Sunday, April 27, 2008

Duke Altum's POTW #62

I recently discovered this poet for the first time, and though I barely know his work, some of his poems have really struck me... I chose this one because it has a little "local flavor" - for me, anyway. The slave-turned-politician/orator/ambassador Frederick Douglass is one of the most inspiring and impressive stories of personal determination and triumph in this country's history. Starting with literally nothing (not even ownership of himself!), he taught himself to read from ads, scraps of paper, and anything he could find... and eventually became one of the country's most accomplished and eloquent voices for personal freedom and responsibility. His autobiography (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself) is an amazing book and well worth seeking out some time for a true-life story of succeeding against the odds (were there ever any greater odds against a man?).

Douglass was born into bondage on a farm that is only about 5 miles away from where I am sitting now - right here on Maryland's Eastern Shore. So for us around here his story is part of the local lore. I have yet to actually visit the site of his birthplace (which is embarrassing to admit!), but I plan to one day... and take my sons there as well.

Anyway, I never identified the poet I was talking about... no, it's not Frederick Douglass, but the African-American poet Robert E. Hayden. Hayden was the first black poet laureate of the United States and a pioneer poet of the African-American experience in this country. This poem is of course not just a worthy tribute to aforementioned Mr. Douglass, but also a moving rallying cry to all Americans who are still struggling to find personal freedom and make sure their voices are heard and their inherent dignity as persons is recognized. In this election season, sadly, it seems as relevant as when it was first written in the 1930's...


Frederick Douglass

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Journal of a ‘Novel’-Entry 44

My Point Is….

You have to wonder if writers have it all together upstairs. Especially unestablished writers. I get up, I drink some coffee and read a book for a while, which I do just to get my brain into some kind of motion and because I enjoy it. But in so doing, I usually knock off an hour of time. Then I go to my basement, pull out the spiral notebook in which I am writing an utterly uknown novel that it’s hard to imagine anyone who is not related to me would care about in any way. I scribble in the notebook for about 45 minutes at the most, with nobody awake, no noise, and nothing to show for it except a lot of broken pencil leads and a few paragraphs. (This is if I am lucky and a small child doesn’t wake up way too early, which is what happened today.) Then I go upstairs to start my day, for I don’t have any more time to devote to the effort. I have one job to go to, and one some days another one after that, and by the time I get home it’s around 8 p.m. and I put my children to bed and get a little time to spend with my pregnant wife before she goes to bed out of her own utter exhaustion.

The rest of the day, while I am trying to do what I’m accountable for, I wonder about what the point is. Is there really any reason to attempt to write a novel today, when the odds against it being published are so amazingly long, the odds of anyone buying or reading it our day and age are even longer, and the tangible benefits to me and my family are at best miniscule and at worst non-existent? Yet, there I go the next day, or the day after that, and try it again. Not too long ago I spent 45 minutes in my basement and came up with three sentences. On a great day I might get a page and a half of longhand. I am working on the 5th chapter of a novel that I envision to be about 12-15 chapters. The first 4¼ took me two years, from March 2006 to March 2008, to produce in draft form. I go about the rest of my life, don’t talk about it much with anyone except with my brother, think about it an alarmingly huge amount of the time when people don’t realize I’m thinking about it, and go down there the next day to try it again. Soon, in my home, we will have a third child, a newborn, and after that the time to devote to this work will be even more sparse, the bills will be even more pressing, the importance of getting my work done even greater, and all the rest of it.

But the weird thing is, I know I will keep trying, in spite of the way it all feels and looks. It’s hard to imagine taking years out of your life to do something only to have it go nowhere, but that’s what a lot of writers do. You chalk it up to experience and start all over again. I’m not saying that’s what will happen here, because I don’t know what will happen. But the odds are very favorable that this will stay on one of my shelves somewhere. You’d think this would persuade me to give it up, but it won’t, and that’s the part even I don’t understand. I’ll keep at it, because there’s a compulsion in me to try to write stories, and this story in particular, and there’s no telling what it rose up out of or what it means. It just is. It’s there in me because God put it in me and the only way to approach doing what I am trying to do, in the end, is just to believe that God wants me to try. And I will try, I mean, I’ve proven that – I’ve been trying to write for almost 20 years. Something will send me back down there to try again in spite of all that’s working against it. I am not sure what that ‘something’ is, and I can’t think of many reasons to be glad I have the compulsion – but I am still glad I have it. Perhaps the only reason is that God did give it to me, and that makes it a gift, and gifts are something to be thankful for.

