it’s served me well.

I was one of those difficult children. I thought too much and had my own opinions which I voiced loudly. I was never able to accept something just because I was told. In retrospect, I feel sorry for my poor mother. She put up with a hell of a lot from me, and despite the fact we still stand at polar ends, I hope she can one day be proud of the person I’m becoming. That’s right, becoming. I hope I never stop becoming, because to stop becoming is to stop growing, and when you don’t grow you die.

Now to the point of this little post.

Lately I’ve been lamenting the fact that I’ve been lonely. I’m convinced that loneliness, not being alone, but loneliness is one of the worst feelings a person can experience. I think to myself, what has happened? I used to have a real life with friends and hobbies and fun. Then it all changed.

To be loved you must love.

Everyone has several defining moments in their life. I can name three off the top of my head. But the one I think has been the most defining, at least of late, occurred while I was working on my degree. The events that took place then changed my life, and not in a good way.

It wasn’t the actions of others that changed me, but my reactions to what happened. No one can change you unless you let them.

I was deeply hurt by what happened, and as a consequence I grew bitter and started shutting down. My view of the people around me grew jaded, hard. I pushed people away until I didn’t have anybody left. I looked around, and instead of having compassion for people, I categorized them all as idiots. My favorite quip whenever I saw something I considered idiotic was, “Bell curve.”

In short, I became a bastard.

I grew lonelier, and farther away from humanity. I lost how to connect with others, grew awkward and socially inept because I forgot one simple thing. Everyone deserves respect and compassion. I had let myself forget how to love, how to care for others, all because I was hurting.

My move to St. Louis has been a lot of things. It was the start of a new chapter, a leaving behind of the old and the embarkation of a new and exciting career. But it was also a journey to find myself, to stop reacting, to stop living as others dictated I must and become my own person.

It’s a hell of a ride. I’ve discovered a lot, some I didn’t want to discover, or didn’t want to deal with, but when you’re looking at yourself, if you are going to be authentic, then you must be truthful. By far, the most important thing I’ve rediscovered is that kernel of light inside, that kernel of humanity that lets me see other people not as dangers, or idiots, or strangers, but as people who deserve love and compassion because they are human beings, not just in theory, but in practice. I like to think that part of this healing has occurred because of the wonderful people I’ve met here. They’ve helped remind me that kindness still exists. Hopefully, I can nurture this kernel to grow, and in doing so regain my own strength. Maybe I can stop being the victim and be the Samaritan once again.

Throughout this post I’ve said that to be loved you must love, and it’s true. But it’s also true that the love of others can open up the heart of other people.

Love teaches love.

Reclaiming the South

Southern Live Oak with Spanish moss hanging fr...

Southern Live Oak with Spanish moss hanging from it. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the majority of my life I’ve been trying to escape The South. I didn’t like the politics, the values, or the heavy sense of familial and religious morality that seemed to surround My South. As a consequence, I made myself as un-southern as I could. I dreamed of northern urban landscapes and read everything I could about it. In college I minored in theater and took voice and diction. At this mid-sized southern university I was proud that I already seemed to be ahead of my classmates in losing my southern accent. The problems I still had I worked hard on correcting. Most people don’t pick up on the fact that I’m from the south. It still escapes occasionally, usually when I’m nervous, tired, or drunk. Even then, my southern drawl tends to be muddled.

But it was more than not liking the politics, or the image the south had developed. There seemed to be something inherent within myself that was completely un-southern. Perhaps that had more to do with being the black sheep on both sides of my family. I didn’t fit in with the southern gentry of my father’s side, and I didn’t fit in with the southern of my mother’s family. I found I was much more likely to fit in with my friends who had been transplanted from other, more northern, locales. As one of my southern friends says, “You’re just very blunt.” It’s true. I lack her southern charm. (This is a woman who could charm a rattler off a snake.)

