Archive for In Other Words

Holding Out for Acceptance: Submission, Rejection, Submission, Repetition

IMG_20150202_203924_hdrQuite a few years ago, when I first read Stephen King’s On Writing, I thought about how great it would be to have as many rejection slips as him, the ones he talks about collecting in a desk drawer. Submit a story, get a rejection, into the drawer it goes, out goes another submission.

Eventually, the story is published and you can look back at all the publications foolish enough to pass on it, and you can smile. Or, I suppose, you could dance, call the rejecters to gloat, or even get drunk and make the slips into some kind of papier-mâché obelisk or light them into a glorious ceremonial pyre. Don’t rule anything out, is what I’m saying.

The point is, the rejections King is referring to are not only battle scars—they’re ribbons of valor. They are proof that he is a writer: He writes, submits, edits, toils, weeps, hyperventilates, re-works, re-submits, all the things a good hard-working writer does. And yes, as part of that process, he gets rejected.

There’s a catch, though. That romanticized notion of getting turned down as an emblem of paying writerly dues only holds for a while, at least when you’re not Stephen King. We all know King got published, became famous, and was eventually able to look back fondly on all those early rejections.

For the struggling writer, though, there’s no bright ending to look back from.

Rejection hurts, at least a little bit. It needs to hurt, in fact. If it doesn’t, maybe the things you’re sending out into the world aren’t especially dear to you.

Making Time

Making Time

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time

Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines

–Roger Waters

 

I haven’t been here in a while, at least not to share anything of any real substance, and there’s a good reason: I haven’t made the time to write anything of any real substance.

Sure, I could say I haven’t had writing time because of teaching, planning lessons, editing, or binge-watching Parks and Recreation, The Daily Show and BBC’s Horrible Histories (seriously, if you haven’t checked those out, do so as soon as possible, but, you know, after you finish reading this piece), but that’s all just window dressing. The truth is I haven’t been making time to write.

Usually, I follow a statement like “I haven’t been making time to write” with “but that’s about to change,” sort of like the New Year’s resolutions that claim big changes are about to happen. I stopped making those pronouncements a long time ago, not that I think they’re pointless or silly but rather because I don’t think I need to say them. They’re clearly implied. The only major resolution that ever worked for me, by the way, was when I quit smoking sixteen years ago, and I’m pretty sure that happened in October.

Not making writing time, though–I’m not going to say that’s going to change.

But it is going to change. Stay tuned.

Musings on Literature

Recently, I did an e-mail interview with a colleague’s student, talking about some of my thoughts on literature. I enjoyed the experience of writing the answers so much that I thought I’d include them here.

What is literature to you?

To me, literature is humanity. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, it contains the best and worst of everything we have done, our aspirations, mistakes, successes, hopes, dreams, our deepest darkest secrets. It’s a doorway into the past, a way for us to see not only how we’ve changed, but also how we’ve stayed the same. Literature is also philosophy, science, mathematics, music—you name it. If we’ve done it, it’s there. And the age old tradition of the story speaks to a need in all of us, that unbearable itch to be entertained. It’s really something that I think people should be more excited about than they seem to be, this access to other cultures, times, and places.

Why have you chosen to make literature your career?

Partly because of the appeals I’ve discussed above, but making it my career goes a bit further than that. First of all, I’ve been reading for longer than I can actually remember, so it was a natural fit on that level. Also, literature shouldn’t be something to slog through. That’s not to say it’s easy, nor should it be. In fact, sometimes the difficulty is part of the experience, but that doesn’t mean it has to be unpleasant. For instance, a poem can be enjoyed on a superficial level for its musicality, its use of metaphor, in the same way we might enjoy an excellent song on the radio. But approaching that poem analytically can help us become better at analyzing other things, at applying critical thinking. Does everyone like the same things? Nope, and that’s fine. But if you’re never exposed to a wide array of literature—things you may or may not have discovered on your own—who knows what you could be missing? That’s why I write, read, study, and teach literature, so I can be a part of helping others discover that power. Also, it’s fun.

What makes your favorite author, or authors, special to you?

I actually do have a favorite author, but I’ve only discovered this over years of consideration and elimination. Kurt Vonnegut is go-to writer because of his ability to use simple, conversational language to talk about incredibly complex topics. His works deal with everything from war, life as a prisoner of war, human evolution, the uncertain future of humanity, time travel, and the importance of love, just to name a few, and he does this all in simple prose that could easily be read by a third grader. But as I said before, his ideas are anything but simple. Vonnegut also effectively breaks two of the most widely accepted rules of fiction writing: never address the reader directly and never, ever write yourself into a story. How does he make it work? I wish I knew.

A few of my other favorite writers are Michael Chabon, Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse, Connie Willis, Jane Austen, and Neil Gaiman, in no particular order.

Why is the Victorian era a favorite of yours?

