Amy Irvine is NOT Coming to Rockville!

Amy Irvine to Read From her new book,  Desert Cabal

Friday, May 03, 2019, 7:00 pm
Rockville Town Hall (The Old Church), Rockville, UT

Darn it!!

Ever since Amy’s new book was published last November, I’ve been after her to come read in Rockville. The book has been so popular, she’s been on a non-stop reading tour all over the darn West. But, finally, it’s our turn! Don’t miss this! What’s the book about? WELL!

As Edward Abbey’s environmental classic Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness turned fifty last year, Amy felt its iconic author, who inspired generations of rebel-rousing advocacy on behalf of the American West, was due tribute as well as a talking to. In Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness, Amy Irvine admires the man who influenced her life and work but challenges all that is dated—offensive, even—between the covers of Abbey’s book. From Abbey’s quiet notion of solitude to Irvine’s roaring cabal, the desert just got hotter, and its defenders more nuanced and numerous.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR AMY IRVINE is a sixth-generation Utahn and long-time public lands activist. Her memoir, Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land, received the Orion Book Award, the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, and the Colorado Book Award. Irvine teaches in the MFA program of Southern New Hampshire University. She lives and writes off the grid in southwest Colorado, just spitting distance from her Utah homeland.

 

Interviews with Amy and Excerpts

RadioWest: bit.ly/2Q5V8Im
Colorado Public Radio: bit.ly/2Q4kwT1
Lit Hub: bit.ly/2yc0tqH
High Country News: bit.ly/2ABS8gq
Rock & Ice Magazine: bit.ly/2wWvTQy

Amy’s website: https://www.amyirvine.com/

Order the book at: Torrey House Press is an independent nonprofit publisher promoting environmental conservation through literature. We believe that culture is changed through conversation and that lively, contemporary literature is the cutting edge of social change. We strive to identify exceptional writers, nurture their work, and engage the widest possible audience; to publish diverse voices with transformative stories that illuminate important facets of our ever-changing planet; to develop literary resources for the conservation movement, educating and entertaining readers, inspiring action.                 TORREY HOUSE PRESS             VOICES FOR THE LAND          www.torreyhouse.org

Questions? Contact me:

 

Amy Irvine is NOT Coming to Rockville!

Amy Irvine to Read From her new book,  Desert Cabal

Friday, May 03, 2019, 7:00 pm
Rockville Town Hall (The Old Church), Rockville, UT

Darn it!!

Ever since Amy’s new book was published last November, I’ve been after her to come read in Rockville. The book has been so popular, she’s been on a non-stop reading tour all over the darn West. But, finally, it’s our turn! Don’t miss this! What’s the book about? WELL!

As Edward Abbey’s environmental classic Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness turned fifty last year, Amy felt its iconic author, who inspired generations of rebel-rousing advocacy on behalf of the American West, was due tribute as well as a talking to. In Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness, Amy Irvine admires the man who influenced her life and work but challenges all that is dated—offensive, even—between the covers of Abbey’s book. From Abbey’s quiet notion of solitude to Irvine’s roaring cabal, the desert just got hotter, and its defenders more nuanced and numerous.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR AMY IRVINE is a sixth-generation Utahn and long-time public lands activist. Her memoir, Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land, received the Orion Book Award, the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, and the Colorado Book Award. Irvine teaches in the MFA program of Southern New Hampshire University. She lives and writes off the grid in southwest Colorado, just spitting distance from her Utah homeland.

 

Interviews with Amy and Excerpts

RadioWest: bit.ly/2Q5V8Im
Colorado Public Radio: bit.ly/2Q4kwT1
Lit Hub: bit.ly/2yc0tqH
High Country News: bit.ly/2ABS8gq
Rock & Ice Magazine: bit.ly/2wWvTQy

Amy’s website: https://www.amyirvine.com/

Order the book at: Torrey House Press is an independent nonprofit publisher promoting environmental conservation through literature. We believe that culture is changed through conversation and that lively, contemporary literature is the cutting edge of social change. We strive to identify exceptional writers, nurture their work, and engage the widest possible audience; to publish diverse voices with transformative stories that illuminate important facets of our ever-changing planet; to develop literary resources for the conservation movement, educating and entertaining readers, inspiring action.                 TORREY HOUSE PRESS             VOICES FOR THE LAND          www.torreyhouse.org

Questions? Contact me:

 

Ah, Noveling

On cutting, and revising, and hanging on, and letting go.


You may know that I [the Minneapolis writer, Kelly Barnhill] spent spring 2013 engaged in a grueling editorial process with my upcoming novel The Witch’s Boy. This was through no fault of my beloved editrix Elise Howard, who is brilliant and amazing and right about everything.

This has everything to do with me. And with the work of novel production, and novel refinement, and novel discovery, and novel re-discovery. And, believe me, it is work.

  • Revising a novel is building a granite castle. And then taking it apart and building it again. By hand. By yourself. And then, when you’re done, you run a marathon. Barefoot. While carrying a very heavy and very ill-tempered goose. It’s kind of exactly like that
  • Revising a novel is a return to a garden that you planted a while ago – one that you know is loaded with vegetables, but you cannot see them because the weeds now tower, jungle-thick, over your head
  • Revising a novel is that colicky baby that will not go to sleep no matter what you do
  • Revising a novel is the thick, muddy traverse through a swamp, only to realize that you have to climb a cliff on the other side. And you forgot your rope
  • Revising a novel requires the skin of a rhinoceros and the strength of a bull and the delicacy of a jeweler
  • Revising a novel feels like performing open-heart surgery. Without anesthesia. On yourself
  • Revising a novel requires you to heft a thousand-pound boulder, sling it onto your back, carry it up a mountain, and balance it on the head of a pin

Which is to say that revising a novel is effing hard.