I’ve kept this desire to distance myself until just recently. Perhaps it’s my writing that has brought about this curious change. I find myself digging deep down, not only into my imagination, but my past as well. Or perhaps it comes from reconciling with myself, accepting who and what I am. Maybe this is a sign of maturity, of moving past old childhood perceptions and preconceived notions. More than likely, it’s a mixture of all these things.

Whatever the cause, I now find myself enamored of The South.

I continually find myself drawn to Southern writers such as Truman Captoe, William Faulkner, William Gay, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams. I find myself picking up the Oxford American and longing to go to a M.F.A program located in the south.

The South certainly shows up in my writing. My first novel is set in Georgia and deals with the emphasis placed on family and public perception that seemed to surround me growing up. But while I feel enamored of the south now, and maybe even ready to reclaim my southern roots, I’m not sure I can. I still don’t feel Southern. Maybe it’ll be a gradual process of shaking off the mantle I’ve built around myself, or maybe I’ll never be able to connect to that part of me, the otherness inside getting in the way.

I want to soak up that heritage, the good and the bad, to learn about my family and enjoy their little quirks, to connect with them in a way I’ve never had an interest in before. (Though that last may be aided by the fact I live far away from them at this point.)

Through all of this self-discovery and exploration, I am finally ready to say, “I am from the South.”

Authenticity in Art

Recently, I’ve started several blog posts and then stopped, thinking it too personal. It wasn’t revealing any great, dark secret, but if I posted what I’d written I’d be revealing parts of myself. I’d have to let people in, let them see me, and show my vulnerability.

The last few weeks have been hard ones for me. Nothing tragic has happened, nothing terrible has intruded on my life, but the cloud of dis-ease has been weighing heavy on my head. Usually when this happens I keep it to myself. I’m not sure why I do this, though I think at least part of it has to do with the culture I grew up in. In The South there are strict codes about what you talk about and what you don’t. You don’t share, you don’t talk about yourself. It’s nobody’s business bur your own. In short, talking about your feelings was verboten.

At some point I think I must’ve internalized this and made it personal. It’s scary to let people in, scary to let them know you’re vulnerable.

All of my life I’ve hidden myself. I’m not sure why, it’s just the way I’ve always been

But art is about opening yourself up.

A friend of mine said, “You hide yourself in your writing.” I was shocked. Not that I hid myself, but that he’d picked up on that. I’ve written all my life, but I haven’t started writing for other people’s eyes until the last year or so. The stuff I wrote beforehand, I doubt it’ll ever see the light of day. It’s too personal.

All of this is also nicely ironic. I left a professional degree because, in part, I felt it was too stifling, that I couldn’t be myself within the parameters of that profession. I left to become a writer so I could be my authentic self. I could be as crazy, as bold, and as true to myself as I wanted to be, and here I am still hiding.

So the last couple of weeks I’ve been curled up in my studio, banging my head against the proverbial wall. I’d gotten to a point where my lament was not, “Don’t let me fall apart,” but, “Please, God, let me prove myself before I do.” I finally reached a boiling point, and in that moment I realized something. You know what I realized?

I realized, fuck this.

I realized I have the right to my feelings. I have the right to a bad day, a bad week, and fuck anybody and everybody who ever made me feel like I didn’t.

It made me more determined than ever to let down those walls, let people in, and be myself. How can I create authentically if I can’t be my authentic self?

I put the question of authenticity to the Subterranean Writers’ Group. I got a lot of answers, but most seemed to agree that you reveal yourself in your writing, whether you want to or not. You write from both your conscious mind and your subconscious. It’s why so many writers have repeating themes. We’re all trying to make sense of the world around us, our pasts, and our futures.

I once heard someone say, “Never play it safe.” You can’t. You have to be bold and willing to open yourself up, at least a little.

There is a line of course. It is fiction, so some of you must stay hidden. You don’t want to write yourself into the story, but letting that bit of truth trickle out of you, that is the moment when your fiction comes to life.