Chapter Full of Challenges

The tentative title I have going for Chapter V of the novel is A Domestic Tragedy, Obeisance to Mammon. As part of the title implies, I have at least one ‘big’ event to work into the chapter, but I haven’t really gotten there yet. My chapter titles tend to change in the course of writing them, too, so this one could definitely change. The second phrase, which would be familiar only to consistent readers of this blog, which means my brother only, has been associated with this project for a while now. (See my blog entry, August 31, 2006, in the archives if you don’t believe me.) It’s lifted from the mouth of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who in turn lifted it from the Gospel. I doubt this one will change, because that phrase is tied to an actual event from history that I want to use to round out this chapter and Part I of the novel. As for the ‘domestic tragedy’ part, readers will just have to wait to find out what that means (probably for a very long time, too).

Talk about the bull in the china shop, right now I am just barreling my way into this chapter and not paying all that much attention to what I’m upsetting. I’m still trying to find my way back into the voice and the rhythm of the story, and the only way I know of to do that is just to hack away at it, as I said at the end of my last entry. But I am also doing something I haven’t ever attempted to do, which is bring a story ahead through almost four years in the space of one chapter, which means I have to give a reader enough information to know what has happened in between. Or at least the relevant parts. So right now I am trying to explain how Walter and Greta went from having no children and no home of their own at the end of Chapter IV (although the creation of an offspring is sort of imminent in that chapter’s closing moments) in the fall of 1927 to having a house and a 9-month-old son when the next chapter opens. And believe me, I’m winging it. I’m making it up as a I go along for the most part, but I think that might be all right, depends on what I come up with to explain the leap.

What’s important is to move the story along, because we have to get into the 30s and the Great Depression. That is the historical core of the book; the formative period of Walter Brogan’s adult journey and of his son Luke Brogan’s entire life. It also was the formative core of my own father’s entire life and as such was the ultimate impetus for this entire enterprise. So it is imperative for me to get into it and start digging away at what is there. It’s essential for my novel and, in a much larger way, essential for me. This gets back to what I wrote about in the first part of this journal, but for now the literary challenges abound and I have to worry most about them. At some later point I can return and attempt to analyze what I thought I was doing when I set out to do it!

My job at present is to get the reader from Fall 1927 to March 1932. That means taking the story through 1928 and explaining how the Brogans found a house, how Walter Brogan paid for it, and how Greta’s pregnancy and the birth of Luke Brogan went. That also means cruising through 1929, which includes the opening of P.G. Heinricks’ family restaurant, The Golden Wheel, and no less than the Stock Market crash of 1929. After that, I need to sweep you along into the 1930s in even less space, for I don’t see too much happening in the first two years. It took some time for the effects of the crash and the Great Depression to infiltrate down into small town America. But by 1931 into 1932, things were getting hard everywhere. People were out of work and farmers were killing their cattle. It all led to the moment when an over-achieving former Governor of New York took the national stage in Chicago and informed the nation that it was time for a ‘new deal’, that we should all ‘admit’ that for some time we as a people had been paying ‘obeisance to Mammon’, and that things in America had to change……….

Friday, April 04, 2008

Journal of a 'Novel'-Entry 43

Irons in the Fire

Up until now I have still been having a lot of trouble getting back into the writing of my Indiana novel. It is difficult, once you have been away from a writing project for a while, to get back into the flow of it. There’s no switch to flip that will get you back into that elusive rythmn, so important for writing a long work of fiction. For weeks now I have been wondering if I lost the touch on the project and if I was going to have to consign it to the large pile of failed novels from my past life – too numerous and unimportant to elaborate on. In my last entry I even claimed – prematurely, as it turned out – to be back at work on it, but the fact is that I wrote one scene and again put it aside in favor of another (short-term) project.

At least I can say I haven’t been idle. I don’t like to languish as a writer, and I try hard not to. On the contrary - I now have four pieces out in the world looking for a home in print. Most of which I have mentioned before, but I will group them together now and also indicate, just for kicks, where I have sent the pieces, hoping to find a generous editor who will accept them for publication. ‘Sling It’, my essay that portrays the recently retired football legend Brett Favre as a ‘literary inspiration’, is under consideration in Sport Literate magazine’s ‘Football Essay Contest’ for 2008. ‘Start Something’, a short story I wrote in 2005 concerning a single young man with a heart for poetry who has an unexpected and violent encouter on an overnight business trip, has been submitted to Relief: A Quarterly Christian Expression. ‘Auto-Response’, another short story that is under consideration at Narrative magazine (and was unfortunately rejected earlier by Glimmer Train), is about a family man in the earliest stages of grief over his father’s death (also on a business trip, I have only just noticed!) who has a curious accident in a snowstorm. And finally I have just submitted my essay (see recent post) ‘Hope on the Wing: Encounters with The Innocence Mission’ to Image magazine.

This may be a personal record for the most pieces I have had ‘out there’ at one time, but I know a few times before I have had three pieces out, and most of the time I end up going 0 for 3. Not saying 0 for 4 will happen here. But if it does, the good news is I am used to it. If it doesn’t, well, I would consider one placement out of 4 a successful effort, and anything above that would be extra. I believe in all of the pieces. I may as well go on the record and say I expect at least one of them to get accepted. But we’ll find out in a few months if that expectation was justified.