And that’s the case generally, and in the case of The Witch’s Boy, it is even more so. This book is incredibly close to my heart, and was often emotionally exhausting to write. I have always loved my characters, but, in this novel, I – for real – love these characters. Partially because I didn’t come up with them on my own. This story began, very long ago, as a story that my son and I told one another during a particularly grueling hike through Shenandoah National Park when he was only six. There is a lot of Leo in Ned. There is a lot of me in Aine. And Sister Witch. And the Bandit King. Hence my struggles.

Also, there’s something about working with a new publisher – it’s exciting and inspiring and energizing, but also nerve-wracking. Because we want to get it right. And we want to make people happy with us. And we want to not suck. This is the way of things.

So I worked my bum off, took three months to write two crucial chapters that were going to re-imagine and re-focus the larger arc of the novel, allowing the choices and action to flow from a single nexus point where my main characters converge, bear witness, keep silent, and irrevocably change their trajectories.

Three. Long. Months.

And….maybe it worked? We’ll see.

Anyway, apparently, in the last revision, I managed to grow the novel by ten thousand words. And that was after some major textual excising. Which explains a thing or two.

And now I am, once more, into the brink. I have tools. I have a map. I have my dear editor sounding her trumpet and spurring me onward. I have a lantern. I have a sword. I have a pure heart and a just cause and a mind on fire. I have characters to rescue. I have giants made of stone. I have a stalwart wolf and a ferocious girl and a boy who does not know what he is capable of. I have my heart and my brain and my love, and I hope it will be enough.

Anyway, I will be posting some out-takes here and there.

Like this:

He was alive. For now.

“Ha!” a man said, shaking his fist at the water. “It won’t be taking this one, by god. Only one victim for that blasted river.” He gave the river a hard look. He did not help the father, nor did he touch the boy. Everyone in the village knew that those marked for drowning were cursed by nature. The river was a greedy thing. And foul-tempered. It would have that boy eventually. This was common knowledge.

And this:

This was not magic. This was a simple practicality. Witching, after all, is tricky work. And complicated. She had learned, after all these years, to see the world from the inside – its foundation and its beams, its braces, insulation and gaps. She knew the weak places. She knew how lean against the fabric of the world and nudge it this way or that. She knew how to make suggestions. Anyone could do it, if they ever learned. But people called it magic, and conflated it with her real magic, and Sister Witch didn’t correct them.

Her real magic was dangerous – capable of great good and great evil in equal measure. It was work keeping it good. It required a firm hand and an iron will. Best to use it sparingly, if at all.

And this:

The ladies from the village came in droves. They descended onto the grieving house like an army of magpies, all feather and gossip and claw. Sister Witch thought she’d never be rid of them, and suffered the indignities of grief in relative silence.

“It’s a pity,” the magpie ladies simpered. “Such a terrible pity.”

Go away, Sister Witch seethed.

“And on such a beautiful day,” as they munched on the pastries they had brought for the family.

She thanked her visitors for their meat pies and fruit pies and custard pies and pies she could not identify or name. She thanked them for their pots of stew and their legs of lamb and their heavy rounds of hard cheese. Their gifts were thoughtful, tender, and full of wiles.

They were gifts that asked questions.

Sister Witch had no intention of answering a thing. Her son, Tam, was dead. Her magic could not save him. And that was that.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how deft your hands may be, or how sharp your scalpel or how cunning your eye. Cutting away bits and pieces of our novels – fingers, toes, tumors, tongues, unsightly moles or pounds of pulsing flesh – well, it hurts. 

A lot.

And because I hate being alone and wallowing in psychic pain, I turn it over to you. Any sections that you’ve cut lately? Any extraneous scenes that simply detracted from the central pulse of your novel – that single, beating heart? Paste it here and share! Our amputated novel bits can assemble and congregate. They can bind together into hideous and beloved homunculi. They can resuscitate, respirate, ambulate, and live.

Here is Faust and his homunculus. It worked for him, right?

And it will be beautiful.


Kelly Barnhill won the Newbery Medal for her children’s book, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and is getting much acclaim for her latest book for adults, Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, a collection of dark, whimsical fantasies. Listen as she talks with NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro about it here.

girlKelly is an author, teacher and mom. She wrote THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, THE WITCH’S BOY, IRON HEARTED VIOLET, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK and many, many short stories. She won the World Fantasy Award for her novella, THE UNLICENSED MAGICIAN, a Parents Choice Gold Award for IRON HEARTED VIOLET, the Charlotte Huck Honor for THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, and has been a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, the Andre Norton award and the PEN/USA literary prize. She was also a McKnight Artist’s Fellowship recipient in Children’s Literature.

dreadful

Kelly lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her three brilliant children, architect husband, and emotionally unstable dog. She is a fast runner, a good hiker, and a terrible gardener. You can visit and chat at her blog: http://www.kellybarnhill.com

“Don’t Let This Be The Most Important Thing That Ever Happens to You”

I began this blog in May 2012 with the post, A Book Worth Swallowing Whole–The Joy of Cannibalism, after reading Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home, by Nando Parrado and Vince Rause. I wrote in that post: if you were alive in 1972 you will remember the famous Andes crash of the plane carrying the Uruguayan rugby team. Sixteen of the original 55 or so passengers and crew survived two-and-a-half months in frigid, impossible conditions by consuming those who didn’t. The story was made into a book and movie (Alive!); the rescue was a world-wide astonishment.