There’s an idea out there that the Victorians were a bunch of stuffy, repressed people with more problems than sense, and that’s somewhat true. But it’s also an unfair generalization, and it’s probably been the case for select folks in just about any era or culture. The reason I love the Victorian era of literature is because it comes out of one of the greatest periods of historical change: the power and influence of the British Empire and the beginnings of its decline. It’s also where we see some hugely important writings on social justice from John Stuart Mill, Christina Rossetti, and Charles Dickens. We have the Brontës, the poetry of the Brownings, the sensational fiction of Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle gives us Sherlock Holmes, and H.G. Wells gives us, to a large extent, the origins of science fiction. The era has some of just about everything, in a literary sense. Oh, and it has Oscar Wilde, which is saying a lot.

Do you have a fall back piece of literature or possibly an author, something that acts as the equivalent of comfort food in book form. If so what is it and why?
Yes, I do, and I’ll refer back to one of my previous answers: Kurt Vonnegut. To me, sitting down with a Kurt Vonnegut book is like passing time with a friend, and when I read him, it’s as if he’s talking to just me, as if he came up with these brilliant insights and decided to share them with yours truly. My favorite work of his—also decided after multiple readings and lengthy deliberation–is Mother Night, a novel about an American playwright who agrees to pose as a Nazi propagandist during World War II and is subsequently tried for war crimes. Vonnegut writes that the “moral” of this story is that “We become what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” I’ve read this novel at least ten times, and now that I’m thinking about it, I’ll probably read it again. a close second for me, with respect to a work of literature I go back to again and again, would be John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Are you reading anything modern right now that you’d recommend?
I just finished Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Flynn takes a standard genre trope, the missing wife and the guilty husband, and turns it right up on its ear. Gone Girl is anything but a cliché; in fact, it’s a nice, brilliantly written surprise. Next on my list is Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I’ve been meaning to read it since it released, but I have yet to find time. Maybe this weekend, after I re-read Mother Night.

If there were one thing about literature you could share with the world, what would it be?
I’d probably tell everyone that literature is really, truly for everyone. Okay, that’s not an original thought, but it is one that needs to be shouted again and again and again, ad infinitum. Yes, we’ve all heard the truism that literature is an escape. It’s a truism for a reason, though, and not everyone realizes literature’s sheer power, either because they haven’t been properly exposed to it or have yet to find the thing that speaks to them on a deep, personal level. Give it a decent chance to win you over, I’d say.

What I’m Thankful For (The Short Form):

– My wife, the beautiful Shannon Stanley Walker, because she is who she is, and she has decided to be who she is with me

– My dad, William Walker, who is here with us now

– Family and friends

Carpe Diem Highlander Grog coffee, because if you’ve ever had it, you know why

– Comedy, because it gives me something to do

– My guitar, because I can’t read and write all the time

– The films of Christopher Guest, because Christopher Guest

– Curry

Hell is the History Channel: What I Learned from Watching Too Much Holiday Television

What is it about holidays that inspires History Channel producers to air every Hell documentary they have in their catalog?

Here are a few titles to consider: “The History of Hell,” “Hell Throughout the Ages,” “Nazis in Hell,” “A Beginner’s Guide to Hell,” “Nostradamus on Hell,” “Gates of Hell,” “Hell on Earth?” (Full disclosure: I made some of those titles up. Some of them.)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not above binge-watching wide-eyed apocalypticists, barely-hinged conspiracy buffs, and actual scientists and theologians who got fooled into taking part in these things, all of them torturing logic to within a sliver of its hard-fought little life. But come on. This whole thing is becoming a little one-note.

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Even this guy thinks it’s becoming a bit much too much.

And don’t be fooled. No matter what the official topic of a show happens to be, they’re only a few degrees from talking about HELL.

Apocalypse? Hell.

World War III? Hell.

Redneck Nazi Snakehunters? Hell.

Here’s a Sample Lineup…

President’s Day – Check out this show on a volcano some people believe to be the literal gateway to HELL. (Get used to the word “literal,” by the way. We literally use it all the time.)

Seriously, though, people have believed this for thousands of years, and it’s hot and smoky, a lot like HELL, so it’s, you know, plausible?

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Though the uninitiated observer will likely miss it, this opening is clearly marked “This way to HELL. Mind the Gap.”

Independence Day – Consider this: Many of the U.S. founding fathers were Freemasons, and Freemasons are well-known for possibly believing in HELL. Also, many Christians believe Freemasons are secretly devil-worshippers. Guess where the devil lives? HELL.

This is a win-win, guys. Let’s say six hours’ worth.

Labor Day – Remember when you were a kid and that preacher came to your church to talk about HELL? You know the guy. He had crazy eyes and smelled like aftershave and carpet cleaner, and it seemed like he enjoyed the thought of people roasting in HELL just a bit more than a normal person should. Remember how badly he scared you and your friends?

Well, we found that guy and a lot of others just like him, and now they’re here to haunt your adult dreams, talking about HELL all day long. (Spoiler Alert: They’re still fairly certain you’re going to HELL.)

Halloween – Um, Halloween? It’s almost got the word “HELL” right in there. Settle in, folks. We’ll get you to November.