Unfinished Business

The only reason I started on some of the pieces I mentioned above in the first place is because I was having trouble getting back into the novel to work on Chapter V. But the hiatus got out of hand. In particular the essay on The Innocence Mission grabbed me full throttle and wouldn’t let go until it was written, so it made more sense to devote the necessary time and effort to getting that done than to avoid it any longer. As soon as that was done, however, I felt restless and frustrated – my novel was, and remains, unfinished business.

But I didn’t have any confidence I could easily enter that world again. If nothing else the experience of trying to get a novel off the ground gives me plenty of respect for those who write even one of them, let alone 10, 15, 20…I honestly don’t know how these writers find the stamina or the time to write their books. The problem for me has been that each chapter has taken about 3-6 months just to draft, and after that you have to revise and rewrite, revise and rewrite….the revision process never ends. Even if I had financial independence and nothing but time it would be damned near impossible. With two jobs and almost three kids, forget it!! And yet, the work calls to me as it always has. There I was with a prologue and four lengthy chapters in draft and about two years of writing invested in this novel, and my confidence was wobbling. Could I honestly throw in the towel again? It seemed possible that I had crossed a line you couldn’t come back from. As my brother put it in an email, by way of ‘encouragement’, ‘I don’t care if I have to pick up the pen myself and finish it, it’s going to get done.’

Well, we certainly can’t have that, so it’s back to the grind. (Just kidding, Duke.) Chapter V is another mountain looming before me. It may be the largest one yet. But three days ago, I went to the foot of the mountain and simply started up again. It’s funny, because it was a day – and I do have days like this – where I simply didn’t want to work on it. I didn’t feel like it, I was tempted to just read or putz around on the internet or whatever. I had to force myself to go down there and pull it out. Which is exactly what I did. Sometimes you just have to say to yourself, ‘If you do not take this out and get started today, it will never get done.’

The amazing thing is that in spite of the fact that I had gone almost 6 months without feeling at all like I knew where it was going or how to continue, as soon as I sat down to it again a few days ago, the process kicked back in and things started to happen. I worked steadily on it that day and have again for the last two mornings. A workable plan of attack for Chapter V almost immediately came together in my brain, and I jotted it down in a margin of the manuscript. From that point on, it became a matter of following the plan and making adjustments along the way. Which is exactly how I have written the other chapters. What’s the point? Only this: the plan had no possibility of coming together until I started to work on it. The process of writing creates its own momentum, that’s why many writers refer to it as ‘organic’. It propels itself, you just have to kick it off and learn how to let it flow.

Now, I have a lot in the plan for Chapter V and it is going to require more months of work – not weeks. It will not be easy. Add to that a new baby here in about 8 weeks and it will become maybe twice as hard. I don’t feel that there is any guarantee that the work will get done to my satisfaction any time soon. But I know somehow that it can happen. And I have learned the lesson once again that persistence is the most crucial quality for a fiction writer. You have to sit down and bang it out. It is, literally, the only possible way.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

One Man's Epic Struggle Against the World

An appreciation of John Kennedy Toole's remarkable comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces

Sometimes you'll read a novel and you'll think to yourself, "OK, this was a great read - a formidable contribution to the _______ genre." And then there are other occasions, much rarer of course, in which you'll finish a novel and want to climb up onto the highest platform you can find and proclaim, "I have never read a story like this before... and trust me, you haven't either! Track down a copy of this book and read it now!" I am happy to report that John Kennedy Toole's posthumous comic masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces, is a brilliant example of the latter category. Consider this post my yelp of praise from the rooftops.

Of course, I am way late to this Crescent City fete. This is a novel that has been repeatedly praised from the moment of its publication in 1980 - unfortunately, years after Mr. Toole committed suicide at the ridiculously early age of 32. But since that time the book has never gone out of print, and the party rages on in celebration of what is undeniably an amazing artistic achievement - a novel that is truly comic in both the classical and modern senses of the word: hilarious, ribald, madcap, rambling, poignant, profound, vulgar (again, in both senses: crass AND appealing to the masses), wise and ending on a note of joy and hope. It is a terrible shame that the ending of the author's own real life echoes with tones from the opposite end of the scale.

But if one of the criteria by which we might evaluate the impact of a life is the kind of legacy it has left for those who come after it, then at least on this level the achievement of John Kennedy Toole can be justly and gratefully celebrated. Walker Percy said it best in his hilariously self-deprecating, appreciative forward:

"It is a great pity that John Kennedy Toole is not alive and well and writing. But he is not, and there is nothing we can do about it but make sure that this gargantuan tumultuous human tragicomedy is at least made available to a world of readers."