Nando Parrado, you might recall, was one of the two (then young) men who hiked out after surviving 72 days without, ah, shall we say, routine food or water. In doing so, they saved themselves and the other 14 from certain death.

ccf8768df8da7c3984e63dcadfa07a21--milagro-grace
Nando Parado 2009

At the time of my original post, I didn’t realize a documentary (2009) had been made about the incident, and having just watched it, I wanted to share it. You’ll need a strong stomach for only a couple scenes (it looks like chicken).

I think of Parado’s book often (it’s way better than the documentary–but the film is interesting) and wanted to share the one line that stayed with me this entire time. It’s what Nando’s father said to him when he returned (remember both his mother and one sister died in the crash along with many of his closest friends whom he had also eaten), and it is the title of this post. I think of that line whenever things float up from my past to haunt me, and I suggest you do the same when your ghosts visit you.

Here’s a link to Nando Parado’s Website

Here’s the trailer for I AM ALIVE: Surviving The Andes Plane Crash from The History Channel. You can watch the film on Amazon for $1.99.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/64179730″>I AM ALIVE Surviving The Andes Plane Crash – Trailer – parrado.com</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user17760103″>Parrado</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

Good Advice or A Summary of Where My Head Has Been for the Last Three Years

So you want to be a writer? Essential tips   for aspiring novelists

How to write a killer opening line. Why Google is not research. When to rip it up and start again. Whatever you do, just write!

Lessons from acclaimed novelist and creative writing professor Colum McCann

find the original article in The Guardian

Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody, said Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet more than a century ago. There is only one way. Go into yourself.

Rilke, of course, was right – nobody but yourself can help. In the end it all comes down to the strike of the word on the page, not to mention the strike thereafter, and the strike after that. But Rilke was taken by the request from a young writer, and he corresponded with Franz Xaver Kappus in ten letters over the course of six years. Rilke’s was advice on matters of religion, love, feminism, sex, art, solitude and patience, but it was also keyed into the life of the poet and how these things might shape the words upon the page.

This most of all, he says. Ask yourself in the most silent hour of night: must I write?

Everybody who has ever felt the need to write knows the silent hour. I have come across many such people – and indeed many such hours – during my writing and teaching life. I’ve been teaching now for the best part of 20 years. That’s a lot of chalk and a lot of red pencil. I haven’t loved every minute of it, but I’ve loved most. There’s been a National Book award for one student. A Booker prize for another. Guggenheims. Pushcarts. Mentorships. Friendships. But let’s be honest, there has been burnout too. There’s been weeping and gnashing of teeth. There have been walkouts. Collapses. Regret.

All of these students, bar none, are looking, in Rilke’s words, “to say ecstasies that are unsayable.” The unsayable indeed. The job is theirs. The ability to trust in the difficult. The tenacity to understand that it takes time and patience to succeed.

There are no rules

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.                                                                                                         W Somerset Maugham

[The above, inserts the Blog Author, is my favorite quote of all time]. There are no rules. Or if there are any rules, they are only there to be broken. Embrace these contradictions. You must be prepared to hold two or more opposing ideas in the palms of your hands at the same time. To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first. To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal. To hell with plot, but you had better at some stage make something happen. To hell with structure, but only if you have thought it through so thoroughly that you can safely walk through your work with your eyes closed.

The great ones break the rules on purpose. They do it in order to remake the language. They say it like nobody has ever said it before. And then they unsay it, and they keep unsaying it, breaking their own rules over and over again. So be adventurous in breaking – or maybe even making – the rules.

Your first line

The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.’                              Michael Ondaatje

A first line should open up your rib cage. It should reach in and twist your heart backward. It should suggest that the world will never be the same again. The opening salvo should be active. It should plunge your reader into something urgent, interesting, informative. It should move your story, your poem, your play, forward. It should whisper in your reader’s ear that everything is about to change.

But take it easy too. Don’t stuff the world into your first page. Achieve a balance. Let the story unfold. Think of it as a doorway. Once you get your readers over the threshold, you can show them around the rest of the house. At the same time, don’t panic if you don’t get it right first time around. Often the opening line won’t be found until you’re halfway through your first draft. You hit page 157 and you suddenly realise, Ah, that’s where I should have begun.

So you go back and begin again.

Open elegantly. Open fiercely. Open delicately. Open with surprise. Open with everything at stake. This, of course, is a bit like being told to walk a tightrope. Go ahead, then, walk the tightrope! Relax yourself into the tension of the wire. The first line, like the first step, is only the first of many, yet it sets the shape of what is to come. Try walking a foot off the ground, then two feet, then three. Eventually you might go a quarter mile in the sky.

Then again, you might stumble and fall. No matter. It is, after all, a work of the imagination. You won’t die trying.

At least not yet.

Don’t write what you know

The inexecutable is all I’m interested in.                                                   Nathan Englander

Don’t write what you know, write towards what you want to know.
A writer is an explorer. She knows she wants to get somewhere, but she doesn’t know if the somewhere even exists yet. It is still to be created. Don’t sit around looking inward. That’s boring. In the end your navel contains only lint. You have to propel yourself outward, young writer.