Thanksgiving – Hey, as long as you’re stranded on that couch, here’s a battery of programs on plagues and pestilence, which just happen to be the bailiwicks of two of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And you know that when those guys show up, we’re only a step or two away from total HELL.

Christmas – Forget that loser marathon of The Twilight Zone over on SyFy. Remember Nostradamus? No? Well, you will after (literally) twelve full hours of programming detailing his prophecies, none of which were vague in any way and all of which bore some relationship to HELL.

Nostradamus_portrait

Bill Nostradamus: Noted expert on Hitler, the JFK assassination, World Wars I through III, and HELL.

And these Nostradamusy programs are all narrated by that authoritative sounding dude whose voice you can’t quite place.

New Year’s Day – Let’s get down to the nitty gritty here, shall we? It’s a brand new year, which means it would be the perfect time for the earth to open up and swallow us all.

So the earth opens, and guess what you literally see? Apart from all that scientific stuff, we mean.

Correct answer is HELL.

New Photo Idea: Themmies

New Idea: On the heels of the success of selfies–in which people snap photos of themselves–and ussies–where pairs and groups self-photo themselves–I’ve brainstormed an idea for a new kind of photograph. 

The idea here is to have one person use a camera to snap pictures of other people from appropriate distances. The distance, of course, would depend on including any desired background objects in the picture or achieving the proper perspective. The best part, though, is that distance between photographer and subject would no longer be limited by arm length. So no more looking up people’s nostrils. 

We’ll call these new photos, I don’t know, themmies? It’s a radical idea, but I’m confident it’ll catch on. 

Yay, themmies.

Fifty-One Shades of Jealous, or When Are People Going to Start Looking at Me?

Celebrity deaths bring out the best and worst in people. To be honest, though, so do traffic lights, Chinese buffets, sunrises, and dolphins.

And changes in wind direction.

And Tupperware.

And everything.

Celebrity deaths, though. After these events, some folks offer thoughts of condolence, sorrow, and tribute. Others say nothing, either because they don’t have words to say, need time to formulate their thoughts or feel their words might cause more harm than good.

Then there are the ones who can’t not speak, even when what they have to say is the equivalent of a surprise Monday morning colonoscopy.

Oh, these people*.

It goes something like this: Why are you all talking about that person when you should really be talking about This Other Thing? After all, people can only pay attention to one thing at a time, at the expense of all others. It’s the way human brains are wired. It’s neuroscience, you guys.

Everywhere I look, I see that person’s face, these sunshine rays complain. People are saying nice things about that person. When I’m forced to get up out of bed and log into my favorite social media platform, all I see is blah, blah, blah about that person. All day long. Why is everyone talking about that person?

<Subtext: I didn’t like that person.>

<Sub-sub-text: Why aren’t you talking about me?>

 

*These may be the same people, in fact, who, as children, threw tantrums when other kids received birthday presents.

 

A World War I Poet: Wilfred Owen

It’s unbelievable that one-hundred years ago today, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, effectively setting World War I in motion.

Here’s one of my favorite poems from that era, from a young British soldier named Wilfred Owen.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Invoking the Name of Orel Hershiser, or Where’s Samuel L. Jackson When You Need Him?

Today, the dudes down the hallway from me were talking baseball, which was fine. I mean, I’m not a fan, but it’s okay. But for some reason, they chose to focus on discussing Orel Hershiser. 

Let me be more specific: Orel Hershiser was all they talked about. For nearly an hour, in raised, passionate voices.

It got worse. 

They kept referring to him by his first and last name, repeatedly, like it was a mantra, or as if one of them might have mistakenly thought the other was referring to some other guy named “Orel,” or even less likely, another dude called “Hershiser.” Was someone in another room playing an Orel Hershiser drinking game? How many times do you have to utter Orel Hershiser’s name before he appears, Beetlejuice-like, summoned from wherever he happens to be hanging at the moment?

More importantly, where had I left my headphones?

It occurred to me that I was being unreasonable. That thought came and went rather quickly.

Before long, I’d been Orel Hershised to the point where I was not only unable to get any work done, but I was beginning to fantasize that Samuel L. Jackson, as the character Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction, was going to pop by and make these gentlemen aware that they should change the topic.

You know, in that certain way Jules had of doing things like that.

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Unity Around the Trash Heap

In life, just as there are things that drive people apart, there are also things that bring them together. Raise the hood of a car, for instance, and dudes will approach from all directions, hitching pants, adjusting ballcaps–even if they’re only imaginary–and, most importantly, dispensing advice. Start a conversation about sports, and many a man will opine, even if he knows nothing about the teams being discussed. (Not being a sports fan, when I find myself in such a situation, I just make things up: team names, game rules, you name it. I’ve never been called out yet.)

Today, I was lucky enough to find another great uniter: The great heap of garbage. Assemble a mound of trash in the front yard or driveway for pickup, and people will suddenly appear, folks you’ve never seen before. They’ll poke, prod, look askance, even occasionally tentatively reach in for a promising item, only to toss it back in once they realize you’re not some assclown who just throws away a perfectly good something.