Fortunately for us, Percy was true to his word and helped to make that happen, after being given the original manuscript by Toole's mother and cajoled into reading it. The rest, as they say, is literary history.

To attempt to summarize such a convoluted and rambling a tale as A Confederacy of Dunces would go well beyond the scope of a blog post. Instead what I want to try to do is whet appetites and provide intriguing clues as to why this is so immensely pleasurable and profound a book. That's why I have called this not a review, but an appreciation.

The tale's hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, resembles an American Don Quixote for the modern age. That description alone may capture the attention of readers who, like myself, appreciate and admire the long literary tradition of the loveable fool, the protagonist whose entire existence seems to be contra mundi, swimming against the strong currents generated by the society he (or she) lives in. Reilly certainly has his share of windmills to assault (everything from capitalism to post-Vatican II Catholicism to the sexual revolution), and he even has a Dulcinea of sorts in his feisty, "liberated" ex-girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff. Throughout the novel Reilly is engaged in a "war of letters" with Minkoff, each railing against the worldview of the other and recommending steps of action for the other to get their lives in order (Toole breaks into the narrative repeatedly with passages from these letters, as well as other passages from Reilly's copious journal entries). Myrna thinks that Ignatius needs to break the apron strings attaching him to his mother and become sexually active; Ignatius is shrewd enough to know that sex is certainly not the answer to all of his problems, but is slow in realizing how much his dependence on his mother is hurting him. Ironically, it is Minkoff who in the end provides for him the escape from her that he so desperately needs.

There are many reasons why this is a truly great novel. For one, the prose is richly evocative of the city of New Orleans - clearly written by a native, in celebration of one of America's most unique and treasured landmarks. (Of course the book to me came with an extra layer of poignancy since I am reading it post-Katrina: the clammy squalor and poverty so vividly described in many of the book's passages can only have increased since that terrible storm ravaged this proud city.) I have never been there, but there is a palable sense of humidity and grime in Toole's descriptions of the sleazier parts of the French Quarter and of the Reillys' home, especially Ignatius' room where he spends the greater part of his unemployed days lying in bed and/or writing. Yet he also captures the frenetic activity in the bustling streets, the carnival atmosphere, the elegant architecture and the rat-haunted ports in descriptions that make you feel as if you know the place. Most if not all of the characters in the book are a part of the city's working class, and as you follow them from local corner groceries to night clubs to back alleys where winos, hookers and transvestites frolic together, you really get a flavor for this crazy and unique place.

But to me the most appealing aspect of this novel is its main character and his quixotic struggle against modern civilization. Perhaps it is the idealist in me, the unabashed romantic, but I (like so many others) am always drawn to this type of protagonist - the "holy fool" engaged in a one-man (or woman, as the case may be) war against the accepted norms, the vagaries and absurdities of a culture that has rejected traditional wisdom and values. To me the ultimate poster child for this sort of free-spirited, "foolish" innocence that takes pleasure in challenging current conventions is the great English writer and thinker G. K. Chesterton, and I could not help but think of him as I followed Reilly around... he even seems to resemble Chesterton, with his great bulk, heavy moustache and penchant for dramatic costumes and chivalric statements and deeds. I don't think it's an accident here that GKC is even quoted in the book, or that Reilly's favorite book and "bible" for living is a medieval text (The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius - a book that highly influenced C. S. Lewis as well, it's worth noting). Ignatius is much more cynical and confused than Chesterton seems to have been (one of the wisest and most well-grounded writers I know of, largely due to his celebrated defense of and adherence to, Catholicism), but he retains both a physical and spiritual resemblance to the man, and is something of a "colossal genius" in his own right.

As with any true comedy in the classic sense, Ignatius Reilly's story is not all fun and games and belly laughs. There are moments of great poignancy and pain in this novel, especially towards the end after many of his repeated attempts at "revolution" have failed, most of his friends and family members have rejected him, he has lost several jobs and his own mother is trying to get him institutionalized. At one point a former colleague visits him at his home and experiences the physical squalor and emotional abuse (his mother is an alcoholic, I meant to add) he lives with on a daily basis, and takes pity on him. In this moment the reader too is distracted enough from the hilarity of Reilly's rantings and madcap adventures to see the harsh realities of his life, and it is deeply moving... and when a writer can do that, take you on a such a wild, rushing roller coaster ride and yet inspire in you deep feeling for his characters along the way - feelings you hadn't had time to notice you even picked up - then that to me shows he knows what he's doing. A Confederacy of Dunces is a wild, hilarious, but also powerful and profound journey that has you pulling for the philosopher-hot dog vendor-culture warrior buffoon, Ignatius J. Reilly, to the extent that when you wave to his car speeding away on the last page, as he makes one last mad hopeful dash towards freedom and possibility, you find yourself surprised at how hard it is to say goodbye.