The only true way to expand your world is to inhabit an otherness beyond ourselves. There is one simple word for this: empathy. Don’t let them fool you. Empathy is violent. Empathy is tough. Empathy can rip you open. Once you go there, you can be changed. Get ready: they will label you sentimental. But the truth is that the cynics are the sentimental ones. They live in a cloud of their own limited nostalgia. They have no muscularity at all. Remember, the world is so much more than one story. We find in others the ongoing of ourselves.

In the end your first-grade teacher was correct: we can, indeed, only write what we know. It is logically and philosophically impossible to do otherwise. But if we write towards what we don’t supposedly know, we will find out what we knew but weren’t yet entirely aware of. We will have made a shotgun leap in our consciousness. We will not be stuck in the permanent backspin of me, me, me.

As Vonnegut says, we should be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.

The terror of the white page

The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion.                                                                                         Maggie Nelson

Don’t let the terror of the white page shrink-wrap your mind. The excuse that you have writer’s block is far too easy. You have to show up for work. You have to sit in the chair and fight the blankness. Don’t leave your desk. Don’t abandon the room. Don’t check the sports pages. Don’t open the mail. Don’t distract yourself in any way until you feel you have fought and tried. You have to put in the time. If you are not there, the words will not appear. Simple as that.

A writer is not someone who thinks obsessively about writing, or talks about it, or plans it, or dissects it, or even reveres it: a writer is the one who puts his arse in the chair when the last thing he wants to do is have his arse in the chair.

Good writing will knock the living daylights out of you. Very few people talk about it, but writers have to have the stamina of world-class athletes. The exhaustion of sitting in the one place. The errors. The retrieval. The mental taxation. The dropping of the bucket down into the near-empty well over and over again. Moving a word around a page. Moving it back again. Questioning it. Doubting it. Increasing the font size. Shifting it around again and again. Sounding it out. Figuring the best way to leave it alone. Hanging in there as the clock ticks on. Not conceding victory to the negative. Getting up off the ground when you’ve punched yourself to the floor. Dusting yourself off. Readjusting your mouth guard. Sustaining what you have inherited from previous days of work.

Don’t worry so much about your word count. Your word cut is more important. You have to sit there sharpening that red pencil or hitting the delete button or flinging the pages into the fire. Often, the more words you cut, the better. A good day might actually be a hundred words fewer than you had yesterday. Even no words on the page is better than no time at the page at all.

Just keep your arse in the chair. Arse in the chair. Arse in the chair.

Stare the blank page down.

Creating characters

Then the writing became so fluid that I sometimes felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation.                             Gabriel García Márquez

Writing a character into being is like meeting someone you want to fall in love with. You don’t care (yet) about the facts of his/her life. Don’t overload us with too much information. Allow that to seep out later. We are attracted by a moment in time – a singular moment of flux or change or collapse – not by grand curricula vitae. So don’t generalise. Be specific. Go granular. The reader must fall in love with your characters quickly (or indeed, learn to hate them quickly).

We have to have something happen to them: something that jolts our tired hearts awake. Make it traumatic, make it mournful, make it jubilant, it doesn’t matter – just allow your reader to care for the physical body that your words evoke, the person behind the language. Later on in the story we can settle down with them and get to know them in a wider sense.

Sometimes we take a character from our own immediate lives and we build a new person upon that scarecrow. Or sometimes we take well-known characters in history and shape them in new ways. Either way we have a responsibility to write them into life.

In the end you should probably know your characters as well as you know yourself. You should be able to close your eyes and dwell inside that character’s body. The sound of her voice. The texture of her footsteps. Walk around with her for a while. Let her dwell in the rattlebag of your head. Make a mental list of who/what she is, where she comes from. Appearance. Body language. Unique mannerisms. Childhood. Conflicts. Desires. Voice. Allow your characters to surprise you. When it seems they should go right, send them left. When they appear too joyful, break them. When they want to leave the page, force them to stay a sentence longer. Complicate them. Conflict them. Give them forked tongues. This is what real life is all about. Don’t be too logical. Logic can paralyse us.

Nabokov says that his characters are just his galley slaves – but he’s Nabokov, and he’s allowed to say things like that. Let me respectfully disagree. Your characters deserve your respect. Some reverence. Some life of their own. You must thank them for surprising you, and for ringing the doorbell of your imagination.

Writing dialogue

The declared meaning of a spoken sentence is only its overcoat, and the real meaning lies underneath its scarves and buttons.                         Peter Carey

There are so many rules, or suggestions, when it comes to dialogue. Forget the ummm and forget the errrs: they don’t translate on the page. Try not to use dialogue to convey information, or at least a slab of obvious information. Interruptions are great. Try writing a conversation between three, four, five people. Let the dialogue work for itself. Use he said and she said, but avoid clumsy descriptions. Forget about the overblown gasping, exclaiming, insisting, bellowing.

Make your dialogue distinct from the surrounding description, not just in rhythm but in length too. It will break up the prose. Have it be a respite on the page, or have it tee up the words that are about to come. Make each character distinct. Give them verbal tics. And never forget that people talk away from what they really mean. Lies are very interesting when they emerge in speech. Make action occur within the conversation. Seldom begin in the beginning: catch the dialogue halfway through. No need for hellos or howareyous. No need for goodbyes either. Jump out from the conversation long before it truly finishes.

Even if using dialect, or patois, or Dublinese, you must realise that there is a reader at the end of the sentence. Don’t confuse them. Don’t knock them out of the story. A wee bit is enough to get a Northern Irish accent. Don’t go Oirish on yourself. Don’t fall into stereotype. No arragh bejaysus and begob. No overdone southern twang. It’ll make y’all wanna holler. No Jamaican overdose, mahn. No Bhrrooklyn nasal noise.

Study the masters. Roddy Doyle. Louise Erdrich. Elmore Leonard. Marlon James. And always remember that what we don’t say is as important as, if not more so than, what we do. So study the silences too, and have them working on the page. You soon find out how loud the silence really is.

Everything unsaid leads eventually to what is said.

Seeking structure

A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.                                                                               Jorge Luis Borges

Every work of fiction is organised somehow – and the best of them are more profoundly organised than they ever let on. Our stories rely on the human instinct for architecture. Structure is, essentially, a container for content. The shape into which your story gets is a house slowly built from the foundation up. Or maybe it’s a tunnel, or a skyscraper, or a palace, or even a moving caravan, driven forward by your characters. In fact, structure can be any number of things: you just have to make sure that it doesn’t become an elaborate hole in the ground into which we bury ourselves, unable to claw out.

Some writers try to envision the structure beforehand, and they shape the story to fit it, but this is so often a trap. You should not try to stuff your story into a preconceived structure. A proper structure mirrors the content of the story it wants to tell. It will contain its characters and propel them forward at the same time. And it will generally achieve this most fully when it does not draw too much attention to itself. Structure should grow out of character and plot, which essentially means that it grows out of language. In other words, the structure is forever in the process of being shaped. You find it as you go along. Chapter by chapter. Voice by voice. Ask yourself if it feels right to tell the story in one fell swoop, or if it should be divided into sections, or if it should have multiple voices, or even multiple styles. You stumble on through the dark, trying new things all the time. Sometimes, in fact, you don’t find the structure until halfway through, or even when you’re close to being finished. That’s OK. You have to trust that it will eventually appear and that it will make sense.

Language and plot

Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.                                                                                                          Stephen King

We teachers, we editors, we agents, we readers, often make a mistake by concentrating too much on plot: it is not the be-all and end-all in a piece of literature. Plot matters, of course it matters, but it is always subservient to language. Plot takes the backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens. And how it happens occurs in the way language captures it and the way our imaginations transfer that language into action.

So give me music then, young maestro, please. Make it occur the way nobody ever made it occur before. Stop time. Celebrate it. Demolish it. Slow the clock down so that the tick of each and every second lasts an hour or more. Take leaps into the past. Put backspin on your memory. Be in two or three places at one time. Destroy speed and position. Make just about anything happen. Maybe in this day and age we are diseased by plot. Let’s face it, plots are good for movies, but when over-considered they tend to make books creak. So, unbloat your plot. Listen for the quiet line. Anyone can tell a big story, yes, but not everyone can whisper something beautiful in your ear. In the world of film we need motivation leading to action, but in literature we need contradiction leading to action, yes, but also leading to inaction. Nothing better than a spectacular piece of inaction. Nothing more effective than your character momentarily paralysed by life.

The greatest novel ever written has very little apparent plot. A cuckold walks around Dublin for 24 hours. No shootouts, no cheap shots, no car crashes (though there is a biscuit tin launched through the air). Instead it is a vast compendium of human experience. Still, this doesn’t take away from the fact that every story ever told has some sort of plot (especially Ulysses, which perhaps has more plot than any).

Punctuation

It’s not just a throwaway thing (Comma) When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.                                                          Raymond Chandler (in a letter to his editor)

It’s not a throwaway thing to tell you the truth. It’s not a throwaway thing, to tell you the truth.

Punctuation matters. In fact, sometimes it’s the life or death of a sentence. Hyphens. Full stops. Colons. Semicolons. Ellipses. Parentheses. They’re the containers of a sentence. They scaffold your words. Should a writer know her grammar? Yes, she should. Don’t overuse the semicolon; it is a muscular comma when used correctly. Parentheses in fiction draw far too much attention to themselves. Learn how to use the possessive correctly as in most good writer’s work. (Oops.) Never finish a sentence with an at. (Sorry.) Avoid too many ellipses, especially at the end of a passage, they’re just a little too dramatic … (See?)

Grammar changes down through the years: just ask Shakespeare or Beckett or the good folks at the New Yorker. The language of the street eventually becomes the language of the schoolhouse. It’s the difference between the prescriptive and the descriptive. So much depends, as William Carlos Williams might have said, upon the red wheelbarrow – especially if the barrow itself stands solitary at the end of the line.

But then again, a sentence can be over-examined. Good grammar can slow a sentence – or indeed a wheelbarrow – down. The perfect run-along of words can sound so stiff. Every now and then we have to disregard the serial comma, or leave our participles dangling, even in the rudest way.

Sometimes we make a mistake on purpose. Perhaps knowing the difference between a main clause and a dependent clause doesn’t matter so much so long as you can intuit the difference. On occasion we write a sentence that isn’t, in fact, correct, but it sings. And the question is: would you rather be the ornithologist or the bird?

Writers feel the grammar rather than knowing it. This comes from good reading. If you read enough, the grammar will come. Word.

Research

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.                                                     Aldous Huxley

Research is the bedrock of nearly all good writing, even poetry. We have to know the world beyond our own known world. We have to be able to make a leap into a life or a time or a geography that is not immediately ours. Often we will want to write out of gender, race, time. This requires deep research.

Yes, Google helps, but the world is so much deeper than Google. A search engine can’t hold a candle to all the libraries in the world where the books actually exist, live, breathe, and argue with one another. So go down to the library. Check out the catalogues. Go to the map division. Unlock the boxes of photographs. If you want to know a life different from your own, you better try to meet it at least halfway. Get out in the street.

Talk to people. Show interest. Learn how to listen. You must find the divine detail: and the more specific the detail, the better. William Gass – the American author who says quite beautifully that a writer finds himself alone with all that might happen – once suggested, while invoking Maupassant, that we should never mention an ashtray unless we are swiftly able to make it the only one in the world.

Please remember that mishandling your research is also your potential downfall. At times we can pollute our texts with too much of the obvious. It is often a good thing to have space instead so that we can fill it out with imaginative muscle. Always ask yourself: how much research is enough? Don’t corrupt your texts with facts facts facts. Texture is much more important than fact.

Fail, Fail, Fail

No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.                                                    Samuel Beckett

Failure is good. Failure admits ambition. It requires courage to fail and even more courage to know that you’re going to fail. Reach beyond yourself. The true daring is the ability to go to the postbox knowing that it will contain yet another rejection letter. Don’t rip it up. Don’t burn it. Use it as wallpaper instead. Preserve it and reread it every now and then. Know that in the years to come this rejection letter will be a piece of nostalgia. It will yellow and curl and you will remember what it once felt like to throw your words against what everyone presumed would be your silence. Failure is vivifying. You know you’re better than it. Failure gets you up in the morning. Failure gets your blood circling. Failure dilates your nostrils. Failure tells you to write a bigger story and a better one.

And in the end there’s only one real failure – and that’s the failure to be able to fail. Having tried is the true bravery.

Throw it all away

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.                                                                  André Gide

Sometimes, young writer, you just have to have the cojones to wipe the whole slate clean. Occasionally you know – deep in your gut – that it’s not good enough. Or you’ve been chasing the wrong story. Or you’ve been waiting for another moment of inspiration.

Often the true voice is not heard until long into the story. It might be a year of work, hundreds of pages, or even more. (One of the most liberating days of my writing life was when I threw 18 months of work away.) But something in you knows – it just knows – that everything you have written so far has just been preparation for what you are now about to write. You have finally found your north, your east, your west. No south, no going back.

So you have to throw it away. (OK, let’s be honest here: you don’t actually throw the pages away. Box them up or back them up, just in case you might be making a mistake.)

It is terrifying of course. You close the file, you bury the pages. Now you’re pageless and your back is truly up against the wall. So you open up another file, sharpen the pencil, and settle down once again.

Your last line

If we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention.                                                                        Ben Marcus

Gogol said that the last line of every story was: “And nothing would ever be the same again.” Nothing in life ever really begins in one single place, and nothing ever truly ends. But stories have at least to pretend to finish. Don’t tie it up too neatly. Don’t try too much. Often the story can end several paragraphs before, so find the place to use your red pencil. Print out several versions of the last sentence and sit with them. Read each version over and over. Go with the one that you feel to be true and a little bit mysterious. Don’t tack on the story’s meaning. Don’t moralise at the end. Don’t preach that final hallelujah. Have faith that your reader has already gone with you on a long journey. They know where they have been. They know what they have learned. They know already that life is dark. You don’t have to flood it with last-minute light.

You want the reader to remember. You want her to be changed. Or better still, to want to change.

Try, if possible, to finish in the concrete, with an action, a movement, to carry the reader forward. Never forget that a story begins long before you start it and ends long after you end it. Allow your reader to walk out from your last line and into her own imagination. Find some last-line grace. This is the true gift of writing. It is not yours any more. It belongs in the elsewhere. It is the place you have created. Your last line is the first line for everybody else.

 

Colum McCann is the author of six novels and three collections of stories. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, he has been the recipient of many international honours, including the National Book Award, the International Dublin Impac Prize, a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government, election to the Irish arts academy, several European awards, the 2010 Best Foreign Novel Award in China, and an Oscar nomination. His work has been published in over 35 languages. He is the co-founder of the non-profit global story exchange organisation, Narrative 4, and he teaches at the MFA program in Hunter College. He lives in New York with his wife, Allison, and their three children.

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice by Colum McCann is published by Random House. Order it from your favorite independent bookshop.

Eyes of the Wild

Eleanor O
Eleanor O’Hanlon–storyteller, writer, European

This image of Eleanor O’Hanlon in Dartmouth Castle Tearoom is my personal favorite; the photo speaks volumes to me. It was made in 2003 after a long walk along the English coast and through the castle on a mizzly day. This coffee lover will admit there is nothing quite like a pot of tea, scones, clotted cream, and jam shared over a fantastic ocean view on a rainy day.

But there is also the incredible Eleanor whom I met at Devon’s Schumacher College in a course called Animal Magic taught by the likes of Jane Goodall, Rupert Sheldrake, Francoise Wemelsfelder, and Colin Tudge. Although the course opened my eyes wider, late nights in the library with Eleanor were even more informative.

library
Schumacher’s Library

It was there three of us would meet long after everyone else was abed—Eleanor (an Irish nature writer and conservationist living in London), Ursula (a belly dancing Viennese psychiatrist), and me (an American park ranger)—along with whomever else could match our late-night habit —occasionally a Danish veterinarian, a Polish zookeeper, a Belgian dairy farmer. We retrieved the wine bottle from behind the woodpile; lit a fire in the immense, dressed-stone fireplace (parts of the building dated to the 1300s); wove human-sized nests of multitudinous cushions; and settled in for a wine-fueled chat. My favorite part was when Eleanor told Irish folktales.

And my favorite tales were of Ireland’s boy warrior, Cú Chulainn and his training with its greatest warrior Scáthach, because Scáthach was a woman, and Eleanor was, and is, a Storyteller. How I wish I had recorded those nights in front of the fire! Eleanor’s magical voice! If truth be told—and this is between you and me—I think Eleanor is Scáthach!

And now we get the next best thing—a book from Eleanor, and a fabulous one it is. In Eyes of the Wild Eleanor not only describes her encounters with whales and bears, wild horses and wolves, and the scientists and wardens who watch and watch over their dwindling numbers, but she goes further. I told you the story of Eleanor of Schumacher because during those moments I was not a 40-something, grieving, orphaned (I had lost, the year before, both parents to the Great Beyond and a boyfriend to what? indifference?), anyway, I was not a somewhat lost soul, I was a warrior learning to fight with a barbed spear on a fierce North Sea island—such were, and are, the power of Eleanor’s words. Eleanor takes us beyond an animal in an environment and beyond even ourselves to the one thing that binds us all. And she takes us there by telling stories of things that are, and things that are not. I cannot do her book justice. I have loaned two copies to friends, and the books have yet to come home. Hopefully, they are on their own warriors’ journeys.

An Excerpt:

eyesWhen the mother surfaces next she comes close enough for me to reach out and touch. I run my hands along the skin of her side, which feels indescribably smooth, as though the texture has been endlessly refined by the washing of the sea. Her flesh is firm and cool beneath my hands. Through the physical contact with her body a sense of the expansive dimensions of her being opens inside me like soundings from some vast interior sea. As the depth of the meeting grows, it becomes an opening through which something entirely new keeps pouring—a wordless sense of connection with a greater life.

Turning onto one side, the whale gazes up at me through the water; looking down into her dark eye, ringed with folds of skin, I meet the lucid and tranquil gaze of an ancestor, one of the ancient ones of the earth. I feel her taking me out, far out, of thought and linear time, beyond the limited concerns of my ordinary mind, into a profound sense of meeting with another being, whose consciousness is not separate from my own…

Eden, I think, is not simply a mythical place, or a metaphor for original innocence, or an outworn and divisive religious symbol. Eden is a state of being, and we are free to return every time we know ourselves again in deep communion with the rest of life.

Eleanor’s Blog

Eleanor’s Book

Eyes of the Wild is also on Facebook at Eyes of the Wild Journeys of Transformation with the Animal Powers

 

Job Hazard

One of reading’s delights is that one will discover a Great Book. Great Books are defined by the individual, not the mob, and each person’s Great Book List will vary by personal idiosyncrasy.  I’m listing books as I find them, and will probably, at some point, add my All Time Favorites, books some of you have taken on, including Waterlog by Roger Deakin, Sea Room by Adam Nicolson, and Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg. Perhaps I’ll even explore here some books that set my way of thinking, and which may be awfully personally eccentric like Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism, William McNeill’s Plagues and People, or William Ruddiman’s Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum.

However, one of reading’s job hazards is that one finds a Personally Great Book, reads it with relish, and then it ends. I hate it when that happens.

My latest disappointed-it-ended book is actually two books and a “long-form” piece, all by Alexandra Fuller. Her first book, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, details her upbringing in then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe during the 1970’s Civil War with an absolutely crazed and wild mother driving her to school with an Uzi sticking out the jeep window; her second, Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, is a prequel exploring her insanely bizarre mother’s upbringing in Colonial Kenya; and the long-form piece Falling, the story of her husband’s nearly fatal horse accident and their subsequent divorce (Alexandra’s not the horse’s).

I loved Alexandra’s writing, and the ways her stories overlapped mine: crazy mother, crazed upbringing; horses; the outdoors; being far from doctors, cities, and other people; a British family background (are all ex-pat British mothers crazy?); the importance of place. Parts of the books were jaw-dropping astonishing, and parts laugh-out-loud funny. I was so sad they ended—reading them was like inhabiting a world. Luckily, unlike Roger Deakin, Alexandra is still alive and we can hope she publishes more.

A few quotes:

The land itself, of course, was careless of its name. It still is. You can call it what you like, fight all the wars you want in its name. Change its name altogether if you like. The land is still unblinking under the African sky. It will absorb white man’s blood and the blood of African men, it will absorb blood from slaughtered cattle and the blood from a woman’s birthing with equal thirst. It doesn’t care.” Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

fuller
Alexandra Fuller’s mother with her best friend, Steven Foster.

This is the Tree of Forgetfulness. All the headmen here plant one of these trees in the village. They say ancestors stay inside it. If there is some sickness or if you are troubled by spirits, then you sit under the Tree of Forgetfulness and your ancestors will assist you with whatever is wrong.’” Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness

And I love, love, love a Katherine Mansfield quote she uses:
The mind I love must have wild places:
a tangled orchard where damsons drop in heavy grass,
an overgrown little wood,
a chance of a snake or two,
a pool that nobody has fathomed the depths of,
and paths threaded with flowers planted by the mind.”

You can find Alexandra’s “long-form” composition, Falling, on Byliner at http://www.byliner.com.

I Read

robyn

A lot. Years ago I deliniated a time every day to stop everything else and read. I decided that, at 9 p.m., unless engrossed in something endlessly fascinating, I’d head to the arms of my current read. And I’ve been faithful.

The problem is no matter how much I read I’ve discovered a good book is hard to find. I rarely leave them, but I recently walked out on one mid-paragraph. I could stand it no longer! I even flung it across the room, and it by a celebrated author! So here’s only my second post on a really good book I truly loved. It is the only book I’ve ever read that, as soon as I finished, I wanted to begin again.

In 1977 a young woman in her 20s, Robyn Davidson, led and rode her four camels from Alice Springs, Austrailia west to the ocean. National Geographic funded her (a whopping $4000), and she wrote a story for them published in 1978. It took her nine months to travel the 1,700 miles. Although it wasn’t her original intent, she wrote a book on the trip called Tracks.robyn 2

I know you’re thinking, “Oh, well, of course you liked it. You tried something similar. But I probably won’t find it interesting.” Okay, fair enough.  I admit I found her mixed feelings about the trip extremely validating, and her experiences similar–even though my trip was short lived. But the book is very well written, engaging, and NOT WOOWOO! I have become tired of writers involking god or spirituality or some outside power as explanation of certain states. I found Robyn’s take on such experiences refreshing. Here’s a sample:

“…I now had enough to provide a structure in which I could learn to learn. A new plant would appear and I would recognize it immediately because I could perceive its association with other plants and animals in the over all pattern, its place. I would recognize and know the plant without naming it or studying it away from its environment. What was once a thng that merely existed became something that everything else acted upon and had a relationship with and vice versa. In picking up a rock I could no longer simply say, ‘This is a rock,’ I could now say, ‘This is part of a net,’ or closer, ‘This, which everything acts upon, acts.’ When this way of thinking became ordinary for me, I too became lost in the net and the boundaires of myself stretched out for ever. In the beginning I had known at some level that this could happen. It had frightened me then. I had seen it as a chaotic principle and I fought it tooth and nail. I had given myself the structures of habit and routine with which to fortify myself and these were very necessary at the time. Because if you are fragmented and uncertain it is terrifying to find the boundaries of yourself melt. Survival in a desert, then requires that you lose this fragmentation, and fast. It is not a mystical experience, or rather, it is dangerous to attach these sorts of words to it. They are too hackneyed and prone to misinterpretation. It is something that happens, that’s all. Cause and effect.”

That’s all.

Ya Never Know

Click on the image to reach Stephan’s blog

It always amazes me when something I’ve written sends a postcard home. This week, I found two such postcards rattling about in my empty post box. Writing is an odd craft, done in silence and alone. Once one shepherds a piece out the door, one rarely or more likely, never hears from it again. It’s an amazement then, when words lying flat in a closed book, suddenly, when the spine is cracked, pierce a neuron in another brain far removed in time and space. Somewhere, another mind is sparked, and a new creation leapfrogs into being. I am deeply honored to have even the slightest influence on these new creations.

An excerpt from Stephan Legault’s latest book’s acknowledgements: “I wish to thank Greer Chesher for introducing me both to the ecology of the American Southwest, and to the mystery genre, when I worked for her as a volunteer at Grand Canyon National Park in 1993–94. Greer also read early drafts of my never-to-be-published attempts at fiction and gently pointed out that these stories would benefit from a plot.”

That really cracked me up. I did say that, and Stephan actually took my advice! I read the book though it isn’t available until September (I got to be the Lone Blurber!). And it’s good! It has a complex plot that keeps you turning pages. Be sure to get a copy when it comes out–especially if you like the desert southwest. Here’s my blurb:

In The Slickrock Paradox, the mysterious Southwest is much more than setting; the desert’s fully drawn character holds its own with the book’s compelling personalities and captivating story. The realistic plot makes the book timely—such nefarious undertakings could be, and are, happening  just beyond our knowing. Greer K. Chesher, Author, Heart of the Desert Wild: Grand Staircase—Escalante National Monument, winner of the Utah Book Award for Nonfiction

and an excerpt from Steph’s blog about the book:

Countdown to release of The Slickrock Paradox

In a few short months The Slickrock Paradox will be released by TouchWood Editions. Set in the American Southwest, Slickrock tells the story of Silas Pearson, an English professor searching for his missing wife among canyon country’s monuments, grottos, and reefs. Penelope vanished more than three years before while working on a clandestine conservation project to protect what she called “Ed Abbey Country.” She went backpacking near Moab, Utah, and never returned. Now Silas is searching every corner of the great American desert trying to find her. When he discovers a body in a remote corner of Arches National Park he thinks his search is over, but it’s only just begun.

The Slickrock Paradox is the first in a series of novels inspired by the iconic landscape of the Arches, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, and Escalante regions of Utah and Arizona, as well as my life-long love of the hard-boiled writing of Edward Abbey. Black Sun Descending and The Same River Twice will be published in 2014 and 2015.

More on my second postcard in the next post.